What Would Adam Smith Think of My Weekend?

with Sarah Skwire

June 3, 2019

I spent this weekend in my garden. The lettuce and carrot sprouts needed thinning. The thistles had mounted an impressive counter-attack in my on-going war to wrest back control over my butterfly and bee garden. And that dying bush by the corner of the screen porch really needed to be pruned severely if it was to have any hope of rallying.

When it got too dark to work in the garden, I turned to my cooking. There were some new recipes I wanted to try out, and Steve bought steaks and spinach from the local farmers’ market. After dinner, it was on to my knitting. Three friends are having babies within the next few months, so I’m busily producing tiny sweaters, cozy blankets, and cute little stuffed animals. 

I had a glorious time.

Whenever I get to spend a weekend this way, I’m reminded of two people, the 17th century diarist Lady Margaret Hoby and Adam Smith.

Lady Hoby [1] spent most of her days the way that I spend my weekends. She worked in the kitchen garden and in the kitchen. She “wrought” all kinds of needlework most days--producing and mending clothing, bed linens, and even decorative embroidery for her family, her home, and herself.  But notice how she describes these days:

The 26 day: After privatt praers I reed of the bible and then went to worke. After[wards] I dined. After diner I wrought a whill and after [that] I talked with those that Came with my Cosine Dakins and others Came in to se me. After [that] I went to private readinge and medetation.

The 31: After prairs I went about the house and wrought tell all most Diner time. Then I praied and reed, dined and was busie tell all most night in the house, and then I went to privat medetation and praier.

Aprill 4: ...was all most all the after none in the Garden Sowinge seed. ...After I returned in to my Chamber and there reed and praied tell all most I went to supper.

The very activities that I can’t wait to get to on weekends are the ones this woman thinks of as work. And the very things that I long to put away at the end of a busy week--my books and writing--are the things she most longs to pick up. Our understanding of what is work and what is leisure has flipped completely since Lady Margaret Hoby’s time. That’s not just a sign that we’ve developed new technology that allows us to grow more food in less space or mechanize the process of clothing creation. It’s a sign that we’re getting richer.

Even from his 18th century time frame, much closer to Hoby’s than to my own, Adam Smith knew this was going to happen. As our world becomes wealthier, the things we once had to do to survive become leisure activities, that we can hire people (or buy machines) to do for us. That means that we are free to pursue those activities or not, depending on our preferences. Some people like to can their own jams and jellies for fun. Other quilt, or camp, or cure their own bacon. Smith specifically pointed to the way that:

Hunting and fishing, the most important employments of mankind in the rude state of society, become in its advanced state their most agreeable amusements, and they pursue for pleasure what they once followed from necessity. WN, Vol I, X, b.

Smith notes, as well, that people who pursue as trades the activities that have now become leisure work are generally poorly paid because--since the work is attractive to so many--they have to be willing to accept a lower price for their labor. Supply is high, so wages are low. With jobs like gardening and knitting, the technological substitutes for human labor lower wages even more. (This is why Queen Elizabeth I refused to give a patent to William Lee for the invention of a stocking knitting machine; she was afraid it would ruin the English hand knitting industry)

And that’s why you can’t pay me for garden tomatoes or a hand knit baby blanket. I’m having too much fun to treat it like work. 

[1]  Hoby, Lady Margaret, Diary, in Lay by Your Needles Ladies, Take the Pen: Writing Women in England, 1500-1700.  Ed. Suzanne Trill, Kate Chedgzoy, and Melanie Osborne. St Martin’s Press, New York, 1997. Original spelling retained. Punctuation added for clarity.
Shal Marriott

It certainly sounds like a lovely weekend! Although it made me curious about when work and leisure overlap. Let's say in the case of a musician for example, who spends his days playing in an orchestra and his evenings performing his own music. He's doing the same task (playing music), but in two different ways. So I'm wondering if there is there an importance is taking time away from ones profession (like Hume might argue) within Smith?

Also, I think the idea of hunting and fishing as a profession compared to as leisure can be found in an interesting way in the rural/urban divide. And I wonder if our separation by wealth and subsequently by the lifestyles we live make it more difficult to understand one another.

Sarah Skwire

Shal, it's a good question! I read a ton for work, and I also read a ton for pleasure. They feel different to me, but I'm not sure how best to capture that difference from the outside, particularly since my pleasure reading often accidentally turns into work-related articles. (Like the one I wrote on liberty and the romance novel!) It's a conversation that a lot of knitters have as well--would it be a dream come true to run a yarn store, or would it just turn a beloved hobby into work?

Shal Marriott

Sarah, I think financial need would play a part in the matter. If your yarn store became your singular source of income, and that income was important for putting food on the table - then it would be work for the sake of survival and that would come with all the associated stresses. Suddenly your work is no longer just for yourself. Even if you were only responsible for yourself, I think the same principle would apply. It would take away from the "mental nourishment" (for lack of a better term) it otherwise provides, because you're doing it to meet basic needs.

Comparatively, if the income it provided was of no real consequence for you, then what you're really gaining from it would be the joy of people who love yarn and providing a service for them. Hence you would be able to take full enjoyment from it.

Perhaps though being able to still take enjoyment out of the work your financially dependent on, is part of what Smith might call finding our vocation?

Sarah Skwire

I agree with some of that, but I think there's a lot that goes into running a business that we haven't talked about, and those are the kinds of things I was thinking about as "getting in the way" of enjoying a hobby when it turns into a livelihood. Even if you *aren't* running the store because you need the income...even if it *is* just a bonus if you make any money from the store, you still have to deal with the hassle of doing the accounting, order and stocking supplies, hiring (and firing) employees, making sure you're OSHA compliant etc., etc. I suspect it's this kind of stuff that makes many a small yarn shop bite the dust.

Shal Marriott

To be entirely honest, when yarn shop was mentioned I think I was inadvertently picturing more of a Farmers Market booth. So I definitely see your point. And I think then you become a business owner rather than merely a yarn enthusiast, so your time is taken away by other aspects adjacent to the activity you initially enjoyed. Do you think you'd get the same or similar enjoyment from working at a yarn shop owned by someone else? Let's assume the person who owned it was agreeable and shared your philosophy about yarn. So you'd be doing the same work as your hobby currently is, but in a professional setting.

Shal Marriott

Now that I think about it, is it just the presence of obligations that takes enjoyment away from an activity when it is turned from hobby into work?