Machine-Made Men by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Among the commonplace white and yellow envelopes that compose the bulk of one’s correspondence, appear from time to time dainty epistles on tinted paper, adorned with crests or monograms. “Ha! ha!” I think when one of these appears, “here is something worth opening!” For between ourselves, reader mine, old bachelors love to receive notes from women. It’s so flattering to be remembered by the dear creatures, and recalls the time when life was beginning, and poulets in feminine writing suggested such delightful possibilities.

Only this morning an envelope of delicate Nile green caused me a distinct thrill of anticipation. To judge by appearances it could contain nothing less attractive than a declaration, so, tearing it hurriedly open, I read: “Messrs. Sparks & Splithers take pleasure in calling attention to their patent suspenders and newest designs in reversible paper collars!”

Now, if that’s not enough to put any man in a bad humor for twenty-four hours, I should like to know what is? Moreover, I have “patents” in horror, experience having long ago revealed the fact that a patent is pretty sure to be only a new way of doing fast and cheaply something that formerly was accomplished slowly and well.

Few people stop to think how quickly this land of ours is degenerating into a paradise of the cheap and nasty, but allow themselves to be heated and cooled and whirled about the streets to the detriment of their nerves and digestions, under the impression that they are enjoying the benefits of modern progress.

So complex has life become in these later days that the very beds we lie on and the meals we eat are controlled by patents. Every garment and piece of furniture now pays a “royalty” to some inventor, from the hats on our heads to the carpets under foot, which latter are not only manufactured, but cleaned and shaken by machinery, and (be it remarked en passant) lose their nap prematurely in the process. To satisfy our national love of the new, an endless and nameless variety of trifles appears each season, so-called labor and time-saving combinations, that enjoy a brief hour of vogue, only to make way for a newer series of inventions.

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As long as our geniuses confined themselves to making life one long and breathless scramble, it was bad enough, but a line should have been drawn where meddling with the sanctity of the toilet began. This, alas! was not done. Nothing has remained sacred to the inventor. In consequence, the average up-to-date American is a walking collection of Yankee notions, an ingenious illusion, made up of patents, requiring as nice adjustment to put together and undo as a thirteenth-century warrior, and carrying hardly less metal about his person than a Crusader of old.

There are a number of haberdashery shops on Broadway that have caused me to waste many precious minutes gazing into their windows and wondering what the strange instruments of steel and elastic could be, that were exhibited alongside of the socks and ties. The uses of these would, in all probability, have remained wrapped in mystery but for the experience of one fateful morning (after a night in a sleeping-car), when countless hidden things were made clear, as I sat, an awestruck witness to my fellow-passengers’-toilets?-No! Getting their machinery into running order for the day, would be a more correct expression.

Originally, “tags” were the backbone of the toilet, different garments being held together by their aid. Later, buttons and attendant button-holes were evolved, now replaced by the devices used in composing the machine-made man. As far as I could see (I have overcome a natural delicacy in making my discoveries public, because it seems unfair to keep all this information to myself), nothing so archaic as a button-hole is employed at the present time by our patent-ridden compatriots. The shirt, for instance, which was formerly such a simple-minded and straightforward garment, knowing no guile, has become, in the hands of the inventors, a mere pretence, a frail scaffold, on which an elaborate superstructure of shams is erected.

The varieties of this garment that one sees in the shop windows, exposing virgin bosoms to the day, are not what they seem! Those very bosoms are fakes, and cannot open, being instead pierced by eyelets, into which bogus studs are fixed by machinery. The owner is obliged to enter into those deceptive garments surreptitiously from the rear, by stratagem, as it were. Why all this trouble, one asks, for no apparent reason, except that old-fashioned shirts opened in front, and no Yankee will wear a non-patented garment-if he can help it?

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There was not a single accessory to the toilet in that car which behaved in a normal way. Buttons mostly backed into place, tail-end foremost (like horses getting between shafts), where some hidden mechanism screwed or clinched them to their moorings.

Collars and cuffs (integral parts of the primitive garment) are now a labyrinth, in which all but the initiated must lose themselves, being double-decked, detachable, reversible, and made of every known substance except linen. The cuff most in favor can be worn four different ways, and is attached to the shirt by a steel instrument three inches long, with a nipper at each end. The amount of white visible below the coat-sleeve is regulated by another contrivance, mostly of elastic, worn further up the arm, around the biceps. Modern collars are retained in position by a system of screws and levers. Socks are attached no longer with the old-fashioned garter, but by aid of a little harness similar to that worn by pug-dogs.

One traveller, after lacing his shoes, adjusted a contrivance resembling a black beetle on the knot to prevent its untying. He also wore “hygienic suspenders,” a discovery of great importance (over three thousand patents have been taken out for this one necessity of the toilet!). This brace performs several tasks at the same time, such as holding unmentionable garments in place, keeping the wearer erect, and providing a night-key guard. It is also said to cure liver and kidney disease by means of an arrangement of pulleys which throw the strain according to the wearer’s position-I omit the rest of its qualities!

