The Inequitable Appreciation of Hand Work


I wish to enter a protest—“a kick,” as we say in the shop. I bought a magazine the other day, one of the dignified kind supposed to give a busy man a glimpse of some of the important things happening in the world, and to give it in a fair, open, unbiased way. In it I found an article at which I here kick.

It was one calling attention to a revival of certain kinds of skilled hand work whereby some people, with a good degree of skill and originality, are able to make wares that command a relatively large price because of the fact that they are made in small quantities and cannot be duplicated at the nearest store, the trade mark of the maker being the chief item of value as showing that the article is unique.

So far I have no reason to object, believing as I do that it is good business to work at that which brings in the best returns for the effort expended. What I do object to—and that most vigorously—is the insinuation that the every-day worker is below these in honesty and usefulness.

Allow me to quote from the article: “Machine-made things we must have and always will have, and it is fortunate indeed that machinery can and does supply many human wants at such low cost. With it all there remains a survival of the old mediæval love of the honest, hand-made thing.”

The insinuation in this quotation that the ordinary product of the shops and factories is not honest; that those working in such places are on a lower plane, personally and as to usefulness, than the world at large, is what I object to. Such writings, while seemingly insignificant in themselves. assist in creating a lasting impression To just such things do we owe some of the feeling that is all too common, even in this country, that to be a doctor or a lawyer, a preacher or a banker is more honorable than to be a mechanic.

Take away the mechanics, and the advancement caused by the low costs made possible by the very machinery here so slightingly spoken of, and the world’s progress is stopped and we are at best in a state of semi-civilization.

As a machinist I want to take my stand as belonging to a class second to none in importance to the world. There are other callings in the same rank with us, and they are the other trades: the molders, blacksmiths, steel makers, iron workers and others intimately allied.

To insinuate that a few workers, however excellent their product, whose chief aim is to get large prices for things the greatest values of which lie in the fact that they are possessed by but few, and who have it not in their power to make life easier or more pleasant are in a class by themselves, is an unjustice to every honest toiler in the land. We as individuals should promptly resent these things that tend to create a false impression as to our importance to the world.

This may seem like a small matter to many, but, friends, look around you and see how many young people prefer to follow vocations where they can be pseudo-genteel at starvation wages rather than throw their energy into shop work.

Just as a few drunken mechanics can create an impression in a community that they are fair samples of all good mechanics, so such ill-considered writings can create an undercurrent of feeling that shop work is lowering, and that to engage in making anything made in large quantity by the aid of machinery one must give up a certain measure of manhood or womanhood. Whatever other differences we may have we should be as a unit in upholding the honesty and dignity of labor in general and of our own calling in particular.

“He came from poor but honest parents.” Who has never noticed such a sentence in describing someone who has acquired wealth or distinction? How would this look: “He came from rich but honest parents”? It would be resented by every rich man that read it, but isn’t it just as false when said of the poor?

More than once have I been asked by parties in the trade as well as by parties not in it, “Why is it that most of the best machinists are intemperate men?” To this I can reply that in my own experience they are not. The man who gets drunk is usually far from modest in telling of his ability, especially when drinking, and a great many people seem to take him at his own valuation.

The really valuable mechanic has very little time to “blow his own horn,” and so his work is often not appreciated, except by those who come in closest contact with him. A good man may become addicted to the use of intoxicants, but his value is never increased thereby, neither is it safe to reason: “Good mechanics get drunk, therefore if I get drunk I will be a good mechanic,” although I regret to say that I have known a number of young men who seemed to follow such a line of reasoning.

I do not wish to trespass on the patience of my fellow-craftsmen, but it does seem to me that a little effort spent in producing a proper understanding of ourselves by the community at large will bring just as good returns as getting out a formula for the flow of water. We should all labor to produce an “atmosphere” (as the artist would call it) of respect and admiration for our calling.

In some callings a man is looked on as a gentleman because of his calling, while in others it is considered that if he is one it is in spite of his calling, and we should see to it that our calling is not looked on in the latter way for the lack of information.

W. Osborne

American Machinist – July 24, 1902

—Jeff Burks

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3 Responses to The Inequitable Appreciation of Hand Work

  1. John Vernier says:

    Thanks for the good pairing of articles. I’ve read my share of period Arts and Crafts puffery, and it’s good to see that there were some who kicked back.

  2. Great articles. I think the future has borne this debate out in many respects. Not in “handmade” against the machinist but in hand against machine. I cant count the times I have cursed the robot cashier or poorly manufactured tool. The “Progress” cited here has become dishonest, not that those who run the machines are dishonest but many things which are made today promise much and deliver nothing.

  3. proclus153 says:

    This exchange reminds me of the preface to Moxon, though I’m not sure whether it demonstrates how much attitudes toward “handy-crafts” changed after the industrial revolution or how little. Moxon defends the study of mechanical trades by observing that they are scientific and produce items necessary for civilization, even if the guys who actually work with their hands are ignorant louts (like blind horses pulling in a mill). The arts and crafts enthusiasts, however, seem to romanticize unscientific, inefficient hand work precisely because of its connection with the craftswoman. At the same time, the attitudes Moxon tries to overcome (that mechanics are “ignoble and scandalous”) are basically the same as those described in this piece, and Moxon’s response to them (pointing out that some gentlemen pursue handy-crafts, not just peasants, and that there is something “honest” about hand work) would presumably also rub Osborn the wrong way. I suspect that these discussions relate to a fundamental conflict in the mind of educated or high-born people in developed societies, who are fascinated (perhaps for evolutionary reasons, as Roy Underhill might suggest) with old ways of making a living, but have difficulty reconciling that fascination with the fact that their civilization generally relegates those who make a living with their hands to very low social rungs.

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