Oats or Wild Oats? Common-Sense for Young Men –1885


This excerpt is from ‘Oats or Wild Oats? Common-Sense for Young Men – 1885’ by James Monroe Buckley.

It may be thought by some that this letter will appeal to a very small circle of readers, for the young men of the present day do not wish to learn trades; they consider it menial, and much prefer to be clerks or professional men. This is a fact. A New York carriage-maker, at a meeting of manufacturers in New Haven recently, said:

“One of the serious wants of this country and of our trade is good boys. Our boys are deteriorating, as are our men. The greatest difficulty that we experience in New York is that of getting boys who have brains and are willing to learn a trade thoroughly. The example of men who have made millions in a few years is held up before our boys in school, and the boys become inflamed with the notion that they must make their millions and be able to found new crossroads colleges before they die. So they eschew trades and become poor professionals”.

Tell the average boy that he ought to learn a trade, and he will look up with wonder and, perhaps, contempt, and say, “No trade for me.” But for all that, I hold that of every three boys who become clerks, two would have done better in health, in pecuniary results, and in the long run in comfort and social position, to learn a trade. Good mechanics to-day are better paid than the average of clerks, are more certain of situations, and, when from accidental causes out of a situation, have less trouble in getting another. In many trades the best workmen receive $3 a day. In some they are able to make by piece-work $4 and $5, while the average salary of clerks and subordinate book-keepers amounts to less than $800 a year. Some excellent authorities affirm that, take the country through, it amounts to less than $600 per annum. The expenses of the clerk, also, are larger than those of the mechanic.

The Situation in this Country
The trades are divided into specialties, and subdivided, so that a man makes one thing and makes it all his life. This is unfavorable, in many respects, to promotion, and though it gives skill and facility, renders work very monotonous, turning the specialist into a kind of animated mechanism. Trades Unions have passed laws restricting the number of apprentices to be taken by any for whom they work, and have thus become themselves gigantic monopolies, and placed insurmountable embarrassments in the way of many who would be glad to learn trades, and of the parents of boys who would be glad to have their children become mechanics. The result of the limited number of American apprentices and of the subdivision of trades into specialties has been to afford greater facilities for skilled workmen from other countries than they could find in their native lands or in other parts of the world. Hence, the chief trades to which our country owes its prosperity are to-day in the hands of foreigners.

Our public-school education and the intermingling of all classes tend to develop in the minds of youth, of the sons even of successful mechanics, a dislike for a trade, and what they call aspiration for a higher position in life. Even these successful mechanics themselves wish their boys to become lawyers, doctors, or merchants; and mothers look with pride upon children who feel themselves above their parents. Notwithstanding this influence, however, here and there young men learning trades soon distance in the race for the prize of life those who for a short time look down upon them with pity or indifference.

Value of a Good Trade
I have already spoken of the advantage of a good trade. Benjamin Franklin told the truth when he said that the best knowledge that a man could give to his son was the mastery of a good trade. Such a man is a cosmopolitan. He can make himself useful anywhere, and he can live anywhere. If it should not be necessary always to work at his trade, he feels the ability within to support himself. Benjamin Franklin, the philosopher and the diplomat, rejoiced in the knowledge that he could earn his living at the case of the printer. Roger Sherman never forgot that he was a shoemaker, and Elihu Burritt declared that if his tongue were paralyzed so that he could speak none of his fifty languages he could go back to the anvil.

A minister of piety, addressing a penurious congregation who appreciated his eloquence but were unwilling to support him, in a burst of honest indignation stretched forth his hands and said: “Brethren, do you see these hands? Like the hands of St. Paul, when he supported himself as a tent-maker, these hands supported me before you called me to be your minister, and, thank God! they can do it again.”

Large Business in All Things
The smallness of the product does not make it necessary that the business connected with it should be small. The pin is a very small thing, but some of the largest establishments in the world have been devoted exclusively to the manufacture of pins, and vast fortunes have been the result. Thirty years ago a poor man made matches with a jack-knife and a little chemical mixture into which he dipped the pieces of wood. Not long since I passed by his magnificent establishment, where hundreds of men are employed, and where a great income is earned.

Tailors and shoemakers who in early life have worked upon the bench, afterwards have enlarged their business, until they have taken rank among the merchant princes of the land. And the men who are to occupy these positions thirty years from now are to-day mechanics working by the day, unnoticed except by those who remark their intelligence, foresight, industry, and economy. Between the average mechanic and the great manufacturer or merchant prince, great numbers can be found who began as mechanics and who have taken positions by their mechanical skill fully equal to that of the average merchant, and far superior to that of most clerks and professional men.

If, therefore, my young friend, you are inclined to learn a trade, if you have a natural taste for mechanical operations, the faculty which phrenologists—who have invented good names, whether their system of craniology be true or not—call constructiveness, and if you have a proper view of the old maxim that there can be no excellence without great labor, I have no hesitation in advising you to select a trade and proceed to master it.

