Figuring it out

The Pajama Game poster


From one of the songs of The Pajama Game, which won the Tony Award for the best musical of 1955:

I figured it out
I figured it out
With a pencil and a pad I figured it out!
Seven and a half cents doesn’t buy a hell of a lot,
Seven and a half cents doesn’t mean a thing!
But give it to me every hour,
Forty hours every week,
And that’s enough for me to be living like a king!

A seven-and-a-half-cent per hour raise is what the pajama-factory workers’ union has been offered after a work slowdown, and the song is the president of the union’s argument that the workers should be pleased with the offer and consider their job action a victory. Viewers may feel heartened as it seems that, as often happens on Broadway and in Hollywood movies, the deserving little guys have defeated an avaricious and dishonest big guy— here Mr. Hasler, the factory owner. And in the twenty-first century United States it is always a comfort to hear words that are at least not rabidly anti-union. After 40 years of well-subsidized union-bashing, the forty-hour week has become an endangered species. I recently met some immigrant home health-care workers who were working closer to 140-hour weeks, some days sleeping just a few hours in between gigs.

It should also be noted that The Pajama Game is based on a novel, 7½ Cents, by one Richard Pike Bissell who attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University and whose family owned a pajama factory at which he himself had worked, as the vice-president. (Among Bissell’s other works, a memoir, You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man.) This information could lead one to wonder if the singing union president had indeed figured the matter out. (Later revivals of the musical added a song which came to be titled “If You Win, You Lose.”)

As a window, or series of windows, on the larger story, I offer these paragraphs from University of Washington professor David M. Levy’s widely circulated essay, No Time to Think. (Please note that the next several paragraphs, including the extracts, are all direct quotations Levy’s piece. I will return but briefly near the end, introducing the final stanza.)

[B]y the early 1920s, there was growing concern about overproduction. Industry was indeed able to produce more faster, but consumers apparently felt no need to consume larger quantities at a faster pace. As one observer at the time noted, “we are equipped to produce more of the goods that satisfy human wants than we can use”; another commented that “experienced businessmen all over the world realize that the market does not expand rapidly enough to keep up with demand.”

What followed was a vigorous debate among business and labor leaders about how to resolve this crisis of production. For labor, it was an argument for reduced hours and greater leisure time: if more was being produced than was needed, why not slow down? Business, however, balked at this suggestion, fearing that more time off would encourage vice and sloth—and, of course, would reduce profits. John E. Edgerton, president of National Association of Manufacturers, spoke for many in the business world when, in 1926, he said:

[I]t is time for America to awake from its dream that an eternal holiday is a natural fruit of material prosperity, and to reaffirm its devotion to those principles and laws of life to the conformity with which we owe all of our national greatness. I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance . . . the emphasis should be put on work—more work and better work, instead of upon leisure—more leisure and worse leisure . . . the working masses . . . have been protected in their natural growth by the absence of excessive leisure and have been fortunate . . . in their American made opportunities to work.

The debate was ultimately decided through a new understanding of consumption. The naysayers who thought that human needs had reached the saturation point were wrong; the desire to consume could be further stimulated. The 1929 report of Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Changes captured the tone of gleeful discovery:

the survey has proved conclusively what has long been held theoretically to be true, that wants are almost insatiable; that one want satisfied makes way for another. The conclusion is that economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.

We may now return to our (swan) song, “7½ Cents”:

With a pencil and a pad I figured it out!
Only five years from today!
Only five years from today!
I can see it all before me!
Only five years from today!
Five years! Let’s see . . . that’s 260 weeks, times forty hours every week, and roughly two and a quarter hours overtime . . . at time and a half for overtime! Comes to exactly . . . $852.74! That’s enough for me to get
An automatic washing machine,
A year’s supply of gasoline,
Carpeting for the living room,
A vacuum instead of a blasted broom,
Not to mention a forty inch television set!
I figured it out.

— Wm. Eaton


William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo and a writer of essays and dialogues. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was recently published by Serving House Books. See Surviving the website.

The Pajama Game movie with Doris Day


In addition to a Broadway show, The Pajama Game was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Doris Day and John Raitt.

The movie version of 7½ Cents has been available via YouTube.

The text of Levy’s essay linked to above is from the December 2007 pre-publication version. The essay was published in one of Springer’s journals: Ethics & Information Technology 9(4) 2007.

Click for pdf

Figuring It Out


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