Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A View from 1900

Fred T. Hodgson was a prolific writer on Carpentry at the turn of the 19th~20th centuries. A fellow Canadian (from Duntroon, Ontario), Hodgson first came to my attention with his 1909 publication, "Practical Uses of the Steel Square,". Besides carpentry, Hodgson wrote on a wide variety of trades and their techniques, including wood carving, stair-building, architectural drafting, upholstery work, and even concrete, stucco and plastering work. Hodgson was an architect and the editor for National Builder Magazine, the FHB of its day. He also submitted articles for other construction trade magazines, including Architects' and Builder's Magazine. I've been reading through his series entitled "Carpentry Under Modern Conditions" which appeared in consecutive issues of Architects' and Builder's Magazine from 1899~1900 at least. This series covers an intriguing range of topics, from stair-building, double circular work for widow assemblies, splayed post work, and so forth. I often find Hodgson's comments on 'the trade' rather interesting. Considering a common topic among woodworkers, which might be termed 'the machine question' (on whether it might be better to use hand tools or machines, or both to work wood), I thought I'd share what Hodgson had to say on the topic of machinery in January 1900:


At the time Hodgson was writing, the fin de siècle, the Master Builder tradition was in the final stages of collapse. Master Builders were those for whom carpentry was an art and science, and had not  devolved almost entirely into an assembly task with industrially-produced materials. The year 1900 - the Chicago World's Fair was a recent memory, Frank Lloyd Wright had just struck out on his own. There was a lot of tumult in the building industry, as the trades and the building unions fought against the factories, and lost. I wrote about this topic at some length in 2009 in a series called The Master Builder Tradition: What Happened? Part VI of that series ties quite closely to today's post, so readers may wish to take a look at that. Hodgson, it seems to me, was a bit forward-looking, and, evidenced by his writings, had come to some degree of accommodation with 'the machine' and its use in the trades.

In Hodgson's day, much was in flux and an enterprising and hard-working young person, or one blessed by accident or luck with the right opportunities, might move in a matter of weeks from apprentice to journeyman, and soon after to foreman and then boss maybe a month later. Hodgson recognized that though the progress might be swift in terms of moving up through the ranks, the acquisition of real carpentry knowledge takes many years to acquire, and thus one reads his frequent exhortations that the 'young mechanic' devote himself to study and not be satisfied with what he does know or what his company position is but rather continually looking about for new ideas and methods. It is clearly written for an age in which the traditional apprenticeship has been relegated to a side track. I often wonder how many of his readers did just that - studied, pushed themselves? I wonder how many do today?

2 comments:

  1. fin de *siecle* - This just means, as you know, 'end of the century' so it's not clear which century. Having said that, the term usually refers to a particular period and place - the end of the 19th century in Europe. Given that your audience is largely native English speaking why not just write 'end of the 19th century'?..

    I really enjoy checking in on your blog Chris but I find it frustrating when you quote phrases or long passages in French without a translation - please remember that not all of us are as learned as yourself.

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  2. Adam,

    thanks for catching that typo on siècle. Yes it is a French term and I did not translate it - it appears in many English books untranslated, just as does 'Déjà vu', etc., and is listed in many English dictionaries.

    I used the term in my series on the Master Builder Tradition and as this blog entry referred back to that period, and I mention the dates around 1900 with frequency, giving context, it seemed unnecessary to translate.

    But okay, I hear your frustration, and I'll make more of an effort to translate terms, even if they are in the dictionary, if I think they might be obscure.

    ~C

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