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Equality and Opportunity

Published onApr 22, 2021
Equality and Opportunity

The artisan … in an aristocracy would seek to sell his workmanship at a high price to the few; he now conceives that the more expeditious way of getting rich is to sell them at a low price to all.

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835 ([86], II, 58)

One of the tenets of the American democracy was the conviction that everyone had an equal right to strive for a better life for himself and his dependents. By 1829, under the Jacksonian banner “Let the People Rule,” Americans felt free to grasp every opportunity that would provide the greatest reward with the least consumption of time and energy. Klemm has written that “the agents of this introduction of technology were the middle class,” whose “minds were filled with … liberalism.” ([54], 269)

While the working classes in Europe were destroying machines because they were “not apt to distinguish between present inconvenience and permanent evil” (192, 232), the Americans welcomed the industrial revolution as an essential complement to the democratic way of life. They believed in progress in science and technology as the source of national security and economic and social well-being, and shared an almost naive faith in the promise of machines and mechanized production as the most effective way to serve their needs and desires.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote: “The question of manufactures is clearly one of interest. Of their usefulness, and of their being one of the most active agents of wealth, as well as of the comfort of society, there can be no doubt.… Fifty years ago, they manufactured next to nothing. They now manufacture almost every article of familiar use, and very many of them, much better than the articles that are imported.” He described the population as having a “respectable degree of intelligence” whereby the necessities of life provided an incentive for invention and talent. “Their wants,” wrote Cooper, “feed their desires, and together they give birth to all the thousand luxuries of exceeding ingenuity that are wanted elsewhere.” (22, II, 320) It was evident to Cooper and others that the American home would become the focus for the good life, and therefore that new methods should be devised to provide individual homes for more people, that labor within the home should be made more endurable, and that the arts of living would become at least as important as the struggle for existence. Cooper concluded: “Manufacturing is a pursuit so natural, and one so evidently necessary to all extended communities, that its adoption is inevitable at some day or other.… If it be admitted that a people, who possess the raw materials in abundance, who enjoy the fruits of the earth to an excess that renders their cultivation little profitable, must have recourse to their ingenuity, and to their industry, to find new employments and different sources of wealth, then the Americans must become manufacturers.” ([22], II, 329)

The new middle class in the United States looked to technology as the key to its equality. Industry became the medium of their liberation, and the acquisition of its products the symbol of their success. In 1847 an editor of Scientific American at the time applauded “this democracy which invites every man to enhance his own comfort and status,” saying that “to the citizens of the United States inventions are the vehicle for the pursuit of happiness.”

A Scandinavian traveling in the United States reported that schoolboys amused themselves by drawing steam engines or steamboats on their slates. Today it would be said that American schoolboys doodle rocketships on the margins of their notebooks. Lewis Mumford once noted dourly that if one was in love with a machine there must be something wrong with his love life. Yet he must have known what the machine has meant to Americans and understood that the love expressed is not that of human passion or compassion but rather a respectful admiration for the inanimate forces of nature as they have been transformed to human servitude.

The promise that technology could be applied to emancipate man from back-breaking and soul-bending work, that it could make one person as effective as fifty and yet provide work for fifty more, supported a social revolution that was consummated in the United States. By it a great middle class emerged, secure and comfortable in its homes, with amenities that even the most noble aristocrat could not have imagined in the past. Some social philosophers of the period, however, saw in the machine a force for the depersonalization of humans. Thomas Carlyle reflected Schiller’s fear that the machine had reduced man to a fragment of the whole: “Were we required to characterize this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it not an Heroic, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of the word; the age which, with its whole undivided weight forward, teaches and practices the great art of adapting means to ends.” (15, I, 465) (A hundred years later the second decade of the twentieth century would be called the Machine Age, but the second time around the epithet would be used in awe rather than in condemnation and would serve as an aesthetic stimulus for Art Moderne.)

