Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/August 1877/The Sewing-Machine in Political Economy

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IT is very probable that as we obtain a fuller and more accurate command of facts relating to the production of wealth under perfectly free conditions in countries like our own, where intelligence is widely diffused, it will be found that the methods of most efficient production are those which necessarily contain within themselves the methods of most effectual distribution. It has been customary to assume, or infer, that the laws regulating the production of wealth were one thing, and the laws regulating its distribution were another; so much so, indeed, that while legislation could not interfere with production without doing harm, it might and ought, on grounds of justice and duty, to regulate distribution. There is strong reason to believe that interference is just as undesirable and pernicious in the latter case as in the former. Given the most efficient production, that is to say, articles produced in the cheapest, swiftest, and most skillful manner by the free competition of invention, capital, intelligence, and industry, and it is true, as a necessary condition of production so sustained, that the wealth created by and arising from it is distributed step by step, as the process goes on, in the most equitable manner among all the parties engaged in the enterprise.

This is a proposition to be tested by facts, carefully put together, not by ingenious argumentation on hypothetical cases; and it fortunately happens that a paper of great ability on "The Sewing-Machine and its Results," contributed by Mr. John Plummer (well known as a high authority on industrial topics) to the "Companion to the Almanac" for the present year (1877), furnishes the precise sort of evidence required.

The sewing-machine first appeared as a practical invention about thirty years ago. Thimonnier, the real originator of the idea, was a Frenchman, and, like too many great inventors, he did not live to enjoy any part of the fruits of his genius. Elias Howe, who followed Thimonnier, was an American working artisan, and found his first real support in England about 1847. At the present time, that is, about thirty years after the establishment of the invention, there are upward of 4,000,000 sewing-machines in use in various parts of the world; and the annual number of new machines produced in this country is estimated at 80,000, employing about 100,000 persons. In France, Germany, and Belgium, the production of machines is very large, and in the United States the annual out-turn of machines is perhaps greater than in the whole of Europe. In 1862 it was estimated that in the United States each machine saved to its owner 50s. a week, or say ₤130 per annum, in wages alone; or an aggregate saving in wages, for the whole country, of about ₤30,000,000. In 1875, that aggregate saving had risen to ₤100,000,000.

The facts, therefore, to be considered are imposing by their magnitude, and of high value, by reason of the diversity of the countries and populations by which they are supplied.

Mr. Plummer says: "In England the sewing-machine was first employed in the manufacture of common stays and corsets, of which several million pairs are annually produced. In earlier days the materials were sewed together by needlewomen of the poorest class, principally the wives of seamen and dock-laborers, whose earnings seldom averaged more than 3s. or 4s. a week. . . . From the stay-trade the sewing-machine found its way into the trades connected with the production of shirts, mantles, dresses, trousers, coats, and other articles of male and female clothing. In some of these trades the needlewomen could not, even by working very long hours, obtain more than 3s. or 4s. a week, and the public were continually shocked by painful revelations of destitution and misery among seamstresses. Hood's 'Song of the Shirt' expressed the public feeling. Needlewomen's Aid Associations were started, but wholly failed to lessen the evil. . . . The appearance of the sewing-machine changed all this. Shirts were made more rapidly and more cheaply than before, but the workwomen were better paid and did not work so many hours. The hours of labor fell, indeed, from eighteen hours a day to eleven or twelve."

The demand for hand-labor increased, because, while the machine did the heavy mechanical part of the work, the cutting out and preparation of the materials rendered necessary more "hands," and a superior aptitude and intelligence. The workers also became to a large extent the owners of the machines worked by them at home; and as the slavery and degradation of the needle became almost abolished, crowds of young women were attached to machine-working by the short hours and the high wages. It is this diversion of female labor which lies at the root of the scarcity of domestic servants, and the extraordinary rise in the wages given to such servants.

Improvements in the machine enabled it to be applied to boots, shoes, harness, and most articles made of leather. In November, 1857, a machine of this kind was introduced at Northampton, and immediately led to organized opposition by the Crispins of that centre of the shoe-trade. This opposition was more or less successful until February, 1859, when the manufacturers of Northampton and Stafford formed themselves into a league, and announced that they were prepared to compel the use of the machines in spite of the opposition of the men. A strike ensued. The men were defeated; and the machines very rapidly revolutionized the whole industry of boot and shoe making. Mr. Plummer says: "With the termination of the strike the operatives became eager to possess machines of their own, and in a short time there were few of the better class of workmen who were not proprietors of one machine or more. These were worked by the female members of their own families, or by women engaged for the purpose." The machines put an end to the more dangerous and unhealthy process of the work. Employers fitted up commodious factories supplied with machines, and hence has arisen the present factory system in the boot and shoe trade, a system as beneficial to the male and female workers as to the capitalists. It is estimated that now at least one-half of the Northampton employers have risen by means of machine-industry from the position of workmen.

Cheapness, rapidity of production, and excellence, led to a vastly increased demand for boots and shoes. Wages were raised; the work was easier; and the buildings in which it was carried on were vastly improved. In Leicester, in 1820, there were 150 operative shoemakers; in 1851 there were 1,375; in 1861, the machine having appeared, there were 2,315; and in 1871 there were 5,703, or nearly four times as many as at the ante-machine date of 1851,

In 1852, says Mr. Plummer, "the average amount of wages obtainable by an experienced female operator was 8s. to 10s. per week; now the earnings of the female machine-workers are 14s. to 16s. per week—slower hands get 10s., and the best workers 20s. to 24s. The female 'preparers' of work get 10s.. . . The machine has within a few years been applied to the straw hat and bonnet industry of Bedfordshire, and with the best results. Many of the plaiters who now suffer from Chinese competition, will, as machinists, obtain good wages. . . . In the mantle-trade in London, the wages of machinists are high, say, 14s. to 20s. for middling hands, and 23s., 29s., and even 33s., for superier workwomen."

