Manufacturing Civic Pride

Manufacturing Civic Pride

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Made in Newark draws on a wide variety of sources to conjure the manufacturing town's past, when it was a haven of progressive civic ideals and innovative programs in the industrial arts.

Made in Newark:
Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era
By Ezra Shales
Rivergate Books, Rutgers University Press, 2010, $50
rutgerspress.rutgers.edu

Ezra Shales' high-minded epic challenges readers to reconsider industrial arts, one of the wellsprings of contemporary craft. Yet Made in Newark is less about the things - jewel­ry, leather goods, gas logs - that were actually made in this northern New Jersey city (long before it became a symbol of economic blight) than about their social setting. Inspired by civic ideals fostered a century ago, the author examines the innovative programs of Newark's Free Public Library and the Newark Museum Association, initiated by director John Cotton Dana and his liberated female workforce.

Dana, writes Shales, "insisted that his staff see their vocation as handicraft." In the hands-on operation, his librarians worked a printing press, set type, and bound books. During Dana's tenure, Newark's nascent museum staged some of the most experimental exhibitions of the early 20th century, showcasing advertising, German housewares, Japanese ukiyo-e ("floating world") prints, and freely mixing factory-made products with handcraft. An exhibit on the state's important clay industries, for example, went so far as to include toilets, prompting Dana to claim that "so far, the great contribution of American art is the bathroom," - a one-liner that Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Beatrice Wood ran with in promoting Du­champ's notorious 1917 Fountain (which was, of course, a urinal).

For his part, Shales, an art historian at Alfred University's New York School of Ceramics, draws on an impressive array of sources to weave ideas about education, citizenship, economics, cultural pluralism, and the role of the museum in a manufacturing town. The result is an intensive and intriguing view of the past - one that, as craft historian and theorist Glenn Adamson noted on the dust jacket, "looks very much like a future to strive for."

Caroline Hannah is a design historian in New York.