An artisan’s work can take place in all sorts of environments, depending on a number of factors including the climate, the need for space, the dangers of the materials used, cultural conventions and religious traditions (which in many cases relegated women to domestic or restricted spaces).
Inside and outside
The street is an ideal environment for many craftspeople who can use it to combine technical needs (like the need for ventilation and space) with the immediate possibility of selling their services or objects.
The social and economic differences between different artisans could be very significant. Some might be wealthy and live in comfort; others might be in poverty and held in disdain by other parts of society. There was a huge distance between a renowned creator of luxury shoes and a poor village cobbler forced to sleep in his workshop.
Up until the 1950s, the streets of cities, small towns and countryside hamlets, and the routes that connected one farm to another, were crossed by itinerant craftspeople: knife grinders, chair repairers, men who patched umbrellas, tinsmiths who cleaned up boilers and kettles. All these people came and went on foot (only rarely on horseback), each with their own established route. This type of craftwork was swept away by the post-war economic boom.
Alone or together
Looking through the history of craftsmanship, it is difficult to find artisans who worked in complete solitude. They are found perhaps only in the female world, where the cheapest seamstresses worked at home or women carried out other home-based knitting, crochet and embroidery jobs alone, as befitted the vision of a woman’s role at the time. But wherever there was the practical possibility of socialising, as when the weather allowed it, the cobbler put his bench out in the street and the lace makers sat outside the door of the house or gathered in courtyards.
Due to their complex nature, many craft jobs, such as those in the working of glass, metal or pottery, required subordinate labour (a ’shop boy’, shop assistant, or apprentice) with whom, while respecting hierarchies, there was often closeness and sociability.
Artisans often gathered in a ’corporation’, protecting the interests of the group by trying to reduce competition between those who practised the same activity (for example, by not lowering prices too much).
These corporations created social opportunities. Members of a corporation, their families and, sometimes, their most important clients both at economic and political levels, came together to celebrate events, such as the feast of the patron saint of each craft in Catholic countries.
From workshop to factory
The history of crafts teaches us that the structure of the workshop, which can also be a corner on the street or a room in a house, is fluid. It can shrink until it disappears or even expand greatly depending on a range of factors. It is affected by the history of places and people (think wars or epidemics), the fortune or decline of methodologies and materials (like parchment), and competition from industry at home or abroad which offers tools and various mass-produced goods at low prices.
The Corporations of Arts and Crafts (also called 'guilds') regulated and protected the activities of craftspeople from the 12th century in many European cities. With their disappearance in the second half of the 18th century and with the Industrial Revolution, the role of apprentices and of the workers in artisanal workshops was gradually transformed into that of simple wage earners. There are many examples that see the shop expand into a large laboratory or, with the arrival of new machinery, into an industry, and with it see larger numbers of workers doing hard manual work in increasingly difficult and sometimes dangerous and exploitative conditions.
In some cases, such as metalworking and fabric production, the Industrial Revolution, with the novelty of its machinery, first steam-powered and then electric, left almost no room for craftsmanship except for ’niche’ products which only in recent years have been rediscovered. In other cases, the craftspeople themselves turned into entrepreneurs, updating traditional methods with the support of new technologies and enlarging working spaces to accommodate a larger workforce. Let's think, for example, of the enormous rotary presses that print (and when necessary bind) newspapers, magazines and books. Yet there are still small artisan printers who pay attention to the detail and elegance of the typefaces, and manual bookbinders who take care of small and large libraries.
In the artisan world there are processes that have developed with the evolution of techniques, technologies and materials, while other workshops have remained tenaciously linked to traditional manual skills. And of course, there are examples that are somewhere in between, relying on individual choices, economic possibilities or local processes. While it’s unlikely to find a metalworker’s forge on the local high street, there are still skilled wrought iron craftspeople around.
Some inventions greatly speed up processes for artisans and craftspeople. Take the spinning wheel - this tool sped up the process of unravelling skeins of wool and turning them into balls. It was used by wool artisans - largely craftswomen who undertook piecework - up until the 1970s in many Italian towns.
Artisans and their clients
Throughout European history, the personal relationships between craftspeople and their customers has been complicated. They are subject to the different traditions and social relationships between people and between nations, to written and unwritten laws, to behaviours dictated by etiquette and rank, and also of course to the characters of individuals, some of whom favour these kinds of informal relationships, and some of whom do not. In ancient Rome, almost all the craftspeople were slaves or freedmen, subject to the rules of the late Empire and its corporations.
It is common for there to be a long chain of intermediaries (valets, butlers, ladies-in-waiting, administrators etc.) between the ruling classes and the artisans. Artists in architecture, painting and sculpture were considered a rank higher than craftspeople. Nevertheless the ruling classes could meet lowly (but skilled) artisans if they really wanted to.
With the Industrial Revolution, the distance between the working class and other social classes widened. But the middle classes often had close relationships with artisans, even meeting daily, and enjoying informal relationships. Think of the kind of relationship you might have today with your barber or hairdresser, in days gone by this might be the kind of relationship the middle classes had with a tailor, seamstress, milliner, florist or gardener.
A particularly close personal relationship is associated with the tailor. The familiarity a tailor needs with the client's body created a particular relationship between the client and the artisan, which sometimes led to real friendship while maintaining socially respectable distance and etiquette, and sometimes led to satire, as in this cartoon.
Competition from ready-to-wear garments drastically reduced the number of tailors. Where once there were many, now the profession is mainly limited to the high fashion sector. In sectors where intelligence, flair and imagination are essential (such as haute couture and design) the contribution of craftspeople has never ceased. And commercial bodies that cater to mass consumerism, such as department stores, have also shown they value artisanal work, for example by organising small exhibitions/markets within their large departments which could attract a segment of clientele more curious about culture.
Both in the home furnishings and decorations areas of department stores and in luxury shops, handcrafted products find space and a loyal clientele. Usually, the most sought-after are the historic brands, like this Herend lamp. The Herend brand represents the timeless luxury and elegance that have attracted European courts for generations.
In certain cases, crafts also have a place in institutional environments. In France, for example, the Mobilier National is a public institution created by the State centuries ago to preserve the furniture and objects that equip public institutions and promote arts and crafts and creation up to this day.
Throughout France’s changing political regimes, the Mobilier National’s objective has always been to support and promote French craft creation, by perpetuating know-how, training craftspeople and investing in innovation. You can learn more about Mobilier National by checking out this blog!