Carlyle voiced a poetic lament to mourn the changes brought on by the machine:

… on every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail and lays down his oar and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters.… There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness and finds a fleet fire-horse yoked in his stead.… For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances.… We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highway; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature, and by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils. ([15], I, 465)

Instead of serving the cause of equality, Carlyle warned, machines would increase the distance between the rich and the poor because the Age of Machinery would create an industrialized society regulated by cold, unfeeling social systems. “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart as well as in hand,” he wrote. “They have lost faith in individual endeavor, and in natural force, of any kind.” ([15], I, 468) Carlyle feared that fascination with machines had led men to an unnatural morality that considered pleasure and profit virtues, and he proposed that the inward human force that embraced spiritual and emotional values was being threatened by the outward force that was preoccupied with mechanical principles. Carlyle supported the traditional point of philosophy that the machine ethic must be brought into balance with human values.

However, the North American continent offered a special opportunity for the development of technology that was not present in Carlyle’s England and in other older countries that were as overpopulated as they were short of natural resources. Once the Americans had made the ideological shift away from Jefferson’s dream of a pastoral paradise to the concept of nature as a source of energy and raw materials, industrial growth was inevitable. Their acceptance of this transformation coupled with their faith in the ability to control their own future established the unique American concept of technological progress.

The American responses to Carlyle came quickly in a series of articles in the North American Review, a magazine that supported the rationalists and transcendentalists of New England. The first came from a young attorney, Timothy Walker, who in an article entitled “Defence of Mechanical Philosophy” set aside Carlyle’s fears that the “mind will become subject to the Laws of Matter, that physical science will be built upon the ruins of our spiritual nature, that in our rage for machines, we shall ourselves become machines.” Instead, Walker proposed that “the more we can compel inert matter to do for us the better it will be for our minds, because the more time we shall have to attend to them.” He concluded that Americans looked “with unmixed delight at the triumphal march of mechanism,” which, far from enslaving, had “emancipated the mind, in the most glorious sense.” ([201], 123) Walker promised that that nation that devised the greatest number of labor-saving machines would make the greatest intellectual progress.

Later articles in the North American Review expanded Walker’s thesis that machinery had increased the amount of useful energy by increasing the products of industry. An even more important observation was that, with mechanization, man’s “intellectual condition is greater” because “knowledge is diffused widely through all classes of society.” The democratization of information was recognized as a great force in the development of a middle-class society in America. As a result, knowledge lost its preciousness but not its value, and a “universal public opinion” ([201], 239) was formed that “has strength in its own nature.… It dethrones kings, it abrogates laws, it changes custom.” ([201], 242)

Thus, scarcely 20 years after the phrase “industrial revolution” was coined in France, the debate between human and machine values had been joined. Ralph Waldo Emerson managed to bracket the question. His ode to Channing sets the phrase “Things are in the saddle, / and ride mankind” ([63], 178) against an acceptance of that “marvelous machinery which differences this age from any other age.” ([63], 263)

The American hunger for utilitarian products stimulated the emergence of a class of entrepreneurs, designers, and inventors—the agents of technological progress. Every American hoped to become a “budding capitalist” as his initiative and imagination conceived products and product systems that were suited to increased manufacturing capability. And as production volumes went up and the cost per manufactured unit went down, industries began to direct their attention to creating the marketing institutions and distribution systems that were needed to absorb the flow of products from their factories. It is more than a coincidence that communication and transportation evolved side by side with industrialization.

It was in this atmosphere of progress that the turnpikes, canals, and railroad systems of the United States were established. From a very slow start in the colonial period, carriage building developed into a major industry producing overland stages, city omnibuses, cabs and hacks, Conestoga wagons, prairie schooners, freighters, elegant private buggies, runabouts, trotting wagons, phaetons, sulkies, and buckboards. Carriages were steadily refined to reduce material and weight in order to increase relative horsepower, and an undeniable elegance was the result.

