Category Archives: capitalism

164: Louis Hunter’s Steamboats on the Western Rivers

In Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History, Louis Hunter situates a detailed history of the development of steamboat technology in the social, technological, and economic context in which it developed; he argues that “the growth of the West and the rise of steamboat transportation were inseparable; they were geared together and each was dependent upon the other.”

Using contemporary newspapers, census documents, traveller accounts, and other primary sources form about the 1780s to the end of the 19th century, Hunter shows that steam transportation technology was the result of many people’s contributions (both English and American), not just those of a few great men.  He also shows that in America, steam navigation started on the Atlantic seaboard but quickly moved inland to the Western rivers, where steamboats dominated inland transportation and commerce for a generation; and he argues that from 1925 to 1850 the steamboat was the main technological agent in developing the Mississippi basin from a “raw frontier society” to “economic and social maturity.”  Finally, he claims that the Western steamboat was known worldwide as the “typical” American steamboat partly because it was so important to the economy of the region and partly because it was unique in its design, construction, and operation.  Published in 1949, this book was the scholarly survey of the development of steam navigation on the Western rivers that pulled together technology, operations, and governmental intervention into a consistent whole.

Americans were having a hard time with transportation in the early 19th century, so that’s where American steam innovation tended.  Hunter begins with early development in steam propulsion and the business of carrying – John Fulton patented his version of the steamboat and secured a monopoly with New Orleans, only to have it overturned in 1817 when Henry Shreve built his own boats and started running them on the Mississippi without permission.  In 1918, a steamboat boom started after Shreve reported 30-50% returns after only a year in operation.  Competition, economic depression, and improvements in steamboat technology reduced rates considerably through 1825, but boats were able to run faster and thus still turn profits.  By 1820, steamboats were well-established on the “trunk lines” of the river system (Mississippi and Ohio); by 1830 they had expanded into major tributaries and taken on most passenger and freight trade.  Keelboats remained the main transportation in smaller, shallower tributaries, and flatboats continued to be the main shipping method for bulky, low-value products until the Civil War.  By the 1840s, writers were saying that steam had “colonized the West” because it economically connected Westerners to the east and politically, via faster communication, to each other.

By the 1850s, steam had reached its golden age.  They had cast iron hulls instead of wooden ones and new high pressure boilers that led to fantastic accidents, and their opulent rooms were readily accessible to anyone who could pay the (widely fluctuating) fare, so travellers’ accounts are full of stories of the wide variety of class and race and occupation they met in steamboats.  The business of steamboating had also evolved from individual owners to small corporations that ran packet lines up and down the rivers.  However, Hunter points out that steamboats were also complicit in the growing industrialization of the West, especially in their division between cabin fare and deck passage – deck fare was 1/4 of the price of cabin fare, but deck passengers were usually the first to die in accidents, and they also had to help the crew.  And other transportation modes were beginning to have a substantial impact on the Western river trade: beginning in the late 1830s, canals diverted northern East-West freight, and railroad lines began connecting to steamboat towns in the 1840s, so that by 1860 Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans were all connected by rail.

While steamboats were profitable during the Civil War, railroads all but destroyed them afterwards: steam fare was cheap, and getting into the steam business required a low capital investment, which meant high competition and low profits in an industry already tainted by boiler explosions in the early 1850s.  Further, rails could promise what steamboats couldn’t: speed, regularity, frequency, reliability, year-round service, through-booking, direct service that could expand anywhere, not just on natural waterways, and such massive networks that they could run part of their systems at a loss just to kill local competition.  They’re also not above building extremely low bridges over waterways.  While barges are still used in the 20th century, steamboats were over before the end of the 19th century.

Although Hunter’s account is remarkably uncomplicated with respect to race and gender, and a discussion of slavery is conspicuously absent, his book otherwise shows how a transportation technology uniquely suited to the American West contributed both to the physical construction of American empire and to the construction of an American ideology based around individualism, technology, and capitalism on the landscape.

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162: James Flink’s The Automobile Age

In James Flink’s The Automobile Age, the automobile, and its attendant complex of technologies, mass-production techniques, industrial development, roads, economic and public policy, and changes in American “lifeways” resulting from “mass personal automobility,” are central to the history of capitalist development in general and to American history in particular.  Flink’s materialist approach combined with the scope of this book – he attempts to cover the rise and fall of the Automobile Age in its social, technological, business, and global contexts, from the turn of the last century to the early 1970s – make it both a fascinating history of automobility and an argument for human agency even in what looks like global domination by the car.

