Shear Trade

Vintage Scissors by H. Cromwell Criterion. (Image courtesy of Great Planes Trading)

A pair of vintage scissors by H. Cromwell Criterion. (Image courtesy of Great Planes Trading)

Not many of us are overwhelmed with patriotic feelings when we think about scissors but they have been a highly protected manufactured good for much of America’s history. In the tariff act of 1922, the tax on imported scissors was 45%, which was pretty high for that time. In the 1990s, the tariff on “cheap scissors” was 23.6%, which is super high for our era of low tariffs.

Not that any tariff rates make any sense: the tariff on a patriotic commodity like steel rides at around 1 or 2%, while foreign-seeming soybean oil gets 18 to 45%. Premium cuts of meat are barely guarded at 4% but cheap meat gets a 10 to 20% tariff slapped on. Don’t mess with our crappy meat or our crappy scissors!

But all those are just numbers, where does the flag waving over scissors come in? Check out this 1909 letter to congress where twelve US shear manufacturers argued “That with an increase in duty, as will be proposed, a new industry will be created in this country.” Ah, to live in a place with a thriving scissor and shear manufactury. That’s a flag I could salute proudly! The letter goes on to explain why exactly US scissor makers need protection. (This is where you say something about how the more things change the more they stay the same because the complaint was about cheap foreign labor, not Chinese this time but German.)

“While the actual wage of a German mechanic is apparently two-thirds of that paid in this country, the difference is really greater. In Germany the work is done entirely by contract and not in a factory. The workman takes to his home the rough material and with the aid of the family the product is finished.”

It’s not cheap labor because the Germans were living in padlocked dorms and sleeping in shifts to get the opportunity to engage in sweatshop labor. The men were bringing work home! To the modern ear, this set-up doesn’t sound diabolical. It sounds idyllic. You can’t watch an hour of television these days without seeing advertisement after advertisement about work-at-home schemes and how marvelous they would make your life.

Not to mention that the German man who brought work home was teaching his children (at least his sons) a trade. The letter correctly points out that this age-old method of manufacturing harnesses the economic efficiency of the family to the cart. But it’s not presented as the beautiful continuity of a tradition of familial apprenticeship that could be traced back for centuries… it’s a sneaky cheat. “Healthy, honest Americans are leaving their homes to a factory and making scissors. These Germans are taking scissor blanks home and putting their children to work like godless communists!”

Vintage flag, circa 1917.

“Beat Germany – Support Every Flag that Opposes Prussianism” flag, circa 1917. (Image courtesy of Ohio History Central)

In case you’re thinking that this was part of the anti-German sentiment being drummed up by francophiles in the lead-up to WWI, it wasn’t. It’s just good old fashioned American xenophobia.. The year 1909 was a bit too early for the anti-German stuff and besides, in the very next letter the French were scapegoated. Following the shear maker’s complaint is a similar plea for protection from Tool Steel makers.

“There are any number of manufacturing concerns in this country who will bear witness to the fact that certain wily Frenchmen have invaded the country a few years ago and sold any amount of a supposedly miraculous tool steel [that] was almost worthless….This case is an extreme illustration of the credulity of some American tool steel buyers and their curious confidence in anything manufactured on the other side of the ocean.”

The idea of protectionism is that a tariff (or a subsidy, which amounts to the same thing, really) is to give a delicate new industry the space to take root and and become strong. Once strong, the tariff could be dropped, or so the fairy tale goes. Rarely does it work this way. Usually, consumers end up paying more than they need to and companies respond to the free kick in the shin to their foreign competition with complacency, ultimately becoming even less competitive than they were before.

Often the call for protection takes on a patriotic tone, critical of the people who are threatening our native industry. In the case of our cousins across the pond, whether the complaint has centered on communistic German family-men, wily Frenchmen or government subsidies for home industries, decades of similar pitches from protectionists on the American side have not eroded our “curious confidence” in European goods. That confidence remains quite strong in this country, mostly for good reason.

The idea of buying a pair of shears that was finished in a man’s home with his children playing and learning at his feet gives me a warm feeling I can’t quite give up even though that possibility is long gone.

Adrian Colesberry is also the author of “How to Make Love to Adrian Colesberry,” published by Gotham Books.

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