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A German Radical Emigrates to America in 1885

Labor organizer and newspaper editor Oscar Ameringer the “Mark Twain of American Socialism,” as he was often called, was born in Bavaria in 1870 to a cabinetmaker father and a freethinking mother. In this excerpt from his autobiography,If You Don’t Weaken, published in 1940, he discussed his decision to emigrate to America in 1885 as a fifteen-year-old “hellion.” In America, Ameringer ultimately carved out a remarkable and colorful career as a musician, labor organizer, and especially, an editor of socialist and radical newspapers.

School at last gratefully behind me, I became an apprentice in father’s cabinet shop. The machine age had already come in, but as far as our shop was concerned we were still in the handicraft era. Furniture was not made wholesale, but by order. Everything was done by hand and very much in the same manner and with the same tools as were used by the Egyptian joiners who dovetailed those wooden caskets for the glorification and preservation of Pharaoh and Co., which I was to see later. Wood was bought standing. Hands felled the trees. Hands loaded it on lumbering wagons and hauled it to the saw mill. More hands assisted by a slow-turning water wheel sawed it into boards and beams. Hands piled the sawed lumber in the lumber shed behind our home and shop. Hands, my own included, turned it over regularly, assuring straight and uniform seasoning.

The customer selected what he wanted from drawings made by hand. Price was set by the quality of wood and workmanship. Slighting workmanship for speed was a deadly sin. The customer’s selection made, we transferred the drawing to wood, sawed out the wood by hand, dressed it, put it together, planed, shaved, sandpapered it until the last blemish had vanished, then polished it by hand and finally delivered it by wheelbarrow or pushcart, propelled by hand.

It was slow work. I remember it took us a week to make an ordinary dresser, and two weeks or better for a fine or extra-fine one. Everything else was in proportion: a primitive way of making furniture, the same way many generations of cabinet makers had employed between Pharaoh’s and father’s time. I noticed, however, when I came to observe some of those Pharaoh’s coffins, that they were still beautifully intact. By the same token, I am certain that most of the furniture made in father’s shop is still doing duty.

Father was a guild master. Indeed, he was more than that. He was the master of the guild of joiners of the town. At the height of his career, father employed four journeymen and two apprentices. Master, journeymen, and apprentices shared the same roof and ate at the same table. The best went to the master. Second best to journeymen. Apprentices took what was left, paid for their tuition, and for good measure, washed dishes, ran errands, watched babies and changed diapers.

When an apprentice had served his three years, he made his “journeyman piece” in the shop of another master. If then, in the opinion of a committee of masters, he had demonstrated the proper qualifications, he was sent on the Wanderschaft, journey, to perfect himself in his craft in other cities and lands. The wandering journeyman was not a hobo. He was entitled to all the rights and privileges of a journeyman and future guild master. Entering a workshop of his craft he would say,“God greet thee, masters and journeymen of my guild.” That done, and no work available, he would receive a definite, stipulated journeyman’s stipend from his fellows, double the amount from the master, and so continue his journey.

In the larger towns there were Herbergen shelter homes, houses in which guild journeymen found welcome overnight. In the larger cities there were shelters for each separate guild. When the journeyman returned and passed his mastership, he was crowned master.

Father’s shop was also the meeting place of the remaining guild masters. In it I learned many things not found in books about the troubles caused by the changing order. The age of handicraft was fading. Discussions were often heated and highly uncomplimentary to the new dispensation. There ought to be laws prohibiting machines, the guild masters would argue. There ought to be laws to forbid people who had not served their time as apprentices, and journeymen, and made their masterpieces, from plying their particular trades. “Free trade,” by which they meant the privilege of plying trades without having acquired the lore and sanction of the respective guilds, must be done away with. One fellow, they pointed out, with no more experience in the art and mysteries of furniture-making than a new-born babe, had already established a furniture store in town. Another one, and a despised Jew at that, was operating a furniture factory by the grace of water power and free trade. And what’s the world coming to anyhow, with unfair competition and chiselers all around? These good guild masters talked almost like General Hugh Johnson sixty years later, when the NRA was in flower, and to the same effect. The machine had come. Their breed was doomed. Work in the guild shops dwindled. The machine output was trash, of course. However, it was cheaper. People could see what they bought before they bought it. One after the other, guild masters gave up the ghost, were sucked into factories, or did home work serving the machine Moloch.

Father never became a machine hand, a term which connoted something considerably lower than a mangy hound suffering from flea bites and moral turpitude. Father died with his guild boots on. Just once I can remember he came near falling from grace. The local furniture factory had received a large order for the kind of box in which artists carry their tubes, brushes, and palettes. By then the Moloch had learned almost all the operations which go into the making of artist’s boxes except the dovetailing of their four sides. We were masters at dovetailing. I heard father say, addressing an unseen machine, “Go ahead, damn you, but dovetailing is one thing you never will learn!”

I had not minded learning the furniture trade, although painting would have suited me better. There is something fascinatingly creative about helping a dead piece of wood evolve into a thing of beauty and service to man. But young as I was, I foresaw the end of the golden age of handicraft. There was still the career of military bandsman, future policeman, letter carrier, street-car conductor and poor but deserving pensioner to fall back on. But in the meantime something else had happened.

I was still enamored of soldiering, even though I despised my military music trainers, who had cuffed, slapped and abused me until I hated their very guts. I had heard them and other ex-soldiers discuss, as if the words were sweet on their tongues, how they had abused, insulted, and browbeaten underlings, or how they themselves had been abused, mauled and browbeaten by their superiors. I had seen a sergeant on a drill ground in Ulm slap the cheek of a private, spit in his face, and for good measure kick him in the crotch with heavy hobnailed boots. The king’s uniform, it had finally dawned on me, was a fine thing to look upon from the outside, but a mighty poor thing to be wrapped up in.

The climax that finally caused me to take the most decisive step of my whole life was one of those accidents that so frequently shape the destiny of us “self-made men.” Our band was playing in the beer garden of another town. A young country yokel, under the influence of too many steins, had made what I thought a harmless nuisance of himself, and a policeman, clad in the regulation spiked helmet and blue brass-buttoned uniform of his calling, ordered the exhilarated youth out of the beer garden. The youngster was rather happy where he was; an argument started. The peasant was dragged towards the exit, belabored on the way with the flat part of the policeman’s drawn saber. Without a moment’s thought I jumped on the back of the law, wrapped my arm around its neck, and tried my best to choke the life out of it. The beatings I received in return, then and there and later at home, still linger in my memory. . . .

There were other factors. I was already the town pariah. In the opinion of its burghers and burgheresses, all but mother, I was doomed and damned. There were only two courses for young hellions like me. Gallows and hell—or America. So to America I went, partly pushed, but mostly drawn, some eight months before my sixteenth birthday, at which time I was scheduled to enter the army and toot my horn for Gott, Koenig andVaterland.

There were no tears shed at my departure, save mother’s and mine.

Source: Oscar Ameringer, If You Don’t Weaken . . . The Autobiography of Oscar Ameringer (1940; reprint, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), 36–40.