Flink’s narrative covers many of the canonical topics within industrialization and automobility: the Fordist system of mass production/ mass consumption; transformations in social relations and the landscape as a result of automobility; Sloanism, bureaucracy, and flexible, style-based mass production;  global automobility coupled with competition from Europe and Japan; and social and environmental critiques of automobility combined with the “world car.”  He discusses these processes by carefully tracing technological diffusion within the technological system of the automobile.


But Flink also argues that the automakers, form the very beginning, articulated themselves within both American nationalism and industrial capitalism, so tracing the car allows him to trace and critique these larger systems.  He thus shows how Ford’s particular brand of paternalism was more social control than benevolence; how the auto boom in the 1920s directly contributed to the Great Depression in the 1930s; how cars fragmented and rearranged neighborhoods and social networks; how the world car has led to uneven geographical development, and how the American “romance” with the car was actually the product of a lot of lobbying by automakers for more and better roads rather than public transit, so that an inefficient, capital-intensive system was largely funded by American tax dollars.

Flink argues that the automobile age ended in the 1970s, when public outcry led to increased safety and environmental regulations, but that the automobile will continue to be the dominant mode of transportation, especially in the US, for the foreseeable future.  I agree with him on both counts, and I hope that the recent resurgence of interest in bicycling and public transportation broadens to include more social groups so that the burden of automobility doesn’t continue to be shouldered by the poor.

157: Susan Strasser’s Never Done

In Never Done: A History of American Housework, Susan Strasser argues that housework, the job done by more people in America than any other, “cannot be separated from the broader social and economic history of the United States.”  The women who did housework supported the men who built factories and cities, and the manufactured products and urban culture produced in those factories and cities in turn shaped women’s housework.  Strasser thus brings 19th century housewives into history AND provides an exhaustive history of household technologies.

Strasser is interested in what 19th century housewives actually did and what technologies they really used, not in the history of the technologies per se; the date that most households seemed to have a particular kind of technology and how most housewives seemed to use it are a lot more important to her than the date the technology was patented or the technological innovations that went into it or when the first privileged few got ahold of it.  Therefore, she uses new social history methodologies to access her subject.  Her sources include reformers’ reports on intolerable living conditions, government documents on standards of living, sociologists’ descriptions of daily life, manufacturers’ market research, ads, catalogues, travel accounts, letters, and advice manuals, cookbooks, and women’s magazines.  In all of these sources, she’s looking not so much at the opinions or prescriptive advice but at the ways in which particular technologies and practices are framed – as new, old-fashioned, commonplace, etc.  This strategy allows her to approximate what American housewives’ lives might have been like at different points in time form 1850 to 1930.


Strasser structures her book topically rather than temporally.  She traces the shift in food production from the consumer to the factory by studying transportation systems, refrigeration, mass distribution (followed by mass production), and improvements in canning techniques and packaged foods that made dietary variety more available to the urban poor and fresh produce available to the rich year round, while rural women continued to produce everything themselves.  She studies changes in cooking technology, from open grates to cast-iron stoves and eggbeaters, but argues that most women would not have had access to time saving equipment in the 19th century.  She shows how electricity reduced the winter work of chopping and carrying wood and tending fires, and indoor plumbing dramatically reduced women’s work by relieving them of carrying water.  She also discusses sewing machines, servants, childrearing, separate spheres, restaurants and a host of other topics.

Yet while Strasser often seems to celebrate the additional time freed up by a new technology, her title “Never Done” is apt.  With each new labor-saving technology, women became less attached to the community of women who labored together; they also became detached from their families, as products increasingly fed, cared for children, and provided affection in place of women.  Never Done thus relates to two things: the ongoing creep of capital into our everyday lives, shifting our attention to consumption and away from each other; and the ongoing fight by the women’s movement to shift the emphasis from individual consumers living in separate spheres to a “consolidated sphere” where both genders work together to regain mutual love, respect and community outside of capitalism.

Considering that the vast majority of the book is descriptive, this normative feminist statement at the end is a bit jarring.  At least identifying the enemy as capitalism rather than the patriarchy makes sense in the context of her discussion of industrial capitalism’s effects in the home.

154: Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire

Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West is a history of the development of the American West through the lens of water management technology.  Building on substantial archival research, Worster argues that

The West, more than any other American region, was built by state power, state expertise, state technology, and state bureaucracy.  That is another way of saying that it has been, and is, the most thoroughly modern of American regions, and therefore that its experience, particularly in the matter of water, has been most instructive for deciphering the confused messages of that modernity.

By positioning water as technology rather than nature and the West as a federally-funded, man-made landscape, Worster both deconstructs the West’s self-image as independent and free of government control AND reconstructs the region not as a colony of the East but as the seat of a global American empire.

