193: Glass Pockets

Good Friends,

If you read through the Fors Clavigera letters Ruskin wrote to the workers and laborers of Britain between 1871 and 1884 (there were, overall, 96 of them), you will discover our subject writing at his didactic (and, frequently, acerbic) best. It was the time, you’ll recall, during which he was creating The Guild of St. George (originally, The St. George’s Company). He conceived it to be a group of like-minded others who, with him acting as its first Master, would work, and some live, together to create, in the face of ever-degenerating, ever more corrupt, Western civilization, a decent and humane place for people to draw their breaths in.

It was also conceived to be a completely honest and open society. Every time people kept secrets, Ruskin often said, there was covert self-interest and often, corruption either at work or pending. (There’s pretty good evidence for this, I think.) For this reason, it was essential that all matters pertaining to money–that root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10)–would be collectively known to all Companions (as the members of the Company or Guild were to be called). Indeed, to ensure that this knowledge would be a reality instead of an indeterminable ideal, everyone–all men at least–would be required to wear trousers outfitted with glass pockets. Here is how he first related the idea to readers in the 8th Fors letter in August, 1871:

You know, at least, that we in our own society are to have glass pockets as we are to give the tenth of what we have to buy land with, so that we must every one know each other’s property to a farthing. And this month, I will begin making up my own accounts for you, as I said [in an earlier letter that] I would…

The idea, of course, of contents visible pockets, was that such would curtail subterfuge (even the most honest of us, Ruskin reminded, were sometimes tempted toward that tempting end of the veracity continuum). It proved a difficult concept for those living in his own time to accept. I suspect it still might be a difficult concept for those living in our time to accept. Then, they all thought he was crazy; perhaps, today, many would think the same.  

For over half of the Fors letters, he would attach, as the main letter had ended, a section called, “Notes and Correspondence.” In these, he would regularly quote sections of letters readers had sent him pertaining to issues raised in earlier letters, remarking on them either before or after the reproduction. A number of times a year he would use the section to report on matters relating to the Guild and its operation (successful or not), as well as to comment on his performance as Master. Sometimes–as below in the “Notes and Correspondence” section for the 62nd Fors letter (February 1876) –he would use the space to reprise ideas introduced earlier–like the importance of wearing glass pockets.

I am surprised to find that [the index that I created for] Vols. I and II of Fors does
not contain the important article, “Pockets,” and that I cannot therefore, [easily] refer to the place where I have said that the Companions of St. George are all to have glass pockets [the 8th letter, cited above], so that the absolute contents of them may be known to all men. 

But, indeed, this society of our is, I believe, to be distinguished from other close brotherhoods that have been, or that are, chiefly in this: that it will have no secrets, and that its position, designs, successes, and failures, may at any moment be known to whomsoever they may concern.

More especially, the affairs of the Master and of the Marshals–when we
become magnificent enough to have any!–must be clearly known, seeing that these are to be the managers of public revenue. For although…they will be held more qualified for such high position by [their being content to remain] in poverty [rather than shouldering the] responsibility [which attaches to] wealth…the complete publication of their accounts, private as well as public, from the day they enter on the management of the Company’s funds, will be a most wholesome check on the glosses with which self-interest, in the minds even of the honestest people, sometimes may color or confuse their actions, [as well as] being examples to the accountants of other public institutions… [And, whether these have been] wisely or foolishly directed, the expenditures of the St. George’s Company will be always open, in all particulars, to the criticism not only of the Companions, but of  the outside public.

Very nice, we moderns might think (in a generous mood). But wholly impractical, we conclude, just as quickly, so inured have we become to even entertaining the idea that human beings can, willingly, act so openly and honestly to one another. Have the CEO’s and their henchfolk make all their financial records matters of public record?! Have my neighbors, even the members of my family, know the details of my unglassed pockets? Good luck with that!

