Anger: The (near)death of an art and why I care

German cigar mold
German cigar mold

This summer I bought this incredible piece of aged wood in an antique shop in Santa Barbara. I intended to use it as a frame for my art. It was labeled as an antique German cigar mold. Once I got home I was able to open the mold and take a better look at it. It is marked: “Hier offnen schliessen”. Translated, that means: “here open closed”. More writing, “Schwetzingen” (a German town). Before using it in my work, I decided to look into its history to make sure there was no connection to Germany during the war. I was relieved to find it was a product of the 1950s. But that wasn’t all. Turns out, the real story behind cigar molds is very interesting, and relevant.

You see, cigar-making was at one time a serious artisan’s trade, done only by master craftsmen. Then the industrial revolution changed everything and with the invention of the cigar mold, unskilled immigrants were housed in filthy, diseased American tenements to grease the pockets of cigar makers, signaling the (near)death of a master trade. The end. No, not the end. Unions fixed things up a bit for workers for a time, until post WWII brought back a flood of unskilled immigrants willing to jump picket lines and then cigarettes became popular and that was basically it, the end of a master trade. Except it wasn’t. Fortunately, quality cigar makers supposedly still use “hand-rollers” so the trade survives. Sort of. If you believe Wiki.

So why would I feel awkward about using a piece of old wood as a frame for my art? Because even though this particular mold is modern compared to those of the 1850s, it is evidence of an era of virtual slavery, the near-death of a master trade, and the beginning of our current era of passably good products made on the cheap by unskilled labor (which has nearly destroyed craftsmanship in America!) Not getting good vibes from this thing. Haven’t even mentioned that tobacco causes cancer.

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9 thoughts on “Anger: The (near)death of an art and why I care

  1. You bet it does Graham, thus the last sentence in my post. I’m quite sensitive to that subject.

    I have lost family to tobacco. I have lost health to being around it all my youth. As an artisan myself, I was using this particular mechanization tool as a metaphor for lost craftsmanship and exploitation of unskilled workers. Hope you understand.

    A follow up Anger post for me later perhaps.
    I’m really glad people can say that out loud now…

    “tobacco products kill people.”

  2. I’m still digesting this – very thought provoking. What I like about this though is how you got so much from an object. And that to me is another aspect of this loss of skilled crafts in the making of long-lasting objects – that things just aren’t as special anymore. Today, when things are mass produced and cheap and easy to buy, they just aren’t valuable in the same way as something crafted. They don’t ‘speak’ to us.

    One day, I want to own a desk that was lovingly made in someone’s mind and heart, then with their hands. However, due to money issues, I have a big, functional and ever so useful desk made in a factory out of nasty wood chip or something ‘other’ veneered with ick.

    And this is where the rub is for me – if it wasn’t for the factory, for the mass produced, I wouldn’t have this desk. So I can’t hate it too much. but it does mean I don’t love it in the same way I would love my dream desk. And boy, I would love that desk, I would polish it and hand it down through my family, the works.

    The world should be big enough to have both, and I guess it still does, for the wealthy. But it is so sad that affordability is so often associated with exploitation of some kind. Not always, but often.

    So you see why I am still thinking this over! I’m not sure I have said anything coherent here, but I can say you made me mull!

  3. I think your post is very well put Emma. I would also love to have finely crafted items but I have a desk like yours. More than desks, are we as artisans (you the writer, and me the artist) at risk of extinction or pertinent only to the wealthy? That’s the bigger question. Sometimes it seems we go in and out of fashion. And in this economy, even the wealthy might not save artisanry.

    Before mass production, the Trades were a way of life for most. The silversmith bartered for grain with his wares. Now those wares are imports (passably good products) whose prices make us unable to compete. Sadly, there are “nasty wood chip” replacements for art. Are writers still safe?

  4. I have been thinking about this a lot since I read your response. With no tea and a tired brain, I will do my best to form something out of the jumble as I simply can’t wait till tomorrow to do this!

    I think there are two separate things jostling in my mind: a difference between professional artisanry, and professional art.

    A few years ago, I was a self-employed designer dressmaker. I taught myself to sew, made myself weird clothes that people loved, and thought what the hell and set up the business. However, the problem with something like this (and what I imagine it would be like to create labour intensive art (in terms of hours I mean), is that people don’t appeciate how long things take, and how much good quality materials cost. In an artisan model, to survive one has to examine how much can be earnt per hour, as one’s hands can only create so much a day. To make the items produced affordable for most, in a age where people can buy passable, lower quality, generic items easily elsewhere, this is nigh on impossible.

    So yes, that I fear is being lost, I agree with you.

    However, for the other kind of art I am thinking of (and I can only speak for writing as that is all I know) it is impossile to look at that in the same monetised way. I must have spent weeks of my life on my book. Hours crammed in around my salaried life. If I were to calculate how much it cost to produce in the same way as I would cost a wedding dress all those years ago, I would never, ever earn it back!

    From looking at your art, I am going to hazard a guess that there is a compulsion in you to create it, there’s so much passion and love poured into those creations that I have just marvelled at. My writing is like that. I have to write, I must write, I am miserable without it.

    So I write. I earn money elsewhere. Yes, I would love to earn enough money from my writing to dedicate all the time and energy that goes into my salaried job into my writing instead, but that’s impossible for most.

    But we are not extinct. We still create. And in this Brave New World, we have more ways than ever to find people who both love our art and are willing and able to pay for it. So there is hope yet!

    Now, to bed! So glad I we found each other, in our fresh early days of blogging.

  5. Yay, Good point Amy! And exactly why I still have it, and plan to use it as a found object piece. But I hadn’t decided whether I needed to reference “them” in the piece or feel free to use it as I like. What is your point of view on that?

    Thanks for visiting today 🙂

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