A Hand-Made Village

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Youth's Companion Vol. 81 No. 48 (November 28, 1907)

In these days of machines and machine work, when even the elements are harnessed down and made to bear the brunt of the labor of the world, when horse-flesh is gradually becoming less valuable, when cogs and wheels and gasoline and steam and electricity carry us, push us, clothe us and feed us, we have little realization of what a hand-made village ever meant.

And yet it was not so long ago that a hand-made village was an actual fact. From the time one entered the boundary of the town, or “precinct,” one encountered nothing except handiwork.

The roads were all made by the patient hands of day-laborers. There were no steam-rollers to frighten the steeds of other days, only a long line of bent men digging and smoothing for their bread and butter, in order to make the highways passable for the pedestrians, and for the travellers in chaises and sulkies, and for the mail-coaches. It is true that some of the roads, especially in the southern part of the country, were pretty bad, but hands did all they could.

If a man who flourished a century ago could come to life again upon a macadamized road, and see automobiles and trolley-cars flying past him, he would very likely think himself on another planet. Possibly the great Cotton Mather, could he be reincarnated in Boston town, the great Cotton, with his belief in the supernatural and witchcraft, would even try his utmost to have all motor-men and chauffeurs, and their vehicles, included in an auto da fé for the grace of God, and the purging of the land from the practises of the devil.

It might be amusing and interesting to imagine the great divine again in his old haunts, and viewing the progress made since he left them.

If Cotton Mather Should Return.

How hard he would look at the tunnel, which desecrated the tombs of his contemporaries for the good of their descendants! How he would possibly commend his soul to his Maker before that plunge into the bowels of the earth! What would he say to the witchlike progress of the trolley-cars, with no apparent motive power, except something after the fashion of a broomstick sweeping a wire? How he would stand and solemnly gaze at the electric-light poles!

He might esteem it a miracle if he were in a house which could be flooded with light by the pressure of a button on the wall. He would certainly write innumerable sermons about such a phenomenon, and command attendance at all the meeting-houses through interminable hours.

Conceive what it would mean to a man to make one stride from candles to electricity! Think of the laborious process of candle-making, the careful saving of wax and tallow and bay-berries, the melting and dipping, which was a large part of the year's work for housewives! Think even of the difference in obtaining light at all, the running to secure some coals from a neighbor's hearth-fire, the nerve-wearing work of striking light with flint and steel!

But in those days all light, save that of the sun and moon and stars, was in its truest sense hand-made. Of course even to-day all artificial light, so called, depends upon human labor, but not as in former days upon one's own individual human labor. How many of us have had actually to employ manual labor to secure light during dark hours for work or amusement?

We work, it is true, but in a sense our feet and hands, our factors of work, have become multiplied, and the end is not yet. We accomplish in a single day more than some of our forefathers by unremitting industry could accomplish in a year, and still the wonder grows if the work accomplished by these superadded members of action, these machines, and innumerable devices to husband and speed the human nerve and muscle, is quite as perfect, as God-fearing, as that which bore the thumb-mark.

There is nobody but will concede that the lights are better, nobody but will concede that the facilities for transit are better for communication between various quarters of the globe; but when we consider the products of the factories, and those which were patiently and slowly wrought with toil-roughened fingers, with an alert brain as supervisor, one wonders if there is really an advance.

In the hand-made village it is true that the people froze in winter in their badly heated houses, suffered in summer in their screenless and blindless rooms, had less comfort; but did they not have as reward for their industry better products?

Think of the houses in the hand-made village, every beam and rafter of which was joined with hand-wrought nails. Think of the wainscoted walls, built for generations. No repapering and plastering were needed then. The thumb-mark of the worker was on those walls. His best strength was in them, and they were built to endure.

Think of the ceilings with their great hand-hewn rafters. Not much danger of plaster falling, to the destruction of household treasures, in those houses. The great central chimney, after the period of catted chimneys, when bricks had come into use, was a tower of strength for the house. It is true that it afforded possibly too good ventilation, but the chimney was there, and to stay.

The walls of the house, too, were raised with such strength, on the foundations of hand-hewn beams and stone, that nothing save an earthquake could disturb them. In those days houses did not crumble because of the zeal of the contractor to make as many dollars as possible. They stayed, because of the simple intent of the worker upon his work, and his lack of imagination for shirking in order to gain riches.