Principles to be Relied On
Let the trade be one for which there is a general demand instead of a local one. This makes you independent of place. Let it be one the demand for which grows out of the wants of humanity, and which is, therefore, permanent. The trades of the miller, the tanner, the builder,the mason, the shoemaker, the tailor, and the hatter belong to these classes: while men live the products of these trades will be in demand. But society has become complex and highly organized. The printer, the jeweler, the cabinet-maker, the upholsterer, the plumber and gas-fitter, the painter, the paper-maker, the machinist, the manufacturer of glassware, crockery, carpets, oilcloth, matting, in cities and large towns are as much in demand as those whose trades relate primarily to the necessaries of life. The butcher, the baker, and even the confectioner will also be sure of remunerative employment wherever they go.

Be a Masterly Workman
But the bad work of an inefficient mechanic cannot be covered up. It speaks for itself, and stamps the workman as undesirable. He who is not master of a trade will never be in demand. He will be given employment only in extreme cases, and on a declining business he will be the first to be discharged. Hence, in all trades it is necessary that they be mastered from the bottom, and this takes time and patience. He who learns his trade in five years is more likely to succeed in it than he who calls himself proficient in it at the end of the first year. When your trade is selected, be content to learn slowly, to practice long, if by so doing you may become a master.

Always have in view rising above the position of a mere journeyman. Look at things from a broad business point of view. Consider that some day you may not be a journeyman, and try to study the relations of capital to labor, and to master the principles of business, so that if you should ever form a partnership with a capitalist you will not be at his mercy, and, if you choose, you may at any time enter upon business for yourself, and not fritter away your life in a vain effort to overcome by mechanical skill financial obstacles.

Save Money, if only Ten Cents a Day
If you desire to get on in the world through a trade, you must from the beginning save money, if it be but ten cents per day. The habit of saving a certain portion of your pay will become a part of your nature. The successful men of to-day were years in saving their first thousand dollars. When they began, the amount laid aside was so small that it seemed trifling. Perhaps at the end of a twelvemonth they had but $50. But at the end of the second year they had saved $60, and then possessed $110, the interest upon which amounted to six or seven dollars per annum. The next year they managed to lay aside $100, and steadily increased until—in the language of the late Commodore Vanderbilt—”it began to pile up so fast that they could see it.”

It is not an uncommon thing to ascertain that honest, hard-working boys and young men have found themselves, at twenty-one years of age, possessed of $400 or $500 of their own savings, and, with the mastery of a good trade, three or four years’ work as a journeyman, with their savings, has prepared them to enter into business, which they have done, and met with continued and sometimes with very great success.

It ought not to be necessary, but it is, to show that the use of tobacco may alone make the difference between the man who saves and the man who does not. Ten cents per day amounts to $36.50 per annum. Extra newspapers, a few glasses of beer each week, unnecessary excursions, with lunches and car-fare, two or three nights at the theatre per week or month, may easily consume two dollars a week without giving any value in return; and that two dollars a week with the interest upon it would in a few years give the young mechanic John Jacob Astor’s first thousand dollars, which he said cost him more trouble to accumulate than all the rest he had.

It is not that I regard riches as the end of life that I make these suggestions. Success in life does not necessarily include riches, but it does involve to a great extent those elements of character and conduct which in a legitimate way tend, through economy, industry, and frugality, to accumulation.

The Apprenticeship System Gone
The old apprentice system is gone. In behalf of the young men of the country I regret it. Though some of the “masters” were severe, giving poor food, poor clothes, long hours, and using corporal punishment, making the life of the apprentice that of a slave, the majority were not so, and in all cases it was to the interest of the master to get the best as well as the greatest amount of work out of an apprentice. In many cases the apprentice boarded with his master, and was as one of the family, and the old Scripture proverb was fulfilled: “He that bringeth up his servant delicately shall have him become his son at length.” It is more difficult now to get the chance to learn a trade; it is more difficult to learn it well; and the apprentice must be watchful lest he should be turned into a mere specialist, to do a particular piece of work without any knowledge of the trade in general.

2 replies on “Oats or Wild Oats? Common-Sense for Young Men –1885”

Thank you for posting this, I find it pretty interesting that an article written almost a 125 years ago is still so applicable today. This past week-end myself and another interpreter at the LSU Rural Life Museum were lamenting that there are so few young men and women interested in the traditional skills of even the last century.

I am willing to take apprentices into the furniture trade but they don’t exist! I find one every couple of years that is actually serious about it and all but a few of those continue past 4-6 months before their interests change.

I am in the process of trying to rebuild this guild and apprenticeship approach to education through my work at the museum but I believe we will see little to no change unless economic and environmental factors of the economy change – ie if the lights go out. Other than that, it would seem only retired baby-boomers with spare time and a desire to remember the old days will be the generation facing the same problems as now ‘who to pass this knowledge down to.’

Jean Becnel

Thanks for your insightful and intelligent comments, Jean. I actually remember seeing that blog post about splitting that massive log with your godson, and I made a mental note to do that with my kids one day. So, if nothing else, you’ve made a change in one person.
I can see the roots of change, but where we will be on a hundred years I don’t know. So many global issues seem pressing currently, and I don’t pretend a degree of self-sufficiency is particularly the answer. Recently though I read on another blog that a dad had taught his kid a few things about fixing bikes. Pretty soon he was fixing them for his friends in the neighbourhood. The kids were in awe of the bike-fixing kid.

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