The Conquering Factory System

Factories, factory products, factory workers, factory customers —and a race dependent upon factories and factory goods—these are some of the fruits of the application of the factory system to the production of the things mankind needs and desires.

But they are not the factory’s only fruits.

The factory has not been able to keep the factory system within the limits of its four ugly walls.

What is the factory system?

It is the group of methods used in manufacturing of which the most conspicuous are (a) systematic production; (b) standardization to insure uniformity of product; (c) division and sub-division of labor. These represent the application of the principles of efficiency to the work of producing the necessaries and luxuries of modern civilization.

Harrington Emerson, who has been called by an admirer 29 the “High Priest of the New Science of Efficiency,” defines efficiency as “the elimination of all needless waste in material, in labor, and in equipment, so as to reduce costs, increase profits, and raise wages.” This definition should at once make clear the legitimate field of the factory system and also the limited sphere of activities in which its application is desirable. In a factory, which has its justification only in its capacity for producing the largest possible quantity of commodities at the lowest possible cost, the elimination of every waste is most desirable. But outside of a factory, in all the activities of man which have their justification primarily in the extent to which they enrich life, the quantitative criterion which efficiency enjoins becomes absurd. Life, if man is to dignify it by the way he lives, must be lived artistically. Not quantitative but qualitative criterions apply in home life, in education, in social activities, in literature, painting, sculpture. Yet the apostles of efficiency have not been content to limit its application to the factory. They have made efficiency a philosophy of life and are now busily engaged in applying the factory system to the regulation of every activity of civilized man.

In his introduction to his epoch making volume on The Principles of Scientific Management, the late Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder of the efficiency movement, said of the principles of which he was so ardent an advocate:

The same principles can be applied with equal force to all social activities: to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen, large and small; of our churches, our philanthropie institutions, our universities, and our government departments.3°

What was merely the distant vision of Taylor in 1911 is today in process of becoming an accomplished fact. As we shall see, we are now in the process of fulfilling in every activity of life Taylor’s prophetic words: “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”

In order to understand why the factory system has spread from the factory to every aspect of American life a careful examination of the factory system in its original “habitat” is essential.

When the first manufacturers discovered that wealth could be accumulated much more rapidly by applying power to the making of one thing in one place instead of making many different things in one place, the first step in the development of the factory system had been taken. On the heels of this discovery came lower prices, made possible by economies in labor and economies in material, and a ruthless war of extermination upon the guild, the custom, and the domestic systems of production.

The ubiquitous village smithy, where horses and oxen were shod and where practically everything which the neighborhood needed in the way of iron work was made: agricultural implements—plowshares, bog-hoes, stone hooks, garden forks; carpenter’s tools—broad-axes, pod-augers, beetles and frows; building hardware—hinges, latches, and locks; fireplace utensils, andirons, gridirons, cranes, tongs, and shovels; cooking utensils, cutlery and hundreds of other things, disappeared. The smithy’s place was taken by mills and machine shops in each of which only one article or one commodity was made, or if a number of allied products were made, each was produced serially instead of on custom order.

The spinning wheels, the combs and cards, the reels and the looms and the loom rooms disappeared from the craftsman’s shops and from the homes of rich and poor. These were replaced by mills in each of which only one process in the making of fabrics was carried on. One mill spun yarn. Another wove gray goods. A third dyed and finished them. Or mills confined themselves to only one fiber, to linen, to wool, to cotton, or to silk, and performed the various processes of manufacture in separate departments each of which made possible systematic factory production.

Much of the cooking and preserving disappeared from the home. Homes with kitchens, pantries, vegetable cellars, smoke-houses and milk houses in which foods were cooked, smoked, pickled and preserved by the joint effort of the entire family were replaced by packing houses and canneries, in which foodstuffs were systematically packed and canned and bottled by the most approved factory techniques.

Serial production in the factory destroyed the very foundations of individual production. The factory owners, by concentrating systematically on one product, were able not only to outsell the craftsmen but to paralyze most of the productive activities in the home. The factory product, eventually, sold so cheaply that the workshop producers could not hope to meet its competition. It became so cheap that it did not even seem worthwhile for individuals to continue its production for their own consumption.

Yet in spite of the competitive advantage of very low costs of production, the early manufacturers found it difficult to put the craftsmen out of their misery. It took generations for the mills and factories to establish their present supremacy. It was only after the manufacturer discovered that concentration of production upon a single kind of goods made it possible to support systematic salesmanship that the old craft production really began to succumb. Systematic salesmanship made possible the profitable operation of the factory because it enabled the manufacturer to sell at a profit in territory where handicraft competition had been destroyed while selling at a loss in territory where it still survived. The factory was thus enabled to extend itself into new territory, selling if necessary at a loss until all neighborhood production ceased and then recouping its initial losses after the sale of its product had become firmly established.