Canal technology was perfectly suited to the early nineteenth century. Immigrants were employed to dig the ditches, to quarry the limestone on the hillsides along the projected waterway, to construct the kilns in which to burn the limestone into mortar, to sled the stone down the hills to line the ditch, and then to build the boats, locks, and bridges with timber from the surrounding forests. When the most successful American canal, the Erie, was inaugurated in 1825 with a voyage from Buffalo on Lake Erie across New York State to the Hudson River and thence down the Hudson to New York City, it reduced the time of transportation between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean by half. The cost of freight transport was so low—one-fifth that of transport by wagon—that the Erie remained in service for 100 years until it was replaced by the New York Barge Canal. Though the original canals have passed into history, they have left their mark on the landscape in the form of stonework and artifacts that exhibit the reserved functional aesthetic of the era.

The steam locomotive and railroads that followed the canals were somewhat higher on the technological ladder; whereas canal equipment was built of wood and stone with iron as a tectonic material, the railroads put iron first with wood and stone coal secondary. The first steam engines built for land locomotion were used primarily in the coal-mining industry to replace horse-drawn wagons on wood or metal rails. No practical passenger rail transportation was developed until the second quarter of the nineteenth century, by which time the steam engine had been reduced in size and made substantially safer. In 1829 the Manchester Railway, employing the locomotive Rocket built by George Stephenson, opened the first passenger steam railway in England, connecting the port of Liverpool with the cotton-manufacturing city of Manchester. Even though the United States had passed its first railway act in 1823, incorporating the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, the first locomotives to operate there were English: the Stourbridge Lion imported in 1829 and the John Bull in 1831. The first American locomotives were the Phoenix and the West Point, built in 1831 by the West Point Foundry. Once started, however, railroad systems spread rapidly across the country. By 1832, three years after the first locomotive was put into service, over 1,400 miles of railway had been laid and were in use, signaling the eventual eclipse of the canal systems in the United States.

Concord coaches were built from 1825 (when Louis Downing and J. Stephen Abbot began manufacture in the New Hampshire town that gave them their name) until they were displaced by steam trains and electric trolleys late in the century. Despite conventional associations with Western movies, they served best as the primary means of public conveyance on the post roads of the East. Harper’s Weekly, August 1870.


Fred Roschy’s carriage works at Petersburg in Clarion County, Pennsylvania, was equipped to produce a broad variety of the elegantly spare wagons and buggies of the era—the counterparts in transportation of Shaker furniture. Library of Congress.


In the early years of the nation, before overland turnpikes were joined into dependable roadways, rivers and canals provided the basic transportation arteries for people and their raw materials and finished products. The Kanawha Canal, which paralleled the James River in Virginia, was one of the most important. Harper’s Weekly.


George Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive initiated railroad transportation by winning a competition for the best steam locomotive to run on the new Manchester (England) railroad. On the same day, the Rocket ran over a bystander, causing the first railroad fatality. Byrn, The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century.


The “West Point” locomotive and its train of cars was among the first to be built and operated in the United States. This drawing, although ceremonial in character, illustrates the stark simplicity and dry elegance of the purely functional technological product. Smithsonian Institution.


M. W. Baldwin, one of the most successful American locomotive builders, started out as a jeweler who was commissioned to build a miniature steam locomotive for Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia. It is interesting to speculate that full-size locomotives may often have been no more than enlarged versions of the original models. This egg-before-the-chicken routine was encouraged by the fact that for many years the United States Patent Office required a model before allowing a patent.

As the first great means of land transportation based on technology, the locomotive became the principal symbol of the age much as the airplane was to become the symbol of the twentieth century. To some philosophers of the time, locomotives were man-made monsters, belching smoke and cinders to befoul the environment. Thoreau feared the railroad: “We do not ride upon the railroad, the railroad rides upon us.” To others, locomotives were dramatic symbols of man’s mastery over nature, space, and time. With greater distances to span than its European counterparts, the American locomotive became leaner, longer, and more powerful, with graceful form and a disposition of detail that “gave a finished appearance to the whole, sufficient to raise it to the dignity of a work of genuine art.” ([11], III, 322)

