September 4, 2006

Labor Day topic: idleness.

Tom Lutz has an op-ed that's mostly about the pleasures of a professor's flexible work schedule but has a really cool section about how workers in the 19th century behaved -- claiming flexibility for themselves:
In 1877 a New York cigar manufacturer grumbled that his cigar makers could never be counted on to do a straight shift’s work. They would “come down to the shop in the morning, roll a few cigars,” he complained to The New York Herald, “and then go to a beer saloon and play pinochle or some other game.” The workers would return when they pleased, roll a few more cigars, and then revisit the saloon, all told “working probably two or three hours a day.” Cigar makers in Milwaukee went on strike in 1882 simply to preserve their right to leave the shop at any time without their foreman’s permission.

In this the cigar workers were typical. American manufacturing laborers came and left for the day at different times. “Monday,” one manufacturer complained, was always “given up to debauchery,” and on Saturdays, brewery wagons came right to the factory, encouraging workers to celebrate payday. Daily breaks for “dramming” were common, with workers coming and going from the work place as they pleased. Their workdays were often, by 20th-century standards, riddled with breaks for meals, snacks, wine, brandy and reading the newspaper aloud to fellow workers.

An owner of a New Jersey iron mill made these notations in his diary over the course of a single week:

“All hands drunk.”

“Jacob Ventling hunting.”

“Molders all agree to quit work and went to the beach.”

“Peter Cox very drunk.”

“Edward Rutter off a-drinking.”

At the shipyards, too, workers stopped their labor at irregular intervals and drank heavily. One ship’s carpenter in the mid-19th century described an almost hourly round of breaks for cakes, candy and whiskey, while some of his co-workers “sailed out pretty regularly 10 times a day on the average” to the “convenient grog-shops.” Management attempts to stop such midday drinking breaks routinely met with strikes and sometimes resulted in riots. During much of the 19th century, there were more strikes over issues of time-control than there were about pay or working hours.
What are you going to? They got thirsty. When did coffee come into the picture? I'm guessing there's already a book called "How Coffee Created the Modern World" or something. Lutz has a book, "Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America," which I hope is full of stories like that, though there's nothing relevant about coffee -- I learned, from pursuing my curiosity through the ultra-easy "Search Inside the Book" tool at Amazon. Despite that lack, I'm interested in the book. Slackerishly, I wonder: Is there a downloadable audio version?

A book I do have -- right here on the shelf -- it's one of my favorites -- is "Essays in Idleness," which was written in the 1300s by a Buddhist monk named Kenko. It starts off:
What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.
How many words in that sentence do you need to change to make it all about the blogger? That's no Zen koan. The answer is too obvious: one! But there is a deep mystery in Kenko's sentence. "Nothing better to do" can be understood to mean not that one has nothing good to do but that this is the very best thing.

How much do you value your free time? Do you use it to rest and recover or do you use it to do work that, because it's done in your own time -- in time you own -- is transformed into pleasure?


Ron said...

Wait, I take back what I said in the comments of the 'reading' post; I DO have friends in the past, and they're out a-drinking and having candy, cake and whiskey every hour! The 19th century is makin' far too much sense all of a sudden! I think in the future when factories create 100 times the product at 1/100 the cost and no people in them at all, they'll refer to the 20th century as that "Wacky Time When We Thought We Could Turn People Into Robots."

SippicanCottage said...
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nicky said...

I've lived most of my life just down the street from Kenko's stomping grounds. His writings have given me much help and joy. I wonder what he'd have to say about that translation of his work into English? This sentence especially presents great problems Besides the incoherence that the use of words like "strange" and "demented" create, not to mention the pages that could be written about "inkstone" in order to give Western moderns a leg up, and how "jotting" doesn't capture the feeling at all, and on and on and on, it is very hard to understand what on earth the translators were thinking when they used "with nothing better to do?" I mean I understand the words they were looking at and the situation they found themselves in, and having been there myself I can easily forgive them, but I sure wish they had done a better job of explaining to Ann our troubles. Any phrase will do in a pinch I guess. The translation of Kenko's prose/poetry into English is a vice grip.

"It starts off..." re: "the translation starts off...."

Tibore said...

Even in the midst of hardly urban southern indiana, and knowing the location of at least 4 hunter's check-in sites (I pass 'em on my way to my fishing spots), I still must plead ignorance since I'm not a hunter myself. Sipp: What da heck do white hankys in back pockets have to do with hunting?

Word verification: bpoqgeh. The sound I made when I read the white hanky line. "What the bpoqgeh?"

Jim Hu said...

Your guess about there being a book about coffee creating the modern world is correct. I read one earlier this summer and blogged it here.

Patry Francis said...

Just got finished reading the Lutz article out loud to my husband...and we thought people in the 19th century had it so tough.

Beth said...


White-tailed deer, I'm guessing.

SippicanCottage said...
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SippicanCottage said...
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Tibore said...

Ooooohhhhh. Now I get it.

I am thus enlightened. Also, I have one more joke I can play on people. :)

"Just accessorize the twigs with the white hanky. Yes, in your back pocket. And when you're out there, stand very still.

Yeah, you can trust me.

What? What's this double-barrelled 20 gauge thing I'm holding? Oh, just some old summthinorother I picked up..."

Ann Althouse said...