Home and workshop products tended to vary not only in response to the moods and creative urge of the maker, but often in accordance with the needs, desires and idiosyncrasies of the consumer. Under such conditions eccentricity was no luxury. Personality could be catered to because individual taste was not penalized. Being made individually and not serially, the products could be varied in size, in quality and in design to suit the maker or consumer without materially affecting the actual cost of production. But none of the economies of mass production, mass distribution and mass consumption is possible if the finished product is permitted to vary in this manner. Serial production in the factory is dependent at all stages upon uniformities: uniformities of design, material and workmanship. Each article exactly duplicates every other, not only because uniformity is essential for economical mass production, but because it is essential to the creation of mass consumption.

If the cooks in the canneries were permitted to vary each batch of soup as the spirit moved them, some of the cans of soup would contain more salt, other less; some would contain onions, others would have none; some would be thin, others would be thick. It would be obviously impossible to create a mass demand for the soup. Mass production is dependent upon mass consumption. The consumer must know beforehand just about what the soup is going to contain. The recipe, therefore, has to be a compromise which appeals to all kinds of demand. Taste has to be standardized, not only in soup, but in nearly everything that is consumed, or factory production becomes impossible.

The factory system involves an apotheosis of the mediocre. The least common denominator of taste is made the standard to which, on the score of efficiency, everything must conform.

With serial production and with uniformity in the product, division and sub-division of labor make possible revolutionary reductions in the amount of human labor which have to be used per unit of production. Special machines can be devised for each operation, and the worker instead of having to be able to perform all the operations involved in making the product from beginning to end can be confined to the endless repetition of a few simple operations. Amazing economies, as Henry Ford has shown, become possible.When one workman assembled the fly-wheel magneto for the Model T Ford automobile complete, it took about twenty minutes. By dividing the work of assembly into twenty-nine operations performed by twenty-nine men, the total time for the assembling was finally cut to five minutes; one man was able to do somewhat more than four men were able to do before.

In the assembling of the Ford motor, the work was at first done completely by one man. The Ford engineers divided this task into eighty-four operations. Eighty-four men operating the new way assembled three times as many motors as the same number were able to assemble before. They did the same amount of work per day as one hundred and thirty-two men did under the previous method.

Originally the assembling of the chassis took twelve hours and twenty-eight minutes. This operation was finally cut down by the same principle of division and sub-division of labor to one hour and thirty-three minutes. The sub-division of operations in the Ford factory is almost incredibly fine; the man who places a part does not fasten it—the part may not be fully in place until after several operations later; the man who puts on the bolts, does not put on the nuts; the man who puts on the nuts does not tighten them.

Thus division and sub-division of labor go on, in the factories and in the offices, not only in the automobile industry, but in all industries, and thus the economies of the factory system are fully realized.

The application of the three techniques which comprise the factory system to the production of the goods we consume has revolutionized life. It has enabled this civilization to realize the goal of increased profits, higher wages, lower prices. Material well-being has been increased; life in many obvious respects has been made less uncomfortable. Man has more shelter, more clothing, more creature comforts of all sorts than before.

It is only natural that those who have brought all this to pass should feel that the application of the factory system to all the activities of life, often under the nom de plume of “business methods,” would result in equally startling improvements in every aspect of living. The factory system applied to the home should make the family happier; applied to the farm it should make the farmer more prosperous and farm products less expensive; applied to the business of our tradesmen it should add to their profits and make them serve their customers better; applied to the school it should produce a better educated citizen; applied to the church it should make our spiritual life richer; applied to philanthropy it should decrease the sum total of human suffering and make men more unselfish; applied to politics it should make government function more justly, more benignantly, more intelligently–above all more economically.

And this is precisely what we have in recent years begun to do. For better or worse, we have been systematizing all the activities of life; we have been transferring the “mechanizing” of life which began in the factory to the office, to the church, to the school, and to the home.

It is perhaps not correct to say that the application of the factory system to administrative and clerical work in offices of all kinds is an invasion of regions outside of the factory. The modern office should be considered a part of the factory, or at least of the industry with which it concerns itself even though it may be located in a city hundreds of miles from the place where manufacturing is actually carried on. And yet the invasion of administration by the factory system is worth mentioning because office workers generally, especially those occupying executive positions which correspond to the position of foreman and superintendents in factories, are fooled by their white collars and their more genteel clothes into total blindness to the fact that they are just as truly cogs in the industrial machine as are the men who work in overalls in the factory itself. Modern offices contain an increasing number of workers who are expected to perform their work well, just as are the machine operators in the factory, but who, like the laborers, are not expected to rise higher.

