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“I Was a Cabinet-maker By Trade”: A Working Man’s Recollections of America, 1825–35

Urban artisans experienced dramatic changes in the second quarter of the 19th century. New York and other cities were destinations of choice for many rural mechanics as well as those coming from overseas. Upon arrival they found workshops in great flux as traditional social relations among master, journeyman, and apprentice were being transformed into an employer-employee relationship. In some crafts, such as cabinetmaking, change came more slowly because of the complexities of fashioning large case furniture. In other trades, such as tailoring, tiny sweatshops started to dot the city streets. A new working class was coming into being, often with a variety of religions and backgrounds, and they organized to contest these and other changes in work conditions and compensation. This anonymous account from a British periodical in 1845 related the experience of a British cabinetmaker in New York in the 1830s; he eventually returned home.

I was a cabinet-maker by trade, and one of the many who, between the years 1825–35, expatriated themselves in countless thousands, drawn by the promise of fair wages for faithful work, and driven by the scanty remuneration offered to unceasing toil at home, and overpowering pressure of the burthens immersed by the state, at a time when none of that sympathy which now occupies so large a portion of the public mind was shown to or felt for the working classes. Many an anxious look did poor parents at that day cast on the expectant faces of their little ones when seated round the table, on comparing the demand for bread with the small and uncertain supply, and with a shudder of horror half anticipated the pileous cry of hunger and misery. Work they did, work unceasingly; but apparently to no good; the wolf would never go away from the door, and was always heard scratching on the outside....

I had always read in books and letters on America, that work was ever abundant, and to be obtained without difficulty; but all my experience proves the contrary, at least as regards New York. At the first place I entered, the proprietor informed me that trade was “ pretty well used up,” and “no hands were wanted.” Another gave as a reason for not requiring any addition to his number of workmen that “General Jackson had tinkered the constitution too successfully for business to be what it ought to be for a pretty considerable time.” At a third place, a lad waiting in the store, in reply to my query, hailed a companion working at the back of the house, “Hiram, call the boss :”the boss came, and on repeating my inquiry, he observed, “My stock of furniture is going off, that’s a fact; but I can’t take hands on for want of the pewter.”

It would be tedious to detail all the reasons given by the “bosses” on whom I called during my walks, which were continued unsuccessfully for a week. In only a single instance did I hear any thing like an expression of jealousy of strangers; one manufacturer remarked in an angry tone, that “the city was overcrowded with foreigners who took away work that by right belonged to the citizens.” "Go west,“ was the general observation, ”go west; the city’s too full; any quantity of work out west.“ My means, however, did not admit of my undertaking another long journey; and on the eighth day I was fortunate enough to find employment from a master tradesman who had emigrated from England twenty years previously; he now lived in his own house, had a capital business, and was worth many thousand dollars. On telling him that I had been advised to go to the country, he said, ”Don’t do any such thing; if you can’t get a living in New York, you can’t in any part of the Union; I have tried both, and know it."

This was cheering. I went to work the next morning; and in the course of the same week had the good luck to meet with two rooms and a pantry to let, in a small farmhouse, which I hired for sixty-five dollar yearly rent. During my first day’s work I found my shopmates were from many different countries; two were Americans, one Irish, one English, two Germans, and one Frenchman. On my first entrance, the foreman, an American, called out to the representative of the emerald isle, “Look here. Paddy; here’s another Johnny Ball come over to be civilized.” John Bull, however, can afford to be laughed at. After we became acquainted we went on very pleasantly together: the superior skill of the Germans and Frenchman was of the highest service to me, who had much to learn, never having worked but in a provincial town in England; and as the Frenchman could not speak a word of English, and worked at the next bench to mine, my French studies were materially benefited by the conversations I had with him, and the more so as he was a remarkably intelligent workman....

On landing in New York I made up my mind to lose none of the advantages it uttered by want of diligence on my part. During the first two years I took but one holiday, and that was passed in company with a French shopmate, in a glorious stroll on the wave-beaten sands, and among the breezy woods of States Island. In summer we began work at six; at eight took half an hour forbreakfast, and then worked till twelve, when one an hour for dinner; after which we kept on till six, seven, or eight, as we pleased, deferring our third meal until the close of our daily labour. In the winter we took breakfast before day-light, so as to arrive at the workshop by the time we could see to work, thereby gaining, and wring ourselves a walk unpleasant weather. On leaving at eight in the evening, I carried with me a portion of my tools, and set myself to make up such articles of furniture as we most needed, and frequently have I found myself still busy, impatient for the completion of the object that would afford us at once convenience and ornament, at the striking of the “wee short hour ayont the twal.” At other times, after laying down my load of tools, I would find it difficult to resist the feeling of weariness induced by eleven hours of previous labour, and sinking instinctively into a chair, take up a book, and soon forget my mechanical duties. It will show how far I was possessed by the utilitarian feeling that,

on such occasions, I thought that I had lost an evening. I did not then know that this was one of the methods of by nature for restoring her balance, compensating for the tension of muscular exertion.