American locomotives were often decorated with oil paintings, gilt and brass trimmings, and cast-iron figures. This practice, which reached its zenith in the eloquent extravagance of the great steam-driven paddle-wheelers that were beginning to ply the inland American waterways, was to filter down to all labor-saving machines. Although the contribution of the artist-designer to the locomotive and other technology-based products added nothing to speed, dependability, or efficiency, it was indispensible to the pride of the builders and the expectation of the consumers. This practice of ornamentation is in no way different from the use of colorful “streamers” and extravagant graphic symbolism to decorate contemporary jet airliners. Nevertheless, beneath the costume of communication, there still remains the essential form of the product upon which the final communication between a man and his product depends. When the paint has worn off and when the trim and the decorative details have weathered away, the substantive meaning of the product is revealed. It is no different for the objects of technology than it is for other products of man.

There must have been hundreds of designers involved in the process of conceiving and refining the many utilitarian products that preoccupied early industry, but they were and remain essentially anonymous. In the young and virile democracy it was thought that everyone was, or may have been, a contributor to the evolution of a product. Only on rare occasions was a concept so historic and distinctive that its creator was entitled to public honor. And even then, as the painful trials of men like Eli Whitney, Samuel F. B. Morse, Elias Howe, and Cyrus McCormick illustrate, the rewards were tempered with anguish. It would seem that anonymity was then, and continues to be, part of the burden that designers must bear for their role in democratic utilitarian design. The products themselves were often more honored than their creators. They were held up to the public and unashamedly identified by titles that enhanced their images. Locomotives bragged about their power with names like Sampson and Champion, their speed with Flyer and Mercury, or their patriotism with Washington and America, and the great American clipper ships sped to glory with names like Hurricane and Lightning.

Of all of the transportation products of the mid-1800s, the clipper ship seems to have the greatest hold on the American imagination. (Witness the impact of the Tall Ships’ visit to New York harbor on July 4, 1976.) For 21 years in the middle of the nineteenth century these “canvas-backs,” in a final flash of eighteenth-century technology, were able to outrun every other vessel on the high seas—steam or wind driven.

The first locomotive Baldwin built was Old Ironsides, constructed in 1832 at his Philadelphia works. It provided service for more than 20 years at a top speed of 30 mph drawing a full train. Byrn, The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century.


Baldwin’s Tiger locomotive, offered for sale in 1856. URS-Coverdale & Colpitts.


Paddlewheelers along a New Orleans levee in 1860. Library of Congress, Eskew Collection.


Yet the designer of the clipper, John W. Griffiths, expressed concern over the fact that his first clipper, Rainbow, had been called beautiful. “We do not understand the import of the term ‘beauty,’” he observed in his Treatise on Marine and Naval Architecture. “We can give no other definition than the following: fitness for the purpose and proportion to effect the object designed.” Griffiths had extended the eighteenth-century French experiments in hydrodynamics into a theory that the traditional form of a ship’s hull was in error. Until Griffiths, it had been thought that the widest part of the hull should be well forward, the bow well rounded, and the stern narrow. This design had been based on the erroneous idea of designing ships after the lines of fish. Griffiths’s hull for the clipper turned the fishes’ proportions around, making the bow the narrowest part (with a negative curve and an overhanging deck) and moving the widest part of the beam aft of center. This philosophy of form in the interest of speed was lost on the early promoters of streamlined trains and automobiles in the early 1930s, who held up the teardrop or comet shape as the most aerodynamic form.

