At the very worst economic time ever experienced, in 1929 an upstate New York petroleum merchant initiates a shop making and selling discretionary products for a consumer market characterized by 25 percent unemployment.
A few years later, and 15 miles down the same highway from the first, the same optimist opens a second shop. Improbably, the business idea achieves traction.
As the gloom of the Great Depression settled in for a decade-long duration, Clarence Wemett of Hemlock, New York opened Roadside Craftsmen at the curb of conjoined NY Route 5 and US Route 20 in East Bloomfield, New York, a suburb of Rochester.
Handcrafted pottery, textiles, ironwork, and woodenwares — made by craftsmen placed on display in outdoor pavilions like circus sideshow performers — were sold to itinerant, automobiling tourists. Nearby, in East Avon, Wemett partnered with a former Roycroft metal artist to open a second shop in the early 1930s.
Extraordinary as much for the economic audacity of their timing as the products each shop produced and the customers they sought, Roadside Craftsmen and the Avon Coppersmith survived and sometimes thrived. Both persisted through the Depression and a World War. In Coppersmith’s case, it lasted long enough to welcome hippies.
More significant than their longevity, or even the craftwork each produced, is the business model Wemett innovated and the profound transformational change each shop wrought for Craft’s status. And both shops rose above the tension between two divergent decorative art styles.
A new book, Tourists and Trade: Roadside Craftsmen and the Highway Transforming Craft (SUNY Press, 2023), reports the richly textured, engaging story of the prescient oil vendor who saw business symbiosis among a recently adopted mode of transportation, a skinny highway on which to drive the cars, and a novel form of leisure recreation. And, the book’s author argues, the two roadside craft shops together fostered the emergence of a national Craft movement.
By the twentieth century‘s third decade, paved highways and the broad diffusion of automobile ownership liberated leisure from its once homebound location. Traveling tourists became a customer base for roadside entrepreneurship. And Wemett’s commerce in crafts — likewise, a traditionally homebound, personalized enterprise — at once democratized the product and professionalized its producer.
Ostensibly preposterous, the story seems practically ripped from the script of a 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy. Like the movies, quirky characters populate the narrative. The businessman, Wemett, takes a fancy to homespun crafts while on a pre-Depression “tin can tourist” jaunt to the American South.
The Roycroft metalsmith, Arthur Cole, quits his East Aurora job mere months before a quarter of the US workforce loses theirs. And Guy Daugherty, a southern potter with an exotic background, is persuaded to exchange temperate climes for wintry upstate New York.
The craft shops’ story is one of inefficient, labor-intensive handwork amid a highly mechanized and Taylorized industrial environment. Too, both Roadside Craftsmen and Avon Coppersmith’s products looked appreciatively backward to the Arts and Crafts movement for aesthetic inspiration, ignoring the decorative arts conflict between contradictory design styles: the comforting but derivative Colonial Revival and the jazzy, machine-age Modernism.
Wemett knew his roadside businesses could not be sustained by relying solely on a local market, never mind customer recidivism. And he believed the provincial investment would draw interest from beyond their immediate communities.
To entice customers, Wemett adopted as his shops’ marquee what had attracted him on his earlier vacation trip south: a demonstration of pottery making. “See-it-made” became the magnetic feature for his two shops on Route 20 — New York’s throughway before there was a Thruway.
Wemett’s business model for the roadside craft shops predates the one widely adopted seventy years later for a newer superhighway, the internet: grab a small portion from the huge volume of traffic flow. The craft shops, like the highway next to which they were situated, share an identical prophecy. Each anticipates what was expected to follow: travel and trade. And each shop appealed to customers’ better, loftier, other-directed motives: gift-giving.
Unanticipated by Wemett, and those then working at their craft, was that the two shops would jump-start the evolution of Craft from lower- to uppercase, and their makers from talented but mostly uncompensated amateurs to professional artists.
Prior to the industrial revolution, “craft” was treated as a verb describing a behavior. Later it became a noun referencing objects people themselves made to make living more hospitable, easier, and convenient. In 1930, craft objects were neither assigned the label of “art” nor fit under its umbrella.
The two upstate handcraft shops commercialized traditionally home-bounded objects made of metal, clay, wood, and fiber — humble media used to produce functional products. And the establishment of Roadside Craftsmen and the Avon Coppersmith enabled, propelled, and empowered Craft’s transition, elevating maker and object further up the art hierarchy.
The shops’ longest-lasting legacy was less significant for their commerce and more important to a national movement that spans crafts personally created for individual use to commercial work for a wider public and that sees Craft elevated to a fine art.
Thanks to Roadside Craftsmen and Avon Coppersmith, craft objects move from pantry shelves to museum vitrines and craftworkers from hobbyists to professionals.
Tourists and Trade is written by Bruce A. Austin, professor in the School of Communication, Rochester Institute of Technology. Most recently (2022) his A Symbiotic Partnership: Marrying Commerce to Education at Gustav Stickley’s 1903 Exhibitions was published by RIT Press.
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