This section is from the book "Hill's Manual Of Social And Business Forms: A Guide To Correct Writing", by Thos. E. Hill. Also available from Amazon: Hill's Manual Of Social And Business Forms: The How-To-Do-Everything Book Of Victorian America.
The periods of financial depression come frequently in late years. Why ? Does anybody know why ? Apparently very few people have any distinct idea as to the causes that produce general financial distress throughout the community. Ask a dozen of the best business men of your town to-day the reason for the present hard times, and you will get a dozen different answers. One will tell you that it is "presidential year." Another will tell you that it is "wildcat speculation. " Another, that it is "over-trading. " Another, that it is "lack of sufficient protection." Another, that it is "wasteful extravagance," etc. etc. Evidently there is no clearly defined idea in the minds of business men relative to the causes that produce commercial stagnation. For this reason I have chosen this subject.
To explain, I will go back in history. Primitive man had no labor-saving implements to aid him in securing warmth and food. To obtain these necessaries, he had to labor with every possible physical effort all throughout his working hours. Time passed, and inventive genius produced labor-saving devices, such as the sickle, the hoe, the plough, the fanning-mill, the spinning-wheel, etc.
With these came opportunity for rest from long hours; and, with greater leisure for study and intellectual advancement, labor-saving machinery began to rapidly multiply. The result was, with the productive power of the country increased, the time of labor has been shortened from sixteen hours to fourteen, from fourteen to twelve, and from twelve to ten.
The history of these shortenings of the hours would fill a volume. Working the long hours with labor-saving machinery would make an over-production, succeeded by stagnation in business, bankruptcies, strikes, riots, and general disturbance. This was followed by a shortening of the hours, when, the productive power being lessened for a time, the demand for goods equaled or exceeded the supply, and then came an era of better times. The hours of factory labor have never been shortened without great effort, and whenever they have been reduced, the periods soon following have been those of great financial prosperity to the country.
During a period of several years preceding the civil war, our mechanics, with the aid of improved machinery, working twelve hours a day, had produced a vast overabundance, and the business of the country was at a standstill. The time of a day's labor was lessened two hours near the opening of the war, and nearly a million of men went to the battlefields. This made an immense reduction of the productive power of the country; and then came that era of great financial prosperity which the people enjoyed for several years, known as "war-times."
Good times stimulated invention to its utmost, and the planing-machine, the mower, the reaper, threshing-machines, telegraphs, telephones, and a vast array of other machines came to our aid, and along with them the laborers from other countries. Added to all this, the war closed, and the soldiers returned, also to enter the field of production. The result was - what? In the fall of 1873 an immense overstock of every description of goods that could not be immediately consumed.
Then followed the general failures among business men who had not foreseen the crisis that was approaching.
What made the panic of 1873? An immense overproduction, brought about by laboring men working in the manufactories ten hours each day, aided by steam and labor-saving machinery. Or, in other words, the power of production was in excess of the ability to consume. The balance was destroyed, and financial disturbance was the result.
Fortunately, soon after this panic, the Territories offered mining inducements, and thousands of our discharged laborers went there. Millions of acres of new lands were opened to settlers, and hundreds of thousands of surplus laborers have found themselves homes and employment there. These avenues of employment, besides furnishing homes for large numbers of immigrants from foreign lands, have made a fairly active and prosperous trade for business men for several years.
The immense productive power of the country, however, assisted by a general introduction of steam and labor-saving machinery, has been, of late, greatly overbalancing the power to consume, and the certain results are following. The hundreds of thousands of men who have gone to the new lands are producing wheat in such abundance as to bring the price below the cost of production. The result is disappointment to the farmer. He does not realize the price he had expected. He does not carry forward the improvement he had anticipated: he does not patronize the merchant - and the merchant does not order goods. Dull times at the factories are realized because merchants do not order; more mechanics are discharged; few goods are shipped; railroads do not pay dividends, their stocks shrink in value, and financial distress prevails among those who hold this class of securities.
It is clearly evident that the power to consume must balance the capacity to produce, or a general stoppage of production must cease. Such is the fact. When production has been stimulated by great demand, and the power to produce is in excess of consumption, then comes an overproduction. Then follows a lowering of the working-man's wages, and, finally, the discharge of large numbers of mechanics from the factory. With the power to buy destroyed among the great mass of the common people, manufacturers cannot sell, and then the discharge of laborers goes forward all the more rapidly, and general idleness prevails.
