Skin Deep Beauty?

Once upon a time in North Carolina, a time before the civil war, there lived a very successful American furniture designer and cabinet maker. His name was Thomas Day. He built his business to one of the largest of it’s kind in North Carolina. You may be surprised to discover, due to historical revisionism, that young Tom was a free black American. By 1830 he was successful enough to be the proud owner of fourteen slaves. He employed many of his slaves in the furniture making business where he worked side by side with his white apprentices.

If you haven’t used the link, I urge you to do so. The truth is out there, but it’s not going to come looking for you. It’s a wonderful example of an American success story. Sadly, we don’t hear much about this great man because his life doesn’t fit the modern, popular political narrative. Remember that the contributors to Wikipedia are modern writers who generally fail to interpret facts in the context of the time in history when they occurred. Apart from that it is a short, enlightening and inspiring read.

Beginning in 1840 Day used steam power to drive many of his machines. The increased production and efficiency made his business lucrative. The Luddites would have been upset since it gave him the ability to lay off some of his workers. Probably the ones he didn’t own. The majority of his customers were his neighbors, who were wealthy white plantation owners, as well as prominent political leaders, the state government, and the University of North Carolina.

Many people are fine craftsmen. Day was more than a fine craftsman and an astute businessman. He was an artist in his own right. His designs followed the popular American Empire Style, which made them desirable, but he also included in that style many of his own unique designs showing his passion for creativity. They included well-proportioned curves and a masterful use of negative spaces. His pieces are often expertly veneered with walnut and mahogany. Veneering is a skill in the field of woodworking that is remarkable in itself. Interestingly, veneer is a thin decorative covering of fine wood applied to a coarser wood, like skin.

Examining Day’s furniture for tool marks has shown what kinds of machines he employed and about when he started to use them. It’s interesting to note that much of the quality of craftsmanship was sacrificed for the speed of production. It didn’t affect only the furniture, but the people who used the machines. Prior to steam power few sloppy joints, if any, could be found. After the implementation of steam power and the acquisition of machines the quality of work began to be decrease. It appears the machine operators were in a hurry. Rather than fix mistakes they began to hide them in places they thought no one would see them. Furniture archeologists found them.

We may think machines are only as good as the people who use them, or we may not. What does seem apparent is that using machines affects people in ways that are not alway positive, but sometimes negative.


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