For Worster, the American West is a “modern hydraulic society,” a “social order based on the intensive, large-scale manipulation of water and its products in an arid setting.”  Versus Thoreau’s vision of a Western society based on free, self-defining individuals and egalitarian community organization, the West as hydraulic society is “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical,” run by the elite owners of capital and business.  In addition to a sharply divided class structure, the West also has a sharp division between technology and nature, as evinced in the irrigation canal, whose smooth, abstract flow is fenced off from animals, humans, and life in general, while the communities that surround it are in comparative disarray.  Worster traces the development of this “techno-economic” landscape by first contextualizing it among other hydraulic societies, where elites used irrigation and flood control to control the social order, and then tracing the 150 year intensification of water control in the American West through 3 phases:

  • Incipience (Mormon migration in 1847 to 1890s): dependence on local skills and means, isolated communities and limited of small rivers, failed attempts by private corporations to harness rivers
  • Florescence (1902, when the Federal government took control of Western rivers via the National Reclamation Act, to WWII): Federal government provides capital and engineering expertise to “lift the region to a higher plateau of development;” corporations and quasi-corporations finally succeed in farming rivers for profit; a sharply divided class structure develops
  • Empire (1940s to the present): government and private wealth form a powerful alliance and bring every major river under their unified control; goal is to create an unparalleled hydraulic society.
Capitalism was critical to the development of the West because it moved rivers from a riparian system with usufruct rights (only people who live along a river can lay claim to it) to a system of prior appropriation (whoever gets to a river first can have it, even if s/he doesn’t own property along it).  It also rewarded destruction of some landscapes and relocation of some people to harness water for others – a remarkably anti-democratic project in the name of democracy.  Further, because water in the arid West was scarce, social power was tied to toil and large capital investments, which some saw as rugged individualism but Worster sees as American empire: absolute domination of nature by elites who spout individualism but take money from the Federal government to support their power.
By constructing the West as a “hydraulic society” and an American empire, Worster successfully demythologizes the West.  He also makes me never want to live much further west of the Mississippi than I already do, even if LA is the center of a global cultural and economic empire, because that empire is based on total technological domination of nature.

150: David Nye’s American Technological Sublime

In American Technological Sublime, David Nye investigates the history of the social construction of the sublime in America from about 1820 to the early 1990s.  Nye’s American sublime is somewhat like 18th century European concepts of the sublime, which involve human apprehension of something so big, beautiful, and incomprehensible that the mind is seized with terror, awe, and pleasure all at once; these extremes dominate the human mind, so that the person transcends the material world and comes into contact with the divine.  However, while the European sublime was a category of experience accessible only to educated individuals in contact with nature or sacred architecture, the American sublime has distinctly populist, nationalist, and capitalist overtones.  As early as the 1830s, American travellers in the West were reporting on the sublimity of the natural landscape, while people in the presence of massive new technologies were experiencing a transcendence usually reserved for nature or high art, and revivalists were recommending sublime tourist sites like Niagara as places to get in touch with the divine.  The American sublime was thus a popular, communal experience rather than an elite individual one; it was associated with emotions of awe, pleasure and terror rather than worldly transcendence; it could involve feats of engineering as well as high art and natural beauty; and its ties to American technological transformations of the landscape meant that the experience could be incorporated into nationalist narratives (love of country) and commodified into landscapes of fantasy and pleasure (Disneyland).  As Nye argues, the American sublime is key to American cultural identity.

Although the chapters are roughly chronological, Nye is more interested in talking about sublimeS rather than THE sublime, so that differences of time, place, and personal experience only add to his discussion.  Technological sublimes include the railroad as a “dynamic sublime” that awed in its ability to unite, expand, and enrich the nation; bridges and skyscrapers as a “geometric sublime” that “appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk…. the triumph of reason in concrete form;” factories, electric power plants, and other manufactories as a new “mechanical sublime, which regulates the mind and technologically supersedes nature;” the electrified urban landscape as an accidental “electrical sublime” that dominated night, embodied the values of capitalism and “transformed the appearance of the world;” the atomic bomb as a new, more terrifying form of the dynamic sublime, and Vegas and Disneyland (with nods to Niagara and the Grand Canyon) as the “consumer sublime,” commodified pleasure landscapes that provide the rush associated with dislocation from the world of work in simulation of the sublime.

Throughout, Nye traces the ways in which increased articulations between the sublime and mass American culture have led to a watering down of what was once a transcendent, otherworldly dislocation from reality, even as they make that experience accessible to more people.  While he argues that the sublime is at once an individual and collective experience, he also shows how top-down and structurally conditioned that experience has been.