Of which caustic attitude, Ruskin was, of course, most sensitive, knowing that, if what he recommended was ever to tiptoe toward an accepted reality, that would only happen when it was indubitable to all that the CEO–or the Master–practiced as he preached. As was, in his case, the case, as Ruskin demonstrated in the following paragraphs taken from this same “Notes and Correspondence” section, where he reported (to the farthing) to his readers–and, if they chose to later be such, the examiners of his financial records–the details of his expenditures for the first month of 1876 in a subsection he entitled, “The Affairs of the Master”:

When I instituted the [St. George’s] Company by giving the tenth of my available
property to it, I had, roughly, seventy thousand pounds in money or land, and
thirty thousand in pictures and books. The pictures and books I do not
consider mine, but merely in my present keeping for the country, or the
persons I may leave them to. Of the seventy thousand in substance, I gave
away fourteen thousand in that year of the Company’s establishment and have since lost fifteen thousand by a relation whom I tried to support in business… [The result is that] my seventy thousand is reduced by certainly not more than thirty, [which makes it] very clear that I am too enthusiastically carrying out my own principles, and am making more haste to be poor than is prudent.

[Such always his recommendation: to wit: that, if you had more money than you needed to live decently, you should do all you could to rid yourself of the excess (by dispensing that excess to those who needed it more, especially to those who needed it most, in order that you could live on the least amount of cash you needed to meet your own essential needs, so that you would leave what we might call today, “the smallest possible footprint on the planet.” His paragraph continued as follows:] 

[My expenditures, whether] exemplary or necessary, will be better understood after I have given account of [them] for a [recent month]. Here are my opening expenses, then, from 1st January to 20th [of  this year]… I content myself, being pressed for space in this number [of Fors], with giving merely the sums of checks drawn… [Followed by the notations below, recorded as pounds, shillings, and pence:]

Balance in Bank

1st January, 1876: £1,344 17 9

Payments made by check:
Jan. 1. Jackson (outdoor Steward, Brantwood), £50 0 0
Kate Smith (indoor Stewardess, Brantwood), £160 0 0
[also on January 1] David Downs (Steward in London), £115 0 0
1. David Fudge (Coachman in London), £60 0 0
1. Secretary, 1st quarter, 1876, £25 0 0
[January, etc.] 4. Frederick Crawley (in charge of
school-rooms at Oxford), £10 0 0
6. Self (pocket-money), £20 0 0
17. Arthur Burgess (assistant engraver), £27 1 0
20. New carriage, £319 0 0
20. Gift to Town of Carshalton for care of spring [dedicated to his mother’s memory], £411 0 0
20. Madame Nozzoli (charities at Florence), £10 0 0
20. Mrs. Wonnacott (charities at Abingdon), £ 3 1 0
20. William Ward (for making two copies of a Turner painting), £21 0 0
20. Charles Murray (for rubbings of brasses, and a copy of a Filippo Lippi painting), £15 0 0

TOTAL: £817 0 0
Balance, as of Jan. 20, 1876: £527 17 9

Periodically, throughout the years he published the Fors letters, Ruskin would provide his readers with similar reports.

A glass pocket.

What do you think? Good idea? And if, perchance, you think perhaps not, why so? Comments gladly received.

For your enjoyment, here is an image of the Filippo Lippi painting that Ruskin, ever the teacher, paid Mr. Charles Murray to copy so that he would be able to use it as an illustration in the main text of the Fors letter that preceded this iteration of “Notes and Correspondence”: It’s entitled “Madonna, Child, and Two Angels,” and was created somewhere between 1460 and 1465. You can see it in the Uffizi, Florence:

Fra Filippo Lippi - The Complete Works - frafilippolippi.org

Please continue well out there as you consider the possibility of adjusting your wardrobe.

Until next time.



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5 Responses to 193: Glass Pockets

  1. Arjun Jain says:

    Dear Jim, Thank you for this! I ought to remark that when setting out first to found my John Ruskin Manufactory, this idea of having “glass pockets” was central to my plans for it. I was made aware of it through Ruskin’s UNTO THIS LAST, perhaps indirectly; not through the Fors letters, which I haven’t yet read. And perhaps I can say with some pride- not quite the right word though- that at least so far, I have indeed managed to stick to it- to, in every transaction I have carried out under the name of the manufactory, to have been explicit about everything, about every cost involved (every estimable, and every instance in determining what it is proper to charge the customer for, and making clear what is the quality of every substance used. The practice, when noticed, has almost always been applauded–though never, I admit, to the extent of having inspired anyone else to want to do the same, for some reason.

