For more articles about the history of the crafts industry, visit the CRAFTS INDUSTRY department.

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by Barbara Brabec
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A Brief History of
the Crafts Industry  

Adapted from Creative Cash, by Barbara Brabec

 

THINKING ABOUT STARTING a crafts business at home?

Before you begin to make a plan for the crafts business you'd like to start, you will benefit from some perspective on the crafts industry. Statistics on the number of crafters in business are hard to come by, but some of the best information has come from the Hobby Industry Association's (HIA) annual surveys.

The HIA is concerned solely with the trade hobby, craft, and needlework markets and, according to Susan Brandt, assistant executive director of HIA, there is at least one crafter in four out of five U.S. households, or about 70 million crafters total.

"Our research shows that about 14 percent of these crafters are selling what they make," says Susan, "which translates to around 12 million people." With few exceptions, most people who now sell handmade products began as hobbyists; thus the larger the hobbycraft industry becomes, the more professional crafters it is likely to spawn.

It All Started in the 1940s

People have been making and selling handmade goods since the early days of America, but the burgeoning handcrafts industry that we know today would not exist at all if someone hadn't started the craft supply industry back in the 1940s. Until I began the sixth edition of Creative Cash, I never noticed before how closely connected these two industries really are, and how one industry's growth automatically fuels the other.

The craft supply industry that began in the forties on the West Coast gradually spread across the country in the next ten years as how-to instruction books prompted the sale of supplies nationwide. In the 1960s the first magazine for hobbyists and craftspeople was introduced, along with all kinds of new art and craft techniques, pattern books, and supplies. At the same time, hobby and craft manufacturers and publishers began to show their wares at trade shows and the industry began to receive media attention. How-to craft projects began to appear on television shows, and national attention was drawn to craft fairs and the thousands of individuals who were selling at them. To assist such people in their businesses, new art and craft guilds and organizations began to form.

It was good news for the craft supply industry when a Lou Harris poll in the mid-1970s revealed that two out of three Americans then participated in the arts and crafts, and many more wanted to get involved. New craft supply shops continued to be opened, book publishers were releasing new titles by the hundreds, and new magazines aimed at craft consumers were thriving. In 1971, my husband, Harry, and I noticed the growing number of people who were trying to sell their arts and crafts and decided what the world needed now was a marketing-oriented publication for crafts professionals. Although neither of us knew anything about writing or publishing, we successfully launched a quarterly magazine called Artisan Crafts that served an appreciative audience for five years before it led both of us in more interesting and profitable directions.

Then Things Just Exploded

During the 1980s an explosion of television how-to shows and the phenomenal craze for Cabbage Patch® dolls drew added attention to both sides of the crafts industry. Like mushrooms in a forest, new art and craft fairs and consignment shops were popping up everywhere, with some of the latter going out of business almost as quickly as they opened. Clearly, both sellers and shop owners needed help in learning how to successfully run their businesses, so when a publisher asked me to write a crafts business book, I jumped at the chance.

When Creative Cash was first published in 1979, it was only one of a dozen books on the topic of how to sell arts and crafts. None of these early books are still in print today, but many other crafts marketing and small business books have since been published for individuals who want to succeed as artists, designers, or "craft entrepreneurs." They populate the Web today, along with a wealth of free information and advice on how to make money in this industry.

The growth of both the craft supply and handcraft industries in the 1980s was amazing, but something much bigger was happening then. This was the decade in which thousands of individuals bought home computers not just to play with, but to run businesses from home. As millions of people joined the new home business industry on the Web, many did not realize they were merely joining all the artists, crafters, mail order dealers and independent publishers who had been working at home for two decades or more, but just hadn't been noticed yet.

In 1981 the U.S. Labor Department predicted that within the next 10 to 15 years, between 40 to 50 percent of the American workforce would be working at home. A year later, the IRS reported that ten million taxpayers had listed home addresses for their businesses, stating that many of these businesses were being operated by women. (Interestingly, women also started the craft supply industry in the forties and more women than men have launched homebased craft businesses as well.)

In 1986 the White House Conference on Small Business placed the concerns of homebased businesses high on its list of issues and the U.S. Small Business Administration predicted that, by 2000, small firms would be producing a major share of the nation's goods and services. By the late 1990s, we were seeing these predictions come true as market research firms confirmed that more than 50 million people were working at home, and more than half this number were believed to be self-employed individuals (the rest being telecommuters and other homeworkers). Industry watchers at that time predicted that the home-business/home-office industry would continue to grow well into the 21st Century, and it did.

Without question, computer technology sparked the phenomenal work-at-home revolution of the nineties, but I've long maintained that art and craft businesses provided the cornerstone of this industry. America had a large and well-established arts and crafts community long before it had home computers and the "home office revolution," and I am happy to have been part of its history.

The Industry's Future

Between 2000 and 2008, the crafts industry continued to thrive. The Internet was making it easy for individual sellers to find new buyers on the Web who wanted their art, handcrafts, and related products and services. Those in the retail crafts supply industry also found plenty of hobby consumers to buy their various supplies and materials.

But both parts of the industry took a hit in early 2009 when the Consumer Product Safety Commission introduced a new law requiring that all toys, dolls, garments, and other children's items (even self-published books) be tested for lead. When that law took effect, countless thousands of individual sellers of such products probably just gave up and closed their home-business doors because they couldn't afford the expensive lead-testing procedures now required in order to sell. Because of this law, which also affected retailers the world over, Amazon automatically banned the sale of 2500 items on its site. Etsy sellers had quite a discussion on this topic, and those comments still remain in the site's forum archives.

Of course, toys and dolls are just one segment of the huge arts and crafts industry. Millions of sellers are still out there offering their wares while trying to effectively deal with the economic effects of one of the worst recessions in America's history. Although the crafts industry has been hard hit by the current economy, I believe it will bounce back in time, just as it has done after various other recessions in the past.

Related Articles:

The Crafts Industry and Its Importance to the Economy

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