Because the schooling of the modern child must equip it for the sort of work it will have to do as an adult, the application of factory and mass production methods to office work is profoundly affecting our school curriculums. The Y.M.C.A. and the Y.W.C.A. educational classes which are primarily vocational, have above all else to reflect existing business conditions. This also is true of many of the high schools and colleges of the country. They are, however, a little slower to respond to changing conditions. In 1928 the National Board of the Y.W.C.A. considered the tendency toward systematizing office work so important that they made a survey of conditions in offices and their influence upon workers. A striking example of the length to which factory methods are superseding old ways in business offices is described in the report of this survey:

Orders are passed along by means of a belt from a chief clerk to a series of checkers and typists. Each one does only one operation. One interprets the order, indicates the trade discount; the second prices the order, takes of discount, adds carriage charges and totals. The third girl gives the order a number and makes a daily record. The fourth girl puts this information on the alphabetical index. The fifth girl stamps it. The sixth girl makes a copy in septuplicate and puts on address labels. The seventh girl checks it and sends it to the storeroom. Measurement of production by various methods, by the square inch, line, by a cyclometer or by the number of pieces produced, is being done in some offices that are under scientific management.

But with the progressive mechanization of the work in the office, the one thing that made office work endurable to a really civilized man is disappearing. The most cherished aspect of office work used to be the fact that it could be utilized as a stepping stone to executive positions. Every office boy was supposed to carry the “baton” of a partnership in his knapsack. But this is fast disappearing. Both office clerks and office executives today get their positions on the strength of their training in school and college, and they tend to stay in the positions in which they first find employment.

But the invasion of fine arts by the factory system! Here indeed is an invasion of a sphere of activity which ought to be sacredly preserved for the creative expression of the individual.

Consider how modern literature—if we dare call much modern writing literature—is standardized by the demands of mass publishing. Author A has written an interesting short story about New York’s East Side Jews. It has made a distinct hit. He must therefore fill book after book with stories devoted to the identical theme, or cease to be an author with a marketable commodity. Author B has written a dashing novel of the West and its cow-boys. He must therefore endlessly repeat himself on the same locale and characters. The more uniform their stories, the more ideally they fit into the scheme of modern, factory methods of magazine and book publishing.

Of course, the factory system dominates the production of the American newspaper. The local news, unavoidably, must be written to fit local conditions, but aside from that, editorials, cartoons, “columns,” comic strips, short stories, fashions, pictures, magazine sections, all are fabricated and syndicated by factory methods. You may move from New York to San Francisco—traverse the whole continent—and never for a day stop in a city in which some paper does not publish your favorite “column,” your favorite comic strips, and your favorite poet’s effusions.

A quotation from Editor and Publisher (the leading magazine devoted to newspaper publishing) of March 3, 1928, shows that the “craft” is beginning to recognize the situation:

The one department of newspaper production in which consolidation and modern methods have reduced the number of employees has been the editorial, in which machinery plays a small part. The syndicates have made available to the smallest publisher at prices within reach of the thinnest purse, the best that the big city newspapers create and enjoy. This means of economy can be and has been abused, and it bears seeds of danger both to the individual publisher and the craft in general. The profession and business of gathering and selling news and commercial information to the public is one that requires direct contact between man and man. The press is one machine to which the deus is indispensable.

The writer in Editor and Publisher is probably whistling to keep up his courage when he says that the individual is indispensable to the press. Our factory civilization has repeatedly produced machines and methods which placed in the ranks of false prophets those who said the individual was indispensable.

The factory system has been applied in a most masterly fashion to the task of entertaining the masses. A populace bored to the point of inanity by the monotony of its work in office and factory, and supplied with ample leisure by the process of taking from the family most of the occupations which might make home making interesting and important, has to be entertained. Entertainment is therefore provided which is quite as thoroughly standardized, as easy to assimilate, as little disturbing to the mind as is the work which they do while earning their daily bread. The movies, with standardized tragedies, comedies and news features, with standardized actors and actresses and standardized show houses, furnish a splendid means of escape into a world of adventure and apparent life. If the movies do not satisfy the masses every night in the week, there is the alternative of standardized vaudeville and standardized burlesque, and even without leaving the home to be entertained, there is the standardized entertainment of the radio, the phonograph and the piano player. There is plenty of music, but it is mainly vicarious music, not music that is the product of personal effort. There is less of that kind of music and that kind of singing in the lives of the men and women of our factory-dominated civilization than in that of the African negroes in the forests. Family dancing and folk singing has gone the way of family and craft production: it has been systematized out of existence.

