Monday, June 6, 2016

Pain for Profit

from The Stage Coach, or the Road of Life (1843) by John Mills, chapter XI “The Mudlark”:
The night was very bright; a sharp frosty air whistled from the east, and the moon and the stars sparkled like frozen sleet in the sun. After the governor had scraped off the worst part of the slush, cleaned my face, and did the best he could for me, he shelled out the contents of the sack upon the side o’ the wessel, and commenced countin’ and feelin’ the pieces of silver with wonderful pleasure. 
“I feel, Jack,” said the governor, smilin’ as if a feather was blown into his ear, ” I feel, Jack, as though I could play leap-frog with the lamp-posts. There’s a hundred ounces if there’s one.” 
“If there hadn’t been a good swag,” replied I, almost fit to blubber with smarting so, “there’d a-been a deal o’ pain for short commons o’ profit.” 
“As common as ditchwater, that is,” added my father, fixin’ the sack over his shoulders, “and we ought to be well satisfied when we get moderate profits to a lump o’ labour or pain. However, Jack, get on my back, and I’ll carry ye home.”
The above is the earliest literary mention of the “lump o’ labour” that I have ever found. “One-eyed” Jack Hogg is telling the story of the time when he was 10-years old and there was a fire at the silversmith’s shop at the corner of Adam Street.The melted silver was carried by the water into the storm drain. Jack’s father, a scavenger (the “mudlark”), sends him into the sewer to recover the lumps of silver but on his way back Jack drops his lantern and is immediately attacked by the sewer rats. He runs to the exit where his father beats off the last clinging rats and then cleans him up in the river. The retrieved “swag” is enough to keep the family in relative luxury for the next six months.

The preceding chapters of the book tell the story of a visiting professor of phrenology and the ruse played on him using a plaster cast from a Swedish turnip. I found the Mills book when I was looking up statistics in connection with something I was writing about John Ramsey McCulloch and the story about the turnip and the phrenologist seemed a perfect parody of McCulloch's approach to inquiry:
It was only in the mid-1820s that governments began to publish systematic social statistics of any description, yet already in 1827, the political economist John R. McCulloch proclaimed the soundness of Dorning Rasbotham's 1780 opinion and concluded, definitively, "There is, in fact, no idea so groundless and absurd, as that which supposes that an increased facility of production can under any circumstances be injurious to the labourers."
The double injunction against any disputation is telling. Not only is it "groundless and absurd" to question the beneficence of machinery "under any circumstances" but it is, "in fact," the most groundless and absurd idea. "In fact"? That is to say this is no mere opinion or observation but is incontrovertible. 

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