The last line of the story “Bartleby,” by Herman Melville, is "Ah humanity!" Broadly speaking, the narrator is lamenting the ravages of modern life and capitalism on the individual. I chose to print this phrase on a t-shirt because I think a little wry despair about the fate of humankind is pretty well suited to this moment in time. But the phrase also represents two of my goals in founding Bartleby’s Ice Cream Cakes: respecting the humanity of every individual who works for this business, and protecting the future of all humanity by prioritizing sustainable business practices.
In Melville’s story, Bartleby is a new employee who starts refusing to do tasks that his boss tries adding to his work. His signature response (which would also look great on a t-shirt someday) is “I would prefer not to.” What a nightmare for a boss! But Bartleby’s boss is sympathetic and tries to help him—I think because he respects Bartleby’s claim of a right to have preferences, even in the workplace. He recognizes Bartleby’s dignity as a human, and understands how being someone’s employee—accepting their terms, following their orders, and bending to their whims—can feel like an injury to that dignity. In other words, having a job kind of sucks.
For me, reading this story was like hearing a voice from beyond commanding me to be self-employed. But making ice cream cakes from scratch, with a website and customers and deliveries and shipping and social media, is labor intensive—I need help. Which means I need to be a boss. One reality of running a business is that work needs to get done, often in a specific time, place, and manner. But another reality is that the people doing it are all humans. They have preferences, ideas, opinions, and individual styles—not to mention bodies, families, and other stuff going on in their lives. So do I, but my individuality isn’t more important than theirs just because I’m the boss. I try to be mindful of this in every interaction with employees, equally weighing their humanity with the demands of the work and my personal needs. And I’ve been committed from the beginning to paying a fair wage: all employees have always started at $15/hour, and as the minimum wage in Illinois increases, we will keep pace.
With reference to humanity at large, our contribution as a company towards beating back the despair and working for a better outcome is to prioritize environmentally and socially sustainable practices. We use milk and cream from a local family farm that pasture-grazes its cows, because it’s better for the cows, the land, and the quality of the dairy. We use as many organic ingredients as we can reliably source, including sugar, flour, butter, eggs, and coconut cream. We use fair trade chocolate and coffee. And we do our best to package these beautiful ingredients in equally beautiful packaging, including unbleached kraft paper cake boxes and pint containers, curbside recyclable shipping insulation, and compostable ice cream sandwich bags.
We’re a young business and a small one, and we’re not perfect. After all, we’re only humans. But pursuing our values to the extent that we can makes us feel good about what we do. We hope it makes you feel good, too. And we made a bunch of nice, soft t-shirts for you so you can feel good while feeling good!