America was built with the power of human muscle. Some of this labor was purchased by-the-hour (often cheaply), some of this labor was expected (as a condition of family life), and some of this labor was seized outright (from the enslaved). It's important to remember and honor those who have used—and those who continue to use—their physical bodies, sweat and strain to build the future and make things better for the rest of us.
The term "labor" is subject to varying definitions. And, in America, people tend to reveal a reflexive reaction to the word—sometimes positive, sometimes negative. The plight of "Labor" in America is a challenging one. Over the decades, increasingly-educated Americans have developed a growing disdain for the notion that they might have to work with their bodies. Many would rather say that "I work with my mind." As a shopkeeper, I have personally embraced (and enjoy) the fact that my work involves both physical and mental dimensions. I wouldn't want only to work at a desk. I love traveling "on the hunt," cleaning & polishing things, photographing items, arranging windows, even tying-up gift boxes. Creating tangible results or change—and seeing it happen immediately, before one's eyes—provides a great deal of satisfaction. I would not want a career which only offers "abstract reward."
No great fortune—in American or World history—was made without employing and directing and exploiting the labor of others. From the pharaohs to facebook, one person (at the top) gets richer as the many (at the bottom) do the physical work, for varying rates of pay (but almost always less than the money distributed at the top). Purchasing the efforts of other people, creating a "multiplier effect," seems to be a necessary condition of amassing great wealth. And, the less one pays the labor, the more money there is that can be skimmed from the top.
I do not believe that this dynamic—perhaps we can call it a principle—will ever change: great fortunes can only be created when the labor of other people is purchased. But the toil of others doesn't have to be exploited; many people have made good livings happily working for wealthy people. What societies need to monitor carefully is the size of the wealth difference between the one at the top and the mass at the bottom. When this spread becomes too big, societies become unstable. And unstable societies have a way of being "shaken-out" to level the landscape (markets crash, peasants revolt, ideologues seize power). Time and again we have seen monarchs (and oligarchs) ignore societal unrest at their own peril.
The Danish Modernist plaque, shown above, captures a plumber hard at work. It was sculpted by Karl Otto Johansen (1918-2010) for Bing & Grøndahl—one of a series of plaques honoring different trades. Please click on the photo above to learn more about it.
Happy Labor Day!
Though our Greenwich Village store is now permanently closed, LEO Design is still alive and well! Please visit our on-line store where we continue to sell Handsome Gifts (www.LEOdesignNYC.com).
We also can be found in Pittsburgh's historic "Strip District" at Mahla & Co. Antiques (www.mahlaantiques.com) or in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania at The Antique Center of Strabane (www.antiquecenterofstrabane.com).
Or call to arrange to visit our Pittsburgh showroom (by private appointment only). 917-446-4248