Category Archives: reform

161: John Jordan’s Machine-Age Ideology

In Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939, John Jordan argues that early 20th century “rational reform” was the product of the top-down, antidemocratic, technocratic politics of the machine age, and thus American liberal reformers in this era became less interested in helping the poor gain their voices as citizens than in engineering and controlling society.  Jordan’s cultural history, which relies primarily on the papers of reformers, statements and theories of prominent engineers, writers, and academics, and popular lit sources, shows how technological language and notions of Progress, control, and hierarchy filtered into social reform and the institution of liberalism as a whole.

Jordan divides his study into three historical periods, each with its own reform projects.  He locates the origins of rational reform (1880-1910) in Progressive reformers and sociologists like Veblen, who want to make the relationship between reformers and society less political and more like the relationship between engineers and nature.  From 1910 to WWI, publications like Lippman’s The New Republic and foundations like Russel Sage, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corp start arguing that “disinterested specialists” well-versed in social science and technology should lead the masses; Herbert Hoover called on manly men to be “officers in the great industrial army;” and Taylor and other efficiency experts made the efficiency craze visible.


Finally, social engineering hit its stride from 1918-1934, when Herbert Hoover’s “strikingly colorless moral universe,” created through war relief, paved the way for technocrats to further engineer social control.  Social problems like unemployment, education, poverty, and crime began to be seen as inefficiencies in the social system rather than injustice; universities were transformed into institutions of research, and psychologists turned “normality” into results on intelligence tests; the Century of Progress Fair in 1933 meshed science and capitalism into public entertainment, so that not even leisure spaces were not safe.

Of course, not everyone agreed with social control; Jordan also taps many of the era’s outspoken critics, including John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Walter Lippman, Robert Lynd for cautions against the TOO successful social control of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.  They also argued that humanity and democracy were necessarily messy; that competence was no match for the sheer variety of the American consumer, and that no one is disinterested, least of all reformers who trust their own authority and pet project over the needs and opinions of the people they’re supposedly helping.

Rational reform, therefore, became a question of ways of knowing.  Rational technocracy became articulated with liberals, who decided that the best way of knowing was science and that the goal of reform was to create an efficient social machine.  This perspective obviously created horrible problems because it reduced humanity to numbers and thus left out whole huge parts of the human condition that can’t be approximated.  Even scarier, however, is knowing that the drive toward quantitative knowledge lives on today: with more and more data, the cloud comes closer and closer to modelling human life – but even in the aggregate, can we really be replaced by zeros and ones?

155: Martin Melosi’s Sanitary City

In The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present, Martin Melosi shows that the technologies chosen for a city’s sanitation infrastructure depended heavily on the prevailing environmental concerns, available technologies, money, and politics of the day.  Because most American sanitation systems were built around the turn-of-the-century, when permanence was more valued than flexibility, and because this infrastructure is costly (socially, politically, functionally, economically) to replace outright, American sanitation systems are path dependent in that they are constrained by choices made early in their construction, and they are also determinist in the sense that they shape/ constrain development around them.  Melosi thus argues that “to function effectively the American city has to be a sanitary city.”

Working from the water management systems in several major American cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, Melosi traces the development of sanitation infrastructure through three phases:

  • The “Age of Miasmas” (colonial times to 1880): basically, if you can’t see or smell it, it isn’t there; dilution of waste water will purify it.  


Although Boston had a Water Board in 1797 and Philly had the Latrobe Waterworks in 1801, until the 1830s residents of most American cities were responsible for procuring their own water and disposing of their own waste.  In the 1840s, British Edwin Chadwick argued that the physical environment had a direct effect on individual well-being – that health depends on “environmental sanitation.”  Reformers on both sides of the Atlantic began to argue that better urban sanitation might reduce disease among the poor, and Boston, New York, and Chicago built wastewater systems based on Chadwickian miasma theory: massive structures that combined sewage and water lines, with centralized dilution.  Some disease was reduced, but contamination was a problem.

