One great cause of the decrease in English exports is the conservatism among English manufacturers and their extreme dislike of innovations. They are inclined to stick to old processes and old styles, refusing to study the tastes of their customers.
They seek to impose their own notions and ideas upon the world. Hence, foreign buyers seek in America, in Germany, and in France, goods better suited to their taste and needs. French manufacturers are particularly ready and quick to suit their work to the tastes of their customers. They are especially apt in devising new styles and patterns, such as shall most readily meet the varying tastes of buyers.
They realize that variety is pleasing and fashion capricious, and never hesitate to change a machine, or a pattern, when the old one fails to suit; while the Englishman looks well at the cost, and prefers to continue “in the good old way,” with the hope that some day the fashion may come round again.
Another example of the conservatism of the English manufacturer is manifested in his preference for hand work over machine work. He refuses to believe that a machine can be made to do more perfect work than the hand. Hence, in the manufacture of watches, of sewing-machines, and of many classes of fire-arms, he utterly fails to compete with more progressive mechanics on this side of the Atlantic.
The more observing and thoughtful of Englishmen themselves are beginning to realize these facts, and have already raised the note of alarm. A British correspondent, who styles himself “A Skilled Workman,” who recently visited some of our manufacturing establishments, writes as follows to the Sheffield Telegraph:
“The use of files, rasps, and floats are superseded by other tools [machine tools] astonishing in their adaptability for perfect and rapid production. No written description could convey an idea of their great ability and method….. The skill of the engineer has taken the place of the skilled artisans; for mere boys are tending these operations, and yet quality is not ignored…..”
“The readiness of the employers to adopt any practical suggestion from any one of their hands is a notable feature in most American factories, whereas the cold shoulder is generally given such in England. We weakly waddle in the wake of America in the matter of inventions until a necessity is proved, when an earnest effort is made and progress is attained.”
“Old-fashioned methods of manufacture will have to be abandoned for newer and better ones, if ‘Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,’ is not to be written across British commerce in the future. The individual skill and handicraft of the best Sheffield workmen I have not seen surpassed in the United States, but they are inadequate for all the requirements of the present age.”
The Californian: A Western Monthly Magazine – January, 1881