A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Educational Value of Applied Arts." by Miss Elizabeth B. Sheldon.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 790-792.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 790] 



The value of any education is two-fold; first, to make life more valuable to the individual, and, second, to make the individual more valuable to society. An untrained person is not merely passively useless. He is actively dangerous–to himself and to the community.

The world has begun to realize the dangers of ignorance, hence we have free public schools. The world is beginning to realize the dangers of idleness; of mere head-cramming without hand training; and is establishing free manual training schools as a corrective.

Now that it has been discovered that man has a body as well as a brain, moral and educational reformers claim that the salvation of the masses lies in universal manual training.

I would take one step further. I would teach them not only to do something, and to do it well, but to make it beautiful.

I would do this as a matter of public improvement and public economy, as well as a matter of individual benefit. I would carry into the manual training schools the kindergarten idea of making work attractive by adding the element of beauty, by giving play to the imagination, and by developing still further the universal creative instinct. We have happily evolved from the idea that work is a curse and beauty an invention of the devil. We now see in the former a glorious opportunity for culture and service–the two things that make life worth living–and in the love of beauty inherent in every child of God we recognize a link connecting us with "that power not ourselves that makes for righteousness."

Our desires for usefulness and for beauty are legitimate, natural, vital, and should be developed equally. Through the lingering effects of our stern Puritan training our tendencies are overwhelmingly utilitarian. Only that side of our natures has been cultivated. Imagination still lies dormant, overshadowed by the unparalleled growth of our practicality. It is, however, criminal wastefulness, from an economic standpoint, to ignore the possibilities of wealth and culture in a general thorough understanding of the principles of applied art.

A nation is rich in proportion as its inhabitants have the ability to turn ideas, taste and manual dexterity into things desirable.

The inimitable French touch, like a fairy's wand, transforms four or five dollars' worth of ribbon, flowers and lace into a bonnet for which women willingly pay twenty dollars–five dollars for the material and fifteen dollars for their skillful arrangement– and the important part of it is that the Frenchman still has the same skill to put into another bonnet the next day, for which he may receive another fifteen dollars, and so on [Page 791]  indefinitely. It is a sort of cake that you can eat and have, too. Had he put equal skill into raising grain or potatoes he could have had but one crop to sell in a year, and that one would have been subject to the accidents and freaks of nature during the long period of its growth. This is the secret of the universal inferiority of agricultural nations as compared with manufacturing ones.

It was just this faculty and manufacturing skill in the French people–developed in every direction–that enabled them to pay, in three years, that enormous indemnity demanded of them by Germany in 1871. It was the direct result of the general applied art training of the masses–the philosopher's stone creating gold out of simple raw materials, mixed with brains, taste and dexterity.

The French government maintains the most elaborate and efficient system of free art schools and schools of design that the world knows. As a result her decorative manufactures are unrivaled, and are her greatest source of wealth.

The Columbian Fair has been an object lesson of our position in applied art and its kindred professions. Its architecture is surpassingly beautiful. Our architects, however, after securing more or less knowledge of their subject in one of our four or five good schools, have been abroad to reap the advantages offered by more liberal and far-sighted governments than ours, as well as to study from original masterpieces of the world's architecture.

This is true also of our artists. In both of these departments our standing is creditable, for in these the necessity of rigorous training has been recognized and accepted. Not so, however, with our designers. The great majority of them are practically amateurs. They have never even imagined that there are comprehensive principles underlying design. Their aim is to evolve some fantastic idea that will attract attention by its novelty, irrespective of merit. The community receives a succession of shocks, and mistakes its curiosity for admiration. Of course there are glorious exceptions among our designers, and more every year. But back of their work you will find patient, intelligent study and hard training possibly, a rare case of what–from their demoralizing influence upon designers–I hesitate to call "happy accidents." They lure us into relying upon luck rather than upon a comprehensive understanding of cause and effect and conscientious painstaking.

In the main our decorative art is hopeful in its vitality–it is pitiful in its crudeness. It is struggling for existence like a mob, with vigor, but without method or concerted action. Our failures in design are the legitimate result of ignoring theory and trying to stand on the single slender leg of one person's experiments–discarding the accumulated wisdom and experience of other times and nations.