We buy our music today; we do not produce it ourselves. Perhaps the time will come when it can neither be produced or enjoyed by us.

Says Waldo Frank:

Art cannot become a language, hence an experience, unless it is practiced. To the man who plays, a mechanical reproduction of music may mean much, since he already has the experience to assimilate it. But where reproduction becomes the norm, the few music-makers will grow more isolate and sterile, and the ability to experience music will disappear. The same is true with cinema, dance and even sport. Only when the theatre for instance, is an ennobled symbolization of common social practice (as it was in Athens and in Medieval Europe) can it become an experience for the onlooker.31

In this country where industrialization has gone so far and where leisure is more abundant than in any other nation, more money is spent for commercialized amusement than for anything else except food, and more money invested in the “factories” which produce it than in anything else except land. As Dr. George B. Cutten, President of Colgate University, said, we seem to have become “amusement mad.” He says:

We have more than 20,000,000 daily admissions to the moving-picture exhibitions and more than 100,000,000 admissions to sporting events yearly. Three million dollars is spent in admissions to see a prizefight, and far more than that in traveling and hotel expenses in connection with it. Probably the 80,000 people who witness a Yale-Harvard football game pay in admissions and expenses more than $1,000,000, and the great Yale Bowl can barely accommodate one fifth of those who desire to see this contest. The gate receipts of a world’s baseball series are more than $1,000,000; $30,000,000 is spent annually on admissions to circuses, and probably more than $100,000,000 is paid every year to jazz orchestras. The space given to sporting events in daily newspapers shows the demands of the public for this form of amusement.

Our great national game, baseball, is following along the line of college football—more and more we are showing our interest in it, not by playing but by watching contests. Playing games by proxy is becoming more popular, and has in it the seeds of degeneration. On the other hand, there are 3,000,000 golfers in this country, and factories that formerly manufactured baseball gonds are now manufacturing golf clubs. Half a million boys are caddying on golf links; twenty years ago boys of similar age were playing baseball on vacant lots. Golf links are becoming more numerous and vacant lots are disappearing.

There are worse uses for our leisure than play, but too much play tends to weakness. Passive amusement, moreover, such as watching others play or being entertained in other ways, even if the amusement is not morally objectionable, tends to soften the fiber and to weaken the moral structure. The race came to its present lofty position through struggle and strife, and it is not likely that it can maintain its position by any program of passivity and inactivity.

Leisure has increased to such an extent that we must think of something besides amusement with which to occupy it. There are some individuals and some groups in every community to whom this matter of leisure is never a problem. By training and planning, the spare hours are cared for in a way that is profitable to them individually, while at the same time a relief from business or professional toil. But these individuals and groups are not numerous; to most persons leisure is a problem, and to the country as a whole it is a menace.

The various fads—those which spring up suddenly, capture the attention of the people, become the topic of conversation and the chief occupation of the masses for a season, and suddenly decline and are forgotten—show the necessity of some more lasting program and a more purposeful scheme for the occupation of the spare hours of the general public. One has only to mention turkey trotting, mahjong, and cross-word puzzles to call to mind a much longer list of harmless, inane, and valueless modes of wasting time, which like Jonah’s gourd have sprung up in the night and faded before the rising sun.

It is not what these things were in themselves, but more especially what they indicate, which is important. They were seized upon by people who had excess time at their disposal, were not vicious, and were looking for some innocent way to spend it. Most of these had neither the ability nor the initiative to work at their own programs, and waited for someone else to suggest means to occupy their leisure. The suggestion was not a program but a temporary expedient which from its very nature must be ephemeral.32

The factory system dominates modern methods of education. The system begins in the nursery school. It ends in the university. As more and more of the work of education is taken over by the school and less and less left to the home, schools become bigger and bigger institutions; the army of teachers becomes larger and larger; the educational system, more and more efficient. The modern school becomes more and more like a modern factory. It becomes an institution notable for its efficient equipment, efficient methods, and efficient personnel. The pupils go through the school in standardized classes; study a standardized curriculum; pass standardized examinations; and emerge with standardized educations.

The work of teaching is divided and sub-divided among specialists much as the work of making an automobile is divided and sub-divided among trained laborers in the automobile factory.

Mathematics is taught by one teacher; history by another. There are plenty of teachers of mathematics who, though they probably did know enough history to graduate when they went to school, have forgotten all that they know of that subject and yet build splendid reputations in their specialty. True, the school can never hope to attain the degree of specialization which enables the automobile factory to train its workers for their tasks in a single day. But it can specialize to a point which will make it easy to use stupider and stupider types to perform each minute task in pedagogy; to shoot the teachers through normal schools more rapidly than before; to standardize systems and teaching techniques; in short, to apply the principles of efficiency to the whole task of running itself and of preparing the young for their factory dominated futures.

