Charles Reade has asserted that workmen are a dirty set and a reckless set. Is this true of American workmen? His observations have been confined to English workmen; would he have occasion to modify the general character of his statement were he to visit and inspect American shops?
Candidly we must say there would be too much in the general want of cleanliness and order in our workshops to justify the assertion. The shops in which cleanliness and order prevail are rather the exception than the rule; and the individual workman who, in the midst of all the carelessness which prevails in this regard, maintains a scrupulous care for personal cleanliness, order in the arrangement of tools, and method in the performance of his work, may be regarded as a rising man.
On our occasional journeys in those most disagreeable conveniences of the age, horse cars, at times when workmen are returning from their daily work, we frequently notice them with begrimed faces and smutty hands, on their way to homes perhaps no less attractive than their persons.
If this were compelled by circumstances, and the unavoidable conditions of their toil, it would be unkind indeed to find fault with it. We should indeed be the very last to look down upon the necessary accessories of honest toil, and, if any American workman is so situated that he must utterly disregard cleanliness, let it be distinctly understood we do not complain of him. But cases of this kind are rare, if they exist at all. What then is the reason for the inexcusable slovenliness of a large majority of workmen?
The first reason is that proprietors and overseers do little or nothing to encourage tidiness in their subordinates. They too often look upon a man who is making attempts to keep himself and his work-bench tidy, as a cat in gloves who will catch no mice, and speak contemptuously to him of being afraid to dirty his hands, although his hands may at the time bear the honorable evidence that his duty has been faithfully performed. But tell us pray, is it necessary that they should bear that evidence home with them? Is it necessary that the face should be soiled as well as the hands, and that clothes should be smirched as well as hands and face?
In imagination we hear some mechanic exclaim, “I should like to see that editor do my work a little while, and keep himself clean! I guess he would find it harder work than sitting in his comfortable office and finding fault with us poor fellows, who have no such good luck!”
To whom we reply that, good luck or not, we often sigh for the light-hearted days, when we did just such work, and earned thereby a good appetite and the means wherewith to gratify it; and further we know that you can’t get down on your knees in sand, and face your molds with powdered charcoal, and perspire amid a cloud of black dust, and keep your faces and shirts white.
Bless you, we know all that, learned it years ago, but it is not you we find fault with. It is that slovenly chap who goes in to work at his lathe, on Monday morning, with a clean shirt on, and who, in less than half an hour, has managed to get two or three streaks of black oil down his back, and sundry patches of it on his face, while the handle to every tool on his lathe and even the lathe itself is japanned with the same unctuous material.
We can see the use of the black dust and perspiration in a foundery, but we don’t see the necessity of a man in a well-ordered machine shop, painting himself up like an Indian on the war-path, and carrying it home with him to the annoyance of those who are, perhaps, obliged to sit in the same seat with him, and who do not care to get into too intimate contact with black-grease and oil.
Personal cleanliness leads to order in work and business, and elevates the moral character of all who exercise it. It is a virtue second only to godliness, and exercises not only a benign influence upon moral character and physical health, but upon intellectual growth.
Would proprietors and superintendents enforce more thorough order and cleanliness in their works, and encourage it in the habits of their employés, they would get more and better work for their money, would render their help more manly and honorable in the discharge of their duties, elevate the character, and increase welfare of the working classes.
Scientific American – Dec 4, 1869