Sawyer

The cause of the intemperance of the sawyers, say my informants, was their extreemly hard labour, and the thurst produced by their great exertion.

— Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 1861

If you know anyone named Sawyer, this is where his or her name comes from. Not from crosscutting, which everyone did, but from the specialty trade of ripping down the length of a log. English sawyers had a great reputation as drinkers, but Henry Mayhew ranked them only at thirty-fourth in his study of drunkenness in the trades, about equal with carpenters and wood turners—far below eighth-ranked French polishers, and complete slackers compared to the number one drunks of London, the button makers.

In England, sober, job-protecting sawyers pushed legislation through Parliament to ban the construction of horse-, wind-, or water-powered sawmills. The drinking sawyers did their part by burning down any sawmills that did get built.

In the colonies, there was anything but a surplus of labor, and a great demand for sawn timber. Water-powered sawmills were established almost immediately after settlement. Pit sawing held on longer in the South, where the wide coastal plain made water mill construction more troublesome than in the North. In the slaveholding South, much capital was tied up in owning labor. With little left for investment in industry, pit sawing continued as winter work.

Large estates often had their own sawpits. Thomas Jefferson had one at Monticello. In The Merry Wives of Windsor six children disguised as hobgoblins scare Falstaff when they "from forth a sawpit rush at once." Of course, many sawyers do not use a pit at all but rely on trestles and props to lift the log eight feet in the air. Trestles are certainly more portable.

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