Valen­tine’s house of cards

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@ city­press. co. za

Per­haps it is ap­pro­pri­ate that this week ends on Valen­tine’s Day. It should pro­vide some respite from political high jinks and the par­lous state of the real econ­omy. And de­spite the re­cent in­ter­est rate hike and dire warn­ings about soar­ing house­hold debt, many re­tail­ers and restau­ra­teurs should be cel­e­brat­ing as they tally their week­end tak­ings.

In many coun­tries around the world, much the same will ap­ply as shop tills – es­pe­cially at con­fec­tionar­ies and florists – pro­duce a ver­i­ta­ble ca­coph­ony of rings and bleeps as they hope for record sales. The US, where what has been called the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of Cupid had its ori­gins, will lead the way in terms of mes­sages and gifts de­liv­ered and ro­man­tic din­ners con­sumed.

But this year will also see a fur­ther de­cline in the very el­e­ment that started the mod­ern Valen­tine’s Day cel­e­bra­tion: the card. Mil­lions of th­ese will now flit elec­tron­i­cally from com­puter to com­puter. And not many peo­ple in­volved will bother to think about the im­pli­ca­tions of this any more than they may know about the ori­gins and his­tory of the day it­self.

But fewer phys­i­cal cards means less work for print­ers and for those who sup­ply the ma­te­ri­als for such pro­duc­tion. There is also less work for postal sorters and de­liv­er­ers. In the greater scheme of things, this is mi­nor, but it is a re­flec­tion of how the march of progress af­fects jobs.

A slightly more dra­matic ex­am­ple came quite soon af­ter the first Valen­tine’s cards were mass-pro­duced by the daugh­ter of a prin­ter and sta­tionery shop owner in the town of Worces­ter in the US. In 1847, a young Es­ther How­land, copy­ing the or­nate hand­made cards pro­duced in Eng­land, be­gan pro­duc­ing cards us­ing an as­sem­bly line ap­proach, em­ploy­ing lo­cal women.

But it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the cut­ting, past­ing and fold­ing needed was done by ma­chine. How­ever, Worces­ter de­vel­oped into a cen­tre for tex­tile and shoe man­u­fac­tur­ing that pro­vided new jobs, un­til that too suc­cumbed to cheaper, faster im­ports.

At the time that How­land and her all-fe­male as­sem­bly line were pro­duc­ing cards, th­ese had to be posted. This re­quired en­velopes, which were also then largely hand­made. But a lo­cal doc­tor, per­haps in­spired by the suc­cess of How­land’s Valen­tine’s cards, in­vented an en­ve­lope ma­chine.

Dr Rus­sell L Hawes went on to de­velop a self-feed­ing de­vice that fur­ther re­duced the num­ber of work­ers re­quired. In­stead of the hun­dreds of en­velopes that one worker could pro­duce in a day, the ma­chine pro­duced more than 10 000.

At the same time in Europe, there was a sim­i­lar surge of labour-sav­ing in­ven­tive­ness.

This led rad­i­cal thinkers such as Karl Marx and Friedrich En­gels to pos­tu­late that this would lead to “an epi­demic that, in all ear­lier epochs, would have seemed an ab­sur­dity — the epi­demic of over­pro­duc­tion”. They were right, and it did.

It led to a se­ries of booms and slumps that cul­mi­nated in the mas­sive ex­ten­sion of credit that played a ma­jor role in the cur­rent and on­go­ing eco­nomic cri­sis.

So the his­tory of Valen­tine’s Day cards pro­vides a glimpse of how tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances re­sulted in job shed­ding, but in days when there were still other jobs to go to.

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