The American Attitude Toward Manual Labor
Many of the people who settled in the United States were poor. The country they came to was a wilderness. Land had to be cleared of trees in order to make farms; mines had to be developed; houses, shops, and public buildings had to be built. Everyone had to help build them. Manual labor was highly valued. Later it was the man who worked with his head to achieve success in business and industry who was looked up to. Now there is in America a curious combination of pride in having risen to a position where it is no longer necessary to depend on manual labor for a living and genuine delight in what one is able to accomplish with one’s own hands.
The attitude toward manual labor is seen in many aspects of American life. One is invited to dinner at the home of a middle-aged couple. It is not only comfortable but even luxuriously furnished, and there is every evidence of the fact that the family has been able to afford foreign travel, expensive hobbies, and college education for the children; yet the hostess probably will cook and serve the dinner. In addition, she does much of the household work, and even though the husband may be a professional man, he talks about washing the car, digging in the flowerbeds, or painting the house. His wife may even help him with these things, just as he often helps her with the dish washing and other household chores. The son or daughter who is away at college may get a summer job entailing manual labor to earn next year’s school expense.
It has been an American ideal to rise from a humble beginning to a better position. Therefore the “servant class” has not remained a fixed group. In fact, it has almost ceased to exist because people, who in earlier days might have been servants, now get higher wages working in factories. The majority of families cannot afford to pay what people who do housework or gardening charge for their services. Women who do housework by the hour may make nearly as much as stenographers or even public school teachers, if they work the same number of hours.
The expense of household service and of skilled labor, such as painting and
carpentry, and the tradition of working with one’s hands have contributed to keeping alive the spirit of “do-it-yourself”. Many articles in popular magazines are developed to instruction in gardening, carpentry, upholstering, and interior decorating. Night school courses at the local high school teach adults how to sew their own clothes or how to grease their own cars. The average American gets a good deal of pleasure out of telling others about his or her projects, exhibiting them for their neighbors, or taking them to the country fair, where they will surely win a prize.
Foreigners sometimes draw the conclusion that Americans are wealthier than they are because they have such things as vacation houses or beautifully landscaped gardens. Yet they do not always realize that the Americans have these things only because they have made them themselves.