We have in this country possibly ten fairly good schools of design–all private enterprises–one school to seven million people. Is it any wonder that ugliness is rampant in the land? That we find homely domestic tools, insulted by paint, gilding and a ribbon bow, masquerading apologetically as decorations in our parlors? That parasitical ribbon bows flaunt themselves from every possible coigne of vantage, reducing all things to the level of millinery? It would be ludicrous if it were not so sad.

It is a pitiful expression of the hunger of our people for decorative effects and their blind grouping after the good they scent afar off. They are eager to learn. They only need to be convinced of the necessity and money value of such education. If we could but engraft upon their quick wit and inventiveness the refinement and unseduced patience of the Japanese, our manufacturers would stand pre-eminent.

The Japanese and the French realize that the best results are obtained when the designer is also the workman, and, above all, an artist.

In this country, however, designing is usually spoken of lightly–as a limited business, requiring only originality, and of very little consequence anyway.

In fact, however, the study of design is of particularly far-reaching importance. The material for this study is the visible universe. Everything may give a suggestion of form or color. The range of its application is whatever may be fashioned by man. The field is sufficiently broad–the opportunities are infinite. [Page 792] 

If the training I plead for were general, the advantages accruing to society would be–an improved public taste, demanding better goods, a constant rise in the standard and value of our decorative manufactures, until salesmen should tempt us by saying that their wares were of domestic make, instead of relying upon the magic word "imported" to make a sale, and upon the popular belief in the efficacy of a sea voyage to render and goods desirable.

It would mean beauty in the place of ugliness; a large crop of ideas–the most profitable crop that can be raised–and an army of artist artisans in the place of bungling amateurs. Probably the most important advantage to the individual in this study is in learning to see and discriminate. We are all more or less blind–principally more.

I know a bright college girl who was taken through a garden last summer, The owner pointed out his fine strawberries, peas, lettuce, etc., all of which were duly admired. At length they came to a long row of bean vines trained to grow in decorous stripes on the garden fence. "Oh," said this educated young person, "what a great quantity of morning glories you are raising this year!

She literally did not know beans. The next day, however, when she saw the gardener transplanting some tobacco plants, she capped the climax by saying, "Well, I do know cabbages if I don't know beans!" Truly we have eyes, but we see not.

We learn to see things by modeling and drawing them–especially with the idea of using them in design. We learn to discriminate between the fundamental characteristics and the details–the important and the unimportant–a most valuable accomplishment in every department of life. The imagination is quickened and the inventive genius developed by the possibilities of design everywhere suggested if we have but learned to look for them. We learn the adaptation of means to ends, and gain a new perception of beauty in common things.

The best way to attain general culture is to study a specialty–making it a baseline from which to branch out to take measurements and compute values.

No study could be better for this purpose than applied art. It is educating and refining–it is also the means of earning a living. It is thoroughly practical and equally ideal. Beauty and utility meet there on common ground. It broadens our outlook in every direction. It touches our life in the most constant and intimate way.

It makes life and the individual more interesting, for a person is interesting in proportion as he is interested in living, in learning, in doing; in proportion as he irradiates facts, ideas and enthusiasm.

In our day and generation subtraction and division are lost arts. We only remember how to add and multiply our needs, our luxuries, our duties. I would add, therefore, to our manifold requirements a general comprehension, at least, of the principles of applied art, believing that it would be of infinite advantage to every one of us and a source of unmeasured wealth to the nation.

Metaphysicians assure us that every deed, yes, every thought, is eternal and ineffaceable. Then let the product of our hands and the thoughts of our hearts make for beauty and for harmony evermore.

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Miss Elizabeth B. Sheldon is the daughter of Joseph Sheldon and Abby B. Barker Sheldon. She was educated in the public school of New Haven, Conn. and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She has traveled in Europe since maturity and spent part of her childhood abroad with her parents. Miss Sheldon has delivered speeches in many Eastern cities. She is a member of Sorosis, New York City. She is a decorator by profession. In religious faith a Unitarian. Her postoffice address is No. 364 Mansfield Street, New Haven, Conn.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom