When my wife Diane and I moved to southern Indiana in 1999, I was immediately struck by the number of people involved in various arts and crafts. In the first houses we visited, it seemed like there was frequently an art studio in the basement or maybe even a full-size loom in the back bedroom.
According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation 32.7 million adults American adults participated in needle crafts than in any other arts-related activity. Another 17.6 million engaged in painting and drawing and 14.1 million created pottery or jewelry. Some estimates are even higher. According to Susan Brandt, from the Hobby Industry Association, 80% of American households have at least one crafter which is about 70 million participants in total. Brant says, “Our research shows that about 14 percent of these crafters are selling what they make, which translates to around 12 million people.”
Back in Florida Diane had several friends who were into crafts and we would occasionally go to craft fairs. I remember one church fair when we shamelessly spoiled our youngest son boy by getting him a number of toys including a wooden dinosaur covered with green glitter that got all over everything. Diane has quite a bit of experience with arts and crafts from her work in schools with emotionally disturbed children, Sunday school and vacation bible school teaching, and conducting museum children’s activities.
I remember once helping in Diane’s Sunday School class for three-year-olds. They were doing a craft that called for the use of glue and I was assigned to supervised a three year old girl named Jenna. Well Jenna wanted no part of me or my supervision and she constantly fought me tooth and nail over the control of the glue. The fact that I was 100 times bigger than her, did not phase her in the least. Jenna was not easily impressed.
In recent years when we take vacation trips with our grandchildren Diane usually has taken along some craft activities. Last year she made Gullah clothes pin dolls with the granddaughters, while I made a simple wood pirate ship with our grandson. I have found that even little boys can be interested in crafts, if it involves skulls and cross bones. This year we’re putting together a small wooden sail boat, I hope it’s not too dull.
Once when Diane was leading Lewis and Clark related children’s activities for the Howard Steam Boat Museum’s Chautauqua, I was assigned to fashion tomahawks, made out of small branches and cardboard, with the boys. They were mildly interested in the task, but livened up considerably when we decorated them with bright red paint, resembling blood. The parent did seem all that pleased with our handiwork.
Out of necessity people have been making and selling handicrafts 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 well into 1930s. This movement was largely a reaction against the industrialization of the decorative arts at the time. 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.” The craft supply industry started on the West Coast and swept across the country. Brabecthe says that “ how-to instructional books” and the startup of magazines especially aimed at hobbyists and crafters in the 1960’s encourage people to become involved in crafts. In the mid-1970s a Lou Harris poll revealed that two out of three Americans participated in the arts and crafts, and even more wanted to get involved Large trade shows, craft fairs and television shows pushed the movement even further along. Since then crafts have grown steadily, fueled by crazes such as Xavier Robert’s Cabbage Patch Kids® in the 1980’s.
Michaels, North America’s largest arts and crafts specialty retailer newest crafting trends for 2013 will be (1) Nostalgia/vintage items using doilies, chalkboard paint, lace, Mason jars and vintage book pages. (2) Eco-chic crafts employing wood grain, natural fibers, rope, paper and cork. (3) Use of Unexpected materials such as wreaths made of photos, balloons, clothes pins, or fabric remnants. and (4) Personalization with initials and monograms showing up on all kinds of everyday objects like cell phone cases and shoes.
Arts and crafts have also played a major role in American mental health. They were introduced into asylums and mental hospitals in the early 19th-century as an early form of occupational therapy. Activities, such as basket weaving, were intended to have a calming effect, while keeping patients busy and productive. Basket weaving and later the making of ceramic pieces continued in mental health settings well into the late 20th Century. 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 patient’s day. Psychologists at the time argued that patients should not be forced or even encouraged to participate in such endless recreational therapy. Such activities were seen as been too akin to childplay and ultimately dehumanizing or at least infantilizing in nature.
In a study of hospitalized adults, arts and crafts were the most popular of sixteen activity groups offered, although only one-third of the participants said that they found the arts and crafts to be helpful. Despite only moderate evidence that arts and crafts are especially beneficial to all psychiatric patients, this may only reinforce that fact that treatment always needs to be individualized.
When I began counseling children in the 1970’s. almost all mental health centers had large kilns and materials 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 them calm and interested. I was also warned to keep them away from the glue. I don’t believe we ever made a model that didn’t have a gluey fingerprint on the windshield. The plastic models, however, did work our much better than the checkers, since the kids would usually get angry and turn the board over, when I wouldn’t let them beat me. I still believe that such crafts help improve motor control, sensory and perceptual stimulation, as well as increasing rapport.. They also help children develop patience and provide cognitive challenges. Finally used properly they enhance self-esteem anda sense of efficacy.
Arts and craft participation has also been found to be related to scientific discovery and creativity In 1958, UCLA psychologist Bernice Eiduson began a 20 year long study of scientists to try to determine what personality factors differentiated the highly successful and productive scientists (Nobel Prize winners and National Academy Members) from their less successful colleagues. Robert Root-Bernstein from Michigan State University and his colleagues took over the project in the 1980’s. At first they were not able to find any significant differences In1988 they reanalyzed their data and looked at the scientists’ participation in arts and crafts, avocations, and recreational habit. This time they found significant differences. The highly successful scientists were much more likely participate in various arts and crafts activities and believed that that these activities were relevant to their scientific work and could explain how their hobbies and pastimes contributed to their success.
Diane learned to sew and even made clothes for herself when she was in high school. I was never so talented. I did spend a lot of time out in my father garage taking things apart and driving nails into pieces of wood. I did learn how to cast lead soldiers out of molten lead and my brother Norman tried his hand at crafts by trying to fashion a spear gun from a Popular Mechanics magazine blueprint. My father confiscated the spear gun after it misfired and made a two inch hole in the garage door, barely missing a couple of my brother’s hoodlum friends. Norman;s failure was short lived. A few years later he did succeed in making a large carbide cannon from another Popular Mechanics magazine set of plans. .
I was once out in the garage trying to straighten a rusty crooked nail to use in one of my projects (I think I was hammering together a battleship). I hit the nail and the head broke 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, Dr. Berman 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 is still with me. For years I’ve been waiting for a TSA scanner to go off at the airport, just so I could tell them that it was probably the nail for my battleship.
Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune in Jeffersonville and New Albany, Indiana