158: Carolyn de la Pena’s The Body Electric

In The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American, Carolyn de la Pena examines the relationship between bodies and machines in American from the 1850s to the 1950s.  Using novels, cartoons, trade mags, health fraud investigation records, newspapers, manuals, and other primary sources, de la Pena recovers a wide range of technologies and devices designed to restore the body to its natural state.  In doing so she shows how industrialization led not just to a reorganization and mechanization of production and society, but to a technologically-mediated experience of the body as well.

The Body Electric is divided into three general sections: Dudley Sarget and Gustav Zander’s weight-lifting machines and training programs designed to “balance” the body through uniform muscle development and “unblock” energy trapped within; technologies like electric belts, vibration devices, and magnetic collars (mostly from 1880 to 1930) that supposedly injected energy into the body to increase its reserve force; and radium (radioactive) waters that were taken as tonics and in baths to flood the body with heat and energy, mostly from 1902 to 1940.  Throughout, de la Pena examines the relationship between these technologies and gender (increasing male strength; electrically stimulating male sexuality; curing neurasthenia), class (upper classes went to gyms; middle classes bought a wide range of technologies; working classes bought radium dispensers), and race (a Dr. Pancoast at UPenn treated African Americans by applying x-rays for up to 15 minutes at a time “allegedly” to turn their skin white.)   She also shows how these treatments were often supported with the language of science: the laws of Thermodynamics; offsetting entropy; electric transfer; energy.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this book is that much of this “better living through technology” discourse held on until the atomic bomb, and some of it, like using physical fitness to cure neurasthenia, lives on in only slightly modified language today.

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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.

156: Gail Cooper’s Air-Conditioning America

In Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960, Gail Cooper examines the development of air-conditioning technology and the tensions between engineering philosophy and consumer preference that shaped its design.  Working from a variety of sources, including trade literature, popular magazines, newspapers, and corporate records, Cooper argues that air-conditioning developed via a process of contestation, and that the three systems that resulted – custom-built systems, centralized air, and window units – are each an imperfect mix of the interests of engineers, corporations, and various consumer groups, legacies of the times when each group was more dominant than the other two.

Per Cooper, air conditioning development went through three major phases.  From 1900 to WWI, engineers Alfred Wolff, Stuart Cramer and Willis Carrier adapted industrial heating, ventilation, and freezing systems to offices and factories.  Their custom designs attempted to control both heat and humidity, though they focused mainly on humidity until the 1930s.  The first custom systems were installed in stock exchanges, banks, and Southern textile mills.  Because Progressive reformers were obsessive about healthy ventilation for schoolchildren, schools also became testing grounds for the new technology.

In the interwar years, alternative cooling technologies challenge the engineers and their custom-built systems.  In the 1920s, movie theatres installed mechanical cooling and introduced the public to a/c; attempts to introduce window units in the 1930s failed, but more because of high costs during the Depression than because of a lack of consumer demand.

From WWII to 1960, air-conditioning companies exploit the consumer demand opened up by movie theaters and window units and introduce standardized or central air.  New central systems reshape buildings – just think of the sealed picture windows in suburban tract housing.  By the 1960s, cooled air had become a necessity rather than a luxury, and residents of older buildings began buying up window units – which, while inefficient, live on because they are affordable and portable.

Throughout her narrative, Cooper is attentive to the interests of various groups affected by air-conditioning: engineers who want to create a wholly artificial indoor climate; managers who want to reduce seasonal fluctuations and be able to locate buildings without regard to geography; workers (and consumers) who want comfort and health and don’t like centralized systems they can’t control; movie theaters who use a/c as marketing; public schools who treat children as test subjects; poor people who just want to be cool at any cost.  She also discusses the detrimental environmental impact of controlled indoor environment – one more reminder of what happens when you let turn of the century engineers run the show.

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.

154: Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire

Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West is a history of the development of the American West through the lens of water management technology.  Building on substantial archival research, Worster argues that

The West, more than any other American region, was built by state power, state expertise, state technology, and state bureaucracy.  That is another way of saying that it has been, and is, the most thoroughly modern of American regions, and therefore that its experience, particularly in the matter of water, has been most instructive for deciphering the confused messages of that modernity.

By positioning water as technology rather than nature and the West as a federally-funded, man-made landscape, Worster both deconstructs the West’s self-image as independent and free of government control AND reconstructs the region not as a colony of the East but as the seat of a global American empire.

For Worster, the American West is a “modern hydraulic society,” a “social order based on the intensive, large-scale manipulation of water and its products in an arid setting.”  Versus Thoreau’s vision of a Western society based on free, self-defining individuals and egalitarian community organization, the West as hydraulic society is “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical,” run by the elite owners of capital and business.  In addition to a sharply divided class structure, the West also has a sharp division between technology and nature, as evinced in the irrigation canal, whose smooth, abstract flow is fenced off from animals, humans, and life in general, while the communities that surround it are in comparative disarray.  Worster traces the development of this “techno-economic” landscape by first contextualizing it among other hydraulic societies, where elites used irrigation and flood control to control the social order, and then tracing the 150 year intensification of water control in the American West through 3 phases:

  • Incipience (Mormon migration in 1847 to 1890s): dependence on local skills and means, isolated communities and limited of small rivers, failed attempts by private corporations to harness rivers
  • Florescence (1902, when the Federal government took control of Western rivers via the National Reclamation Act, to WWII): Federal government provides capital and engineering expertise to “lift the region to a higher plateau of development;” corporations and quasi-corporations finally succeed in farming rivers for profit; a sharply divided class structure develops
  • Empire (1940s to the present): government and private wealth form a powerful alliance and bring every major river under their unified control; goal is to create an unparalleled hydraulic society.
Capitalism was critical to the development of the West because it moved rivers from a riparian system with usufruct rights (only people who live along a river can lay claim to it) to a system of prior appropriation (whoever gets to a river first can have it, even if s/he doesn’t own property along it).  It also rewarded destruction of some landscapes and relocation of some people to harness water for others – a remarkably anti-democratic project in the name of democracy.  Further, because water in the arid West was scarce, social power was tied to toil and large capital investments, which some saw as rugged individualism but Worster sees as American empire: absolute domination of nature by elites who spout individualism but take money from the Federal government to support their power.
By constructing the West as a “hydraulic society” and an American empire, Worster successfully demythologizes the West.  He also makes me never want to live much further west of the Mississippi than I already do, even if LA is the center of a global cultural and economic empire, because that empire is based on total technological domination of nature.

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.