Julia Hoffman and the Arts and Crafts Society of Portland: An Aesthetic Response to Industrialization

By Christen, Richard S. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Julia Hoffman and the Arts and Crafts Society of Portland: An Aesthetic Response to Industrialization


Christen, Richard S., Oregon Historical Quarterly


On October 9, 1907, Nearly 150 people met at the Portland Art Museum to adopt a constitution, elect officers, and enlist members for a new organization: the Arts and Crafts Society of Portland. (1) Among those present was Julia Hoffman, one of Portland's leading citizens and perhaps its most avid craftsperson. More than any other individual, Hoffman had generated an interest in handicrafts in the city. She also helped draft the new society's constitution and by-laws and, as one of its original trustees, its second president, and its primary spokesperson for nearly thirty years, infused the institution with her vision of the arts and crafts. Despite her responsibility for its existence, the Arts and Crafts Society of Portland was more than Julia Hoffman's personal creation. Like similar groups that appeared in cities across the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Portland society was part of an arts and crafts movement that flourished from the 1880s to the 1920s in England, the United States, and to a lesser degree, the European continent.

At its core, the arts and crafts movement was a response to industrialization--a loose network of individuals and institutions committed not so much to a specific artistic style or method as to an attitude and sensibility that something was amiss in the modern, industrial world. (2) Attacks leveled by English designer, poet, and socialist William Morris against the nineteenth-century industrial revolution originally inspired the movement. Machines had undoubtedly increased efficiency, freed humans from much drudgery, and multiplied the quantity of consumer goods, but according to Morris, the cost had been unacceptable. Product quality and beauty had declined as cheap, poorly designed objects flooded the market. The shift from craftsperson to machine operator drained industrial workers of creativity and separated them from their materials, products, and customers. Laborers took little pride or pleasure in demeaning toil and suffered dramatic losses in social and financial status. (3) Building on the insights of John Ruskin and other Romantics, Morris countered industrialization's harmful effects with what historian Eileen Boris refers to as "the craftsman ideal." (4) This archetype fused two particular notions that Morris believed had been trampled by the factory system: first, an aesthetic ideal--that natural beauty, simplicity, and usefulness should characterize all objects and permeate everyday life; and second, a theory of labor--a commitment to work that brings joy, dignity, and personal satisfaction to laborers. Morris believed pre-industrial artisans had embodied both notions. Because their work combined design and creation, he argued, it was stimulating, pleasurable, and respected within the community; their products, created for specific purposes and people, were original, practical, and the epitome of elegant beauty. Hoping to return to these conditions, Morris's answer to industrialization looked backward rather than forward. His was a reactionary conviction that attention to pre-industrial tools, processes, and design would reverse two of the most nefarious effects of the factory system. He was convinced that, if freed from the slavery of machines, laborers would again make beautiful things and perform work "worth doing ... of itself pleasant to do, and ... done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious." (5)

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Hoffman and other leaders of the Arts and Crafts Society of Portland possessed Morris's desire to cultivate an appreciation for craftsmanship and handicrafts, but they had little of his enthusiasm for fundamental economic and social change. Like that of its counterparts in Boston and other American cities, the Portland society's goal was aesthetic rather than social or economic; they wished to counter the unsightliness of the city's commercial and industrial growth without slowing its growth or challenging the status quo. …

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