Monday, June 04, 2007

Art, Trade, And Mystery

The amazingly hardworking Instapundit (does he sleep?) has an ongoing interest in manual skills, and our collective lack thereof. He's linked to various and sundry disquisitions on the topic -including one of mine. I'm afraid most of them remind me of the Onion article: Executive Fascinated With Electrician's Lunch. He even linked yesterday to someone that thought trade protectionism would force people to acquire hand skills again, as inexpensive consumer goods would no longer be available to the masses. I recall a more forceful version of this same idea being tried in the 1970s by a fellow named Pol Pot. People who think that heavy lifting is good clean fun are playing in the world of physical exertion. No one that has to lift heavy things for a living thinks that way.

At any rate, the hand skills everyone is talking about aren't lost, they're mostly obsolete. I admit I smirk a little every time I see the sanctimony and the hammers come out when a gang of well-meaning people gather to bang framing nails into wall studs for charity. One man working alone with a pneumatic gun and compressor could do the work of fifty amateurs with hammers. I'm all for helping those in need, of course, but making up imaginary tasks to make yourself feel better is not the same as helping. There is plenty of unskilled labor at a homesite. You're not interested in any of it, trust me.

I'm very enthusiastic about encouraging people to bang on their homes and posessions to make them their own. Hell, I've built my own boat as well as my own house. It's gratifying to produce or repair objects with your own hands. Period.

I've got pretty much all the "hand skills" the cubicle crowd seem to covet. But beware: Here's how you used to get them. When you're done reading, I doubt you'll still be interested in most of them. Birdhouses are still in play, though. Go for it!

I'm rereading a book about houses in 18th Century Williamsburg. Strangely enough, it's called "The Eighteenth-Century Houses of Williamsburg." by Marcus Whiffen. If it was published today, it would have a cover that said something like:

"Torn From Yesterday's Headlines-The Exciting True Story of the Heat and Passion of our Passionate Hot Forefathers and Mothers:"
"The Desperate Bodice Stitchers of Williamsburg!"

Or something.

It was published in 1960, so they just told it like it was. I'd rather read one book like this than a metric tonne of fiction anyday. The only bodices that get ripped are because they caught them on a stray nail while burning quicklime in a brick kiln, but I can do without the "excitement." It's interesting enough as it is.

John D. Rockefeller Junior bankrolled the collection and restoration of the houses there, if I recall correctly, and good for him. I always insist that the history that truly matters is not military history, but the march of events in the life of the great mass of citizens of a great nation that defines its progress. The clashing armies are important in that they define the ability and willingness of a society to defend itself, and its will to do so. What they are defending is just as interesting to me.

How did people live? Dress? Labor? Raise children? Learn? What did they sit on, and what kind of dwelling did they live in? Places like Williamsburg catalog just these quotidian details, and bless them for it.

Really dry books like "Houses of Williamsburg" have the scholarly details that lend perspective to our own lives, when we see how far we have come, but also how much we still retain. I found one particularly telling detail in it. It's a contract for Indenture between an orphaned boy and a bricklayer. Here it is:

This Indenture Witnesseth that John Webb an Orphan hath put himself, and by these Presents doth voluntarily and of his own free Will and Accord. put himself apprentice to William Phillips of Williamsburg Bricklayer to learn his Art, Trade, and Mystery: and after the Manner of and Apprentice to serve the said William Phillips from the day of the date hereof for and during and unto the full end and Term of five Years next ensuing during all which Term, the said Apprentice, his said Master faithfully shall serve, and his Secrets keep, who's lawful commands at all Times readily obey; He shall do no damage to his said Master, nor see it to be done by others, without giving Notice thereof to his said master. He shall not waste his said Master's Goods nor lend them unlawfully to any...

To the modern eye, this looks like two paces from slavery. But not to the modern tradesman's eye. Because what you just read was essentially the same as the situation my peers and I entered into when we entered the building trades in the seventies. It wasn't written down, but it was spoken, or understood. I'll serve you faithfully if you teach me a trade is the bargain we all struck with someone older, wiser, and more experienced, but didn't mind having a seventeen year old around to pick up the 90 pound sacks of cement for him. And the only two questions asked of the prospective applicant were: Will you work hard? and: Will you stick around long enough to make my investment in your learning pay off? Answer yes, and you'd be pointed to a stack of something heavy that very minute.

In a very real way you were adopted like this fellow was. You were talking to the tradesman in the first place because you were his child, or nephew, or neighbor, or the son of a fellow churchgoer or lodge member. Somebody had vouched for you before you ever got to stand nervously in front of the guy, while he wondered if those little arms of yours could lift what he needed lifted.