It took another form in the workshop: there it frequently happened about the middle of the afternoon of some sultry summer’s day, or of a stormy day in winter, after several weeks of real hard work unrelieved by any change, that a simultaneous cessation from work took place, no one could tell why, though no surprise was manifested that, in the one case, we placed ourselves near an open window, or in the other that we drew round the stove. Then, as it were by tacit agreement, every hand held out its contribution of “loose change;” the apprentice was sent on his errand, and speedily returned laden with wine, brandy, biscuits, and cheese. The appropriation of these refreshments was sure to call forth songs from those who felt musical; after which came a proposition for a further supply, which provoked a more noisy vocalization, while the conversation which had been animated became excited. With a third installment we concluded the day, and went home half in wonder at our folly, half vexed at our loss of time, feelings which the dizziness of our heads and the uneasiness of our limbs rendered more acute the next day. I always remarked on these occasions that the brandy was drank by the English, Americans, or Irish, while the French and Germans invariably chose wine, remarking that the spirit was too strong. Their songs, too, possessed more sentiment and character, and were much more musical, than those roared by the natives or “Britishers.” I remember once quizzing one of our Germans on some peculiarities of his country, to which he replied, “Ah, dat is very well; but you can’t make kings and kveens in your country; you must come to my country for dem.”

It is matter of notoriety and of observation that, of all the emigrants who flock into the United States, the English are generally the least successful. The Irish, Scotch, Germans, save money; and of those who crowd the shipping offices for the remitting of money to their friends in the “old country,” the greater proportion will be found among these three nations. Many of them who on their first arrival worked on the wharfs or in the streets, rise gradually upwards until they have accumulated sufficient capital to enable them to go west, or to open a “store,” which then becomes the temporary headquarters of all their acquaintances who may thereafter seek their fortune on the western side of the Atlantic. The English, on the contrary, probably from the absurd notions they entertain of their own importance, involve themselves in perpetual disputes with the natives as to the respective superiority of the old or new country. They do not fall easily into the busy movements around them: their own opinions must be the best; they do not work from necessity, but as a compliment to the country, they cannot abide that their standard of living should be in any degree below that of the Americans, hence their lack of economy; and so they go on grumbling until they are pushed aside by more active competitors.

In the summer of 1836, when the inflated state of commerce and speculation had reached its height, when prices and rents were increasing in a like proportion, a strike took place among the cabinet-makers. They were dissatisfied with the wages then paid for their labour; and having compiled a new price-book as the basis of their claims, they held meetings; appointed committees; and on a given day, with very few exceptions, ceased working in all the shops of the city. The Americans of our workshop were among the noisiest of the strike, and naturally expected that I should join them; but to this, for several reasons, 1 was disinclined. First, I considered that I was receiving quite as high wages as my manual skill deserved; next, I felt disposed to attach more importance to the claims of my family than to the ill-considered demands of a body of men, of which the greater part were but the stepping-stones for a few selfish individuals; and last, my “turning out” would have been but an ill return for the kindness of my employer, who had given me work in the anxious time immediately following our arrival, and befriended me in various ways afterwards. Two or three deputations were sent to argue with me on the subject; in vain I expressed my belief that the unsatisfactory rate of wages was rather to be attributed to the unprecedented influx of workmen from abroad, than to any other circumstance; they silenced, without convincing me: and finding me firm, they resorted to threats, and promised to waylay and “hammer ” me on my way home from work, and concluded their arguments with a high-flown and frothy exposition of the rights of man—of the bounden duty of the minority to yield to whatever the majority may enact. Threats succeeded no better than arguments; I kept on working during the whole of the strike, and in the six weeks that it lasted earned forty-eight dollars; while the others, although in a few instances they obtained a rise, were, at the end of a month after, working at the old wages, having lost nearly half of the best season, and in many cases were supplanted by other artisans which the continued tide of emigration poured into the city. A year or two afterwards I accidentally met one of the members of the deputations, who, recognising me, stopped for a few minutes to speak of his recollections of the event, and added, with a laugh, “You were the toughest customer we had; but I guess it would have been better for us had we all done as you did.”

Thousands in America will long remember the wild speculative excitement of 1836. Every one, the wise, the proud, and the learned, was making haste to be rich: the desire spread like a contagion. What wonder, then, that I should have been led astray by the general delusion? A relative who arrived from England held out to me bright prospects of advantages to be realized by the employment of a little capital, combined with a removal to some inland town. I sold off nearly the whole of our moveables, whose fabrication had occupied the evenings of the previous winters ; and having made a preliminary journey with my friend, returned alone at the end of three weeks, with a large accession of experience, but a most woful lack of dollars. In other words, our scheme had completely failed, and I had no resource but in my industry and chest of tools to meet the impending difficulties. Remaining in New York was now out of the question; dread of the ridicule which my thoughtlessness or folly would excite was too great to be easily withstood. I therefore resolved on removing to Poughkeepsie, a town on the banks of the Hudson, about eighty miles above the city, where a large fire having just before burnt down two cabinet-making establishments, it was reasonable to hope that work would be readily obtained.

Our whole capital, as with our baggage we took places on a bright smoking morning in June on board of one of the Albany steamers, was five dollars. The Champlain was one of the finest boats on the river. Her deck was crowded with passengers, all apparently animated by the exhilarating morning breeze. The scenery on either shore was such as to claim admiration: but heaviness was at my heart which nothing could remove. It seemed that my hand would not quit the pocket, where the dollars were counted again and again: while as I looked on our two little boys, who, pleased with the novelty of their situation, were running merrily about the deck. I found myself involuntarily calculating how long they would live on two dollars, all that would lie left after the payment of our fare. I sat upon my chest, lost....

Source: "A Working Man’s Recollections of America," Knights Penny Magazine 1 (1846), 97, 102, 107–08