New-York, February 12th, 1842.
Sir – I have the honor of being in the receipt of your circular requesting information in relation to the effect which the introduction of the manufacturing of planes, in the prisons at Auburn and Sing-Sing, has had upon our business. In reply to which, it may not be deemed improper to state something of the rise and progress of this branch of business in this country.
At the close of the last war, the manufacture of planes was carried on to a very trifling extent in this country, we being chiefly supplied by those of foreign importation; about which time my father (our predecessor,) established this branch of business in the city of Albany; but the strong prejudice in favor of imported planes rendered it necessary to make very considerable sacrifices, to sustain the establishment of the business during its infancy; and for several years it was carried on with scarcely sufficient profit to cover expenses, and afford a livelihood. But, by patient perseverance, he was at last enabled to compete with planes from abroad, both in price and quality; and having gained an enviable reputation for his American planes, for a few years he was enabled to do a very good business, and gave employment to 20 or 30 hands, at good wages; and he looked forward to a reward for the toil and anxiety he had undergone, in aiding to establish a home manufacture for this important article of merchandise.
This business, however, having become known, and from its being in but few hands, considered as somewhat better than the ordinary occupation by which mechanics and manufacturers obtained a livelihood; I presume it excited the attention of that class of grasping, avaricious men, who are even now constantly on the watch to find victims to the system of State prison labor, or to procure a knowledge of some business upon which the cheap labor of prison convicts, can be most profitably employed; utterly regardless of the ruinous consequences which may result to those who may have their all invested in the same branch of business; who have depended upon it for a support to themselves and families, as well as those in their employment; and, perhaps from the very fact of the ease with which it was supposed that the few engaged in manufacturing planes, could be prostrated by this unfair but powerful competition, it was largely introduced in the State Prison at Auburn, as I have been informed, under the superintendence of a foreigner.
During the infancy of this establishment, while the convict journeymen were but raw hands, and of course the work of but a very inferior quality, we did not at once feel any very serious inconvenience from this competition although they soon began to supply orders for the coarse and leading articles in our line; but, after a few years, when the “felons” had acquired a knowledge of the trade, and the prison factory became better established, we found the heaviest and most profitable portion of our business leaving us, on account of the ability of our customers to furnish themselves at a less rate than we could possibly afford, we were therefore under the necessity of lessening the cost of our planes, by a heavy reduction of wages; this being followed by a corresponding reduction of the prison planes, we were compelled still further to reduce the wages of our journeymen to such rates as to afford the most of them barely a comfortable subsistence, and to commence the introduction of machinery in our factory as far as practicable; these advantages, and the acknowledged superiority of our goods, enabled us for a time, while all kinds of business were good, to progress in our operations, and to make a living, giving employment to 40 hands, including 16 apprentices.
However, our ruin appears to have been determined upon, and machinery was introduced into the prison, to assist and facilitate labor at from 30 to 37 ½ cents per day, and a branch of the prison plane-factory was established at Sing-Sing, to give them at all seasons a better command of this market. This made a corresponding move necessary on our part; the high price of living, in New-York rendered it impossible for us to continue our entire establishment in this city, oppressed by such a competition; and we were driven to the necessity to removing a portion of our hands to the country, where we should be enabled to take advantage of water power, and the cheaper subsistence of a country life, by which means we hoped to be able to produce the leading articles in our trade, at such a rate as would enable us to compete with the products of the State prisons; but, being convinced that no reduction which we can make would not meet with a corresponding reduction on the part of the prison contractors, we have discharged the principal portion of our hands, the most of whom have been driven from their legitimate pursuits, to some other for a living; some having enlisted, some driving carts, others attempting to earn their bread in occupations foreign to their own, are considered as unwelcome intruders in the branches they have adopted. Our entire concern both in and out of the city, being now reduced to 11 journeymen, and one apprentice; we have from year to year been dragging our business along, looking forward with the greatest anxiety to the Legislature, for relief from this unjust and ruinous competition.
We feel that there is a peculiar hardship in our case, inasmuch as if any thing is due to the untiring perseverance and great sacrifices, with which our business has been established in this country, and the growth of our soil converted into valuable merchandise, giving labor to the mechanics of our own country, and rendering us independent for a supply of articles so necessary in an increasing country like ours; that we, as among the foremost pioneers in the establishment of this business, should be protected from certain destruction by the reckless course pursued by the contractors for felon labor. We ask Legislative interference not only for ourselves as manufacturers, but for those whose trades, for which they have sacrificed the term of an apprenticeship, have been rendered worthless by the employment of the prisoners in the performance of that labor to which they have a right to look upon as affording the means of a subsistence.
We are of an opinion that the last contract for plane-makers in the prison, was made in direct violation of the law (passed, I think, in 1834,) and, that a strict construction of that law, would at once put a stop to our business, in both prisons; also that the agents receiving $10,000 worth of planes for the State, to pay the debts of the contractors at Auburn, was an exceedingly liberal construction of his powers, and we know that the thrusting them at once upon the market, has been disastrous to us.
As chairman of the committee upon State prisons, we would most earnestly commend our business to your especial attention; and for any further information you may desire, I would refer you to my brother, (your colleague,) who is abundantly capable of stating the effect upon our business for many years past, of this detestable competition. I feel well assured that you are desirous of advancing the interests of the mechanics and laboring men, and as far as lies in your power, to protect the honest man from the effects of this unrighteous system of converting our State prisons into manufacturing establishments, and bringing his labor to a level with that of the very refuse of society. I therefore, flatter myself that the subject may be brought at this session before the Legislature of our State, in such manner as to be productive to us, who have severely suffered for many years, of the most beneficial results.
I have the honor to be,
Yours very respectfully,
Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York – 1842
– Jeff Burks