Social Economics


Interesting Figures Relative to the Cabinet-Making Industry

As a Fine Art It Has Been Killed by Labor-Saving Machines

The Chicago Trade and Labor Union held a meeting at Mechanic’s Hall, No 54 West Lake street, yesterday afternoon, at which about 200 representatives of the various trades and occupations were present. O. A. Bishop was called to the chair.

T.J. Morgan presented the following report on the condition of the trade of cabinetmakers: There are 5,500 men and boys employed in the 160 furniture factories, averaging thirty-five men. One firm employs 250, one 200, one 185, one 170, one 155, one 140, one 125, one 120, one 115, one 90. Two average 80 each, ten average 50 each; the rest employ 10 to 40 each: thirteen establishments on the North Side employ a total of 310 persons.

Small shops cannot compete, and most storekeepers buy from several wholesale manufacturers. “Easy-payment” stores have driven out of business a large number of retail furniture stores, and the retail manufacture is forever doomed.

The average weekly earnings during these prosperous (?) times are $8. Very few females are employed; the employment of child-labor amounts to about 5 per cent, with fast increasing demand. No apprentices are needed or employed. Trades-unions have no influence whatever on this trade.

The disastrous strike of this trade for eight hours in 1879, brought about by the general eight hour agitation throughout the country and by the Eight-Hour League of this city, under the weak leadership of A.R. Parsons, who prevented all discussion and examination of the chances of success and without ascertaining what action the workers of the other manufacturing cities competing for this trade with Chicago would take until it was too late, completely wiped out all Union influence. The division of labor in this occupation also tends to prevent any effective organization among the men for protective purposes.

Years ago the cabinetmaker was one of the most skillful and best paid of all the artisans, with dress and general bearing suited to those conscious of possessing the power to earn a good living for himself and family. The wife of a cabinetmaker states that when first married, the fact that her husband was a cabinetmaker filled her with a sense of pride and confidence, but this pride and confidence inspired by her husband’s skill has been rudely destroyed, for the last few years has been a bitter struggle for existence. Her husband’s last suit of clothes was purchased ten years ago and the weary journey to and from work morning and night during this severe winter has been made by him with no overcoat to protect him.

The introduction of machinery has done away with the skill and experience absolutely necessary a few years ago, the latter being no longer necessary. Wages have fallen very low, in some case below that of the common day-laborer. Ten percent only of those employed in this trade are competent cabinetmakers, and these are employed upon custom-work or upon articles made to special order. The 90 per cent of all the cabinetmakers may be termed factory-hands, and work only upon a part of an article of furniture, and are not capable of completing an entire article of manufacture.

Most factories confine themselves to making a single article, one making bedsteads, another desks or chairs, bureaus, etc. The work is done by the piece, each man working continually upon one part of a chair, table, bedstead, bureau, desk, school or church furniture, etc., and thus an immense amount of work is done for very little pay, because green hands with a few weeks’ practice can replace an old hand. The employers have absolute power to control and fix the rate of wages and fix the prices of goods, and they exercise that power to the fullest extent.

The workers are obliged to furnish a set of tools, a competent cabinetmaker requiring a set costing from $75 to $100, which he has to renew when broken or worn out, and recently some employers compel the men to furnish their benches also, thus making the men furnish part of the capital stock upon which the business is carried on. Extra work, such as extra finish or changes, has to be done without extra pay. New hands are usually compelled to work at cheaper rates than is paid for the same work to old hands.

One branch of this trade—that of varnishing—is carried on in a sweat-box called a “flaming-room.” Every window is hermetically closed, the floor kept wet, and the temperature at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit: this is to prevent particles of dust from settling on the furniture. These conditions are profitable to the employer, but the workmen become affected with the “turpentine disease,” which affects the bladder and kidneys, and often compels them to quit work.

Veneering is also very unhealthy, the dust of the wood and the heat of the rooms in which the work is done causing consumption. The veneer-workers and the poor devils in the sweat-box get an extra dollar a week to compensate them for their loss of health and life. The general conditions under which the cabinetmaker works is detrimental to health and long life, and every father who cares for the health and future of his children will prevent them from entering this trade.

No hope of becoming an employer inspires the efforts of the cabinetmaker: $20,000 at least are required to start in this trade with any chance of success, and the development of this business is so rapid as to inevitably result in the absorption of all the small shops by a few great firms.

Discussion On The Report

John Warner moved that the sentiment expressed in the report be indorsed by the meeting.
Mr. McKee said that there was all through the report a spirit of animosity and prejudice against employers, and he denied that the power of the employer to regulate wages was absolute.
John Warner remarked that he had heard Mr. Morgan express similar sentiments in regard to employés.
T.J. Morgan said it was not a question as to the philosophical deduction made in reference to the relationship of the employer and employé, but a mere statement made from the cabinetmakers.
The report was adopted in accordance with the motion of Mr. Warner.

The Chicago Tribune -February 21, 1881

—Jeff Burks

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One Response to Social Economics

  1. Kinderhook88 says:

    I found an inflation calculator that said $20,000 in 1881 would be worth $465,116.28 in 2014. So you would need half a million bucks to start a cabinet shop these days. Sounds about right.

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