  • The “Bacteriological Revolution” (1880-1945): microscopic bacteria are what make people sick, not miasmas or vapors!  
While bacteriology discredited miasma-based sanitation, Progressive Reformers and the New Public Health believed that environmental sanitation had a “civilizing influence” on poor people and immigrants (and provided clean water and functional waste disposal for everyone), and control over public works had newly become the responsibility of city governments, so construction on sanitation systems continued.  Sanitation got swept up into the narrative of technologically-enhanced human progress, and sanitary engineers professionalized.  Also, the rise of mass culture after 1880 meant that garbage soared, so waste removal shifted form a public health issue to a public works issue; by 1920 it was the “third pillar” of sanitation, though it was never as centralized or monitored as water and sewage.
  • The “New Ecology” (1945-2000s): the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality of urban sanitation engineering and waste removal, combined with the suburban strain on old urban systems, was beginning to take a toll on the environment.
By the 1960s, solid waste removal as land pollution had become a national issue, despite the 1965 and 1970 Solid Waste Disposal Acts, by 1980 many smaller cities were having an infrastructure crisis, as cities were allocating money away from supporting or expanding legacy systems.  
Throughout, Melosi’s careful contextualization of sanitation technologies in sanitation theory, reform movements, politics, and existing infrastructure shows just how path dependent (and old!) the sanitation systems of many American cities are.

153: Walter Licht’s Industrializing America

In Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century, Walter Licht complicates the process of industrialization in the United States during the 19th century by re-examining both the context of American industrial development and the composition of American industry.  In the first move, he situates manufacturing within a rapidly expanding market, which was fueled by a growing population, immigration, westward settlement, expanding cities, and developments in transportation and communication infrastructure; industrialization was a result of these changes as well as an active shaper of market relationships.  In the second move, he expands the focus of industrial manufacturing from large-scale industrialization to the broader business landscape of small factories, specialty shops, and regional diversity, which allows him to separate 19th century industrialization from late 19th century corporate consolidation.  Licht therefore deconstructs the old narrative of 19th century production-driven Progress, arguing instead for a declension from ordered mercantilism to a chaotic market economy that was only beginning to organize toward the end of the century.

Licht synthesizes business history, economics, labor history, and the history of technology to situate American industrialization in its economic, social, political, and regional contexts.  He begins in the early 1800s with regional diversity and the Jefferson/ Hamilton debates; examines the diversity of antebellum development in its mill villages, single-industry cities, diversified urban centers, and Southern “industrial” slavery; discusses artisan protests in Jacksonian American along with with evangelical reform;  charts the relationship between the Civil War and government-sponsored industrialization and transportation; and analyzes regional industrial diversity, the rise of Carnegie, Rockefeller and anti-monopoly politics, and the labor disputes, single-issue reform movements, and utopian critiques of late-19th century urban disorder.

Licht’s relentless contextualization, breakdown of industry into regions, and insistence that the voices of workers, women, and immigrants be heard are a welcome relief to the usual histories of 19th century technology.

148: Howard Segal’s Technologial Utopianism

In Technological Utopianism in American Culture, Howard Segal argues that a strain of utopian literature produced in American between 1833 and 1933 firmly linked human improvement to technology.  While technological utopianism may have been a marginal thread in popular culture, it had a huge influence on both European and American intellectuals’ thoughts on technology and American movements like scientific management, the conservation movement, and technocracy.  In tracing the careers and writings of 25 American technological utopians, Segal hopes to make their ideas more accessible and also to show that utopianism is a useful tool for social criticism.

