A couple weeks ago I was in Red Wing, a lovely town in Southwestern Minnesota, right on the Mississippi River and nestled in its bluffs. The town is home to at least two companies of note: Red Wing Pottery, established in the 1860s, and Red Wing Shoes, which began in the early 1900s and continues to be a renowned maker of steel-toed and other rugged work shoes. On the town’s main street is a Red Wing Shoes outlet store and in that store is a museum.
This is a picture of a sewing table, original to the factory, and a Puritan Sewing Machine, circa 1905. Amazingly, this kind of machine is still in use producing shoes (here’s a video). In front of the machine you’ll see a pair of scissors tucked under leather straps. Decades (a hundred years?) of sliding that tool out of and back into its place has worn a deep groove in the wood.
Here’s a close up:
The groove is certainly a surrogate marker of the wear and tear of repetitive work on the human body. But it’s also a marker for the force and power of steady accrual of minutes and hours at work to produce, create, and shape anything, like the shaping of rock by a steady stream of water over the course of many years. We can rarely see the cumulative inventory or impact of one’s lifetime of work in one place. (The shoes sewn at this machine by any one sewer would fill how many rooms?) But I like this mental image as a marker of the power of steady small actions.