145: John Kasson’s Civilizing the Machine

The five essays that make up John Kasson’s Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 all examine different aspects of the relationship between technology and Republican ideology.  Using a wide variety of primary sources, including speeches, newspaper accounts, sketches, and writers like Emerson, Bellamy, Thomas Jefferson and Tenche Cox, Kasson shows that Americans first rejected technological development because they feared becoming corrupt like Europe; then incorporated Republican ideology into industrialization to stave off that same corruption by lending moral purity, industry, and restraint to technological development; and then found themselves being exploited by the very technologies they hoped to control, all in the name of Republicanism.  Kasson thus uses the relationship between political ideology and industrialization in the 19th century to complicate the relationship between technology and culture.

Despite following a roughly linear trajectory (similar to Thomas Hughes’ technological momentum), the five chapters examine technology and culture from widely different angles.  Kasson’s first three chapters cover the Jefferson/Hamilton debates as a fear of cultural corruption by industrial technology, and early capitalists’ efforts to keep their systems of production from adversely affecting workers’ lives; the mix of Republican ideology and nobless oblige at the Lowell Mills; and Emerson’s ruminations on whether technology was creating classes, stifling or nourishing creative freedom, or alienating people from their environment.  His fourth problematizes Kouwenhoven’s argument that 19th century Americans preferred a simple, functional machine aesthetic, arguing instead that Americans liked ornate machines, and even considered the utility and beauty of complex/ornamented machinery to be high art.  And his fifth chapter examines utopian and dystopian fiction of the late 19th century by Bellamy, Twain, Donnelly, Howells, and others; he shows both that Americans saw increasing evidence that technology leads to greed, corruption, chaos, and anti-Republican values, and that they saw social and technological reform as the only way to save America from the machines.

While Kasson’s mostly elite sources don’t really speak for the majority of Americans, insofar as they speak to a certain class of  Americans his book problematizes the relationship between technology and culture.  More importantly, I think, he shows how a fear of technology distracted people from realizing that industrial capitalism was the real enemy, and Republican values of individualism, thrift, hard work, and restraint meshed so well with capitalist enterprise – shaped it, even – that they foreclosed their own freedom without realizing it.

141: Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization

Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) is a massive history of technological development in the Western world in three phases: the Eotechnic, from AD 1000 to the 18th century, which was characterized by diverse, unsystematized inventions and ideas; the Paleotechnic, from the late 18th century to the late 19th, which was “reckless to the point of barbarism” in its war, death, brute strength, and industrialization; and the Neotechnic, which began in the early 20th century and is hopeful that new alloys, electricity, communication technologies will lead to better, more organic social and technological projects.  Throughout, Mumford argues that “No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the sciences, it does not form an independent system, like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill.”   He advocates a more egalitarian technopolitics via an increased understanding and assimilation of the machine.


While the book is a history of countless technological developments spanning all of human time (itself revolutionary, since most accounts of technology before his had focused on the 19th century), the heart of it is Mumford’s program to create a “life-sustaining technological order” that would reorient the essential economic processes in which technology is employed from capitalism to basic communism: 

  • Conversion: turning the environment into energy.  Under capitalism, this process is inefficient; communal ownership of the means of production and agricultural fields, centralized planning, and economic regionalism could reduce the inefficiencies of market-managed, uncoordinated extraction and increase conversion.
  • Production: manufacturing goods.  Under capitalism, increased production means increased profits, which can be reinvested in more production facilities.  Automation without respect for the worker leads to strikes and absenteeism, not to mention dehumanization.  Communal ownership and centralized planning would coordinate production so that each region only produces what it needs, and re-developing manufacturing processes so they’re more interesting to humans would shift the focus from quantity to quality.  This combination would increase efficiency and reduce the average work week from 40 hours to 15-20.
  • Consumption: capitalism drives consumption by using style, fashion, and poor workmanship to manufacture wants and desires.  Mumford hates trendy clothes and thinks we should really just consume commodities (produced en masse) and a few luxuries (produced by smaller, specialized firms).  Reducing consumption would reduce production, which (again) would reduce work hours and make more time for culture.
  • Creation: This is the end goal of Mumford’s balanced, centralized system of production and consumption: enough surplus leisure time from work for people to develop the humane side of society: technical inventions, art, history, science, theory, communication.  The idea here is to socialize creation so that each individual adds to the collective pool of knowledge about the world we live in, that technology can be harnessed to sustain and better life rather than increase profits, and that everyone gets to guide future development.  
Mumford’s critique of technological development is thus also a critique of capitalism, and a call for a new social order that uses technology to communist/human, rather than capitalist/profit-driven, ends.