This line, from Carlyle's "Signs of the Times" describes the way machinery drove weavers out of business, replacing human labor. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Industrial Revolution caused a shift from a labor-based economy to a machine-based one ("Industrial Revolution," Wikipedia). Carlyle describes an artisan who loses hold of his shuttle (weaving tool) only to have it placed by the iron machine, a power loom. Both the machine and the weaver seem to have fingers, though the fingers of the machine are only metaphorical. No one would mistake human fingers for iron ones; the man's fingers create art while the machine's simply "ply it faster." The economic goal of creating a product has changed from artistry to efficiency. The opposing images of the weaver's fingers and the machine's fingers emphasize Carlyle's aversion towards industrialism. Carlyle relayed, through his essay, the widespread negative response to industrialism held by many now jobless artisans. Weaving was only one of many labors that were affected by widespread mechanization (Williams 72).
According to Nicols Fox, author of "Against the Machine" "what Carlyle saw clearly was that employing machines had begun to make people feel inadequate, if not useless. Carefully cultivated skills and pride in craftsmanship became worthless as commodities, pointless luxuries in a marketplace where the machine standard was 'good enough' because it was cheap" (Fox 85). The skill required in artistic endeavors (such as in weaving) was no longer needed. Instead, a machine served as a more cost-effective and efficient producer of the same product. Unemployed and belittled, artisans found that the "parade of endless sameness, of boring repetition that dulled and stunted the human mind" (Fox 85). Artisans found difficult keeping up with the output of machinery, often finding themselves fatigued despite being highly skilled. "Given the ability of the machine to labor rapidly and without tiring...mechanized labor was fatiguing in a way that traditional forms were not" (Rice 25). Workers seemed in competition with machines but could never match up. Unlike machines, men required frequent breaks, room for mistakes, and a reasonable pace. There was no longer room for human feebleness while the shift to machinery became widespread (Rice 25).
Not solely concerned with the effect of machinery on artisans, Carlyle related the mechanization of occupations to the mechanization of man as a whole. "Education, politics, even religion were being reorganized along regimented lines, he observed. 'Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavor and in natural force of any kind.'...Civil government was commonly referred to as the Machine of Society" (Fox 86). Carlyle feared that mechanization had and would continue to spread from industry to other aspects of life, including art, literature, and the human mind (Fox 86).
The Arts and Crafts Movement serves as an example of one of many reactions to the widely held thought that mechanization was dangerous. Machines were thought to be the root of all evil and many felt that machines enslaved men. The revival of hand weaving and of other artistic pursuits was thus a reaction against the increased reliance on machinery. William Morris "set up his own company in 1861 to revive the excellence in craftsmanship that had existed during medieval times. Morris was not interested in creating art for industry but in creating craftsmen as artists" (Broudy 161). William Morris, Carlyle, and others during the 1800s drew on the artistic ideals of the past and rejected those of the Industrial Revolution. A new appreciation grew for crafts that were handmade. Throughout Europe, the practice of displaying handicrafts as a public attraction became popular. The movement was accompanied by the creation of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London, which endorsed both the purchasing of handicrafts and reverence for the skilled artisans who produced them (Broudy 161).
Broudy, Eric. The Book of Looms. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1979.
Fox, Nicols. Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives. Island P, 2002.
Hyde, Alan. Bodies of Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
"Industrial Revolution." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 16 Mar 2009, 15:54 UTC. 16 Mar 2009.
Rice, Stephen P. Minding the Machine. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.
Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society 1780-1950. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.
Last modified 29 March 2009