Allen Hendershott Eaton (1878-1962) was an author, speaker, and curator, as well as champion of the Craft Revival. During the first half of the 20th century, he did as much to explain and promote the Revival as anyone. Eaton was a pivot point for discussions and activities that took place in western North Carolina and other southern states. Lucy Morgan, founder of the Penland School of Handicrafts, called him “a guiding star.” Eaton first came to the region as a guest of the Conference of Southern Mountain Workers in 1926. There he spoke on the importance of the handicrafts tradition in the mountains. His 1937 published study, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, chronicled the Craft Revival in detail. Today, seventy years after its initial publication, the book remains useful to contemporary scholars. Eaton expressed a democratic approach to the arts when he wrote, Art in its true sense, whether it be folk or fine, is the expression of joy in work. 1
During the first half of the 20th century, Allen Eaton did as much to explain and promote the Craft Revival as anyone. He was author, speaker, and curator, as well as champion, partner, and connector. Lucy Morgan, founder of the Penland School of Handicrafts, called him “a guiding star." 3 Eaton was a pivot point for the discussions and activities that took place in western North Carolina and other southern states.
Raised in the Blue Mountains of Oregon and inspired by the Portland and Seattle world’s fairs, soon after graduating from college in 1902, Eaton began producing exhibits. In 1915 he was appointed to the faculty of the University of Oregon and was elected to the Oregon legislature. An opportunity to curate the Oregon Art Room for the 1915 international Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco cemented Eaton’s path. Early in his career, Eaton’s expressed his philosophy: “No sharp line of definition can be drawn between the finer and the minor arts,” he wrote, “as both are inseparably related and all are equally important.” 4 His monumental exhibition included over 600 works of art and crafts, on view in a display environment built from materials native to the region.
With patriotism running high as the US entered the Great War, Eaton’s attendance at a peace rally in Chicago in 1917 became hometown news. A scathing editorial appeared on the front page of the Eugene, Oregon newspaper. When Eaton returned home, he faced a resolution calling for his dismissal from the university, a case infamous enough to warrant a feature article in The Nation. Following unrelenting newspaper editorials, in 1918, after thirteen years in the state legislature, Eaton lost the primary election. He left Oregon the next day. 5
“With family and twenty dollars” in his pocket, 6 Allen Eaton went to New York City to begin anew. Within a few years, he landed a position with the American Federation of Arts where he organized an exhibition titled, Arts and Crafts of the Homelands, a project that brought him acclaim. When Arts and Crafts of the Homelands traveled to Buffalo, New York in 1919, almost fifty thousand people came to see it. Another of Eaton’s exhibition was Prints in Color and Photographs for American Homes, a collection of old master reproductions recommended for display in homes and schools. Intended for public education and consumption, Eaton’s selections demonstrated the value he placed on a domestic environment characterized by creativity and beauty. In 1920 Eaton accepted a position as Associate Director for the Department of Surveys and Exhibits with the Russell Sage Foundation, 7 placing him on a path that would intersect with craft school founder Olive Dame Campbell. Campbell’s husband John had been southern field secretary for Russell Sage for almost twenty years. After John Campbell’s death in 1919, his widow continued to organize the annual Conference of Southern Mountain Workers, a networking forum held in Knoxville, Tennessee. Eaton recorded their meeting in the magazine Mountain Life and Work. “One afternoon last winter as I stepped from my office of the Russell Sage Foundation,” Eaton wrote, “I met Mrs. Campbell who was hurrying to catch her train for Washington on her way home to the mountains." 8 A conversation between the two caused Campbell to miss her train. But the time was well spent, as their chance meeting sparked a relationship that lasted the rest of their lives.
At Campbell’s invitation, Eaton spoke at the 1926 meeting of the Southern Mountain Workers, choosing as his topic “Mountain Handicrafts: What They Mean To Our Home Life And To The Life Of Our Country.” In this talk, Eaton immediately warmed the crowd with his personal connection to mountain life, recalling his “journey which began in my native state Oregon...[and] happily extended to these mountains which remind me so much of my boyhood home.” In a speech before an appreciative audience, Eaton spoke of “the vital relation of art to life.” Quoting William Morris—“Art is the Expression of Man’s Joy in Work”—he provided an inclusive definition of art that appealed to mountain workers.