Scholars may be as various in temperament and background as they can well be, but they must nevertheless be educated by a system in which they are treated as mere units in a carefully graded class of like units. They enter school as raw material in the kindergarten. The kindergarten prepares them for their primary work. They pass from one class to another; from the grammar school to the high school; from the high school to the college, and exit at various convenient stopping points along the route into the factory-world, much as raw cotton enters a mill at one point and finally emerges at another as finished cotton goods. Each individual yard is the same as every other yard. Each individual scholar tends to be the same as every other—educated for a place in the factory world, with the same identical range of reactions to factory, office, religion, politics, as the school and college boards consider it best for them to possess. They may, for instance, react either to Republicanism or to Democracy, but to Socialism, never!

From the moment the child is able to leave the home, he is expected to do what all of his fellows do. Not only in school, but out of school as well. The boys join the Boy Scouts and the girls the Campfire Girls, the Girl Reserve, or the Junior League.

They go to school en masse, they play en masse, they think en masse. Modern mass education makes them memorize more abstract facts, infinitely more than the child of the pre-factory age, but they probably do not understand their environment as well.

This is the factory system applied to education.

Where has this factory system not gone? It has been applied to the most elementary aspects of life—to the feeding and sheltering of mankind. We eat in restaurant and lunchrooms dishes produced by factory methods out of foods which all came from factories, and we sleep in apartment houses and hotels in which every detail of living is as meticulously standardized as is every step in the making of a Ford car.

Strange as it may seem, some of the most acute students of civilization are completely blind to the deadening effect upon us of this systemization of all the ordinary activities of our lives. Havelock Ellis, who is not afraid to advocate the most revolutionary changes in our sexual customs, is yet willing to accept, with an amusing fatalism, the existing factory systemization of life as part of the solution of the problem of domestic happiness. He would make homes happy by destroying their every function except that of being dormitories for the couples who inhabit them. In an essay he urges mankind to replace the wasteful, extravagant, and often inefficient home cookery by meals cooked outside; “to facilitate the growing social habit of taking meals in spacious public restaurants, under more attractive, economical and wholesome conditions than can usually be secured within the narrow confines of the home,” and “to contract with specially trained workers from outside for all those routines of domestic drudgery which are inefficiently and laboriously carried on by the household worker, whether mistress or servant.” 33

Is it really desirable to give up home cookery and to substitute for it mass cookery and mass service in restaurants? Wouldn’t it be wiser to utilize our scientific knowledge for the purpose of making home cookery more attractive, more economical, more wholesome and to make homemaking a creative art rather than to abandon one of the few remaining economic functions of the home?

In our American cities we seem to be acting upon Mr. Ellis’s prescription, according to Charles Laube, President of the National Restaurant Association.

Apartments have been largely responsible for the decline of the domestic kitchen. They are small and they aggravate modern wives who don’t like to cook, anyway. The restaurateur has competed successfully against the home kitchen in the past because he has made money through labor-saving machines, electric dishwashers and patented potato peelers. From now on success will lie in making his place more attractive, in dispensing atmosphere as well as good food. The restaurant will be decorated more artistically and a new type of waitress will appear—one who is prettier, more congenial and dressed becomingly.34

This is probably as it should be in a factory-dominated world. The “atmosphere,” the artistic decorations, the prettily dressed homemakers are obsolete. All these must be transferred from the inefficient privacy of the home to a “spacious public restaurant” where they can be enjoyed en masse and in public.

In a civilization reflecting at every point the conquering factory system it is fitting to find that we have applied the factory system to the business of being born, of being sick, and in the end of dying and being buried. We now have maternity hospitals, nurseries, and nursery schools, sanitariums and even funeral churches, all of them efficient—and hard.

The modern mother is merely maternity case number 8,434; her infant after being finger and foot printed, becomes infant number 8,003.

By virtue of the same mania for system, a modern corpse be cornes number 2,432; while a modern funeral becomes one of a series scheduled for parlor 4B for a certain day at a certain hour, with preacher number fourteen, singer number 87, rendering music number 174, and flowers and decorations class B.

Thus the factory system begins and finishes the citizen of the factory-dominated world.

It introduces him to his world in a systematized hospital, furnished him a standardized education, supports him in a scientifically managed factory, and finishes him off with a final factory flourish, by giving him a perfectly efficient funeral and a perfectly scientific entrance into the regions of eternal bliss.

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