Sandwich Home Industries is located at 32 Main St. in Sandwich (Adam Drapcho/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
SANDWICH — The early 20th century was a difficult time for small northern New England towns like Sandwich. Families that had farmed locally for generations headed west for better soils and fewer rocks, and the maturing Industrial Revolution made small-scale manufacturing no longer feasible, shuttering many small shops as large factories flourished in urban areas.
"There was an outflow," said Jule Deak, explaining the conditions that gave rise to Sandwich Home Industries. "People were leaving town and weren't coming back."
Though there was still value in the skills of the people who hadn't yet left the area, a fact recognized by Mary Coolidge, a summer resident of Sandwich. In 1926, she organized an exhibit of rugs, made by local crafters, and invited an expert to speak on making and marketing rugs. Later that summer, a cooperative shop was opened to sell crafts made by local residents. The shop exceeded $1,000 in sales in its first year, including proceeds from a tea room.
Coolidge's efforts soon dovetailed with a similar group in Wolfeboro, organized by A. Cooper Ballantine, and their cooperation resulted in the 1932 formation of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen.
This year, Sandwich Home Industries is marking its 90th anniversary, and today, June 30, will celebrate the occasion with cake, refreshments, historical literature and artifacts, and a demonstration of wax modeling for silver casting led by Jack Dokus of Franklin.
A decade shy of a century since Coolidge first formed Sandwich Home Industries, Deak said that the mission remains the same – to promote local production of crafts, provide a space to market them, and to provide education to introduce newcomers to crafts, as well as advance the skills of working craftsmen.
Though the mission has stayed constant, much has changed in the local craft market since 1926, said Deak. When the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen was founded, she said, the organization provided a previously unavailable access to markets for small-scale craftspeople.
"There was no outlet for this pent-up talent," Deak said.
At its peak, the League operated 20 volunteer-run shops around the state. However, that figure has whittled down to eight, due in part to competition from other vendors who arose to meet the growing demand for fine crafts. As the market developed, so did the quality associated with the products in the Sandwich Home Industries store, and other League of New Hampshire Craftsmen galleries.
Driving the improvement in quality are two factors. First is the education programs offered through the League, which develop native talent. As the level of quality rose, crafters from around the country began to relocate to New Hampshire because of its reputation as a place where they can make a living, said Deak.
"Today, (The League) has become one of the premier craft organizations in the country," she said.
Sandwich Home Industries has a wide array of products at an equally broad price range, entered into the gallery by jury. Textiles, furniture, lamps, photography and prints are well represented, and Deak said the best sellers are consistently pottery and jewelry. And, yes, they still sell rugs, which hearken back to the first event Coolidge organized 90 years ago. The people buying those products are frequently out-of-towners, visitors looking for a piece of New Hampshire to take back with them. Deak has noticed an increasing number of sales to international guests visiting during foliage season.
Also increasing in recent years has been competition from abroad, both through domestic online sites such as Etsy and Artfire, and from crafts imported from overseas and sold in discount stores. Deak faces a demographic challenge, too. Most of her customers are aging and she is seeking ways to introduce the charms and quality of well-made crafts with a younger generation.
"The challenge today is to compete in a totally different marketplace," said Deak. On a summery Saturday, though, those challenges can be left for another day. Looking forward to July 30, Deak said, "It's just a time to celebrate."