Taxes Were “Outrageous” When Rate Was 40¢ per $1 00.
Cutting Sausage with an Axe

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N. J.
published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, February 23, 1933

Comment:  Unlike my usual practice, I have nothing to add to this very contemplative article. A passing knowledge of scripture and of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson would be helpful. It is interesting that Bush combines the subjects of sausage making and paying taxes. There’s an echo here of the common association of sausage making with passing laws, from whence we get the burden of taxation. Bush’s thoughts on this subject are well worth contemplating, in particular his opinion that those who complain the most about their taxes should think about what they demand of government.

Did you ever “chop sausage” with an ax? Some of us old ones did. The memory of that chopping, though not at all pleasant, is still very distinct. The best and probably the worst that can be said about it now, is that the memory is preferable to the reality.

How well I remember that “meat block!” Really, it was not a block at all, though made of what might be so called. It was more like a table, with four sturdy legs securely driven into a great block three feet long and two feet wide. At the back and on the ends half-inch oak boards were so fastened as to leave about three inches above the flat face of the block, whose under side was rounded, giving the impression that it had been cut from an immense slab, one of the kind not uncommon in those days of wasting timber. These sides were meant to keep the meat from flying about the house when struck with an ax. In front was a strip only about one inch high, so as not to interfere with the operation of the ax.

When I first knew the ponderous table, the flat top had been so cut and hacked away, little by little, as to form a great, shallow, bowl-like depression. There was some advantage in this. It helped to keep the meat where it was wanted. But in spite of this help, the constant chopping tended to force the batch too much toward the edges. I do not know what ever became of that bulky article of household furniture, nor have I ever been able to find anything of the kind among the displays of “antiques,” now so common and so attractive. After about 1856, we were able to hire a “sausage cutter” from an acquaintance living at a considerable distance from us. There did not seem to be any such machine nearer; so very rare were “helps for the household” in those early days.

The First Sausage Cutter

This precious machine was an immense boxlike concern, which had evidently been painted red. It had stationary knives at the sides, and a revolving cylinder at the center, carrying other knives or at least projections that forced the meat against the sharp stationary cutters, and gradually worked it along to the place of discharge. That machine was a wonder! We could do in an hour what could not be done in three long days of wearisome chopping with an ax. And I know that the days were long indeed. According to the thrifty custom of the times, the chopping days ran far into the evening. And the ax must be kept going by shifting from one to another. Big children, little children, men, women—all who were able to raise an ax a few inches and drop it with sufficient precision to do execution—were drafted into the service. It is doubtful whether the strongest man could have kept the ax going for many hours at the steady, monotonous and most irksome stroke required. And here was a machine to do away with all that! No wonder that joy was overflowing in that household.

I recall that the condition of hiring was, “Weigh your meat and pay a cent a pound.” It may seem strange that a small child should remember even the cost so clearly. But at that rate, I could see that we had not been earning more than a cent an hour by our tiresome task. Besides, the cost of little things and the necessity for saving wherever possible, were strongly impressed upon the minds of children in those crude old days. One can hardly help wondering whether, after all, the aggregate saving that may be made by doing without this and that needless little thing, might not have been profitably impressed upon the minds of the young, even in the glorious days of extravagance and contempt for “trifles.”

The meat block brings to mind many old things and old ways, all so different from those of today: the scythe for the grass and the hand rake for the hay, to be followed by the first “horse-rake,” a long head with teeth on one side, known as a “whoa-back” because we had to make the horse back while we pulled the rake from under the windrow and lifted it over for a fresh start; the cradle for the grain and beards and briers for the fingers of the binder; the crude and ponderous “oats-fork,” with its heavy head and long tines; the ten-plate Stove, the chimney corner and the blazing hearth; the naked floor and the “trundle-bed.” All so different from the wonderful things of the present age.

“Outrageous” Taxes

And in this connection—though one should apologize for bringing up that irritating subject, “taxes”—it is hard to refrain from recalling an incident of the middle 1850’s. I can still see my father frowning over his tax-bill for the year, then just received. “Outrageous!” he muttered in disapproval of such extravagance. The rate was 40 cents on the $100, whereas for the previous year it had been but 38. The increase was ominous, portending greater impositions yet to come.

How different, and yet how pertinent! How natural seems that old-time protest! We had practically nothing, and were paying practically nothing for it. Even then the bill may have been extravagant. Anyhow, the rate had increased, and therein lay the danger—at least, as seen by the prudent (perhaps too prudent) taxpayers of old. Now we have everything, and must pay accordingly, including the astounding that “outrageous” part (sic, my copy is missing some text}, almost as great as the growth of Jona’s miraculous gourd. The farmer who does not now find his tax rate twelve times as great, must be living in some secluded low and lonely dell while the masses are plaintively chanting:

“Tell me, ye winged winds
That ‘round my pathway roar,
Do ye not know some spot
Where gangsters rule no more?”

And yet it might be well to stop and, consider how much of the trouble has been caused by our own insistence. How many of the things that we demanded might have been comfortably postponed, at least until we had learned what to do with them, adjusting our finances to the cost, conserving our resources and paying our way as we went along? How many of us ever stopped to realize that our exchequer—national, state, municipal or personal—would never be miraculously filled as was the widow’s cruse of oil?

Any thought or suggestion of consequences, was heretical. But he who hath no heresies hath little else. “Progress!” was the soothing, stupefying cry. But that has proved itself almost as irrational as the wild schemes for recovery that we now hear madly from the “seats of the mighty,” as well as from seats on nail kegs and cracker barrels. Amid such confusion, one may be pardoned for feeling in sympathy with Emerson’s caustic advice. After pointing out the folly of constant harping upon one’s creeds or opinions, declaring all to be mere theories about deep things of which we know nothing, he closes in this laconic way: “Drop thy theory, as Joseph his coat in the hands of the harlot, and flee.”