Mr. Byers to Mr. Evarts.
Berne, October 17, 1877. (Received November 5.)
Sir: Referring to the Department’s circular concerning the possibilities of increasing trade between the United States and other countries of the world, I beg to present the following considerations concerning Switzerland.
Switzerland is a small country, only 50,000 square miles in extent, and possibly one-fifth of this area, even, is composed of high mountains, [Page 137]snow-fields, and lakes. The population does not quite reach, three millions; but, deducting the uninhabitable regions of the country, it is crowded to about 75 persons to the square mile. Again, a very great proportion of the land is only fit for pasturage and grass. Hence, here is a busy people crowded into a non-agricultural country, and relying almost wholly on other lands for their wheat, their corn, their oats, and their meat. Here are the very articles of which the United States has a surplus; Switzerland must and does buy these things, and it only becomes a question of how to get them here that need concern Americans for a moment. Again, Switzerland has no coal; every pound used for her factories, her steamers, her locomotives, and for heating, is bought in Saarbrück, Germany, and brought here by rail; and, further, she has no wood; it, too, is nearly all imported from Germany; so that her material for burning must all be purchased outside. She uses of coal ten million hundred-weight per year; this coal costs, delivered here, at least 35 francs per ton. If coal could be had cheaper, the amount consumed might be doubled, as wood is terrifically dear, nine to ten dollars per cord. She imports about five million hundred-weight of wheat per year, a million hundred-weight of rye, oats, and barley, a quarter of a million hundredweight of corn, and as much of meal; all these from Hungary, six hundred miles away. Her wheat costs her $2.20 per bushel j her meal costs $2.25 per hundred-weight; her flour $5 per hundred-weight; oats $2 per hundred-weight. Notwithstanding her abundance of grass, she imports her meat, as the cattle here are used for the dairy and for work.
No country can produce these necessities cheaper than the United States can, if we except England as to coal only. No country can put them into Switzerland cheaper, even with the difference of freight in their favor, provided we only had the opportunity. This opportunity would consist in having a line of strong freight-ships to Genoa or Marseilles, and proper arrangements with the Italian railway lines for cheap forwarding. The sending of freight-ships to Genoa would seem to have an especial advantage on the completion of the St. Gothard tunnel through the Alps. This tunnel will be completed in three years, and will, as a matter of course, result in cheapening freights from the Mediterranean to Switzerland. I have mentioned only the principal American products which could find great sale here were the question of freights settled.
There are still other items in which America could more than compete in Switzerland; I refer to tools, cutlery, some farming implements, axes, spades, scythes, lawn-mowers, scales, locks, &c. These articles as made here are both poor and dear. With agricultural machinery little can be done; the farms are too small and too hilly, and the farmers too poor to buy. Household implements and utensils, such as sewing-machines, washing-machines, and wringers, would be in demand, if good. Petroleum, cotton, and sewing-machines are already imported here largely, but seldom directly from America. Our provision list contains much that the Swiss would gladly buy; hams, canned fruits, canned vegetables, meat, lard, &c. But to establish trade in Switzerland there are many obstacles to overcome; the people are not only old-fashioned, they are dreadfully prejudiced against all innovations in the ways of doing things. I think I know farmers who drive four or five cows to an old wooden mold-board plow, who turn over but a quarter of an acre a day, who would not try a bright steel plow and a pair of horses were they to be given to them. Patience will be required, and disappointment at first will have to be borne. The easiest method to establish the sale of American manufactured articles in Switzerland would be to send specimens [Page 138]with prices to the permanent industrial exhibitions or museums There are no charges for space.
The article must be put at the door free of expense to the society, and it can remain on exhibition indefinitely. These permanent exhibitions are in Zurich, Winterthur, and Basel, and soon will be in other large Swiss towns. I judge that the consul, if requested to look after articles so exhibited, would do so with pleasure; I have spoken of what we Americans ought to sellto Switzerland, and I now come to what we ought to buy from her. We are, first of all, an agricultural people; the Swiss live by their manufactures. I am told, every day, that they ought to be selling us more than they do, but that we wont let them; our laws, even, won’t let them; and that, too, when we are asking them to buy of us.
Trade is jealous, like individuals. Grocer Smith won’t buy his shoes of neighbor Jones, if neighbor Jones dont buy his groceries of Smith. If we would like to sell our wheat, and petroleum, and corn, and cotton, and cutlery to Switzerland, who has use for them, and really wants them, common usage of trade will say we must buy of her in return. The first great industry of Switzerland is silk.
Zürich, indeed, is the second silk manufacturing city of the world. One of the greatest consumers of silk is America, and yet it is claimed, with certainly a great appearance of justice, that, in order to support a small number of silk manufacturers in New Jersey, we, to a large extent, refuse to buy of Switzerland, or at least to buy fairly; that is, we grant subsidies, for high duty on a certain article is a subsidy, to those who are making Swiss articles in our country.
