Glenn Uminowicz - September 2006
Work, Fellowship and Just Plain Fun
For many Americans, Labor Day now merely marks the official ending of summer rather than a time to recognize the contributions of working men and women. It became a national holiday in 1894. President Grover Cleveland tried to repair political damage resulting from his use of federal troops to put down a strike by the American Railway Union that resulted in the deaths of thirty-four workers.
In today’s new information age, the experiences of industrial factory workers seem more and more a distant memory. Far more distant still seems the life of an early-19th-century independent artisan whose house still stands on Washington Street in Easton—Quaker cabinetmaker James Neall.
In 1800, Neall would have been justified in anticipating a bright future for his new nation, the Eastern Shore and himself. In the decades after the Revolution, America was blessed with an extraordinary group of political leaders. Between 1788 and 1820, they adopted the Constitution and established the three branches of the federal government. A political party system evolved and the size of the nation doubled with the Louisiana Purchase. A great wave of evangelical preaching swept across the country that both converted sinners and spawned efforts at moral reform. Finally, Americans availed themselves of burgeoning economic opportunities.
Elected in 1800, Thomas Jefferson saw a new national character being formed. America would be a nation of yeoman farmers and independent artisans. Jefferson insisted that farmers derived a special virtue from their closeness to the land and artisans rose on merit through a fluid hierarchy that stretched from apprenticeship to master craftsman.
In 1800, the Eastern Shore appeared a suitable setting for Jefferson’s agrarian republic. It remained agricultural as farmers shifted from growing tobacco to wheat and corn. To grow grains, fewer farmers relied on slave labor. It proved more cost effective to use free black labor as needed. Manumissions increased for both economic and moral reasons. Both the Quakers and Methodists denounced the evil of slavery . The former denomination was already well established on the Shore. The latter was on the ascendant as fiery circuit riding ministers attracted hundreds to camp meetings where the woods “echoed with loud hallelujahs.”
Because of the Napoleonic Wars that engulfed Europe beginning in the 1790s, American foodstuffs, including wheat, were in high demand and fetched farmers a good price. Townsmen also shared in the general prosperity. Easton, for example, secured its position as Maryland’s second capital on the Eastern Shore with the construction of a new courthouse in 1794. The town was home to a rising middle class made up of merchants, doctors, lawyers, editors, bankers and skilled artisans like James Neall.
Neall’s older brother Joseph died in 1800 at the age of forty-five and left his cabinetmaking business to James. The older Neall likely operated out of a small shop where he worked with four apprentices. They lived in a diminutive wood frame house built in 1795 that still stands on West Street in Easton, a rare surviving example of an 18th century artisan’s dwelling.
When he passed away, Joseph left James the house and land, the business and a considerable amount of linear feet of lumber. In life, Joseph’s frugality related to building what craftsmen called a “competency,” a deliberate accumulation of wealth and property that secured a dignified retirement. Upon Joseph’s death, his competency passed to James.
In 1801, James married Rachael Cox and, sometime between 1805 and 1810, they moved into the handsome new Federal style townhouse on Washington Street. James also built a two-story shop for himself and his apprentices.
For both Joseph and James Neall, there was a “bespoke” nature to the cabinetmaking business. They created a wardrobe or desk only after a client selected a piece from a pattern book. The master craftsmen then laid out the work that the apprentices rough cut and smoothed. Finally, the master executed the detailed work that finished the piece.
n addition to working alongside their employees, masters like Joseph and James Neall were proprietors who did everything from meeting the customers to keeping the books. In the shop, everyone’s work was tasked oriented. Long hours could be spent finishing a commission. Because of the “bespoke” nature of the business, however, periods of intense activity could be punctuated by periods of idleness. An artisan’s worklife had its rhythms like that of a farmer between planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall.
Labor historian Bruce Laurie noted that shopmates, including masters, needed no excuses to practice idleness. He observed that their day was a “blend of work, fellowship and plain fun.” New York ship carpenters, for example, started work just after sunrise. At about 8:30 am, they took a kind of coffee break for sweets and pastries. At 11:00 am, they stopped for a dram of beer or sugared rum and usually had several drams later in the day. Apprentices were sent off to local taverns to top off the shop jug and sometimes “robbed the mail” on the way back. Masters tolerated drinking as long as it did not get out of control. Artisans also typically took their main meal sometime in the middle of the day.
As Quakers, the Neall brothers would have discouraged strong drink like whiskey, but likely permitted beer in their shops. Laurie points out that drink was not the only form of relaxation at work. Artisans prided themselves as being literate men and delighted in displaying their forensic skills. James Neall, for example, owned a set of encyclopedia to enhance his knowledge of the world. Given the no holds barred politics of the day, the newspapers would have been a rich source of material for discussion. Do you think it true? a shopmate might have asked, what the Republican Star published about Federalist Alexander Stuart? Is he truly a “lying varlet,” a “driveler,” and an “arch demon”?
In the wake of a long depression that began in 1819, the world of the artisan began to change. The so-called “sweated system” developed where workers used hand tools at home or in small shops on simplified tasks—a kind of non-mechanized assembly line. The age of the factory with its synchronized flow of work from many hands grew closer.
James Neall abandoned his cabinetmaking business in 1818 and made a failed attempt at farming. By 1824, he was manufacturing and selling wheat fans used to separate grain from the chaff. Like Neall, some artisans were reduced to producing a single utilitarian item. By 1830, he had moved to Philadelphia and taken up dentistry and the manufacture of artificial teeth. He died in Easton in 1841 at age sixty-five.
After the Civil War, the time clock symbolized the new discipline required for factory production. It clearly demarcated the separation of work and non-work time. A blend of work, fellowship and plain fun had no place on the factory floor. Working people fought to protect their non-work time. Advocates for the eight-hour workday used the refrain, “Eight hours for work, Eight hours for sleep, Eight hours for what we will.”
In the late 20th century, the laptop computer and the cell phone demolished the line of demarcation defined by the time clock. The television magazine 60 Minutes ran a segment on two wired young professionals who remained on call sixty or more hours per week. Their periods of intense work did not appear to be punctuated by periods of idleness. In short, these post-industrial workers really needed to hire an apprentice and buy a shop jug.
To end on an encouraging note, National Public Radio recently reported on an emerging trend among college graduates that campus recruiters have encountered. Many students were looking at the corporate culture at a potential employer’s business. They did not want to be tethered to a cell phone and a laptop. They wanted some balance in their lives. The Nealls had it. The factory workers who came after them fought to get it. At the dawn of the 21st century, some young people are insisting on having “Eight hours for what we will.”