This concept breaks away from that rather tight-compartment idea of art still held by many people which would confine it to painting, sculpture, and classic architecture. It holds that the principles of art may be applied to all man-made things...art is above all else the most appropriate, the most fitting way of doing a thing...[The] need and desire for art are inherent in all men...it is a vital part of normal life....[Art] is not so much the thing that is done as the manner of doing it. 9
Eaton outlined and codified many ideas that sprung from private conversations among workers at the myriad craft production centers that populated the southern highlands. In a speech dense with meaning, he defined craft as “the making of an object from first to last, beginning often with native material...and following it to its final form of utility and beauty.” He articulated this dual purpose and notions of preservation and expression. He concluded by providing context, comparing southern mountain handcraft to other rural arts produced in America and to the folk art of European “mother countries.” Eaton’s conclusion included an admonition that the focus of production should remain on craft made of “sound material, of excellent design and that the quality of workmanship be always as good as those who are doing it are able to make it.” 10
In 1928 and 1929, Allen Eaton was one of a handful of people who attended the organizational meetings of the Southern Mountain Handicraft Guild. Along with a core group of craft leaders, Eaton helped articulate the need for cooperative marketing among dozens of schools and centers that produced handcrafted objects for sale. Eaton influenced the direction of the nascent guild. In 1931 when “the question of making smaller and less expensive articles” was raised, Eaton responded that making “cheap articles would ruin the Guild.” He conducted an extensive survey of the region’s crafts and published his study in 1937. In his seminal text, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, Eaton defined the parameters of the Craft Revival and marked its beginnings. “By 1890,” he wrote, “much of the old work was rapidly disappearing, particularly weaving, which had always marked the home life.” The revival was not “a sudden turning of large numbers of workers to handwork,” he explained, but rather “a gradual renewing of interest and activity in the old-time arts.” 11
Eaton believed in a “distinct mountain culture...[that was] a part of the rural heritage of America.” The 20th century began with an exodus of rural families leaving the countryside to take up residence in America’s growing cities. Not wanting to change the dominant American character, Craft Revival leaders promoted handcraft as a stabilizing influence, a means of preserving lifestyle as well as skill. Eaton credited the start of the Craft Revival to activities in Berea, Kentucky and Asheville, North Carolina. In fact, western North Carolina became Eaton’s home-away-from-home; throughout his life, he returned frequently. Attending the second National Conference on Handicrafts in 1940, he said, “I believe there is no state in the country that is more sympathetic with the handicraft program than North Carolina.” 12
Like William Morris before him, Allen Eaton’s interest in the arts was simultaneously theoretical and practical. In Eaton’s quest for the “arts of everyday life,” he and his wife, Martha put their hands to the task. “The loom became an important part of their life. They carded, dyed, and wove....They made furniture and toys.” 13 Extending his personal—almost intimate—relationship with handcraft into the public sphere, Eaton center-weighted the object within society. He used object-making as a means to economically uplift the rural poor. He used objects as material evidence to demonstrate the value of diversity, in exhibitions of work by immigrants and by Japanese-Americans confined to interment camps.
Too, Eaton subscribed to an intangible benefit of craftwork, “the effect of the work on the producer,” as he put it. This idea was shared with the earliest of southern highland craft leaders, among them Berea College President William Frost and Asheville, North Carolina’s Frances Goodrich. The meditative quality of craft process and the personal perseverance it takes to pursue a daily practice of making, was thought to be good for one’s character. Harking back to Ruskin, creating honest work created an honest worker. But these ideals were not imposed upon craftsmen from without; indeed, both Ruskin and Eaton believed that bringing pleasure back to work would inspire the worker to become self-directed, self-disciplined, and free to pursue a path to self-discovery. Granted, this is an idealistic point of view, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these were points of discussion and were put into practice by a variety of American utopian communities besides the southern Craft Revival.
Eaton proposed and lived a lifestyle that was focused on understanding the multi-dimensional nature of handcraft. He explored all aspects: technical, tactile, visual, economic, social, spiritual, and therapeutic. Inadvertently, part of Eaton’s expressed philosophy had a damaging effect on craft in the 20th century. This was the concept of the “healing or therapeutic power of art.” Throughout his writing, Eaton included the therapeutic value of art and art making, a contribution that was positive to the development of occupational therapy, but detrimental to the development of American studio craft. His discussion on art produced at “a well known Hospital for the Insane” 14 played well at conferences but, in the long run, the repercussions of this approach were devastating for professional craftsmen. The typical “arts and crafts” object came to be associated with amateurism and institutionalized teaching.
Influenced by English critics Ruskin and Morris, Eaton’s interest in art and making was decidedly democratic. He did not hold to a hierarchy of forms within visual culture, but instead placed art and craft on a level field. All three theorists sought a people’s art, a more widespread and diffused sense of creative expression, achieved without sacrificing quality. Ruskin and Morris endorsed education programs to reach large numbers of people: design education for workers in industry, manual education for school children, and technical education for craft professionals. Within the southern highlands, Eaton encouraged the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild and its craft production membership to share knowledge, and maintain craftsmanship throughout all of their programs and activities.
