When my wife Diane and I first moved to Southern Indiana, I was immediately struck by the number of people who were involved in arts and crafts. When we visited people’s homes, often there was a studio tucked away in the basement or even a full-size loom or quilt frame stashed in a back bedroom.
According to Susan Brandt, spokesperson for the Hobby Industry Association, 80 percent of American households have at least one crafter, which works out to be about 70 million participants in total. Brandt says that about 14 percent of crafters sell the items they make.
Back in Florida, Diane had several friends who were die hard crafters and we would occasionally attend craft fairs. At one church fair, we found ourselves shamelessly indulging our 5-year-old son, buying him anything he wanted, including a wooden dinosaur covered with green glitter, that got all over everything. We took some disapproval from the older parents there.
Diane has quite a bit of experience with arts and crafts from church bazaars, Sunday school, vacation bible school and museum children’s activities. She frequently drafted me to be her assistant. In one Sunday school class I was assigned to control 3-year-old Jenna’s use of the white glue. Jenna wanted no part of me or my supervision and fought me tooth and nail for control of the glue. The fact that I was 50 times bigger than her did not intimidate her in the least. She probably runs some small country or at least a big family these days.
In recent years, when we have taken vacations with our grandchildren, Diane brings along some craft activities. Last year she made elaborate Gullah (people who lived on the Carolina border islands) clothes pin dolls with our granddaughters, while I struggled with a simple wooden pirate ship with our grandson. I’ve found that even little boys can be interested in crafts, if it involves skulls, crossbones, and paint. This year we’re planning on putting together a small sail boat. We may need to decorate it with sharks.
Once when Diane was doing children’s activities involving Indiana history, for the Howard Steam Boat Museum’s Chautauqua, I was assigned to help make tomahawks, out of branches and cardboard. The boys were mildly interested in the task, but livened up considerably when we decorated them with bright red paint, resembling blood. Diane was displeased, but you can’t argue with success.
People have been making and selling handicrafts, out of necessity, throughout American history. The term “Arts and Crafts” was coined in 1887, by English artist and bookbinder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson. At that time it referred to an international design movement that lasted from 1860 to well into the 1930s. This movement was a reaction against the industrialization of the decorative arts. It called for a return to traditional forms and methods of craftsmanship and employed medieval, romantic, and classic folk decorative styles.
According to crafts industry expert Barbara Brabecthe, however, “...the burgeoning handcrafts industry that we know today would not exist at all if someone hadn’t started the craft supply industry back in the 1940s.” This industry started on America’s West Coast and swept across the country. Brabecthe says that how-to books and magazines aimed at hobbyists and crafters in the 1960s also encouraged people to become involved. In the mid-1970s a Lou Harris poll revealed that two out of three Americans participated in crafts, and even more wanted to get involved. Since then crafts have grown steadily, fueled by periodic national crazes such as Xavier Robert’s Cabbage Patch Kids® in the 1980s.
Arts and crafts can be very competitive and crafter’s are always looking for the next big thing. People often buy craft items just to take them apart and reverse engineer them, so they can make them themselves. Diane tells me that in many craft shows, photos are prohibited to prevent people from stealing designs, without making a purchase.
Arts and crafts have also played a major role in American mental health. They were first introduced into asylums and mental hospitals in the early 19th century as an form of occupational therapy. Activities, such as basket weaving, were intended to have a calming effect, while keeping patients busy and productive. In October 1970, Time magazine published an article entitled “Is Basket Weaving Harmful?” The article described how basket weaving was a major part of the average hospital patient’s day. Psychologists at the time, however, argued that patients should not be forced to participate in such endless occupational therapy. Such activities were seen as been too much like child’s play and ultimately dehumanizing, or at least infantilizing, in nature.
When I began counseling children in the 1970s most larger mental health centers still had kilns to make ceramic pieces. Among the first things I was given, when I started, was a checker set and several plastic model kits. I was told that when I saw younger children, these would be good activities to keep their attention. I was also warned to keep them away from the glue (a forewarning of Jenna). I don’t believe I ever made a model that didn’t have a gluey fingerprint on the windshield. The plastic models, however, worked much better than the checkers, since the kids would get angry and turn the board over, when I wouldn’t let them beat me. I believe that such crafts do help children improve their motor skills and promote rapport. They also help children develop patience and can enhance self-esteem and a sense of efficacy.
Diane learned to sew as a child and watched her mother braid rugs by the Milwaukee method, involving the use of big safety pins. I never any talent in this area, although I did spend a lot of time in my father’s garage, taking things apart and driving nails into pieces of wood. Danger seemed to be an essential element of most of my activities. I delighted in the use of sharp tools and I learned how to cast toy soldiers out of molten lead. My brother Norman’s version of arts and crafts was trying to fashion a spear gun from plans in Popular Mechanics. My father confiscated the gun after it made a two inch hole in the garage door, barely missing a couple of my brother’s hoodlum friends. A few years later Norman succeeded in making a cannon from another Popular Mechanics set of plans.
I was once out in our garage trying to straighten out a rusty nail to use in one of my projects (a model battleship). I hit the nail and the head flew off and struck me in the throat. With blood all over my neck, I scared my mother half to death. They rushed me to the emergency room where I got a tetanus shot. The x-ray showed the nail head lodged squarely in my throat, fortunately just north of my jugular vein. When my pediatrician, arrived and looked at the X-ray, he asked my mother, “Who shot Terry?” He wasn’t able to remove the nail head, so to the best of my knowledge, it’s still with me. For years I’ve been waiting for it to set off a TSA scanner at the airport, so I could tell them that it was just the nail for my battleship.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at email@example.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.