Henry Ford was the poster child of the Industrial Revolution. Before Ford, laborers built automobiles one-at-a-time. But Ford changed all that. He built the industry’s first moving assembly line, enabling “workers to stay in one place and perform the same task repeatedly on multiple vehicles that passed by them.”
Ford made cars faster than anyone before him. This allowed him to pay his workers better than his competitors, while also dramatically elevating the vehicle quality. He introduced standards and consistency never before seen in his industry. Parallel innovators to Ford emerged in other industries. Isaac Singer invented the sewing machine. Charles Goodyear created a method to harden rubber. Alexander Graham Bell made it possible for people to talk to each other over wires.
These titans of American industry electrified the world, accelerated transportation and created ways for stuff to be created faster, cheaper and standardized. Today, however, we celebrate innovators who do exactly the opposite. We’re in the midst of the Deindustrial Revolution.
If Detroit served as the epicenter for the Industrial Revolution, Denver might play that role in the Deindustrial Revolution. In Denver–and even moreso in Boulder, our hippy neighbor to the north–“manufactured” is a near profanity. We don’t brew coffee, Coloradans correct, we French press fair-trade, hormone-free, machineless coffee.
Henry Ford and his compatriots built things quicker and standardized, but today’s revolutionaries are compelled to build things slower and customized. If you don’t believe me, consider these examples:
- The hottest coffee products right now are those allowing everyday folk to brew coffee like it was meant to be brewed. “Manual coffee-making methods are becoming an increasingly popular option for home enthusiasts and coffee shop baristas alike…This new popularity has prompted the birth of several new methods and devices, as well as the resurrection of older methods.” Folgers is so 1995. Deindustrializers posit, “OK, but we want to know: How did people brew coffee in the Roman Empire?”
- The beer brewing scene is also exploding. Small “craft” breweries produce nearly twice the beer they did just six years ago. Four times more home brewing clubs exist than did just twenty years ago. Deindustrializers debate how big is too big. The “craft versus crafty” debate surges between brewers who are truly small and brewers are who faux small. The drama!
- A popular destination on Denver’s Broadway Avenue is Fancy Tiger. It’s a top-shelf craft store (and my first stop when Christmas shopping for my wife). Not only can you buy homemade goods and clothing, but you can also buy all the supplies and tools you need to stitch your own wardrobe, knit your Christmas gifts and outfit your free-range toddler. British retailer cites 500% year-over-year growth rates on its most-affordable sewing machines (quite a paradox, really, that sales of the cheapest sewing machines have grown fastest, but I digress).
- I recently read the label on the water bottle at a hotel where we stayed recently. I can’t remember the exact language, but it essentially said, “We’ve got a guy who climbs the Colorado mountains each morning, finds untouched rivers, and fills up hundreds of these bottles by hand. Also, we have another guy who rescues plastic bottles out of trash cans, scrubs them with organic cleaning products and repackages them for your use. Also: Local and organic.”
- In Colorado, it’s almost a mark-of-shame to buy mass-produced celery, wheat or chickens. We even owned shares in a community supported farm last summer. In a brilliant Portlandia skit, the lead actor presses a waitress to reveal the true identity behind the chicken sandwich. “Could you tell us a little bit more about the chicken? …Is it USDA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic? …and how big is the area that the chickens are able to roam free?”
There is so much to love about the Deindustrial Revolution. I love craftsmanship. My grandpa was a builder. And so was his grandpa. It’s in my blood. Just last fall, we built our first raised vegetable beds and will be planting our tomatoes any day (but my farmer “cred” pales compared to my San Diego farming friends!). I’m all for learning and replicating how people did stuff hundreds of years ago. But, we need assembly lines as much as we need handcrafted thingamajigs.
There are a few reasons cars aren’t built by two dudes in a repurposed brick warehouse. There are reasons we love mass-produce smartphones. Consistency and cost might not be the exclusive values Henry Ford thought they were. Customization and craftsmanship are important too. But, our world needs estate-grown hipsters and process-driven industrialists.
I’ve started writing more letters recently (not with the remarkable artistry of my friend, Jake Weidmann, however). It’s my favorite Deindustrialized flavor-of-the-month. What’s your favorite?