Category Archives: urbanization

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.


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.

73: John Kasson’s Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man

In Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man, John Kasson argues that “manliness” is always under construction, but manliness at the turn of the century was particularly so.  In response to the emergence of corporate capitalism, the changing nature of work, urbanization, and the New Woman, three men, Eugen Sandow, Houdini, and Tarzan, helped create something called the “Revitalized Man.”  A “model of wholeness and strength,” Revitalized Man transcended the social and political upheaval of the period and united people across classes and genders to celebrate common ideals of masculinity.

Kasson’s is not the first history of manliness at the turn of the century; his choice of a strongman, an escape artist, and a fictional character as subjects intentionally shifts the focus off of Teddy Roosevelt and politics and into an emergent mass spectacle culture.  And because studies of mass culture at this time usually focus on representations of the female body, his choice to study male bodies is disruptive as well.  In different ways, all three figures show how “modernity was understood in terms of the body and how the white male body became a powerful symbol by which to dramatize modernity’s impact and how to resist it.”  They also show how masculinity at this time was closely related to ideas (and anxieties) about racial and sexual dominance.

Each of Kasson’s three subjects takes a very different approach to Revitalized Man.  Sandow, considered the father of modern bodybuilding and a pioneer of physical culture, got his start as a living statue in vaudeville shows, where he posed as a nude Greek statue and shifted position to show off his perfectly defined muscles.  Sandow’s version of masculinity redefined standards for male strength and beauty for a culture anxious about emasculation.  Houdini, the great escape artist, stripped and had himself chained up, submerged in water, suspended – and always escaped as if by magic; in an age of technological rationalization, connecting the naked male body with magical powers helped reaffirm male strength and ingenuity.  And Tarzan, a character invented by frustrated businessman Edgar Rice Burroughs, escaped into the jungle just like Houdini escaped from the “manacles of modern society;” his primitive survivalism and physical prowess helped ease anxieties about modern emasculation as well – even as his survival depended on modern printing technologies.  Notably, all three subjects were white, and their whiteness was integrated into the Revitalized Man as a way of dealing with fears around immigration and anxieties about disempowerment.

My only concerns with this book are its tight focus on pop culture, which limits ties to other social processes, and its insistent attention to whiteness at the expense of other masculinities.  Otherwise, it’s wonderfully well-organized and a well-illustrated, clear companion to fellow Buehle advisee Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization.


51: Paul Boyer’s Urban Masses and Moral Order in America

In Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920, Paul Boyer argues that between 1820 and 1920, urban reform shifted from voluntary efforts concerned with individual morality to professionalized/ institutionalized concern with environmental factors.  With this shift, reformers’ values and programming shifted as well, from nostalgic, rural, and religious to urban and secular.  This transition tracked a larger shift in American society from rural to urban culture, even as both the reform movement and the larger culture retained elements of earlier generations’ religious millenialism.

Boyer’s book is solid, well-documented, modernist history that works to dissolve divides between rich and poor, urban and rural, and old and new reform movements.  He traces four stages of American urban reform between 1820 and 1920:

  • Jacksonian era: evangelical leaders, funded by businesses and professional groups, use Bible societies, tract societies, and Sunday schools to recreate rural values and community for displaced urban dwellers
  • Mid-19th century: new institutions, like the Children’s Aid Society and the YMCA focus on the city in the belief that cities contained the resources for their own reform
  • Gilded Age: the reform community splits; new groups like the Charity Organization Society and early settlement houses are divided over whether they should focus on individual morality or environmental issues and whether they should pursue ‘coercive’ or ‘assimilative’ reform
  • Progressive Era: reformers push aside their differences and focus on reforming the urban environment. Crusades to reform municipal government, abolish saloons and organized vice, establish local parks and playgrounds all proliferate to instill ideals of citizen loyalty and virtue

Social reform dies down in the 1920s, as people finally see the city not as a threat to the social order but as the new social order itself.  They then start to celebrate diversity, cultural pluralism, and the city’s resources for both pleasure and reform.

Boyer makes several claims about the causes and implications of this trajectory.  First, urban reform gets institutionalized in large part because unlike in rural towns, where a single rowdy drunk dude could easily be stopped by a few capable townspeople, the huge numbers of people in cities seem to necessitate large reform apparatuses; with urbanization, individual problems became social problems.  Further, although he documents many reform movements that crossed social classes, he suspects – as do I – that the people who benefited most from voluntary urban reform movements were the reformers themselves, who found in the reform community a refuge from the alienation of their new urban homes.  While the book could certainly use more voices from the urban masses themselves (if only to see what the reformers were up against), and while it pays surprisingly little attention to the missionary mind (a la Bob Abzug), it provides a solid history of reform movements and would be in good company with Levenstein or Roediger’s studies of the same time period.