30 October 2013

Bad for Trade

Laurence Housman, "Art and Citizenship," Ploughshare and Pruning-Hook (London: Swarthmore Press, 1919), pp. 199-201:
[A]s an example of the particular value which does sometimes attach to hand labour (irrespective of its artistic value), I have here a small unused sample of chair-cover material of English make, produced about eighty years ago, at a probable cost  so I am told by experts  of under £2 the square yard. The chairs it was made to cover are now in my possession. During the twenty-five years of my own personal acquaintance with them they have had plenty of hard wear; but even at the corners that material has not yet begun to wear out ; and the colour has only become softer and more mellow in quality.

Within the last ten years I endeavoured to get that covering matched in a modern material, and I paid for the nearest match I could get about one-fifth of the price I have quoted. That material has already gone shabby; and where it is most worn and faded the colour, instead of mellowing, has gone dead and dirty in quality. The older material will probably outlast my time.

There, then, are the comparative values of the old and the new material. You pay the higher price for the old, but in the end it is more economical. And it has this double advantage (or what would be a double advantage in a State where industrial conditions were sound), that it inclines its possessor to adopt a more permanent style of furnishing, by making age beautiful and change unnecessary; and so it sets free a great amount of human labour for other purposes; not merely the labour of the textile workers who have not to provide new covers, but the labour of the upholsterers, who are not called upon to rip off a series of old covers and fit on new ones, dragging old nails out and driving fresh nails in, with the result that the framework of the chair itself is presently worn out and a new one required in its place. All that labour is saved.

That small example is important because it exemplifies those possibilities of permanence attaching to certain forms of hand-labour out of which can be developed a school of textile manufacture indigenous in character  indigenous in that you give it time to become embedded in its domestic setting, and to make for itself domestic history. It enables you to develop an appreciation for subtleties of colour, and to secure tones and harmonies which you cannot get ready-made in a shop: it gives to a piece of furniture life-value.

But it is bad for trade!

Now why is it bad for trade? It is bad for trade because our modern industrial conditions have brought us to this pass, that it is no longer our national aim to direct labour and set it free for other work that really needs to be done. Our national problem is rather to find work for people, at times even to invent needs, and to create a fictitious turnover in trade so that we may not have upon our hands an enormous increase of the unemployed problem. And as hands go begging, as we have more hands in the country than we can employ on useful and fit labour (fit, I mean, for such fine implements as these and for the brains behind them), therefore hands are inevitably put to degrading uses, and the joy goes out of work; and for the delight (or at least the intelligent patience) of true craftsmanship is substituted the soul-destroying bondage of mechanical labour at something which is not really worth producing.
William Morris, Snakeshead Textile (1876)