Because complex modern society is maintained only through specialization, most of us focus our career development in one narrow track. We develop skills in one area in order to get a job to make money to pay other specialists to make and repair our stuff. It is possible in the modern world to become a renowned expert in a particular discipline but be helpless in every other area of life.
But it was not always this way. Before Americans turned to factory work in the 19th century, skilled tradesmen worked for the most part on their own or in small shops that offered diverse goods and services. Especially in rural settings, defining one’s occupation was tricky. Was humble Jack a farmer or cabinetmaker or carpenter? Well, yes. All these and more. In the 18th century and earlier, the generalist’s diversification of skill was not rooted in a quaint idealization, but in the necessities of rural life.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when searching through collections of American pre-industrial tools, many are found to be user-made. Though established English tool-making industries sold their products to the colonial artisans, it was also common practice for American woodworkers to purchase only the plane irons, chisels, and bits, then fabricate the wooden parts to their own liking. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was simply unremarkable to make your own tools. Everyone did.
–Joshua A. Klein, excerpt from “The Wooden Brace: Bitstock Technology for the 21st Century,” in Issue Six