As the general result, Mr. Plummer says that, "taking all the various industries in which the machine is used, the wages of the machinists may be estimated as being from 50 to 100 per cent. higher than the wages received by hand-workers before the machines appeared in the several industries." And he goes on to add: "The changes introduced by the machine have been attended with considerable advantages as regards the physical and social condition of the workers. There is a great improvement in their health and in the comfort of their homes. As regards the shoemaking population, both male and female, the change amounts to an absolute revolution, and decidedly for the better."

The sewing-machine has most effectually stimulated invention in other directions. In all leather manufactures, for example, the old, painful, unhealthy processes are now nearly all done by machinery driven by steam. In the stay and clothing trades the severe labor of using heavy shears by hand is superseded by steam-driven cutters, by the aid of which one man does the work of twenty. The cheapness arising from these appliances has so enlarged the demand that the quantity of labor employed in the trades is far greater than before.

This is the statement of the facts, and there is no reason to dispute it in any essential particular. The outline amounts to this: About twenty-five years ago the articles produced in all the industries connected with the fabrication of sewed, or "made-up," woven, and leather materials, were dear, and, except in the best instances, of inferior quality; and the laborers, male and female, but especially the latter, were among the worst paid, the hardest worked, and the most unhealthy, in the country. A mechanical invention, called the sewing machine, of moderate cost and simplicity, was then introduced, the objects of which were, by the application of ordinary labor in private houses or factories, to get rid of nearly all the irksome, slow, and unhealthy processes of hand-stitching, and so by reason of swiftness, exactness, and superiority of manufacture, greatly to reduce the selling price of the articles offered to the public. The effect of this invention was in a few years to establish two radical improvements throughout the industries in which it was most successful, namely: 1. The lessened price of the commodities to the consumer, their superior quality, and the circumstance that they were articles required by all, but especially by the middle and humbler classes, at once created an enlargement of demand so rapid and strong that it fully kept pace with the more efficient and swifter means of production; 2. The augmented gross produce arising from the decided success of the invention in rendering labor more efficient, in saving time, and improving quality, and reducing the outlay and risks of capital, was divided between the employers and work-people wholly by the operation of natural causes. There was no interference of the Legislature on one side or the other; and practically there was no interference of trades-unions to enforce a minimum rate of wages, or to impose restraints on the skill, industry, and deserts, of the individual male and female laborers. Everywhere there were inferior, middling, and superior laborers, earning corresponding wages; and everywhere the skillful and handiest laborers passed naturally into the class of employers and capitalists. It was a free and wholesome coöperation of capital and labor to supply the best and cheapest articles to the cash demand of a vigorous consumption; and the profits arising from the trade were divided between wages and capital wholly in proportion to the special skill and industry of the individual employers and employed; with the result, as we have seen, of raising wages from 50 to 100 per cent., and adding immeasurably to the comfort, health, and independence of the laborers, but especially of the female portion of them.

But such a result is neither more nor less than distribution of the proceeds of production of the most exact and equitable kind. On a large scale the increased quantity of wealth arising from the invention of the sewing-machine has been divided precisely as—on grounds of equity—it is most fit and beneficial that it should be divided; and this equitable and wholesome division has taken place as a necessary consequence of the most efficient methods of production being left at perfect liberty, as regards both workmen and masters, to arrive at the cheapest means of commanding and stimulating consumption. If at an early or later stage of the establishment of the sewing-machine it had been possible for the male to exclude the female workers; or, for the two combined to prevent the use of the machine in the houses of male or female workers; or, for any trades-union to enforce a minimum wage, or to impose restraints on individual skill and invention devoted to increase the gross profits—that is to say, the fund alone available for division between labor and capital—it is easy to see that the whole march of the improvement would have been retarded and thwarted. It is clear, also, that the two circumstances which have very materially assisted the success of the machine, as regards both producers and consumers, have been: 1. The small cast of the machine itself, which admitted its effective use in the homes of the workers, and in this way has cheapened production by rendering of value the intermittent labor of whole families as it could be spared, and when it could be easiest applied. In this respect the sewing-machine has been the reverse of the former handloom. The machine-workers have prospered because they could take the new invention into their houses without diminishing its force. The handloomers were superseded because the steam-shuttle could not be made a domestic implement. 2. The eminent suitability of female labor to the sewing-machine has secured a class of workers who have had the strongest motives to apply whatever skill and industry they possessed to increase their piece-work wages by the extent and efficiency of production. It may be added, indeed, that the great results which have been obtained are among the most cogent illustrations which can be found of the magical influence of payment by results, that is to say, of payment by the piece; for, happily, no other mode of payment has been possible for sewing-machine labor.

The lesson of the whole of this gratifying and hopeful history is, as we said at the outset, that the methods of most efficient production are those which necessarily contain within themselves the methods of most effectual and beneficial distribution: in other words, if we understand and apply thoroughly and truly the conditions which most cheaply, rapidly, and constantly produce wealth, we also, and as a necessary and pari passu consequence, understand and apply the conditions which insure the distribution of that wealth among all the parties concerned in the most just and beneficial manner. So far, philosophers and philanthropists have spent their energies in the wrong direction. They have sought for artificial means of what they considered more equal distribution of the products of industry, failing to see that in the circumstances and conditions which render industry on the largest scale most productive there are native and inherent forces which link together production and distribution at every step.—The Economist.