Which Side are You On

Jack scrapes over the wire with the Wednesday post – – –

I’m a week or so late in acknowledging Labor Day I know, but –

On our kitchen wall we have a tea towel with a print of a certificate by the house decorators and painters union dating from the mid 1800s.

towel

It fascinates me for two reasons. It reminds me of a famous book – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – that describes the working conditions of a group of house painters in England in the early 1900s. The other reason is because I served a six year apprenticeship learning all the skills depicted in that certificate.

The scenes illustrated clearly display great pride in the variety of specialisms involved –

The simple yet carefully prescribed way of painting a paneled door.

The use of color to enhance a classical Greek style cornice.

A cherub studying design and another one lettering a signboard.

A collection of regular paintbrushes and tools and another collection of tools for applying goldleaf.

In the center is a scene showing why the union was so important – a sick painter (maybe suffering from lead poisoning) is being attended by a doctor while his wife and son look on.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists the main character is a young man, newly finished his apprenticeship who has a particular talent for design. He spends a lot of his own time, unpaid, making wonderful designs to be used later as part of his work. This reminds me very much of my father who served his time back in the 1920s when the system still included attendance at art college. Truly a marrying of art and craft and the legacy of people like William Morris.

My apprenticeship was served under my Dad in his painting business and I was ‘indentured’. That means that, like all his apprentices, we both signed a legal document that was then torn irregularly in half. At the end of my six years I received his half, which when matched to my half showed I was legally a time-served craftsman (indentured actually means ‘patterned like teeth’).

Everything has changed now. In Scotland there are still apprenticeships but they last just three years and don’t cover the same breadth of skills. Indenturing no longer takes place and DIY has blossomed with the introduction of easier to use materials and tools.

But I learned a lot – not just about craft skills, but also social skills. Not only that but it was the gateway to my college career, so a very good start to my working life.

Finally – I’m a big believer in unions!

3 Comments

Filed under book reviews, crafting, home improvements, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Which Side are You On

  1. I’m so glad to see this, and you would be just the person to know…did unionization have impact upon the decline of good craftsmanship? I refer to how a craftsman, bricklayer for instance, moved into more of a mechanized production person without the pride and attention to detail from former creations. I have just started to look for that possible connection.

    • Jack Beck

      Hi Barb – no, I think quite the opposite. It was in the interests of the unions to ‘guard’ the quality of skills their members had. This was obviously to also give them more collective bargaining power. The irony, though, is that with the drop in union membership and with far fewer people having those specialist skills, they can demand far higher fees for their work without any need to join a union. Market forces – – –

    • We don’t think so. Check out the Arts and Crafts Movement cross referenced with unions and it doesn’t appear to be significant.

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