I grew up in a time and place where people made and maintained a large amount of their stuff. It was in the 1930’s, the depression was on, and I lived on a small orange orchard in southern California. In those days it was possible for a family to live off of the income from 10 or 20 acres of oranges, but there wasn’t much cash around. But all people needed was enough cash to buy necessities they couldn’t grow, and there was no incentive to buy luxury cars, live in huge houses, or wear expensive clothes. In fact, such things were considered in very poor taste. And people were proud of their ability to make what they needed and fix it if it broke.
I was born in my grandparent’s house, which my grandfather had built, and my grandmother decorated and maintained, in addition to cooking, making clothes, taking care of kids and other "traditional woman’s work". This was before the massive shift in occupational expectations among women, and what she did was essential for the family, so although an extremely bright and strong woman, she seemed more than satisfied with her role. In addition to building the house, My grandfather also built a large garage/shop, a barn, and an auxiliary building for their occasionally exploding gas generator, and was also the area blacksmith. And he planted ten acres of orange trees and installed the irrigation system. When they were first married my parents also lived in the house.
But after I became mobile as a small child, they clearly needed a house, so they signed up my grandfather and built one. I was allowed to think I was helping. The photograph shows me doing so. Note hammer, also note I am not actually working on the house structure. It was a separate structure designed to keep me amused and out of the way.
I recently was visiting this house, since my brother now lives in it, and was reminded of how much building and making stuff had occurred in that spot. When I was six, it was decided that I needed my own room, The photo below shows it newly constructed, (again by the family), lived in by me, and outfitted by furniture (the desk,bed, shelves, drawer chest, and even the boat model) built by my mother. She had become the family furniture maker.
Toys were home built. The next photo shows my brother as a kid and a horse he built (with a little help from mom). And then she really took off as a maker and fixer. Mom had always made her own clothes, and now branched out into clothes for all of us. My father liked to fish, and I remember her making him a pair of waterproof hip boots from old tire inner tubes. I became tall early, and could not keep my shirt tucked in. She designed a shirt for me that did not need tucked in and made them for me until I was well into my forties, by which time I was adequately equipped. They don’t wear out, and I still wear them. The photo below is a back view of one she made me from the sacks of the pulverized sulfur that was then used as a pesticide. Her shirts were not always flamboyant, but mostly were, and they were partly responsible for forming my persona in high school—I needed a little more extroversion.
And on it goes. When I was in high school I built myself a swell bedroom/bathroom addition to our
house with my grandfather’s supervision, as well as helping him build other additions and upgrades, When my grandfather died, I became family carpenter and maintenance person, and happily retained those positions when I married and became the owner of my own house, which I could radically improve. Also I went to college and studied engineering and spent enough time in industry and in my shop that I could build and maintain more sophisticated things.
When my brother and I went off to college (a first in the family) Mom became a water colorist. She took a few classes from an excellent water colorist (Robert Wood), loved them, and away she went. The photo below is an example. She became very good, and broke the family tradition by selling her work. She won a number of awards (one from the California Historical Society for a series she did on old houses, several in art shows), all the while trying to hide from notoriety.
My grandfather was a metal worker, carpenter, plasterer, concrete guy – the whole works. My father less so, and was more interested in farming and the orange business. My grandmother was more into “traditional” tasks. But on recently visiting the family house, I was again amazed by my mother's work. She died only a few years ago, in the house at the age of 97, from falling down while carrying a stack of her paintings down a stairs and breaking her neck – a fitting ending for her—quick, at home, and with her work. She was a quiet and humble lady, but the breadth of her interests and abilities would be astounding these days. And whether it was cooking, sewing, painting, making furniture, mending, working with concrete, fixing the sink,or teaching me to make model airplanes (from scratch), play the piano, or type, she was always trying to improve her work (and me). She was after quality. I think I was encouraged by my mother and her father to do the same. But did I inherit something? Was it nature or nurture? Probably both.
Whatever happened, as you know I am a believer in the importance of working with the hands. I do it not to make money, but rather for pride and sense of accomplishment- and once in a while to keep from going nuts. Except for Mom going commercial with her paintings, the rest of my family, and most of the people I knew who were drawn to growing oranges in my home town were the same. I miss that aspect in the area in which I live, where most (but not all) of my friends seem to tend toward buying things rather than making them, and hiring other people to maintain them and do their manual work. They seem to think that their time is too valuable to do such things. Perhaps this explains why even though I don’t want to grow crops, I am drawn to rural areas, where it is more common to see welding equipment in people’s garages. They remind me of my early days when most people were makers, not because being a maker was cool, but rather because people could not afford to continually buy new stuff and making and fixing things and tinkering with them was satisfying. In my opinion it still is.
Incidentally, I have given many talks, courses, etc. using the title “Making, Fixing, and Tinkering”, and am well into a book on the topic, so you will occasionally hear more about it in this blog. I am writing the book not only because I am a believer, but need something to defend myself against attacks from my friends who fervently believe I am wasting my time when I could be thinking or touring the world instead of tinkering. Been there, and you have to think to write a book.