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The Ethics Of Handicraft

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

There was a time when the handworker felt an honest pride in doing his work well. There were exceptions, perhaps, to the rule ; but within the memory of men now living, the American artisan delighted to "make a good job of it." He was not satisfied to merely get through with his work, but he wanted to do it thoroughly and satisfy his own con-science, if nothing else.

" In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care,
Each minute and unseen part,
For the gods see everywhere."

Within forty years that state of things has passed away, and honest work for honest pay is almost a thing of the past. It is a rare thing in these days to encounter a skilled workman who has any scruple against slovenly, dishonest work. At rare intervals it is possible to find one of these old-fashioned workmen, and his fidelity almost always wins unwonted respect. But the ordinary workman does what he must, and no more. He slights at every possible point, or wherever he can successfully conceal it, and he sometimes does this when he must know that dire consequences may result to human life and health from his lack of conscience.

Take for example the laborers that one may hire to repair a dwelling house. It is an interesting study to watch them. In the first place, it may be noticed that not one of the gang has mastered his trade. They have not fully learned their craft. They spoil material, or do not prepare it properly, and the work when done is very poorly done. The worker in wood expects the painter to cover up most of his defects. The painter expects the last coat of varnish to cover the defects in his work, and so they go on, each one slighting his task, and when they have left the house, there is left a good coat of varnish over a mass of unsightly, bungling work. A workman of the ancient time showing so little skill in his craft would not have been tolerated for an hour. He would have been sent into an apprenticeship to learn his trade over again. It may not be surprising that a tradesman is utterly ignorant of his craft and utterly incompetent to perform his work. Since the Trades-Unions have undertaken to dictate the terms upon which laborers shall be employed and paid, it may not be surprising that a man is a bungler since task work has taken the place of intelligent hand labor. None the less, it is a crying evil and a great wrong to employers, that men should undertake to do what they do not understand and spoil valuable material and ruin their work with ignorant incompetency. It is further possible to notice that these men employed upon the house are very skillful in what may be called, shirking. It seems to be the ambition of these laborers to accomplish the least possible labor in a given time. There is no heartiness in their efforts. They work with a dogged slowness of movement, which consumes much time and accomplishes little work. A dozen pages would not suffice to enumerate the ways in which carpenters, plasterers, plumbers and painters seek to save labor and trouble at the cost of the employer. Day after day the wrong goes on. Year after year such men work, regardless of the right of their employers, regardless of the ten commandments, regardless of everything but taking their pay—full pay-for most dishonest work.

The result of this kind of work during the last twenty-five years has been to destroy public confidence in all forms of hand labor. Men seem to have for-gotten that there is such a thing as integrity in business. They seem to have forgotten that the capitalist has rights, that the employer is a man, and that he has a right to demand honest work, conscientious work, work with thought and soul in it, for the money he pays to the laborer. The morals of handicraft certainly need overhauling. Laborers need to learn that the prevailing customs are dishonorable and mean. They need to learn that sham work, the wasting of time, and through these the exposing of precious lives to hidden perils, is not only a sin, but an unholy crime. A sin not only against man but against God. Trust-worthiness is the mark of a noble soul and the trustworthy man will never do a dishonest job. Such a man will be faithful when he is alone, laboring by himself, as well as when the eye of the employer is upon him. He will do honest work because that accords with his conscience. It is when men lay aside all conscience, all truth and uprightness, that they begin to be dishonest workmen. But in these days of shoddy work, Trades-Unions, eight hour systems, and dictation of socialist and demagogues, where can you find the trustworthy workman? His price is above rubies, but where can he be found ? Where is the tradesman who pretends to put heart and brain and soul and conscience into his labor? No doubt there are some, perhaps many, among the great army of workers. It would be strange indeed to find the handicrafts completely given over to dishonesty. It is certainly to be hoped that there is honor and integrity still among the hand laborers of our country. Yes, we believe there is, but under the false notions of the relation between labor and capital; under the influence of dishonest practices that have grown so prevalent, the workmen of our time seem to be given over to dishonest and disreputable work. The unseemly haste to accomplish quick results, more than the individual dishonesty of laborers, has led to this false ethics of handicraft. Men require certain results to be accomplished within certain specified limits of time. Hence results are accomplished without reference to careful and thorough work. We want honor in the tradesmen, and then we want time for honest work to be done. If a man will have a house built, and finished and furnished in a few weeks, then of course some of the work must be neglected and the laborer who works by the job will very soon learn to meet his contract. When our society has a little outgrown its feverish scramble for money, then perhaps we may look for greater integrity in business life.

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