An irreverent history of the working man.


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

September 4, 2006
The Summer Next Time
Palm Desert, Calif.

IN late May, for those of us who teach, the summer stretches out like the great 
expanse of freedom it was in grammar school. Ah, the days on the beach! The 
books we will read! The adventures we will have!

But before hunkering down to months of leisurely lolling around a pool slathered
in S.P.F. 80, we need to take care of a few things: see what got buried in the 
e-mail pile over the course of the year, write a few letters of recommendation, 
and finally get to those book reviews we agreed to do. A few leftover 
dissertation chapters. The syllabuses and book orders for next year¹s classes. 
Then those scholarly articles we were snookered into writing when the deadlines 
were far, far in the future ‹ deadlines that now, magically, are receding into 
the past. My God, did I really tell someone I would write an article called 
³Teaching Claude McKay²? Before we know it, the summer is eaten up, we¹re still 
behind on our e-mail, and the fall semester looms.

On paper, the academic life looks great. As many as 15 weeks off in the summer, 
four in the winter, one in the spring, and then, usually, only three days a week
on campus the rest of the time. Anybody who tells you this wasn¹t part of the 
lure of a job in higher education is lying. But one finds out right away in 
graduate school that in fact the typical professor logs an average of 60 hours a
week, and the more successful professors work even more ‹ including not just 
14-hour days during the school year, but 10-hour days in the summer as well.

Why, then, does there continue to be a glut of fresh Ph.D.¹s? It isn¹t the pay 
scale, which, with a few lucky exceptions, offers the lowest 
years-of-education-to-income ratio possible. It isn¹t really the work itself, 
either. Yes, teaching and research are rewarding, but we face as much drudgery 
as in any professional job. Once you¹ve read 10,000 freshman essays, you¹ve read
them all.

But we academics do have something few others possess in this postindustrial 
world: control over our own time. All the surveys point to this as the most 
common factor in job satisfaction. The jobs in which decisions are made and the 
pace set by machines provide the least satisfaction, while those, like mine, 
that foster at least the illusion of control provide the most.

Left to our own devices, we seldom organize our time with 8-to-5 discipline. The
pre-industrial world of agricultural and artisan labor was structured by what 
the historian E. P. Thompson calls ³alternate bouts of intense labor and of 
idleness wherever men were in control of their working lives.² Agricultural work
was seasonal, interrupted by rain, forced into hyperactivity by the threat of 
rain, and determined by other uncontrollable natural processes. The force of 
long cultural habit ensured that the change from such discontinuous tasks to the
regimented labor of the factory never went particularly smoothly.

In 1877 a New York cigar manufacturer grumbled that his cigar makers could never
be counted on to do a straight shift¹s work. They would ³come down to the shop 
in the morning, roll a few cigars,² he complained to The New York Herald, ³and 
then go to a beer saloon and play pinochle or some other game.² The workers 
would return when they pleased, roll a few more cigars, and then revisit the 
saloon, all told ³working probably two or three hours a day.² Cigar makers in 
Milwaukee went on strike in 1882 simply to preserve their right to leave the 
shop at any time without their foreman¹s permission.

In this the cigar workers were typical. American manufacturing laborers came and
left for the day at different times. ³Monday,² one manufacturer complained, was 
always ³given up to debauchery,² and on Saturdays, brewery wagons came right to 
the factory, encouraging workers to celebrate payday. Daily breaks for 
³dramming² were common, with workers coming and going from the work place as 
they pleased. Their workdays were often, by 20th-century standards, riddled with
breaks for meals, snacks, wine, brandy and reading the newspaper aloud to fellow

An owner of a New Jersey iron mill made these notations in his diary over the 
course of a single week:

³All hands drunk.²
³Jacob Ventling hunting.²
³Molders all agree to quit work and went to the beach.²
³Peter Cox very drunk.²
³Edward Rutter off a-drinking.²

At the shipyards, too, workers stopped their labor at irregular intervals and 
drank heavily. One ship¹s carpenter in the mid-19th century described an almost 
hourly round of breaks for cakes, candy and whiskey, while some of his 
co-workers ³sailed out pretty regularly 10 times a day on the average² to the 
³convenient grog-shops.² Management attempts to stop such midday drinking breaks
routinely met with strikes and sometimes resulted in riots. During much of the 
19th century, there were more strikes over issues of time-control than there 
were about pay or working hours.

I was recently offered a non-teaching job that would have almost doubled my 
salary, but which would have required me to report to an office in standard 
8-to-5 fashion. I turned it down, and for a moment I felt like the circus worker
in the joke: he follows the elephant with a shovel, and when offered another job
responds, ³What, and give up show business?²

Really, though, I¹m more like Jacob Ventling and Edward Rutter. I don¹t go out 
10 times a day for a dram of rum, but I could. And in fact, maybe I will. Next 

Tom Lutz is the author of ³Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, 
Slackers and Bums in America.²

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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