Nicky: You're lucky to be able to read Japanese. I was all set to learn Japanese in college and then I had the harebrained idea of transferring into the art school. You're right that the translation is really a different work, and interpreting a specific phrase the way I did is far removed from the original writer, my friend of the distant past. In any case, you say "The translation of Kenko's prose/poetry into English is a vice grip." I prefer a virtue grip!

Jim Hu: Thanks! I probably read about that book when it came out. But it seems like every month there's a new book about how some particular thing caused everything.

nicky said...


Rats. We would very much have enjoyed your interpretation of Kenko's Japanese in Japanese. I'm also quite sure that particular passage of Kenko's, which is so very beautiful and truly a universe in itself, something that the English translation is not at all, would be very close to your heart. As luck goes, Japanese is my first language, but even so, Kenko has taken quite a bit of effort. Effort that continues. A teacher of mine once was thinking about making a translation of Kenko's works into French, but in his modesty told us, "Because I more than most am able to do the job well, I realize the job is not possible to do well. In fact, shouldn't be done.." Instead, I think he wrote an extended commentary/exegisis on a few of Kenko's more important passages, which is one way around the problem. Of course I didn't meant to imply, if I did, that what you said about the translated sentence wasn't important, in fact I found it very interesting, or that translations are not necessary, though I'm of the necessary "evil" school of thought--Since translations often become the ultimate, extended "strawman." I give my Japanese friends similar grief when they tell me how they just finished reading Shakespeare or Dante or Chaucer. "You mean you just finished reading a translation of Dante by so and so, right?" (Might explain my limited number of friends.) Anyway, so very happy to hear Kenko has Ann as a friend. You really must take a walk around the East side of Kyoto sometime. Kenko's like Elvis, sightings all the time. Or at least his footprints remain.

Ruth Anne Adams said...
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Ann Althouse said...

Nicky: So you aren't going to say what you think was missing or distorted in Keene's translation? Is the language as distinctive as Shakespeare's, so that you feel that the language is so much the point of it that it's like reading a summary of the thing?

Ruth Anne: I remembered that one too, especially after Sippican's post took us back to Ben Franklin. There are way too many connections today. It's getting weird.

SippicanCottage said...
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Beth said...

Hi Sippican,

Those are some great pics. Change a few things in the foregrounds (streetcar tracks, folks in 40s outfits) and the structures are still the same. That pleases me to no end.

The statue in the first pic is a favorite of mine, of Margaret Haughery. It's the first statue in the U.S. erected to honor a woman. Haughery was an Irish immigrant who lost her husband and children in the Yellow Fever epidemic here (the Irish were the ones doing manual labor in the swampy outlying land and were decimated by that disease), but she was entrepreneurial and made good money. She put most of it into building, and supplying, orphanages and old folks' homes. Quite a fine person.

nicky said...

I would say the Japanese langauge as used by Kenko is every bit as distinctive and profound as Shakespeare's use of English. Moreover, Japanese has an inherent playfulness and beauty, especially when it is being used seriously, that adds more layers onto the translation problem. Not to mention the difference between reading an alphabet and reading thoughts painted on a page. Even away from the page, reciting it from memory, this sentence of Kenko's sounds wonderful. Something you want to memorize. It is such a poetic, rhythmical thing. It is also full of image layered upon image evoking stillness on the one hand and slow, gentle change on the other hand. It is truly beautiful. Keene's translation does nothing but the opposite for me. (I'm sitting here looking at both. Reading both.) The words are all there, arguable, though others could have been picked, but if it even reaches the level of a summary, it is a heartless, banal one at best. It might come as a shock, but many consider Keene a hack of sorts who happened to be in the right place at the right time. A very nice man, but not up for the job. I don't. I think he did his work about as well as it could be done, given his learning and the times he lives in. There are a lot of sentences in Kenko that can probably be decently translated. But for those that can't, maybe some other method of explanation is preferable. A much easier to read book written by Soseke begins "I am a cat." The word in Japanese that is tranlated into "I" is in need of pages and pages of explanation for an English reader to really get at what the cat means when it says "I." Japanese has a lot, tens and tens, of "I"s. This sentence of Kenko's translated by Keene is a problem much more difficult. By magnitudes. What to do? What to do?

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Nicky. Maybe I should take Japanese now and make up for those courses I dropped in college.

nicky said...

I'd think as someone trained in art and also with a strong analytical mind kept sharp by the law, Kanji and Kana, would be easy for you. First get the 214 radicals in your mind, in order, and the rest is downhill. As for the grammar and all the rest, Japanese is not too much of a problem if one makes a good start and gets away from depending on English as soon as possible. But it does take lots and lots of time. Yoshida Kenko would surely be happy if you took the plunge, but he'd also realize he'd be asking for too much. Keene, on the other hand, would have cause for worry.

I haven't used this much English since my time spent in Madison years ago, my heads beginning to hurt! Take care and have a nice Labor Day everyone.

john(classic) said...

“Monday,” one manufacturer complained, was always “given up to debauchery,”

Wow. Those oldtimers sure were able to bounce back from the weekend faster than us moderns.

amba said...

It doesn't feel like work. I wouldn't call it "work." It's Homo ludens.

Anonymous said...

Not sure where I heard it, but rumor has it that when hunting season opens, factories across the river in Arkansas lose people. As in workers quit. Just quit. I guess they come back after the season is over to get the jobs back.