More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Builders' Voice: Reflections on the Fruits of Labor

By C. Ray Brassieur, Ph.D

During the summer of 1999, builder Tom Hewitt told us, "for a working man, the fruits of your labor is worth more than your pay." Hewitt's turn of phrase makes clear that: 1) workers have their own views concerning the value of their work, and 2) work can not be measured fully in material terms. How, then, can we fully appreciate the contributions of artisans in our society? One option is to listen to their stories. The artisans we surveyed shared stories filled with personal hopes, inspirations, values, technical knowledge, traditional wisdom, and insight into the historical and social realities of their world. The New Orleans Building Arts Project offered workers the opportunity to evaluate their own work, place it within contexts meaningful to them, and voice commentary in their own terms.

This project sought to rectify the scarcity of documentation from artisans' perspectives by conducting field recordings, which began in earnest during the summer of 1999 and continued though the summer of 2001; hopefully more will be added to this collection. To date, 55 interviews have been recorded with master artisans of the building trades. The transcribed and indexed collection is available to researchers at The Special Collections, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans.

For this project, we interviewed veteran master craftsmen, well-respected within their occupational communities, who assisted us by providing the names of the most skilled and valued craftsmen in their trade. These referrals swelled the list of potential interviewees beyond project capacity; time constraints, availability, and other factors set project perimeters. Interviewees for this project represent a wide range of building trades, diverse social and cultural backgrounds, multiple generations, and great vistas of individual experience.

We utilized a "modified" life history approach, with the understanding that our interviews were much too short to be considered "full" life histories. Nevertheless, significant attention was placed on the social/cultural background of each narrator, and on the historical flow of each tradesman's life. Questions concerning heritage, national origins, ethnic affiliations, marriage and family, use of non-English languages, occupations of parents and kin, and neighborhood/community links were explored. Regarding the personal histories of interviewees, particular attention was given to the acquisition and development of trade skills and occupational status. Transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next was a consistent theme. Questions like, "How do you define 'good work' in your trade?" elicited explanations of the values associated with their crafts. In addition, artisans commented on major historical changes within their work experiences, the current state of their trade, and what might be needed to ensure the continuity of quality craftsmanship into the future.

These narratives reveal an amazing depth and scope. Many interviews, for example, are packed with technical information relating to the crafts: materials and tools, specific techniques, building processes, and the impact of technological changes on the trades. This collection yields a treasure of technical terminology and occupational jargon, rarely shared with outsiders to the trades. Plasterers describe applications of "brown coats," "screeds," and "cornice horsing." Lathers talk of "spring lines," "z-bars," and "kickers." Carpenters tell how to "cope molding," employ "preachers" to align exterior siding, and "deadmen" to hang ceiling panels. As technology changes, terms and processes associated with them tend to fall out of use and disappear, often leaving future historians and preservationists with unanswerable questions.

This collection also stores a wealth of knowledge concerning the social and cultural contexts within which artisans and trades flourish. Interviewees testify, for example, to the importance of ethnicity as a factor in the organization of craft communities: Creoles of Color dominated the plaster trade, Italians influenced the tile and marble trades, African Americans became expert concrete finishers, Germans excelled in the millwright and cabinet making trades. Some trades, like masonry and carpentry, were mastered by artisans of various ethnicities and colors. In many cases, workers of mixed and various cultures worked side by side in harmony, though racially-segregated unions were common during the 20th century. At various times, race was used as grounds for exclusion from certain trades: dark-skinned blacks did not enter the plaster trade before the 1950s, nor were they welcomed into the electrician trade. Especially in New Orleans, where racial and ethnic realities are so complex, generalizations are often unwise and unwarranted. Nevertheless, race and ethnicity certainly affect the world of working people, and artisans frequently address these issues in their oral narratives.

Not all trade skills were learned in the family. We collected glowing praises of the training received in trade schools like Booker T. Washington Senior High School. High school vocational training once prepared young carpenters and masons for entry into trade unions where training continued on a systematic basis. Today, high school vocational training is either under-supported or unavailable, and trade union instruction has faltered along with the general decline of organized labor in New Orleans. Many elder artisans bemoan the lack of training programs for young workers, linking the current situation with a progressive loss of local skills in the building arts today.

Clearly, the voices of New Orleans artisans should be heard. These voices are filled with historical, social, and cultural significance. They provide a source for technical knowledge, some of which is unobtainable elsewhere. They give insight into the most critical processes of learning and passing on the superior values and skills of artisans. These interviews also prove these artisans to be multi-dimensional-they are musicians, poets, verbal artists, local historians, storytellers, social commentators, and community leaders. Their impact goes far beyond their workplace, and the fruits of their labor is worth much more than their pay.

Ray Brassieur is an anthropologist at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette and served as the Regional Folklorist at the University of New Orleans. This essay is adapted from the essay of the same name published in Raised to the Trade: Creole Building Arts in New Orleans, New Orleans Museum of Art, 2002. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.