The Handcrafted Utopia: Arts and Crafts Communities in America's Progressive Era

Date of Award

May 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn


Arts and Crafts Movement, Business, Decorative Art, Intentional Communities, Progressivism

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


In response to the trauma of industrialization and urbanization in the late-nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts Movement took America by storm. Art exhibits, factories, workshops, and societies dedicated to handicraft, worker dignity, and the promulgation of beautiful art to the masses sprouted from California to Boston. Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, Elbert Hubbard, and William Lightfoot Price were so enamored with the movement that they decided to build entirely new worlds—intentional communities—dedicated to pursuing those ideals. A student of John Ruskin, Whitehead founded an art colony called Byrdcliffe in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Hubbard, a former soap salesman, founded an Arts and Crafts community business, Roycroft, outside Buffalo, New York. Price, an architect, purchased land near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in order to found the Rose Valley Association as a haven for craftwork. They dreamt and enacted a way to reform the economic and social inequalities of industrial capitalism through communal living, artistic development, handcraftsmanship, and the sale of finely crafted furniture, architecture, pottery, and metalwork. In essence, this was what they believed was living “the art that is life.” For Price, Hubbard, Whitehead, and those who followed them, this meant producing and selling art with a social message as well as living everyday life with a sense of artistry—even the most common tasks treated as if they could be a work of art. I argue that capitalists, artisans, and leaders of communal groups creatively imagined a compromise between machine dominated industry and handicraft in late nineteenth century America. In doing so, they sought to critique industrial capitalism and carve out a space within the turmoil where craftspeople could once again flourish in community. However, Rose Valley, Byrdcliffe, and Roycroft were not just havens for craftsmanship, but were works of art in themselves—total sensory installations of the Arts and Crafts Movement—that could stand as model community-workshops suggesting that there could be an alternative to brutal industrialization.


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