22. ‘Against Idleness’ Mug

By Meg Roberts (@megeroberts)

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as industry and population swelled, an enduring fear of ‘idleness’ as a morally corrupting and irresponsible vice took on new significance in both Britain and America. This fear could almost be described as an obsession. Across print and material culture throughout this period, the indolence of ‘idleness’ was contrasted with the aspirational diligence of ‘industry’.

Household conduct guides, manuals on politeness, moralistic poems and instructional children’s stories were filled with reminders of the potential for sin and downfall in failing to fill one’s time with productive labour. Publications of this genre were not subtle in their instructive ambitions. For example, Idleness and Industry Exemplified in the History of James Preston and Lazy Lawrence (1803) described in detail the dramatic fall of Lazy Lawrence into criminality, until he was jailed and ‘became remarkable for industry… [was] found early and late at his work [and] established a new character’ under the guidance of industrious Jem.[1]

The burgeoning ceramics market did not fail to pick up on this trend. A range of pottery products – often designed for children – displayed slogans such as ‘IDLENESS BRINGS DISGRACE’ or ominous poems, as seen in this example. Likely manufactured in Staffordshire (the centre of English pottery production) in the early nineteenth century, this mug warns of the link between the idle and the diabolical:

In works of labor or of skill
I would be busy too
As Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.’

[1] Idleness and Industry Exemplified in the History of James Preston and Lazy Lawrence (Philadelphia, 1803), p. 55.

Image: Photograph taken by the author in the Cottage Museum, Lancaster.


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