Archive for Wednesday, December 14, 2011

America once was a nation of ‘makers’

December 14, 2011


As regular readers of this column know, I have a passion for old books and American history. The other day I was in Topeka and had the opportunity to visit the used book shop owned by my friend Lloyd Zimmer. While looking through his shelves I came across I book that I knew I had to own: “Cincinnati in 1851” by Charles Cist. This small volume contains a study of the population, industry and architecture of the city of Cincinnati 160 years ago.

Among the most interesting chapters is one on the various trades and professions carried out by residents based on the 1850 national census. Given all the attention in the media these days about the employment market, about what jobs are disappearing and what jobs seem like good bets for the future, I thought that this analysis of the job market in 1851 was fascinating.

To put it mildly, the nature of work in America, judged by this book, has changed greatly in the past century and a half. In 1851, Cincinnati had 1,569 bootmakers, 868 coopers (barrel makers), 2,318 carpenters, 40 daguerreotypists (photographers on silver-coated metal plates), 298 printers, 176 saddlers and 7,864 laborers. Among the more unusual jobs we see very little of today were 11 gilders, 130 riverboat pilots, seven bedstead makers, five bonnet pressers, 42 carriage drivers, and four city criers.

Today’s professions were well represented in 1851 Cincinnati. There were 10 architects, 11 professors, five civil engineers,  26 editors (presumably newspaper editors), 176 lawyers, 153 druggists, nine nurses, four opticians and 278 physicians. There were also 11 people who listed their profession as “gentleman,” one bishop, four patent medicine makers, two congressmen and 42 people who listed their occupation on the census as “thieves”!

To combat the latter there were 28 policemen, six magistrates, and two judges. To put these various numbers in perspective, it is important to know that the overall population of Cincinnati in 1850 was 115,000. Thus, there were only 278 physicians and 176 lawyers for 115,000 people.

Of course, these figures come from a time when the industrial revolution was just starting up in the western United States and when the word “outsourcing” had not been invented. It was also a period during which the idea of craft and being a craftsman was held in high regard. To be a carpenter, cooper or printer was to follow a proud trade.

There were office workers in Cincinnati in 1851; the census listed 1,853 “clerks” but it was not nearly so prestigious as being a member of one of the skilled trades. This was an America in which those who could make things and fix things were praised and held up as examples of success. It was a nation of “makers” and inventors and the 1850 census illustrates this fact.

The text accompanying these statistics also includes comments about the importance of immigrants to the U.S. economy: “To the industry of foreigners, Cincinnati is indebted In a great degree, for its rapid growth. Their presence here has accelerated the execution of our public improvements, and given an impulse to our immense manufacturing operations, without which, they could not have reached their present extent and importance.”

I think that it is extremely important for us to remember what made this great country great: hard-working folks, many of them who came to the U.S. seeking a chance to better themselves. These were people who took on whatever tasks needed to be done, took pride in their skills and the products they made, and understood that their labors would not only provide financial support for themselves and their families but would also make America great. There are lessons we can learn from them.

Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Satirical 6 years ago

Legal immigration is great. Illegal immigration is bad.

I agree we can learn a lot from those who take pride in their skills and the products they make. I would love for all the hard working and/or well educated individuals from around the world to continue to flock to America. I just want them to do it legally.

One must either advocate for changing the laws which would allow unlimited and unrestricted immigration and the consequences that come therewith; or pick a number and criteria for legal immigration and figure out how to enforce it. The way our nation handles immigration today is self-destructive.

Arguing that "immigration is good" likely isn't going to change the opinion of anyone, especially when it comes to the ultimate question -- what is the appropriate amount/criteria for immigration, and how do you enforce it?

Mike Hoeflich 6 years ago

I am not suggesting anything about illegal immigration. Indeed, I fully agree that we need rational immigration laws. What I am suggesting is that we need to again become a nation of "makers." If we cannot produce these folks domestically then we need to think about how we can recruit them from abroad.

average 6 years ago

We are still are one of the greatest manufacturing nations on earth. And our per-capita manufactured output exceeds 1851 Cincinnati 100-fold. Yes, we import a lot, too. But, watch the Discovery show "How It's Made" for the more pressing matter. Those 1,569 bootmakers made, net likely under 3000 boots a day. Today, two guys on a factory floor make 5,000 in a day (plus the amortized cost of the machine-maker, but still, orders of magnitude less man-hours than hand-sewn boots).

There were three possible responses to the advent of massive automation and industrialization. One was Luddism. Smash the machines. One was greater leisure-time. Which we did get as we reduced to the theoretical 40-hour-week. We seem to have stopped there, even though the US Senate passed a 30-hour workweek bill almost 80 years ago, and Richard Nixon campaigned on the 30-hour week way back in the 1950s. The third possible response was a massive onslaught of advertising and driving a hyperconsumptive society so we could absorb everything the machines could output and still keep most of society occupied at 'work'.

P Allen Macfarlane 5 years, 12 months ago

I would agree. More fundamentally, it's more about me than it is about us.

tomatogrower 6 years ago

"It was a nation of “makers” and inventors and the 1850 census illustrates this fact." Nowadays if you are inventive, you either work for a company who owns your ideas, or you are a guy who can't afford to take on a big corporation, that will probably sue you for some hokey patent infringement.

math guy, did you ever think that many of the corporations want and pushed for these regulations to hold down the competition? For a long time now, most politicians have been bought and paid for by the corporations. Take the blinders off.

Average, sadly we have chosen the last option, so we have a whole lot of cheaply made "stuff", instead of a few finely made things. And if it breaks, it's usually cheaper to replace it, instead of fix it.

earthenvessel 5 years, 12 months ago

very true. Fascinating article. I wish we could go back to having understudy type situations. I also think the cost of education has affected things in the US. Now, in order to have a profession, ,many go into huge debt.

gudpoynt 6 years ago

we can be a nation of makers again. We just need to come up with a products and/or services that are: 1) in high demand around the world, and 2) cost effective to produce in the U.S. (preferably while employing U.S. citizens).

The second criteria is the tough one. Stupid high living standards are holding back continued growth of the world's largest economy.

geekin_topekan 6 years ago

Hmm, what was going on back in 1850? Blacks were slaves, so minority labor was non-existent and the Indians were still paying for their peace with their lives. So that left whites to "take pride and work hard", in exchange they received compensation for their work, were hired over free blacks and Indians without question, and what about that crazy railroad? Who built that? Oh that's right, the Chinese! 90% of the work force to be exact, and they had to walk home because they weren't allowed to ride on the rail that they built. Women were not citizens (their were blacks or Indians) and received minimal compensation where their services were needed.

Then the 60's came along and all those who were not white, male, Christian wanted equality and that's when stuff started downhill. The Republicans worked hard to keep from giving non-whites an equal shot at "working hard" and "taking pride" but they slipped through anyway.

Darn that civil rights movement.

geekin_topekan 6 years ago

Yikes. That is supposed to read; neither were blacks or Indians.

Carry on.

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