Perhaps more than any one else, Allen Eaton took responsibility for spreading the word about the Craft Revival. In 1933 he organized the nationally touring exhibition, Mountain Handicrafts, which opened in Blacksburg, Virginia before moving onto the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. His curatorial work was second-to-none. In 1952 he tapped former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to write the introduction to his controversial exhibition catalog, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in our War Relocation Camps. In 1959 he followed with an equally challenging exhibition, Beauty for the Sighted and Blind; this time Helen Keller worked with him on the book’s forward. Eaton’s work with craft continued after his retirement from the Russell Sage Foundation in 1946. In 1959, while in his eighties, he organized an exhibit of American craft at the World Agricultural Fair in India. When he died in 1962, Aileen Osborn Webb, founder of the American Craft Council, dubbed him the “Dean of American Crafts.” 15
In her biography of Allen Eaton, scholar Sharon Smith describes Eaton’s work as “the path not taken.” 16 Certainly, the bulk of Eaton’s aesthetic philosophy flies in the face of 20th century aesthetic thought. Perhaps, the 21st century may prove to provide more fertile ground for Eaton’s seminal ideas. In his erasure of boundaries between art and craft, Eaton sought to flatten the aesthetic field. “The painter is [but] one of the large group of artists who have recorded their reactions to our...environment...[in] the happy company of spinners, weavers, potters, joiners, whittlers, workers in wood, leather, metal, stone, and others,” 17 he wrote. In the contemporary “brief history of the 21st century” The World is Flat, author Thomas Friedman argues that globalization in the 21st century has re-ordered established hierarchies of the 20th, resulting in a more level economic and technical playing field. Likewise, for Eaton, the world of material culture was flat. Eaton did not distinguish between art and craft, nor between the intellectual and the tactile; each had a rightful place in the production of expressive work. Still, he was a lone voice arguing against the prevailing Cartesian dualism that is the foundation of much art theory. Moreover, Eaton promoted a broadly popular aesthetic experience that parallels today’s explosive global online expression. Eaton’s ideas added up to the promotion of a widely practiced creative life in which the expressive object took center stage.
Eaton’s ideals can be summed up by his own words:
The time will come when every kind of work will be judged by two measurements: one by the product itself...the other by the effect of the work on the producer. 18
- M. Anna Fariello, 2007
See More: Writings by Allen Eaton
1. Lucy Morgan and Allen Eaton quotes from David B. Van Dommelen, Allen H. Eaton: Dean of American Crafts (Pittsburgh: Local History Company, 2004) 70, 63.
2. Allen H. Eaton. Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937) 21.
3. Lucy Morgan speaking in 1954, quoted in Van Dommelen, 70.
4. Sharon Lee Smith. Allen Hendershott Eaton, the Early Years: Winning Back the Pleasure of Life. (Masters Thesis, University of Oregon, 1997; reprint, Ann Arbor: UMI, 1998), 55.
5. Oswald Garrison Villard. “The Allen Eaton Case.” The Nation (15 November 1917). For a chronology of Eaton’s early life, see Smith and Van Dommelen.
6. Smith, 113.
7. The Russell Sage Foundation was established in 1906 by Olivia Sage, after the death of her industrialist husband who had substantial financial interests in railroads and Manhattan real estate. The foundation supported many social service causes. In the southern highlands, the Russell Sage Foundation supported the work of John C. Campbell from 1908 until his death in 1919.
8. Allen Eaton. “Mountain Handicrafts: What They Mean To Our Home Life And To The Life Of Our Country,” Mountain Life and Work (July 1926): 17.
9. Eaton “Mountain Handicrafts: What They Mean,” 18-19.
10. Eaton “Mountain Handicrafts: What They Mean,” 21-22.
11. Allen Eaton quoted in the Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Southern Mountain Handicraft Guild (March 27, 1931) 4; Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, 59.
12. Allen Eaton, “The Mountain Handicrafts: Their Importance to the Country and to the People in the Mountain Homes,” Mountain Life and Work (July 1930) 25; Eaton quoted in “Notes on the Second National Conference on Handicrafts” (1940) 2.
13. Ellis Lawrence, Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Oregon and a life-long friend and colleague of Eaton’s, quoted is Smith, 29.
14. Eaton “Mountain Handicrafts: What They Mean,” 20.
15. Aileen Osborn Webb. “Allen H. Eaton,” Craft Horizons (January/February 1963).
16. Smith, 2. See also Eugene W. Metcalf, “The Politics of the Past in American Folk Art History,” in John Michael Vlach and Simon J. Bronner (eds.), Folk Art and Art Worlds (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983).
17. Allen Eaton. Immigrant Gifts to American Life: Some Experiments in Appreciation of the Contributions of Our Foreign Born Citizens to American Culture (New York: Russell Sage, 1932) 156.
18. Allen H. Eaton. Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937) 21.