England has always been famous for its hardware; and the
multitude of trades included under that somewhat vague term -
nearly every one of them of great value and importance when
looked at separately - have in the aggregate contributed very
largely to our national prosperity. We have come to regard it as
our prerogative to make not only cotton, woollen, and other
articles of clothing for all the world, but also knives,
scissors, axes, and saws, pins, needles, nails, and screws, pots
and pans, fenders and fire-irons, and all sorts of other metal
goods, from swords and firearms to watches and clocks.
If we are losing our reputation for pre-eminence in all such
work, we are losing a great deal; and no one can deny that there
is, to say the least, some danger of that. Perhaps the evidence
that will be given in the next few paragraphs goes to prove
that, as regards a few, if not many of the trades, there is more
than danger ahead of us.
So it would seem to be even in the case of cutlery, in the
manufacture of which England, and especially the old capital of
Hallamshire, has taken the lead for several centuries. The
"Sheffield thwytel," or whittle, that Chaucer praised, was, it
is true, only a clumsy blade of bar-steel, roughly fastened into
a handle of wood or horn; but it was the best that could be got
in those days, and Sheffield kept pace with all the improvements
that were from time to time introduced.
It claims the honour of
having produced the first "jack-knife," in which was adopted the
brilliant idea of shutting the blade into a groove in the handle
with a spring; and when Queen Elizabeth gave shelter to the
Protestant fugitives from the Netherlands, it profited by all
the skill they brought with them. Until a few years ago, it was
unrivalled for every kind of cutlery, and it still produces more
durable and more carefully finished workmanship than can easily
be obtained from any foreign centre of the trade. Yet it is
allowing more than one foreign centre to surpass it in
everything but the choicest specimens of its craft; and even in
those to offer dangerous competition, by help of lower prices
and greater variety in design.
The notorious recklessness of the trades-unionists in
holding out for their supposed rights is one, though not the
only cause of this. "It is in a great measure attributable to
the action of the men," says a competent authority, by no moans
prejudiced against the working classes, "that the trade has not
developed much more rapidly and widely than it has. They are
paid by 'piece,' and demand extra remuneration for everything
that can be termed 'extra' in a knife, altogether irrespective
of the time that it may take to make it.
The misfortune appears to be that the rate of wages is far too
low, and they endeavour to recoup themselves for this by
charging all that they possibly can for 'extras.'
may devote much time and thought to the bringing out of a now
pattern, simple in its details, and easily made. It may have
more 'extras,' but will not occupy so much time in making as one
that has fewer.
The men look only at the 'extras,' and ask such
a price for making
it as compels the manufacturer to abandon the idea of bringing
it out, and it is therefore thrown aside. The men lose good
work, and the manufacturer is discouraged in his efforts to
improve and extend the trade, as he is unable to tempt business
by offering new pattern goods on reasonable terms."
Thereby, American, German, and other cutlers have been greatly
assisted in their competition, and, though some Sheffield firms
are able to face all opposition, their less eminent neighbours
find themselves hard pressed, ever in the English market, by
dealers in foreign manufactures.
They suffer, too, from the prejudice against machinery, which
many of them share with their men. That hand-work produces the
daintiest results is likely enough; but the saving of expense
attained by the use of steam power far more than compensates for
any benefit thus secured.
That is the case with axes and other edge-tools even more than
with knives and scissors. It may be that the necessity of
obtaining an instrument especially suitable for felling their
huge forest trees first stimulated the inventive energy of the
Americans; but certain it is that then axes are now unsurpassed,
and have not only monopolised in their own country and in Canada
the trade which was formerly a source of great profit to
England, but are even used extensively by our own people and our
customers in other parts of the world. In the making of saws and
planes, again, we are being superseded by the Americans.