Look at the solid pieces of old-time furniture which once were gathered together in the homes of the hand-made village, and supplied the needs of their owners. The makers, and the owners thereof, are long since dead, and their ashes returned to the earth, their very names have faded from their tombstones, but here are their work and their possessions, as solid and fine as when first fashioned. The old tables are much more stable than the tables of to-day, although they have been weighted down with a hundred Thanksgiving dinners, and the great plates and platters of pewter which also endure.

It is improbable that the work of a man who uses a machine in a modern furniture factory will endure in its first strength a century after he has passed away. His work will follow closely upon his heels. It is really an achievement to construct anything which will survive one for a hundred years, and lose nothing of its beauty and utility, even if it be only a table.

When one looks at the solid old chairs, some of a period which antedated the rush-bottom, and sees them as sturdy as if they had not afforded rest for generation after generation, one feels a certain respect for the maker, although his name be all unknown to fame.

His chair survives, and one can sit in it securely, and rest and reflect. To think that one can offer rest and comfort from his handiwork generations after one is laid away gives one a sense of immortality. To be sure, it may not be immortality of the highest order, but the immortality of all good work is essential in nature, whether the work be a chair or a great poem.

Probably Milton, to save his life, could not have made a chair, but another man could and did make the chair in which the reader of Milton sits.

When one sees the hand-made implements of labor, clumsy as they may be, they are not yet in need of repair, and one feels a certain respect for them, the well-wrought tools with which the work was done, as well as for the work. The hammer which pounded down those hand-made nails is still intact. The mortar and pestle with which the housewife powdered her spices may be a little lessened in bulk by years, but that is because of the nature of the material and the law of friction, not because of the careless workmanship. The maker of that mortar and pestle made it by the best light of his soul and the utmost cunning of his hands. He was not a great man, to be sure, but he made a mortar and pestle which endures now that he has gone.

Quilted Petticoats.

The quilted petticoats of our ancestresses are in themselves monuments of industry and thrift. I have seen one over two hundred years old. It is not worn out. It looks indestructible. It is thick and stiff, and covered with a pattern of closely interwoven stitches, which stiffen it still more.

It seems incredible that any woman could have worn such a garment, but still more incredible that she could have made it. But make it she did. It is Occidental, as much as a well-worn prayer-rug is Oriental. It is in a way foolish and absurd. It is not exactly a thing of beauty, but it is an almost imperishable product of hand-work. One can imagine the quilter sitting by some west window, in order to secure the most of the waning daylight, week after week, taking those elaborate stitches. One can imagine the dreams which she wrought in with them.

This was a wedding petticoat, a part of one of the scanty bridal outfits of the time. No doubt many of the dreams came to pass, no doubt many did not; but dreams and dreamer have passed away, and the piece of work wrought by those little woman-hands remains. Her grave even is lost, her gravestone crumbled, but here is her little womanly epitaph, the proof that she once lived and was industrious, and according to her might, did what her hands found to do.

On entering the hand-made village one can imagine seeing all the women moving about like animated bellflowers in these stiff quilted petticoats which would outlive them, being clad as it were in their own obituaries, albeit unconsciously.

It is the same with old blue-and-white coverlets of the hand-made village. They served to keep warm those whom they would outlast. They comforted the sleepers who made them, and whom they would survive. There is something fairly majestic about the long livelihood of honest handiwork. Think of those really beautiful old blue-and-white fabrics made on hand-looms from flax which was carded, and all the rest, by hand, serving us now as portières, and couch-covers, and utterly unimpaired by age, even although they have done long service over the slumbers of those ready to wake at any minute at the sound of an Indian war-whoop.

But they have survived both trembling sleepers and their foes, and are still triumphant in their inanimate existence. They will survive us also, unless some mischance of fire befall.

The Worker In His Work.

There is something tragically pathetic in the thought that the little things which man makes for his comfort here on earth should so long outlast the worker, who is of so much more importance than the results of his work.

But, after all, that applies to earthly considerations alone. The worker takes with him the consciousness of his task well done, however humble the task may be, and has his reward.

The articles which made up the home-made village — the few houses which fire and vandals have not destroyed, the faithfully wrought furniture with which the rooms were fitted, the linen, the coverlets, the fine needlework — remain, and may seem to us to have outlived their makers, but the honest workers have survived, and will survive, their work, which is itself the proof of it.