Sawing and 'the Fumes of the Stomach'

One of the best things about working on this new book, “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” has been the opportunity to poke through some 19th-century books on the trades. I always disliked history class in high school and college, but this stuff fascinates me to no end.

Recently I dug up some descriptions of the 19th-century trades in a huge book that was intended to be a guide for parents and children who were trying to choose a profession. Most of the entries from this 1842 book describe each job in a somewhat glamorous fashion. How you have to be strong and ingenious to be a carpenter or joiner. Or how you have to be excellent at drawing to become a cabinet maker.

But the description of the profession of “Sawyer” cracked me up. Perhaps I’ve just been buried too long in this sort of material, but I found this one a real knee-slapper. The author begins by saying that many sawyers would tend to work for many masters.

“(T)hey either find ‘nothing stirring,’ and literally starve awhile, or make such astonishing sums at piece work, as to set their heads a madding with the fumes of the stomach; they become broilsome, drink unaccountably, fight any body or thing, pawn their tools by scores, and, when Tuesday comes round, find themselves under the necessity of kicking the master for an advance.”

“Who would be a Sawyer? Or, being one, would not work out his own reformation in time?”

from “The Complete Book of Trades” by Nathaniel Whittock (1842 edition), page 398

Sounds like fun. Sign me up.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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14 Responses to Sawing and 'the Fumes of the Stomach'

  1. Matt Boutte says:

    I had no idea that I am in fact, a sawyer. Thanks for the revelation.

  2. joel says:

    In the Wheelwright’s shop Sturt also mentions that sawyers were prodigious drinkers. But by 1842 the trade was dying a rapid death.

  3. Dave Brown says:

    I agree with Joel.

    There is no future in prodigious drinking but efficient drinking, there’s something to aim for.

  4. Megan Fitzpatrick says:

    Oh dear. Please do not become broilsome. If, however, you wish to pawn some tools…

  5. Narayan says:

    So let me get this straight: sawyers are the 19th century woodworking equivalent of the modern day magazine editor?


  6. Christopher Schwarz says:

    In a nutshell, yes.


  7. Megan Fitzpatrick says:

    Hey! Tomorrow is Tuesday. Remind me to kick my master for an advance (with the tacit understanding that I shall never again refer to Chris as "master").

  8. Christopher Schwarz says:

    Mayhaps the managing editor is experiencing fumes of the stomach tonight.

    Are you going to pawn those Shakespeare knockers now?


  9. Narayan says:

    I had a real bad run-in with someone else’s fumes of the stomach once. It was on a roadtrip, after an early run through a fast food drive-thru. Small car. Winter. Windows closed. By 18:42 ’twas -I- dying a rapid death.

    I can think of a few gesticulations to appropriately accompany the command, "pawn my knockers". Gesticulations which were, I suspect, used frequently by sawyers.

  10. There is a modern day equivalent (Jungian Archetype?) to the sawyers of old. Today they are the Roofers. It is considered a younger man’s work.

    Further, the old description is indicative as to why payday is on Friday. Pay a crew and you won’t see them until they spend their check, and yes, by either Monday or Tuesday, they are back, because the next weekend is coming.

    Some things never change even though the players of the game come and go and don’t know why.

  11. Gregg Counts says:

    Now I know why I like sawing – it gives me an excuse to drink.

  12. J. Watriss says:

    I read a similar account in, I think, a book called the Wheelwright’s shop.

    Basically, he accounted his expereinces with sawyers, and how they would only get work done if they both showed up at the same time. Otherwise, the early one would get bored, and leave to go drink, and the late one would go off to find the other in the bar. Apparently they both argued and fought so much with each other the rest of the time, even during work, that even on the job it was a miracle that things got done. Still, he said, they were necessary, because who else would do the work… and he felt a little bad for them, since at the time the book was written, the writing was already on the wall, and they were a dying breed.

    ‘Still,’ the author said,

    ‘I was always glad to see the backs of them.’

  13. As a sawyer, living and sawing in a region where a lot of these 19th century sawyers found work (and then apparently pawned off their tools), I’d like to say that these soggy-sawyers must have been incredibly productive when they had to be!

    It’s funny to think of how much things have changed… then again, just coming off of a Labor Day weekend packed with the festivities of a friends wedding and a couple of cookouts maybe it hasn’t changed all that much; well at least the lifestyle hasn’t. But as far as the profession goes, the work of the sawyers back in the day was based firmly on the person’s physical stamina, strength, and concentration. The more times you could pump your arms straight and true was directly tied to how much production you could make. After that kind of work, you could see how a sawyer would work up a mighty big thirst!

    Now, the sawyer has one of the least physically-demanding jobs at the mill. When I’m sawing I operate the carriage with a joystick connected to an electric-over-hydraulic system in one hand, and a touchscreen at the fingertips of my other hand controls the thickness of each piece coming out off of the headsaw. Stamina can still play a part, but most of the effort goes into mental calculations and "reading" the log for hidden defects. A far stretch from what my 1800s counterparts were faced with.

    Then just think of how the larger production mills are equipped with auto log scanners that computerize the entire cutting sequence, and the job is an even further departure from the early pit-sawyers.

    Thanks for your Blog post; it was fun to read the sawyer description and it set my mind wandering on the changes in the profession over the years!

  14. Mike Brookes says:

    I understand that the phrases "top dog" and "underdog" come from the sawing trade. The underdog lived his working life covered in saw dust.Really enjoy the blog.
    Kind regards
    Mike Brookes

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