"Art, Trade, and Mystery" is wonderful. I've never heard it described better. Good construction work is an art, and so many poor souls flounder around these days because they learn the "art" in a desultory fashion, get stars in their eyes, and go out on their own without learning the "Trade" which refers to the business end of the deal. "Mystery" is the magnificent capstone to the trio of benefits. Specialized skills and knowledge are the heart of any trade, and customers know better than anyone that hiring a tradesmen to do anything for you is a descent into mystery. The plumber knows the mystery of making the contents of the toilet bowl disappear, and for that mystery you're glad to pay him.

There's sound advice for the young man later in the deed, (it is a deed we're reading from, just like title to a piece of property) although it's more than just advice in a contract like this:

He shall not committ Fornication, nor contract Matrimony within the said term. At Cards, Dice, or any other unlawful Game he shall not play whereby his said master may have damage...He shall not absent himself day or night from his said Master's Service, without his leave, nor haunt Alehouses, Taverns, or Play Houses, but in all Things behave himself as a faithful Apprentice ought to do...

If I had a nickel for every fellow tradesman I knew, whether working alongside me or employed by me, that had ignored exactly this kind of advice and ruined their lives, I'd be rich as Croesus. Tweak it a bit, and make it the first week of instruction in Vocational High School, and you'd have my support.

What's in it for the Apprentice?

...said Master shall you the utmost of his endeavors to teach, or cause to be taught or instructed the said Apprentice in the trade or Mystery of a Bricklayer and procure or provide for him sufficient Meat Drink Cloaths, Washing and Lodging fitting for an Apprentice during the said term of Five Years...

So at the end of five years, the young man would know everything he needed to know to be his own man, and be able to go out in the world and make his living. It's interesting to note that he's promised what is essentially a living wage for single young person and an education, nothing more, but nothing less either. He's not promised the 1700's version of and I-pod, or bachelor pad, or a bitchin' truck, or a sports car, or Nike shoes, or restaurant meals, thrice a day.

The employer has some serious obligations as well, alike in kind and importance to the contract. And I doubt the interdiction against gambling, booze and monkeyshines with girls is prudery, it's probably rooted in the knowledge that your clumsy efforts won't support that kind of easy living for a long time yet, or egads, not a wife and family yet, so knock it off.

Anyway, there were no snout houses at Williamsburg, and no public welfare housing for people on the dole. Both the plans for the houses and the contracts for the workmen were drawn up by amateurs, not professionals, and they're ten times better than what we have for the same things now, drawn up by legions of professionals and lawyers.

There's a lesson in that somewhere. I'm not exactly sure where. I'm an amateur philosopher, not a professional. But I assure you, in 1975, I would have signed that document, and been the better for it.


Bruce G Charlton said...

Classic stuff.

PatHMV said...

Obsolete, correct.

I'm all for people becoming a little more knowledgeable about all things mechanical, but you are very correct. My great-grandparents undoubtedly lamented the inability of my parent's generation to skin a fox, churn butter by hand, or salt-cure their own bacon. Their ancestors, in turn, probably lamented my great-grandparents' generation's inability to wash clothes in a stream, or something. Where does it end?

I agree with Glenn Reynold's larger point, that kids would do better, be healthier and smarter, with more outdoor and unscheduled activities. But some of the yearning for the old ways is simple nostalgia of the type practiced by every generation before ours.

SippicanCottage said...

Thanks, Bruce.

Pat- It's always gratifying to make things with your own hands. I was pleased when you mentioned me while describing your excellent effort in the manual arts.

I think Reynolds interest in things manual is heartfelt and has merit. Others wade into the noble savage territory that thinks we'd all be happier in a state of nature. People with any kind of passing experience with that sort of talk know that means: back in the ditch, you.

PatHMV said...

Yep. It's all in the balance, my friend, it's all in the balance.

Chris Byrne said...

Funny enough, the post Glen linked was what started me reading Sippican Cottage.

Oh and I managed to acquire the skills the old fashioned way, in a manner of speaking...

My first real job was in my uncle Carls furniture restoration shop; where I learned cabinetry, finish carpentry, and finishing.

When there wasn't enough to do in the finishing shop I worked on my cousins framing, drywalling, painting, and electrical job sites.

I was never going to be a tradesman (I started engineering school at 16, went from there to the Air Force; and then into information and physical security consulting); but it was a good collection of useful skills that I enjoyed; and that earned me good money for a 15 year old.

Thing is, I'm a typical New England Irish Catholic. My father is a master stonemason. My cousins and uncles are roofers and framers and painters and electricians. The rest of my family are lawyers, cops, teachers, and criminals.

I learned at their feet so to speak; and it has stood me well, in building everything from furniture, to significant portions of my own house.

I guess a lot of folks don't have that same opportunity anymore though; which is too bad.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi Chris- Not so different from my own background; although it was my uncle that was the stonemason. I don't know why,exactly, but this sentence of yours struck me almost funny:

"The rest of my family are lawyers, cops, teachers, and criminals."

Some of mine are multiples.