15 December 2008

How long 'til Santa files for unemployment?

From: A Kidnapped Santa Claus
by L. Frank Baum

Santa Claus lives in the Laughing Valley, where stands the big, rambling castle in which his toys are manufactured. His workmen, selected from the ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, live with him, and every one is as busy as can be from one year's end to another.

It is called the Laughing Valley because everything there is happy and gay. The brook chuckles to itself as it leaps rollicking between its green banks; the wind whistles merrily in the trees; the sunbeams dance lightly over the soft grass, and the violets and wild flowers look smilingly up from their green nests. To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content. And throughout the Laughing Valley of Santa Claus contentment reigns supreme.

As children, so many of us are taught to believe in Santa Claus. It's a tradition that I'm wrestling with now in regards to how we will raise Sprout. The debate over what we should or shouldn't tell our children about Santa is not, however, the point of this blog entry. (I may write more on that later... There's a lot that I should write about but I'm trying to take this just a little bit at a time...) Back to the point... Through stories and songs, we learn that Santa works lovingly in his northern workshop making toys by hand with the help of elves or other magical creatures. This idea that the toys are made by hand is an important part of the Santaverse...

We live in an industrial world. Increasingly, the objects in our lives have very little contact with human hands before we remove them from their pristine (and excessive) packaging. I'm probably biased on this point, as a craftsperson and as a fan of the Arts and Crafts movement. I love objects that are handmade. I feel, when I hold them and turn them in my hands, a connection to the person whose labor and vision created them. A handmade object always feels warmer to me, as though some trace of the warmth lingers from the craftsman's touch. When I look into the eyes of a handmade doll or toy, there seems to be a spirit looking back at me and I find myself thinking that the sparkle I see there was ignited by the spirit of its maker.

I feel compelled to write about these things at the moment because the future of handmade toys in the US (and indeed any handmade object sold in this country for use by children) is questionable. You see, in response to repeated saftey recalls of toys and other items intended for use by children, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has created new guidelines which will go into effect in February of 2009. These guidelines require that any product marketed to children be subjected to exhaustive testing and stringent labeling. On the face of it, this sounds like a good idea. But lets take a closer look at the issue.

The testing required costs $4000 per toy. When this cost can be spread over tens of thousands, if not millions of identical toys, it doesn't seem like that much money. The expense is simply passed on to the buyer at a cost of mere pennies per toy. On the other hand, for a craftsperson (i.e. Santa) who labors in his workshop making one of a kind toys, $4000 per toy is not a cost that can be passed on to the consumer. Even if the artist is making several hundred nearly identical toys, the expense is still well above what the consumer will be willing to pay.

And, really, is this safety testing really necessary? The standards being set by the commision exceed those in any other country in the world, including Canada and the European Community where existing production standards prevent the types of problems that prompted these reforms. In fact, looking at the safety recalls that resulted in this new legislation, the vast majority (very nearly 100%) of the products were mass manufactured in China.

Over the last few years, I've been asked over and over why I don't make more puppets to sell. My answer has always been two-fold. First that the puppets are extremely labor intensive and that I'd rather teach others to make them so that they can give them to the people they love. Second that the legal requirements for toymakers are byzantine and that I feel ill-equipped to meet those standards. I admire those artisans out there who have dedicated themselves to continuing handcraft traditions and ensuring that another generation of children experience the joy of playing with toys that are lovingly handmade. I am greatly saddened that the new standards being proposed to protect children will allso serve to ensure that, unless their mother/father/grandparent/or other beloved adult is a skilled craftsperson for whom toymaking is an enjoyable hobby, future generations of children will not enjoy the opportunity to experience the pleasure of a well crafted toy.

For more information, please take some time to read some (or all) of the following links:

Eco Childs Play

Cool Mom Picks: Save Handmade

The Handmade Toy Alliance and their Proposed improvements to the CPSIA

I'm sure that you'll find a great many links from these pages to others with more information and more insight. In these difficult financial times, many people are turning to handcrafts to supliment thier incomes or to brighten their lives. There is a growing cottage industry of artisans producing small quantities of lovingly made work to humanize an increasingly impersonal world. It is difficult, at best, to run a small business and many of these artisans are struggling to by materials and cover their expenses. This legislation threatens to drive most (if not all) of them out of business. And to what end? To protect us from a threat that comes not from individual artisans making the best objects that they can with the best materials that they can afford but instead from huge conglomerations shipping millions of cheaply made mass-manufactured disposeable goods from half way around the world where the labor is cheep and the standards are non-existant.

TITLE: Santa Claus
CALL NUMBER: SSF - Holidays--Christmas [P&P]
LC-USZ62-113695 (b&w film copy neg.)
SUMMARY: Man portraying Santa Claus, half-length, facing front, in snowy scene.
MEDIUM: 1 photographic print.