Through our own hard work and ingenuity, America has spent much of its history as the world’s dominant economic power. But our dominance is not pre-ordained – history does not roll along on the wheels of inevitability. —Evan Bayh
Made in America
Some time last year we made a pit stop at Wally World, a place which for me has as much appeal as the Zika virus. While Peter shopped for costume materials, I occupied myself with a challenge: scour the shelves in search of anything made in America. Goodness knows what folks at the security camera monitors thought about actions, randomly inspecting merchandise for labels that didn’t say “Fabrique au Cambodge” or “Hecho en Mexico.” Eventually I settled on socks—uncomplicated white men’s cotton socks—as my target purchase. And in short order if was sadly and irritably disappointed. The outsourcing of men’s ties and suits to Mexico and Southeast Asia and of steel and aluminum to China—charges laid quite rightly at the feet of Donald Trump—is ubiquitous, a national embarrassment, and just one of the issues confronting us this election season. Are we incapable of manufacturing a quality cotton sock and, simultaneously, paying someone a living wage. Perhaps that’s a stretch too far.
Almost twenty years ago, I became fascinated with the concrete block construction system Frank Lloyd Wright developed and used to build several Southern California houses. Wright called it “Textile Block” because the metal reinforcement rods were “woven” vertically and horizontally between the CMUs [concrete masonry units]. The idea may have been explored a few years earlier but the first opportunity to actually construct something with the system was “La Miniatura,” the Pasadena house of Alice Madison Millard and arguably the best of the series.
The history of “textile block” is convoluted and still (as far as I’m concerned) unresolved and includes Lloyd Wright (technically Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., one of Wright’s two architect-sons), Walter Burley Griffin (an associate whom Wright called “that draughtsman who went to Australia”) and a bunch of other characters who never amounted to a hill of beans. I only invoke Wright because, nestled in the illustrations in one volume of The Complete Works of Frank Lloyd Wright there is a drawing Taliesin archivist Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer captioned as inexplicable, or some such descriptor. It was with considerable hauteur that I wrote Mr Pfeiffer, informing him that the “odd” drawing which didn’t seem to fit the others in the job file was, indeed, part of a U.S. Patent application.
Wright is just one of a number of American architects who attempted, some of them successfully, to protect their innovations with a United States Patent. Minneapolitan L. S. Buffington, for example, tried to patent the skyscraper. Imagine that. He failed, of course, but not for lack of trying, even slogging through the courts. Wright was more successful, receiving patents for the design of a Luxfer Prism panel and the office furniture for the S. C. Johnson Co. I’m guessing that Richard Meier, Michael Graves and several other Post Modern architects who’ve drifted into the decorative arts have patented various tea kettles, desk lamps, and other tchotchkes for the retail market.
My interest in “Textile Block” required wading through decades of the Patent Gazette and the discovery that 19th century Americans were inordinately creative and just as vehemently protective of their intellectual property. You’d be astounded at the number of patents for fairly simple tools, for example, awarded to people in very small towns across the U.S. All of which leads to today’s burning question: Who in Agincourt owned a patent?