According to Segal, American technological utopianism has four unique characteristics that distinguish it from other utopian traditions:

  • technological utopians envision a world very similar to the one in which they live; the difference is more quantitative than qualitative
  • versus Europe, America in the 19th century was perceived as a place where utopia could still be built
  • American technological utopians were less revolutionary and more practical than their European counterparts
  • these writers used utopianism not to fantasize about the future but to critique and suggest improvements for present-day society.
Even within this matrix, Segal’s subjects range widely, from Robert Thurston, the first president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, to Albert Waldo Howard, a deaf musician and writer who claimed to have “cosmic consciousness” and to be the reincarnation of Beethoven.  Also, aside from Edward Bellamy and King Camp Gillette, most were relatively unknown in their own time, and the quality of their writing is generally not very high.  However, they were all optimistic about American technological development leading to social Progress, and they variously described technocracies of the near future that were clean, efficient, and culturally uniform.  And they did, it seems, have some influence: Segal shows how technological utopians closely watched and integrated extreme versions of contemporary reform movements into their work, including conservation, corporate and government reorganization, city planning, national planning, and scientific management; he also shows how these movements tended toward technological utopianism in the problems they identified and the solutions they proposed.
While the technological advances predicted by Segal’s subjects have happened, most of the social reforms they were supposed to bring have not.  However, because many of them embraced Auguste Comte’s concept of the “technological plateau,” the level of technological development beyond which societies should not go, they are closely linked to later utopian writers, including Schumacher, Winner, and Marcuse.  If Segal’s scope – unknown literary utopians only – limits him from making large claims, at least the variety of subjects and the practicality of their prescriptions provides a window into the radical end of American reform.

95: Mark Smith’s Social Science in the Crucible

Mark Smith’s Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate Over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918-1941 brings the Progressive Era tension between advocacy and objectivity into the interwar years, and shows that there was no “consensual paradigm” shift toward objectivity in those years.  Instead, he uncovers a debate between objectivists and purposivists – er, between people who thought they could do social scientific research from an objective viewpoint and people who understood that knowledge is always socially produced – and investigates the debate via 5 intellectual biographies.  By situating these biographies in their social contexts with an eye toward the sources of scientific research funding, Smith thus reveals the process by which scientific objectivity itself became socially constructed.

The five major figures Smith investigates are Robert Lynd, Charles Beard, Harold Lasswell, Charles Merriam, and Wesley Mitchell.  Via leading journals, lecture series, books, private letters, presidential addresses to professional societies, and other documents, he uses these five case studies to explore the historical trajectories of both sides.  Objectivists argued that it was the job of social science to provide clear, unslanted, authoritative data to policymakers, while purposivists were interested in using social science to further their own ethical goals for society.  At the heart of his book is a rather plastic use of Deweyan Pragmatism to highlight the differences and similarities of the two approaches: objectivists claimed Dewey’s argument that good techniques ensure good results, and they located morality in the consistently objective use of proper technique in social scientific research; purposivists argued that Deweyan morality dictated that research and knowledge had to be purposive, performed to solve a particular social problem, not to create knowledge for its own sake.

While Smith’s main argument, that social science at this time was not stuck in a consensual paradigm, was been proven by history of science scholars in the 1970s, his intellectual biographies are strong, and his interpretation of Dewey is interesting.  Further, the debate that Smith outlines here over the role of subjectivity and morality in science is replicated today, perhaps tellingly, in politics: conservatives argue that we should rely on our values to help us use our freedom, while liberals say that we should use our freedom to determine our values.  In science, I suspect we have arrived at a disingenuous combination of the two.

77: Ruth Rosen’s Lost Sisterhood

In The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, Ruth Rosen investigates how gender and class affected the lives of men and women who were involved in the issue of prostitution in the early 20th century.  Her project is to write a history of prostitution from both above and below, so that she can combine the perspectives of the reformers and of the prostitutes into a broader picture of prostitution as it was understood and practiced.  Using a range of primary sources that include committee reports, surveys, studies, official public records, census data, vice committee reports, prostitutes’ memoirs, and social workers’ and missionaries’ records, Rosen argues that prostitution as lived history primarily affected the working classes, prostitution as cultural symbol encompassed all classes of women.  Whether a woman had to sell her body in a loveless marriage for economic protection, for wages as an unskilled worker, or as a “sporting woman,” “whatever the choice, some form of prostitution was likely to be involved.”

