Category Archives: individualism

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.


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.

47: Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom

In American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, Edmund Morgan studies the social and political history of Virginia from the 1580s to about 1720, and he argues that the supposed political harmony and freedom in Virginia after 1730 was symbiotically related to the enslavement of black people – freedom and slavery didn’t just co-exist; they mutually constructed one another.

Apparently the trajectory of Virginia’s growth closely followed the pattern set out by Jack Greene in In Pursuit of Happiness: small and disorganized in Jamestown; then a tobacco boom starting in 1615, which creates huge disparities of wealth between planters and workers, as well as high mortality and increased individualism; then social stabilization from 1630 to 1680, when the mortality rate dropped and, despite Bacon’s Rebellion in 1670, elites centralized control; and then the increased substitution of slavery after 1680, which solved the problem of freed indentured servants wanting land and, through racism, created a bond between lower and upper-class whites.  And racism, combined with 18th century ideology of the common man and a dwindling number of non-landowning whites, froze social relations and neutralized dissent in a way that allowed elites to support freedom and slavery to be the thing that held freedom up.

This thesis – that freedom and exploitation are intertwined – seems like a pretty classic Marxist argument to me.  What Morgan adds to the equation is the development of racism as a consciously applied tool of capitalist exploitation.  I’m a little confused about how, exactly, racism comes about – do the elites invent it?  Do the roving bands of unemployed former indentured servants invent it?  Is is already in the air because of experience with Native Americans?  But regardless of origins, this idea of racism as a tool of economic oppression is now pervasive in whiteness studies, so maybe he’s on to something.