    • jimspates says:

      A wonderful reporting, Arjun. Mr. Ruskin would be delighted. I suppose a follow-up question–this may be the question some of those reluctant others might want to have answered!–is whether you think that this level of honesty in doing business, in presenting to the world a “glass pocket.” has harmed your business in any fundamental way. Remembering always in this regard Ruskin’s argument in “The Roots of Honor,” the first UNTO THIS LAST essay, that the business of business is not fundamentally to make as much money as one can, but rather to serve his customers honestly and to sustain those who work for him so that they can meet their daily needs. Any thoughts on these matters? You are a valuable resource for us because you are directly involved in business matters. Jim

      • Arjun Jain says:

        Dear Jim, thank you. As to whether such honesty has ‘harmed’ my business in any way, I suppose I’d have to admit a certain impedance in its growth if not ‘harm’ more severe, both personally as well as publicly. The pockets being chosen to have been made out of glass, it seems, have also upon them placed, as a result, a certain restriction upon their size. My customers I do strive to serve entirely honestly, but not many actually notice said honesty, I have observed, perhaps so inured are they to dishonesty. Whom I employ as well, it appears, seem not to care truly very much about whether or not I am trying to tend to their daily needs as well; as long as they’re paid well enough, anything else is in fact felt an intrusion.
        As another illustration, I might perhaps relate an incident from university as well, from when I was in England, studying painting. As a student, I had the opportunity of putting up my work for sale at the university owned galleries. Along with my portfolio, I was asked to price all my work. Having been working however, then, part time, also as a waiter, receiving minimum wage, and having read- absorbed- Ruskin as well as I could at the time, my pricing, to the uni, was unacceptable; I refused, you see- and still refuse- to think of a painter as not a labourer- and priced my work accordingly- minimum wage times the approximate number of hours a work took me, in addition to the cost of paints, canvas etc.. It was- and is- unbelievable to me how a computer programmer can be paid as much as he is, and how a labourer as much as he is. Of course, such a scheme was seen perhaps to not be in keeping with the reputation of the university; I did not, of course, sell anything.
        There is also this curious habit of some people- whose number day by day increases, to my knowledge, who in fact like to be cheated! To be dealt with dishonestly. Cinema halls are a prime example here in India- I don’t know of how it is in the States. A tub of popcorn and a glass of cola will cost perhaps the same or even more than the price of the ticket, and at least 10 times more than how much they’d cost out on the street, but people are more than willing to pay such prices- they see nothing wrong in it- evidently, which is why perhaps the cinema halls can go on increasing said prices indefinitely. Have you seen that show ‘Harry and Paul’? They’ve a segment called ‘I Saw You Coming’- which although is funny, is tragic as well in light of our present discussion.
        Ruskin has, of course, spoken about all this. To an extent, it is these his words alone that provide encouragement enough at times to be continuing upon this path.

      • jimspates says:

        Dear Arjun,

        Poignant examples, these of yours. And, coming from India, they underscore how deeply the corrupt notion that allows us to countenance dishonesty in business as normal practice has seeped into our lives. Ruskin would, of course, be appalled by your experiences, but not surprised. (By the way, the same exorbitant prices for condiments in movie theaters are charged over here!) What I hear most frequently when I talk with people about his glass pockets idea, is something like this: “Yes, of course, he’s right. Anyone can see that. But, if I, in my business, do as he suggests, I would be exposing to all my competitors my weaknesses, and they, seeing them, would rush to exploit them, even to the point of putting me out of business. I am kept in check, in other words, by the sheer power of the dishonesty surrounding me. So I won’t do it.” Truth is, those who say such things are likely right about what would happen if they were honest in all their business dealings. As Shakespeare says, “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all!

        What to do in the face of this? Ruskin’s answer would be to be honest anyway. At least that way you would not be condoning–not to mention supporting–the corruption surrounding you, us. In his own life he did this, but it was not always easy because of all the reasons you and I have mentioned. But finally how can you PROMOTE honesty if you yourself are not committed to being that?

  2. Michelle R Lovric says:

    I love the idea of glass pockets! As a writer of children’s books, it is tempting to use it as a three-dimensional real-life device, with due credit of course. In the real life of today, however, with so much personal exposure over the interwebs and social media, I like the idea of behaving as if my pockets were made of glass, and to mentally account for all expenditure so that the ‘pocket money’ part is never shameful, and that the balance to charity is always plump.

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