Not long ago, a friend referred me to an unabridged entry in Henry David Thoreau’s journal. Here’s the first paragraph:
October 19, 1858:
Barrett’s apprentice, it seems, makes trays of black birch and of red maple, in a dark room under the mill. I was pleased to see this work done here, a wooden tray is so handsome. You could count the circles of growth on the end of the tray, and the dark heart of the tree was seen at each end above, producing a semicircular ornament. It was a satisfaction to be reminded that we may so easily make our own trenchers as well as fill them . To see the tree reappear on the table, instead of going to the fire or some equally coarse use, is some compensation for having it cut down . The wooden tray is still in demand to chop meat in, at least . If taken from the bench to the kitchen, they are pretty sure to crack, being made green. They should be placed to season for three months on the beams in a barn, said the miller.
That inspired me to grab my axe, adze, and a maple log. Thoreau leaves out some details about the appearance of the trays he saw in the room under the mill, so I filled in my vision with the basic form of this serving board I made a couple years ago. Then it was to the chopping block.
Triggered by the trays, Thoreau went on in the journal entry to serve some food for thought. Chew on it as you wish:
I was the more pleased with the sight of the trays because the tools used were so simple, and they were made by hand, not by machinery. They may make equally good pails, and cheaper as well as faster, at the pail-factory with the home-made ones, but that interests me less, because the man is turned partly into a machine there himself. In this case, the workman’s relation to his work, is more poetic, he also shows more dexterity and is more of a man. You come away from the great factory saddened, as if the chief end of man were to make pails ; but, in the case of the countryman who makes a few by hand, rainy days, the relative importance of human life and of pails is preserved, and you come away thinking of the simple and helpful life of the man, -you do not turn pale at the thought, – and would fain go to making pails yourself . We admire more the man who can use an axe or adze skillfully than him who can merely tend a machine . When labor is reduced to turning a crank it is no longer amusing nor truly profitable ; but let this business become very profitable in a pecuniary sense, and so be “driven,” as the phrase is, and carried on on a large scale, and the man is sunk in it, while only the pail or tray floats ; we are interested in it only in the same way as the proprietor or company is .
— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, October 19, 1858.
It’s worth remembering that Thoreau had experience working in a factory, albeit manufacturing pencils rather than pails. In fact, his innovations to the processes, including those for grinding and mixing graphite, were vital to the success of the Thoreau family pencil business.