The watches of my companions, I noticed with astonishment, all wore India-rubber ruffs around their necks. Here curiosity getting the better of discretion, I asked what purpose that invention served. It was graciously explained to me how such ruffs prevented theft. They were so made that it was impossible to draw your watch out of a pocket unless you knew the trick, which struck me as a mitigated blessing. In fact, the idea kept occurring that life might become terribly uncomfortable under these complex conditions for absent-minded people.

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Pencils, I find, are no longer put into pockets or slipped behind the ear. Every commercial “gent” wears a patent on his chest, where his pen and pencil nestle in a coil of wire. Eyeglasses are not allowed to dangle aimlessly about, as of old, but retire with a snap into an oval box, after the fashion of roller shades. Scarf-pins have guards screwed on from behind, and undergarments-but here modesty stops my pen.

Seeing that I was interested in their make-up, several travelling agents on the train got out their boxes and showed me the latest artifices that could be attached to the person. One gentleman produced a collection of rings made to go on the finger with a spring, like bracelets, an arrangement, he explained, that was particularly convenient for people afflicted with enlarged joints!

Another tempted me with what he called a “literary shirt front,”-it was in fact a paper pad, from which for cleanliness a leaf could be peeled each morning; the “wrong” side of the sheet thus removed contained a calendar, much useful information, and the chapters of a “continued” story, which ended when the “dickey” was used up.

A third traveller was “pushing” a collar-button that plied as many trades as Figaro, combining the functions of cravat-holder, stud, and scarf-pin. Not being successful in selling me one of these, he brought forward something “without which,” he assured me, “no gentleman’s wardrobe was complete”! It proved to be an insidious arrangement of gilt wire, which he adjusted on his poor, overworked collar-button, and then tied his cravat through and around it. “No tie thus made,” he said, “would ever slip or get crooked.” He had been so civil that it was embarrassing not to buy something of him; I invested twenty-five cents in the cravat-holder, as it seemed the least complicated of the patents on exhibition; not, however, having graduated in a school of mechanics I have never been able to make it work. It takes an hour to tie a cravat with its aid, and as long to get it untied. Most of the men in that car, I found, got around the difficulty by wearing ready-made ties which fastened behind with a clasp.

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It has been suggested that the reason our compatriots have such a strained and anxious look is because they are all trying to remember the numbers of their streets and houses, the floor their office is on, and the combination of their safes. I am inclined to think that the hunted look we wear comes from an awful fear of forgetting the secrets of our patents and being unable to undo ourselves in an emergency!

Think for a moment of the horror of coming home tired and sleepy after a convivial evening, and finding that some of your hidden machinery had gone wrong; that by a sudden movement you had disturbed the nice balance of some lever which in revenge refused to release its prey! The inventors of one well-known cuff-holder claim that it had a “bull-dog grip.” Think of sitting dressed all night in the embrace of that mechanical canine until the inventor could be called in to set you free!

I never doubted that bravery was the leading characteristic of the American temperament; since that glimpse into the secret composition of my compatriots, admiration has been vastly increased. The foolhardy daring it must require-dressed as those men were-to go out in a thunder-storm makes one shudder: it certainly could not be found in any other race. The danger of cross-country hunting or bull-fighting is as nothing compared to the risk a modern American takes when he sits in a trolley-car, where the chances of his machinery forming a fatal “short circuit” must be immense. The utter impossibility in which he finds himself of making a toilet quickly on account of so many time-saving accessories must increase his chances of getting “left” in an accident about fifty per cent. Who but one of our people could contemplate with equanimity the thought of attempting the adjustment of such delicate and difficult combinations while a steamer was sinking and the life-boats being manned?

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Our grandfathers contributed the wooden nutmeg to civilization, and endowed a grateful universe with other money-saving devices. To-day the inventor takes the American baby from his cradle and does not release him even at the grave. What a treat one of the machine-made men of to-day will be to the archeologists of the year 3000, when they chance upon a well-preserved specimen, with all his patents thick upon I him! With a prophetic eye one can almost see the kindly old gentleman of that day studying the paraphernalia found in the tomb and attempting to account for the different pieces. Ink will flow and discussions rage between the camp maintaining that cuff-holders were tutelar deities buried with the dead by pious relatives and the croup asserting that the little pieces of steel were a form of pocket money in the year 1900. Both will probably misquote Tennyson and Kipling in support of their theories.

The question has often been raised, What side of our nineteenth-century civilization will be most admired by future generations? In view of the above facts there can remain little doubt that when the secrets of the paper collar and the trouser-stretcher have become lost arts, it will be those benefits that remote ages will envy us, and rare specimens of “ventilated shoes” and “reversible tissue-paper undergarments” will form the choicest treasures of the collector.

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