Category Archives: cars

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.

152: David Hounshell’s American System

In From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932, David Hounshell takes a materialist, history of technology approach to the history of American industrialization.  Tracing American manufacturing from federal armories to civilian gunmakers, clockmakers, bicycle manufacturers and automakers, Hounshell examines the complex and often non-linear process by which American manufacturing moved from standardized, interchangeable parts to the Fordist system of mass production.  By focusing on technological development instead of social change, he overturns several long-held interpretations of this history, including processes of technological change, the economic forces driving mass production, and the definition of mass production itself.

Americans were using relatively interchangeable parts to manufacture standardized goods like window frames, guns, clocks, locks, and furniture in the early 19th century, but true interchangeability, where parts could be subbed out for another part with no reworking, was first achieved in federal armories, who had far more money to play with than did their civilian counterparts.  This “armory practice”diffused to other companies when mechanics left the armories to work at Singer Sewing Machines, McCormick Reaper Works, or Pope bicycles, but armory practice didn’t readily translate, partly because company owners and skilled craftsmen resisted (especially at Singer) and partly because true interchangeability, which at that point involved jigs, gauges, and fixtures as well as special purpose machine tools, could be pricey.  However, all three companies lurched toward armory practice in an effort to meet rising demand by reducing rework/ assembly time.  In the late 19th century, Ford began combining armory practice, the bicycle industry’s pressed steel, inflexible, single-purpose machinery, and moving assembly lines into a new mass production system, but even he proceeded by fits and starts, so that the apex of mass production was only realized in the River Rouge plant – and then at a time when mass production was no longer the best business model.

Throughout, Hounshell details the genealogical process by which individual people diffused armory practices through American metalworking industries, and he traces this history not through the feats of heroic inventors and designers but through the mistakes and experiments of ordinary people.  He shows empirically that demand drove production in the 19th century, not the other way around, though demand was at least partly driven by advertising and marketing.  He also discusses regional variation in production techniques, as when New England bike manufacturers prefer welding/ forging, while Midwestern manufacturers prefer stamping, and shows how techniques in one industry filter into another, so that Ford’s location in the Midwest, for instance, influenced his choice to use metal stamping rather than welding.  And finally, Hounshell uses a history of technology approach – focusing on technology and asking how – rather than a social history approach – looking at social formations and asking why – which allows him to penetrate American manufacturing in detail without worrying about causality until he has the material evidence in hand.

While Hounshell’s account would have benefited from further discussion of labor, this book is otherwise an incredibly thorough and wonderfully materialist history of American manufacturing.

143: Ruth Schwartz Cohen’s Social History of American Technology

Like many other historians of American technology in the 1990s, Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues in A Social History of American Technology that the American technological experience is unique, shaped by a range of factors including geography and cultural diversity.  Cowan emphasizes that the social history of technology (SHOT) involves “integrating the history of technology with the rest of human history,” and accordingly she integrates familiar SHOT topics like invention, the American system of manufacturing, technological systems, scientific management, electrification, automobility, flight, and biotechnology with histories of business, economics, and the environment.  She also incorporates groups previously overlooked by SHOT folks, including housewives, engineers, scientists, and people of color (including Native Americans.)  She handles all of these different elements by using case studies rather than grand narratives; the result is a series of deep contextualizations of historical technological development.

Cowan’s book revolves around three major historical periods,. each with their own themes.  In pre-19th century America, she examines how the environment shaped Native American and European agriculture on the American continent; how populist nostalgia led to myths of heroic farmers and agrarian self-sufficiency; and how colonial artisans laid the groundwork for a political independence that would rely on an industrial economy.  From 1790-1930 (the long 19th century), she studies industrialization as a slow, evolutionary process, rather than a radical break, that separated America’s technological development from Europe’s: early inventions by Eli Whitney, Oliver Evans, and Sam Slater; the government’s role in facilitating a national transportation infrastructure; the development of technological systems with differentiated roles for inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs, artifacts, and social, political and financial institutions; the working lives of men and women; and the cultural meanings ascribed to different technologies by devotees and critics.  In the 20th century, she examines four major 20th century technological systems: automobiles, air and spacecraft, electronic communications, and biotechnology.

