Today, we make things. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
It was 1912. The industrial
world had produced a flood of domestic products.
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, a
clutter of cheap plaster statues, kitchen gadgets,
linoleum floors, and other imitation elegance had
begun piling up in our homes.
the term homemade to summon up what we
felt we were losing. As individual craftsmanship
began vanishing under piles of manufactured goods,
people like John Ruskin and William Morris began
the so-called Arts and Crafts Movement.
That movement gained momentum in
late-nineteenth-century England, and then moved off
into other countries. It reached its apogee just
before WW-I. Out of it came Frank Lloyd Wright, the
German Bauhaus School, and new lean forms of
In 1912, Cheshire L. Boone published his Guide
and Index to the Library of Work and Play -- a
ten-book set on arts and
crafts for young people. This was a focused
effort to bring the ideals of the movement to a
generation born into twentieth-century
industrialization. We may be mechanized, but Boone
There was never a time in the history of the
world when each race, each nation, each community
unit, each family almost, did not possess its
craftsmen and artists.
He goes on to identify individualism as the
commodity that craftsmanship alone will salvage. He
also adds an idea that historians were just
beginning to understand -- that the true
historical record is to be found in wordless
artifacts every bit as much as it is in written
documents. (It took another fifty years for that
notion to gain wide currency.) Boone also sees,
very accurately, how craft serves learning. He
The boy makes a kite, a telegraph outfit, or a
sled in order to give to his play a vestige of
realism. He seeks to mold the physical world to
personal desires, as men do. Incidentally he taps
the general mass of scientific facts or data and
extracts therefrom no small amount of very real,
Most books of this kind focused entirely on boys,
but Boone gives equal attention to boys' and girls'
activities. Of course, there's a lot of
gender-differentiation: girls do basketry and interior design.
Boys build furniture and model airplanes. Gardening could go either
way; but this was still the America of a
So we read the same ideals of individual capability
and clean, uncluttered design that guided the new
century. Those ideals had become part of
my school curriculum by the 1930s. Some of
the Arts and Crafts Movement was retrograde, of
course -- nostalgia going nowhere new. But here the
movement wraps its arms around new technologies.
We're asked to build our own radio or steam engine. Boone
strongly emphasizes model-airplane building
only nine years after the Wright Brothers flew. No
retrograde Romanticism here.
At the heart of the Arts and Crafts movement was a
call to enter the twentieth century with our heads
screwed on. Factories and high technology were an
obvious fact of life. But they were not any reason
for giving up beauty, elegance, and hands-on
involvement with artifacts. Here that message
comes, with wonderful intensity, to the generation
that built the remarkable twentieth century -- the
world that you and I were given at our birth.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Boone, C. L., The Library of Work and Play: Guide
and Index. Garden City: Doubleday, Page &
Do take a moment to click on the links in the
posted script above to see many of the
illustrations from Boone's fascinating book. (The
two illustrations shown here are also from Boone's
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.