Glenn Adamson’s New Book Explains How Skilled Makers Made America
Technology and industry often get much of the credit for fueling the United States’ development, but for curator, writer, and scholar Glenn Adamson, the prevailing source of American identity stems from those who make objects by hand. In his forthcoming book, Craft: An American History (Bloomsbury), out next week, Adamson shows how skilled laborers shaped the nation, telling remarkable, often surprising stories that reflect the country’s cultural and political past. He cites Elizabeth Keckley, a seamstress born into slavery who became first lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s clothier and confidante, as an example of how craft has served as a tool to overcome obstacles of equity and class. He also looks at gender dynamics by considering the parallels between 1950s hot-rodding boys and dressmaking girls, and examines the American dream itself by unpacking the 19th-century myth of the self-made man—an artisan who purportedly used craft as a pathway to self-reliance and, ultimately, fabulous wealth. The notable main protagonists in Adamson’s accounts are Native Americans, African Americans, women, and blue-collar workers. “They make up most of the craft class, but have always had less of a focus on them,” he says. “I wanted to de-center the narrative: Take the emphasis off of the more museum-friendly expressions of craft, and think about the real imprint it’s had on the economy and the social fabric of the country.” America, Adamson argues, has long had—and continues to have—craft at its core.