While Cowan should have spent more time discussing the peculiarities of American culture that created a unique cultural system (division of church and state, absence of guilds, liberal ideology, early development of the corporation and the lack of a major labor or anti-capitalist movement, for instance), her book provides a solid overview for the canonical topics in both American history and SHOT, while broadening the focus of technology studies to include women, children, people of color, and labor.  Even if she does rely heavily on super old-school historians like George Rogers Taylor and Alfred Chandler.

19: Joy Parr’s Sensing Changes

Sensing Changes is a study of five Canadian communities affected by mid-century megaprojects and a sixth community affected by water contamination in the early 2000s.  Joy Parr’s more pressing concern, however, is not the communities themselves but the “embodied history” they represent.  Therefore, the book does detail the aftermath of human and environmental displacement, but it does so mostly so that its author can advocate a paradigm shift in the way we do history.

Parr proposes embodied history, or a historical approach that seeks to recover historical information from all five senses, because she is frustrated with the linguistic turn in the humanities.  Per Parr, a linguistic approach requires her to view her subjects through the lens of culturally-constructed discourse, and it privileges those bodily senses most easily repeatable and describable: sight and hearing.  By contrast, Parr thinks knowledge resides in individual experience, not in some amorphous thing called culture, and she thinks that all five senses, not just sight and hearing (the most communicable ones) need to be brought into historical discussions, so that we can truly understand what it was like to live in a certain place at a particular time.  She wants to give voice to the oppressed, and she thinks that focusing on individual bodily experience will help her do it.

Parr pursues this logic through all of her case studies, but the one that I found particularly interesting is the case of the village of Iroquois, a small 19th-century mill town that was moved in its entirety in 1958 to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Although the residents of the town first tried to fight the relocation and then tried to convince the Canadian government to at least let them plan their new town, their pleas fell on deaf ears.  “Hydro” was moving small towns all along the new waterway, and they had a cookie-cutter model city already planned out for Iroquois, complete with mid-century suburban bungalows, curved streets and even a strip mall. 

Thus, those buildings that could be moved, were; the rest were burned and then scattered so as not to create a threat to navigation, and the residents were moved 1.6km north to their new village.  In her narration of this process, Parr focuses not on the logistics of moving the village or on epic battles between residents and Hydro, but on the impact of the move on the bodies of the people who lived there.  Using interviews with Iroquois residents, she describes how it felt to replace a thriving, walkable commercial district with empty parking lots and strip malls; how it felt to go from fishing generations-old fishing spots to seeking out new fishing holes in a now artificial body of water; and what it was like to go from a walking community where neighbors saw each other daily to a driving community where they rarely saw them at all. 

And then she talks about the trees.  In old Iroquois, huge maples, some a meter in diameter, lined most of the streets and provided shade in the summer and wind protection in the winter.  Some were thousands of years old.  The village also had a large apple orchard along the river, with four different varieties of apples and summer employment for the residents.  When the village had to see their old homes and businesses burned and razed, that was traumatic enough; but when they had to see their trees burned and razed – well, the trees were so integral to their sense of place that they cried to see them cut down.  And then when new Iroquois was built without trees, they were disoriented: old people couldn’t find their homes, mothers had to make sure their children wore sunblock, and no one wanted to go outside in the winter because they now lived in a barren, windswept plain.  One older man predicted that he would never see trees again, and he was right – the saplings the villagers planted in the new town had barely taken root when he died.

A lot of this book feels pretty hippy-dippy to me, and I do think Parr’s analysis would greatly benefit from a more balanced approach to the history of the megaprojects – maybe incorporating top-down history of project development to complement the embodied history, maybe trusting her sources to be something other than traumatized, sensing bodies.  But that said, I like that her method gives voice to and validates the villagers’ loss of place.  It advocates a more community-based style of placemaking; it also restores some of the power to create history to the people who live it.