Modern prostitution was a by-product of industrialization and the growth of new urban centers, where many people were far from home and relatively disconnected from one another.  For middle-class reformers at the turn of the century, it was a symbol of the new modern industrial culture in which even the most private areas of people’s lives could be invaded by the marketplace.  While Progressive reformers were not the first group to fight prostitution, they were the first to campaign against modern prostitution, which Rosen defines as the “large-scale commercialization and rationalization of prostitution by third-party agents,” including “property owners, politicians, police, procurers, doctors, cab drivers, and liquor agents.”  Reformers entered the public sphere and fought prostitution and other forms of vice primarily to protect the sanctity of their homes, which did more to police the boundaries of the middle class than to help prostitutes.

Conversely, for prostitution and other people who lived in red light districts, prostitution was a form of work, and it was subject to rationalization and commercialization.  While some forced prostitution did exist, its prevalence was way over exaggerated; instead, the vast majority of prostitutes took up the work voluntarily because it was easier and more lucrative than other job options.  Working from the prostitutes’ point of view, Rosen discovers not a “lost” sisterhood but a group of (often) influential people embedded in a web of social, economic, and family connections who saw themselves as rational actors, not fallen women.

Unfortunately, though Rosen works to recover the “lost” voices of early 20th century prostitutes and to situate them within larger social structures, she never quite resolves the tension between reformers and prostitutes, except to say that the class and gender hierarchy that supported prostitution in the Progressive Era is still very much alive today, and prostitution is even more disempowering now than it was a century ago.  That may be true, but Rosen is clearly against prostitution, and this bias makes it difficult to read her otherwise interesting book without a grain of salt.

72: Jane Hunter’s Gospel of Gentility

In The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China, Jane Hunter argues that women missionaries in turn-of-the-century China were able to use missionary work to greatly expand women’s sphere even as they supported submissive roles for women and lived relatively circumscribed lives at the mission.  Hunter accesses this paradoxical construction of American womanhood in China primarily via the letters and private papers of some 40 female missionaries from different denominations who worked in China from 1900 to 1922, when some 60% of Protestant missionaries in China were women.  She also includes information from interviews and the archives of two mission boards.  Because their status as outsiders in Chinese culture throws the missionaries’ gender norms in high relief, the book highlights the feminization of Protestantism and the ways in which American womanhood intersected with work, religion, and cross-cultural exchanges.

Hunter is careful to stress that female missionaries in China had a wide variety of experiences and interpretation of gender constructs.  Often, the lives of female missionaries were spatially and culturally circumscribed: married female missionaries rarely left the domestic sphere of their home and children, and single women only occasionally made contact with potential “clients” for conversion.  Few female missionaries taught in languages other than English or attempted to learn Chinese, many refused to use Chinese artifacts, and many suspected Chinese servants of “contaminating” the minds of their children even as those same servants liberated them to do their missionary work.  Some found the insular, largely female world of the mission comforting, a welcome alternative to spinsterhood in America or a place to develop intimate same-sex relationships.  For most, the female missionaries thought the Chinese were a barbarous people badly in need of conversion, and many tried to recreate Victorian America in China.  And from what little we see of the Chinese, this last part – the American culture the missionaries embodied and recreated – was by far the most interesting.

While Hunter’s emphasis on letters home sometimes leads her to emphasize personal feelings over structural explanations, and more information on Chinese perceptions of the missionaries would definitely strengthen her analysis, her in-depth analysis of missionary communities in China provides a fascinating look into turn-of-the-century Protestant reform culture.  Less radical and more circumscribed than their peers in settlement houses in America, American women missionaries in China still banded together as middle-class women who wanted to reform the masses to protect themselves.  Like other books on reform during this time period, Gospel of Gentility suggests that the reformers themselves had more at stake than their potential reformees.