The Circle of Life

Much time is spent in this blog considering craft and materials, such as how historical papers were once made from macerated household rags.  For a quick break this Friday, I’d like to share a bit of verse that hangs in the TSLAC conservation lab.  My copy comes from Dard Hunter’s 1943 classic, Papermaking.  Though its actual origins are unknown, its sentiment is timeless.

RAGS make paper,

PAPER makes money,

MONEY makes banks,

BANKS make loans,

LOANS make beggars,



-Author unknown, circa 18th century.

On Penmanship

During a recent conservation treatment on a 19th century manuscript, I was drawn to one aspect of its handwriting: the writer’s intentional control of the width of each line.

19th Century Penmanship Sample

This repeated downward arc ranges from 0.25 to 2 mm in width.

Looking at this repeated, fluid curve, I was suddenly struck by the writer’s deft articulation. Here is evidence of the vanished craft of penmanship, with its accompanying tools and practice. Here, too, is a precise method of expression no longer available to modern people using modern writing utensils. It’s hard to imagine what it might be like to regain this means of written expression. It might be as if, in your daily speech, you were suddenly granted an entirely new class of adjectives. Or as if a controlled stroke at the computer keyboard produced varied shades of meaning, much like playing a piano.

Modern Penmanship Sample

This admittedly bland photo documents my own attempt to replicate the previous 19th century stroke with a ball-point pen.

I am advised by parent and teacher friends that children in the digital age don’t formally practice handwriting anymore. This begs an Andy Rooney-style, kids-these-days argument that would sentimentally bludgeon complexities of the modern world. Yes, penmanship enabled genteel expression; it likely also signified class and education in ways that excluded those it didn’t empower. But it’s worth noting anytime a craft passes from practice and especially from appreciation. Penmanship is so long-gone that few of us today can look through its words to read what the craft said. I’m curious to hear any readers’ insights on practice or connoisseurship in this area.

Historical Equipment, Historical Documentation

Visitors to the conservation lab here at TSLAC often comment on our historic bindery equipment, much of which dates from the 19th century.   The board shear, backing press, and standing press are all working examples of how conservation reaches back to historical craft trades to create treatments that are sympathetic to an item’s earlier appearance and function.  One example of this lab equipment is the copy press, discussed in a previous post from Summer 2011.

copy press

Many copy presses like this one have been repurposed as small book presses in binderies and conservation labs.

Since items like the copy press still function as everyday, working equipment in the lab, it’s nice to have an occasional reminder of their historical origins.  One such reminder came from a book in the lab for treatment this month, the 1879-80 San Antonio City Directory.  Much like modern day phonebooks, city directories featured advertisements for local businesses, including this delightful spotlight of a copy press:

Stationer's advertisement with copy press

Stationer’s advertisement with copy press, 1879-80 San Antonio City Directory (click for detail.)

In the 19th century, “stationery” went far beyond the notecards of today to include a wide variety of writing and record-keeping supplies.  As seen in this advertisement, a stationer might offer account books, writing utensils, ink, and even playing cards.  The impressive selection at H. Barbeck’s store even seems to include musical instruments and cutlery!  However, despite this charming image, I have never personally seen an angel operating my copy press in the modern day.

The Unknown Craftsman

I recently finished a book that might be of interest in this forum: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty by Soetsu Yanagi.  I first learned about this book through mention in a Brian Eno biography, but it is highly relevant for anyone invested in making, repairing, or appreciating handcrafted objects.

Yanagi was a maker and connoisseur of pottery in early 20th century Japan.  His appreciation of handcraft is rooted in Eastern traditions and Buddhist thought, and as such it provides ample exercise for a Western mind.  In Yanagi’s world, the objects we use enrich our human experience, and the best objects are made by anonymous craftsmen whose honest, imperfect work embodies genuine beauty. 

Yanagi particularly admires Korean pottery, especially from the 16th – 18th centuries, and he examines it in great detail.  Its beauty comes from craftsmen with a simpler mindset than he observes in Japan and the Western world.  As he explains, Korean craftsmen didn’t strive to assert their artistry or to create works of excellence.  In Buddhist terms, they worked in a non-dualistic mindset, one formed before the differentiation of artist and layman, beautiful and ugly, good and bad.  They relied on the traditions and materials at hand to create simple, useful objects without self-awareness.

Yanagi discusses the two paths through which artists and craftsmen may achieve their goals: the way of the individual and the way of grace.  Success is attainable through both, but the way of the individual is far more difficult.  On this path, artists must reinvent the wheel at every step.  With keen focus on defining and expressing themselves, they must labor to find and master materials and techniques that suit their needs (whose very definition requires even more labor.)  By contrast, craftsmen taking the way of grace can reach the same goal with greater ease by relying on tradition.  Rather than focusing on self-expression, they immerse themselves in inherited practice to create works of integrity and humanity. 

This is a fascinating take on craft tradition, one with keen awareness of the repetition inherent in learning to work with one’s hands.  Within Western culture, it provides an interesting framework through which to consider different kinds of artwork.  One can imagine the Abstract Expressionist painstakingly blazing the path of the individual, while the painter of monastic art followed the path of grace and stood on the shoulders of giants.  Who was more genuine?  Who was more skilled?  Who was happier?

Modern day Westerners like me will likely puzzle over arguments like these.  Aren’t we supposed to express our individuality?  Don’t we praise trailblazers as leaders and visionaries?  Head-scratchers like these hide on nearly every page of Yanagi’s book.  For example, Yanagi praises Korean potters for their simpler frame of mind, and for the genuine craft it produced.  But it took a more modern, sophisticated sensibility to appreciate that simple beauty.  Does this paradox pose a kind of duality?  And when we follow Yanagi’s line of thought, do we fly dangerously close to the noble savage argument, assuming that the grass was always greener in another country and another time?  

Regardless of the answers to such questions, The Unknown Craftsman is a genuinely thought-provoking counterpart to life in 21st century America.  It’s a look back to a time when machine-made goods were a new concern, and that’s fascinating for digital-age readers to whom even the machine era can look like the good old days.   The mind reels at how our culture has moved from handmade things to machine-made things to digital un-things.  Yanagi’s book is a snapshot from our walk along that path.