4: David Gartman’s Auto Opium

This book took a while, mostly because I’m a sucker for Marxist histories of the auto industry.  Something about reading Marxist language makes me feel like I’m cracking a secret code (exciting!)  Also they usually tie up their narratives so neatly, like the end of a Dickens novel (comforting!).  Yes, I’m a huge nerdo.  Anyway.

Gartman argues that automobiles are the opiate of the masses.  He’s not saying that we’re all fools for being tricked into buying cars and staking our identities on them – that’s for the bike activists to claim.  Instead, he’s saying that people who claim cars as a part of their identity are effectively taking a happy pill: they’re focusing on the pleasure they get from owning, driving, maintaining – consuming – a car to distract themselves from their crappy, dissatisfying jobs.

The process by which people’s identity gets shifted from work to car consumption goes something like this.  Back at the turn of the (last) century, as Ford’s assembly-line style manufacturing increased the pace of work and parsed it into smaller and smaller pieces, workers became detached from the final product, and eventually work stopped being the thing that workers staked their identity on.  But when they revolted against this deskilling, Ford was wise: he raised their pay to $5 a day.  Apparently workers were psyched – they could feed their families!  Buy houses!  Buy Model T’s!  Go to movies!  And they stopped complaining about their crappy jobs, because they were being paid well, and being paid well meant they could buy all the things they’d always wanted but couldn’t afford.

They bought cars, which made Ford happy, because more people buying cars meant that he could produce more cars and make more money.

The thing was, the cars the working people could afford in the teens and twenties didn’t look anything like the cars that rich people drove; they looked like they were cobbled together by a bunch of different people (84, to be exact) from a bunch of disparate parts into a big rectangular box – which, of course, they were.  Luxury cars, on the other hand, were still made using craft production, which meant that each car was assembled, fitted, and tuned by a single mechanic.  They were aesthetically pleasing, with organic lines that made them look like a unified whole.

As it turns out, people who spend all day doing menial tasks at an assembly line don’t want to drive around in something that reminds them of how much they hate work when they’re not at work.  Hence, when Alfred Sloan at GM started styling mass-produced cars to have the streamlining and unified design of luxury cars, working people were SUPER psyched.  Finally, they wouldn’t have to drive around in some rattletrap that stank of assembly line, and, even better, someone might mistake them for a richer person than they really were.  Genius!

Sloan and his stylists were geniuses in other ways, too, namely in the invention of planned obsolescence and product hierarchies, both of which were designed to encourage consumers to buy newer or better or more cars than they needed.

The whole styling thing worked to increase consumption of cars because, according to Gartman, people who have dead-end, menial, unproductive, bureaucratic, or otherwise dispiriting jobs increasingly seek the personal satisfaction, pleasure, and self-worth they should be getting at work in the objects they consume.  And they know that buying things isn’t going to make them happy like good productive labor would, but they do it anyway, to ease the pain.  Hence opiate.

It stopped working in the 60s, when people started to catch on that they were working ever harder in ever more degrading work conditions so that they could buy increasingly expensive cars that weren’t actually making them happy. So they revolted, both economically and culturally, and at the end of the 1960s, Fordism was dead.  Unfortunately, consuming to fill a void was not. 

I’m too tired to add much in the way of analysis right now, but I will say that I suspect that the many car enthusiasts in my life do get a lot of pleasure from working on, shopping for, and driving their cars, and that for all I know their cars may well fill a need that jobs don’t.  However, I’ve never thought of them as building cars that represent “‘freedom from the superfluous adjuncts of styling-for-obsolescence'” or working on “humanizing the alienated products of capitalist mass production.” Oh, Marxists.

Expressways dismembered poor neighborhoods, destroying local communities; they also enabled both the dispossessed (and the wealthy who had also fled) to return to work in the inner city – to sustain, and to bleed it, respectively.

Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, New York: The New Press, 1997, p 202.

Even cars may fulfill the function of analogons [images, signs, and symbols], for they are at once extensions of the body and mobile homes, so to speak, fully equipped to receive these wandering bodies.

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009, p 98.