The business man who, a few years since, saw and realized the immense productive power of the country, consisting of great armies of foreign laborers who have come to our shores, aided by steam and labor-saving-machinery, could have readily understood that in the near future there must be a great overproduction, and, consequently, a lowering of prices, and cessation of trade.
Such are the facts to-day. We produce more than we consume, and we have the result. While other causes may have their remote effects, this is the real cause of hard times. When there is a scarcity of carpets in the market, the carpet business is. good. When there is an overabundance of carpets in stock, the business is dull. And so throughout the entire range of production.
An excess or production being the cause of dull times, what is the remedy? Clearly, a less production. How shall this be brought about? There are various ways. One is, to do as we are doing now, and as we always do in a panic; shut down the mills and factories for a few months, until we have eaten up and worn out the goods on hand, and wait until scarcity shall cause trade to revive. Another, is to lessen the productive power of the country. How shall the latter be accomplished? Clearly, the most sensible way is by shortening the hours of labor. Beyond question, the interests of all classes would be subserved to-day by shortening time to eight hours for a day's work. Estimating that we have twenty millions of laboring men in the country, each working ten hours daily, two hours less each day would be one-fifth of their time to be taken from production, or the equivalent of four millions of laborers taken from the producing classes. That immense reduction of the working force would soon create such scarcity of production as would set every idler at work, in order to produce what we now have. Every person earning money, and consequently enabled to buy and consume, would greatly increase the consumptive power; so that, with the production decreased, and the ability to consume increased, there would not be an overstock of goods, and there would be, constantly, an active demand - which makes good times.
How shall we effect a reduction of time to eight hours a day? It is a matter very difficult to accomplish, from the fact that the laborer does not want to work eight hours for eight hours' pay, and the manufacturer, in the close competition with which he has to contend, is not willing to give ten hours' pay for eight hours' labor.
At this point laborers and employers divide. Each admits the necessity for a reduction of the hours, but neither is willing to bear the expense of the reduction. Under the circumstances, the most feasible plan seems to be that of a gradual reduction, which may be effected by all business men, first giving their employes a half-holi-day on Saturday, without a reduction of pay. This would be a reduction of one-twelfth of the working-time; and this reduction of time, with twenty millions of men, would, in order to produce what we now make, give employment to 1,600,000 more men than we now employ.
From the half-day the time might be gradually extended until it should include all of Saturday; and this reduction of working-time should be favored by our business educators, being, as it is, for the best interests of all classes.
Our laborers need recreation. If they cannot get it on the secular days, they will take it on Sunday. Give them the opportunity to. have it on Saturday, that they may spend the Sabbath in moral and spiritual improvement, and all will be the gainers.
Then may follow the going to labor at a later hour in the morning; and so on, by gradual reduction, the hours of toil may be lessened, and the intellectual opportunities of our laborers may be improved, while the productive and consumptive power of the country may be so balanced as to give continual prosperity to all its interests.
That the lessening of the hours of daily labor brings better pay to the workman, and greater prosperity to the employer and the business man, is proven by a single illustration:
Suppose stove manufacturers, finding an overstock on hand, decide to reduce their working-time to eight hours per day, and pay accordingly. The first probability of a scarcity of stoves will increase the demand, and very soon, working their foundries only eight hours a day. the orders will come in faster than they can fill them. The stove-maker goes to the boot and shoe manufacturer, whom he knows has been discharging men, for some of his idle workmen, and is told that, as the proprietors are working only eight hours a day in making boots and shoes, they are not discharging any men. On the contrary, they are employing more. The same reply is made at the reaper-factory, at the woolen-mills, and the various manufactories in town.
The stove-maker returns to his office, marks up the price of his stoves to correspond with their scarcity in the market, and then bids for workmen, and pays them even a higher price than he paid when they worked ten hours, because men are scarce. But he must have them even at an advanced price, in order to fill his orders - orders that are profitable because the price of stoves has been advanced; and yet, with this advance, workmen can buy more freely than before, because they have regular, steady employment at better wages than formerly.