“Abolish your subsidies, then,” says Switzerland, “put us on an even footing with you as to trade, and we will guarantee to furnish all the silk your people want at a very much lower price than you at present pay for it, and we will make money in the business at that, and we will feel encouraged to buy your surplus grains or whatever you may have to sell. You are not silk makers, we are; let the shoemaker stick to his last, and the tailor to his goose. We have made silk for two centuries; a large part of our people are skilled in this; we know the best methods and have the cheapest labor. You are benefited if we can give you a thing cheaper than you can make it yourself. Because you have succeeded in doing many things, you aspire to do all. This is what China thought two thousand years ago, and so she elevated her tariff, the shape of her great wall, and she closed her doors to barbarian and civilized alike, and she killed those who ventured to knock at her doors; at last she killed herself with too much home industry and too much protection, it is believed. You think because you have done much by machines you may yet do everything. There are some things that machines can’t do and do well. They have not got the delicate touch of a woman’s fingers or the secret skill of an experienced dyer—things that are requisite to make silk well.
“Stone-coal, steam, and machines are cheaper than muscle of men, but they can’t always take the place of men and women; if they could, sorrowful would be the day.”
In short, only a few qualities of silk can be made really well by machinery at all, the threads of the raw material being usually too delicate and the fine finish to the stuff other than by hand impossible. In weaving by hand the fingers of the weaver can do what the machine never can accomplish; that is, watch the breaks and remove the knots and clean away the imperfections. Besides, were it to be admitted that machines could make fully as good silk as skilled weavers can, still it [Page 139]would not be cheaper silk. The reasons are obvious; first, those who manufacture silk by hand have it done on private looms in the houses of the farmers, whose wives and daughters weave on rainy days and between times; second, there is little capital invested, and hence the risk is smaller; third, in times when the demand for silk lags or ceases, there are no costly machines to stand idle or else work at a loss; there are no great factories to close; no hundreds of workmen to be dismissed and, as goods are woven by the piece, there are no strikes. The production is simply lowered when prices fall, and when the market improves the farmer’s family return to the loom. The loss has at least been divided, and nobody is ruined. A partial reduction of production is impossible to machinery without loss. There are, perhaps, a thousand steam-looms near Zürich, and during the late and present crises of the silk-market those who have made silk by machines have suffered immensely more than those who made by hand. Again, some silk manufacturers weave both by hand and by steam-machines here, and I have been informed repeatedly that the cost to them whichever way they weave is not materially different. I am pretty thoroughly convinced that could manufacturers here have their money back they would not again put it into machine-looms for weaving silk. All this indicates that silk-weaving by machinery cannot hope to compete with silk-weaving by hand, either as to price or quality; and, if silk is to be woven by hand, Americans cannot hope to compete with the cheap labor of Switzerland and France, unless they are protected by at least 60 per cent. duty. To protect them by such a duty is to take the money out of the pockets of the consumers and to put it into the silk-looms—I will not say the pockets of American weavers.
That nothing less than 60 per cent. duty or subsidy can save them is evident from the fact that they barely keep their heads above water as it is. We import about twenty-five million dollars’ worth of silk annually. To get to use this, silk-consumers pay $15,000,000 per year, and then do not supply themselves as cheaply as they could were this enormous sum of duty not paid at all.
We pay this $15,000,000 mainly that a few manufacturers, not over two hundred in number, may go on experimenting with silk-weaving. Suppose this sum were expended to aid ship lines, in order that we might get our own products out to the world instead of trying to prevent the world’s products from getting into us. Of course the United States must have a revenue from some source or other, direct or indirect; but, leaving the question of the policy of levying such high duties out of consideration entirely, it is still maintainable that this same $15,000,000 would be had with a silk duty of 35 or 40 per cent., for this lower amount of duty would preclude the idea of profit from smuggling, and the result would be, the millions of dollars worth now smuggled in through a hundred different channels would be regularly entered and would pay duty.
It is interesting to notice to what an extent Europeans in silk districts have given up the production of raw silk and are restricting themselves wholly to manufacturing silk stuffs. In 1849 France produced 25,000,000 kilograms of raw silk; in 1868 the production had fallen off to 11,000,000 kilograms, and now it is down to 6,500,000 kilograms.
Spain, too, formerly a large silk-producing state, now delivers but a little over a million kilograms per year; Italy alone continuing to produce as usual.
In fact, countries in which ordinary farming pays cannot afford to turn attention to feeding the silk-worm or spinning the raw silk, as the two [Page 140]great requirements for success in spinning are, first, great cleverness of employés; and, second, a possibility of securing labor at extremely low prices. Here in Switzerland silk-weavers are content to earn 30 to 40 cents a day on their own looms, or 50 to 60 cents a day if weaving at the mechanical looms in factories.
Spinners in Italy work from 10 cents a day to 25 cents a day, and possibly as cheap or cheaper in China and Japan.
What I have wished to do in this paper was to represent some certain facts, leaving those interested to draw their own conclusions; remarking only that by legislation alone does it seem possible for us to greatly change the status of trade between the two countries. If our duties on Swiss industries were lower, so that they could be sold to us at the cost of manufacturing, and if we had cheap methods of sending our own products directly to Switzerland in return, the problem would be solved.
Acting Chargé d’Affaires.