Category Archives: region

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.


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.

115: Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local

Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local is a swan song to the hybridity of place – temporal and spatial, personal and political, geographical and psychological, lived and imagined, insiders and outsiders – and to the ways in which art, particularly public art, can mediate place’s connections between land, history, and culture.  For Lippard, lived experience is central to the construction of place, as are the accumulated sedimentations of experience, memories, and connections in a place.  If space is a memoryless landscape, place is a landscape mediated by human experience.

In an increasingly globalized world, for Lucy Lippard, the “lure of the local” is

the pull of place that operates on each of us, exposing our politics and our spiritual legacies.  It is the geographical component of the psychological need to belong somewhere, one antidote to a prevailing alienation.  The lure of the local is that undertone to modern life that connects it to the past we know so little and the future we are aimlessly concocting.

She explores these many sides of the local, and thus of place, from a variety of perspectives: mobility and the stranger; making places known through naming; photography as a text that fills the gaps in place; in place/ out of place; maps, particularly cognitive ones, as composites of places and times that they both hide and reveal; environmental racism; landscape photography and land art; gentrifying cities full of ghosts; homelessness; and privatization.  And throughout, she advocates for the power of an “art with a place ethic,” which would engage people at the level of their own personal experience, be borne of productive collaboration, and be accessible, evocative, and critical enough to draw people in and make them think deeply about the place.  As Joel Garreau says, ‘I keep on waiting for the artists to get out there to help decode the things that I don’t see.’

Although Lippard readily admits that attention to the local may lead to tunnel vision, she argues that right now (in 1997) it’s more important to hold onto the small picture than to keep the big one in mind, and she feels that art IN place (versus art ABOUT place) is the best way to keep the multiple, hybrid, sedimented local alive.