We copy the following from the Philadelphia Ledger : A few days ago, a gentleman advertised for a clerk. By the close of the first day on which the advertisement appeared there were four hundred and eighteen applicants for the one clerkship. This afforded a very forcible illustration of the extent to which the occupation of clerking and bookkeeping is overstocked. But a few months since the head of a business establishment, who wished some help in the way of writing, but in which some literary ability was required, advertised for an assistant at a moderate salary, and having incidentally mentioned that the position might suit a lawyer or physician not in good practice, got more than a hundred applications, of which fifty-three were from young lawyers and doctors. Here was another illustration of an over-supply of the professional or genteel occupations. Another advertiser who wanted a person to take charge of the editorial work of a weekly paper, got fifty-seven applications, not more than half a dozen of the applicants being recognized newspaper writers, but nearly all of them being clerks, bookkeepers, and professional men. Still another advertised for two apprentices in a wheelwright and smith shop, in one of the semi-rural wards of the city, requesting applicants to give their address and age. He got three applications, but in every case the applicant was too old, two of them being over eighteen, and one nearly twenty. Still another advertised for an office boy, about fourteen years old, and had so many applicants that his place was crowded for more than five hours, and the applicants were of all ages, frommere children not more than twelve years old to full grown men of twenty-one. These are not very cheerful or encouraging signs. The present generation of young- men seem to have a strong aversion to every kind of trade, business, calling, or occupation that requires manual labor, and an equally strong tendency toward some so-called genteel employment or profession. The result is seen in such lamentable facts as those above stated—a surplus of bookkeepers and clerks of every kind who can get no employment, and are wasting their lives in the vain pursuit of what is not to be had, and a terrible over-stock of lawyers without practice and doctors without patients. The passion on the part of boys and young men to be clerks, office attendants, messengers, any thing, so that it is not work of the kind that will make them mechanics or tradesmen, is a deplorable sight to those who have full opportunities to see the distressing effects of it in the struggle for such employments by those unfortunates who have put it out of their power to do anything else, by neglecting to learn some permanent trade or business in which trained skill can always be turned to account. The applications for clerkships and similar positions in large establishments, are numerous beyond anything that would be thought of by those who have no chance to witness it. Pa rents and relatives, as well as the boys and young men themselves, seem to be afflicted with the same infatuation. To all such we say, that the worst advice you can give to your boy is to encourage him to be a clerk or a bookkeeper. At the best it is not a well-paid occupation. Very frequently it is among the poorest. This is the case when a clerk is fortunate enough to be employed, but if he should happen to be out of a place, then comes a weary scarcity, the fearful struggle with thousands of others looking for places; the never-ending disappointments, the hope deferred that makes the heart sick, the humiliations that take all the manhood out of poor souls, the privations of those who depend upon his earnings, and who have no resource when he is earning nothing. No father, no mother, no rela-. tive should wish to see their boys or kindred wasting their young lives in striving after the genteel positions that bring such trials and privations upon them in after life. It would almost seem that comment on the above facts and accompanying remarks is superfluous, but in daily received correspondence we frequently find inquiries for advice from those who think their talents are not properly appreciated and their efforts not adequately compensated. The state of affairs shown by the instances quoted by our cotemporary, we think, are not only easily explained, but are susceptible of improvement. One cause of it is innate laziness and the other foolish pride. There may be others, but these are theprinci-pal ones; the laziness that prevents a man from learning his chosen business, and the pride that prevents him from cTwosing one suited to his capacity and education. Yet the lazy often desire the most laborious places, and the proud those where they are the servants of servants. He who would turn up his nose in scorn at serving an apprenticeship at a trade where his hours of labor would be but ten at most, possibly only eight, out of the twenty-four, and who, at the expiration of three, four, or five years would be a competent workman worth a handsome compensation, possibly capable of acting as foreman, superintendent, or employer, chooses to agonize and struggle for a place in some mercantile business where he is. the drudge of his fellow employes, and almost a thrall to his employers for years, only to find himself a clerk for the best part if not the remainder of his life. As a journeyman in almost any mechanical business his pay would be absolutely greater than as a clerk, hisiours of labor would, in most cases, be less, his responsibilities less, and the wear and. tear on his body and mind less. But—the mechanic labors with his hands, and soils them, and wears overalls, and colored shirts, and rolls up his sleeves, and carries the honor- 170 able insignia of toil about with him, while the clerk may sometimes keep clean hands, and dress neatly, and show a White shirt front, and carry only a pencil behind his ear; consequently the choice of the show with its accompanying drudgery, rather than the substance with its independence. Within two weeks we have had calls from young men who have studied for the professions; two had studied law, one medicine. Bach wanted advice, and, if possible, aid; but although neither could succeed in his chosen prof ession, neither was willing to attempt manual or mechanical labor. What each wanted was either an insurance agency, a clerkship, traveling agency, or place as copyist—anything rather than soil the hands. We can point to men who write M. D. after their names who cannot compose a parseable English sentence. We know of members of the bar who do not understand the constitution of their country or the principles underlying it. These might have made good blacksmiths, or machinists, or carpenters, or ship-builders (though we much doubt it), but they might have been usefully employed in shoveling grave]. But after having chosen a mechanical profession, it is not seldom the case that the apprentice looks upon his term of apprenticeship as so many years of lost or wasted time. He does not care to learn. He seems to suppose that the practical knowledge of his business is, somehow, to grow into his apprehension without effort on his part To worry through the years of apprenticeship, with the least labor or effort to themselves and the least benefit to their employers, is really the principal study of some apprentices. They are not the only ones who look upon the years of apprenticeship in the same light. A letter received from a young man says he wants to become a machinist, but his father objects to his giving (?) three years to a trade. Possibly the time will come when mechanical labor and mechanical skill will be valued at their true worth, as compared with other employment and other aptness; but so long as our young men prefer to preserve soft and- clean hands as something more valuable than personal independence and a means of usefuJjsess.we look for no abatement in the number of applications for genteel places.
This article was originally published with the title "Why is Mechanical Labor Objectionable?" in Scientific American 20, 11, 169-170 (March 1869)