From a chamois apron worn in a Fourth of July parade in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1854. James Mitchel, the stone cutter who wore this apron, had been the superintendent of construction of the old state capital in Albany, N.Y.
The Journeyman Stonecutters Association of North America is the oldest, and perhaps the smallest, active union in North America. Based on a tradition dating back to the masons lodges of the middle ages, the International was founded in 1853. Many of the individual locals began in the 1820's and 30's, and the Washington Stonecutters are said to have marched as a body at the laying of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol in 1792. In the late 1960's, due to changing architectural tastes and decreased interest in ornamentation, the union had become quite small. At that time it merged with the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA).
It is often claimed that the decline in the use of carving and architectural ornamentation occurred because it had become too expensive. In reality it was always expensive; it was just considered worth doing 80 years ago, whereas is not appreciated or valued in the same way now. The stone carvers were always the highest paid of the building trades, and they pioneered the benefits that everyone now takes for granted. For example, the Chicago local was the first union in the country to get an 8 hour work day (1867), 20 years before the eight hour day movement really got rolling. At the turn of the century carvers were paid as well as doctors or lawyers, yet even the most mundane of buildings would include their work; it was expensive, but people viewed those touches of art and quality as essential expressions of their buildings. Large public buildings would have 4% to 5% of the budget spent on artistic ornamentation. Nowadays it is often viewed as excessive and wasteful if 1% of the budget of a building goes towards art.
Stone cutters were the predecessors of the Secret Service, providing body guards for Abraham Lincoln during his inauguration in 1861. If they had still held that post at Ford's Theater in 1865, history might have been different!
I invite you now to visit my page on the tools and techniques of the stone carvers, to learn how we shape blocks of stone into an endless variety of sculpture and ornament.
I sometimes receive inquiries from people who had a family member who was a stonecutter. I find their stories fascinating, and always am pleased to hear about them. However, when these are genealogical searches, I am not of much help. To my knowledge no records survived of membership lists, job lists, or the like. On rare occasion you may be able to find old copies of the Stonecutters Journal, the union newspaper, in libraries or archives. (If you do, please send me some photocopies!)
The Journal often had anecdotes about old stonecutters, lists of members who were delinquent in their dues, or reports about jobs. Occasionally there would be a list of local union officials, and sometimes death notices of members. Bear in mind that, at the turn of the century, there were tens of thousands of stonecutters and carvers working in the United States. Chicago alone had over 100 stone mills. The New York local union at one point had around 5000 members, so the occasional list in the Journal of names of a dozen members who hadn't paid their dues isn't too helpful in genealogical research.
If you do have old carving tools laying around, or any old books or trade journals
about the craft, I'd be extremely interested in them.