Griffiths had demonstrated once again that the ideal form of a product must be that which serves its purpose most efficiently, but could not quite accept the principle of design that finds beauty as the natural result of a clear solution to a problem. The leading proponent of this concept of beauty through function and of humility before the laws of nature was Horatio Greenough (1805–1852), a natural philosopher and essayist who, although he worked as a sculptor, would be remembered more for his aesthetic perception than the quality of his statues. He was a virtual expatriate who sensed from afar the cultural spirit in the American struggle for survival and dignified the insoluble bond between beauty and utility. Greenough was the spiritual example for Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the entire school of organic architects and functionalist designers who elected to solve problems by the most direct means and let beauty come when it may. In his essay on Aesthetics in Washington he complimented “the men who have reduced locomotion to its simplest elements, in the trotting wagon and the yacht, America” (the racing schooner that defeated the vessels of the Royal Yacht Squadron in a race off the Isle of Wight in 1851) as being “nearer to Athens at this moment than they who would bend the Greek temple to every use.” Greenough contended for “Greek principles, not Greek things.” “If a flat sail goes nearest wind,” he wrote, “a bellying sail, though picturesque, must be given up.” On carriage design, he wrote that “the slender harness and tall gaunt wheels are not only effective, they are beautiful—for they respect the beauty of a horse and do not uselessly task him.” ([40], 22) Greenough was pleased with his proof of the perfect adaptation of ships to their function. In his essay Travels of a Yankee Stonecutter he observed of figureheads on clipper ships “that the only part of the hull where function will allow a statue to stand without being in Jack’s way, is one where the plunge bath so soon demolishes it.” ([41], 179)

Donald McKay and John Griffiths were the most renowned designers of clipper ships. McKay’s Flying Cloud, built in East Boston in 1851, went on to set records for speed and performance under weather and was considered by many to be the most beautiful clipper. Museum of the City of New York, Harry T. Peters Collection.


The figurehead for the ship Edinburgh, carved in oak by John Rogerson, is representative of the attention paid by shipbuilders to a decorative detail that helped give a vessel her identity. Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art.


Horatio Greenough’s heroic portrait of George Washington as a noble Roman was created on an assignment from Congress to grace the Capitol in Washington. Its classical gesture and costume, as shown in this contemporary lithograph, were too much, even for Congress. Author’s collection.


Horatio Greenough set the foundation stones for the American design ethic with the eloquent proclamation “Beauty as the Promise of Function; Action as the Presence of Function; Character as the Record of Function.” ([40], 71) And, while apologizing for separating elements of a common principle, he took each as a phase through which organized intention passes to completeness. He contended that in absolute dedication to function was to be found the quintessence of beauty. Though Greenough himself had been caught up in the style of the moment when on order from Congress he had produced a heroic marble statue of George Washington half-clad in a Roman toga for the nation’s capital, he deplored the senseless application of style to architecture and called for an organic architecture whose external form would be determined by internal need. His primary concern was with the propriety of classical form applied to democratic architecture, and he was probably unaware of the dual revolution in the technology rather than the aesthetics of building that was underway by mid-century.

The first aspect of this revolution was a structural system conceived by carpenter-builders in the 1830s that depended upon power-sawn standardized lumber and standard nails produced by newly invented machinery. It reduced the art of building from cabinetry to carpentry by replacing pegged mortise-and-tenon joints with overlapping connections and diagonal bracing. The “balloon” system of building, as it was derisively referred to at the time, was originally intended as a convenient and cheap way to put up temporary shelters. However, balloon-framed buildings proved to be so strong and durable that the system displaced traditional methods. It was well-suited to the America of its time, with forests available for the cutting, powered machinery for cutting lumber and making nails, and low-cost immigrant labor that only needed to know how to saw a board and hammer a nail. Many new books showed the variety of buildings that were possible with the system, including Edward Shaw’s The Modern Architect (1855) and Lewis F. Allen’s book of designs for balloon-frame houses, Rural Architecture (1852). Allen supported his philosophy of structure by stating that good taste demands “a fitness to the purpose for which a thing is intended, … a harmony between its various parts,” and that any product of good taste would be “pleasing to the eye, as addressed to the sense, and satisfactory to the mind, as appropriate to the object for which it is required.” ([2], 48) The wooden houses of the United States combine eighteenth-century forms with nineteenth-century techology. They attracted worldwide attention in the 1860s and were even shipped in sections to be exhibited in European expositions as a curious complement to American native ingenuity. (It should be noted that, like most modular systems that promise infinite variation, balloon-framing has fallen victim to its own framework. It has resulted in a Gordian knot of specialized occupations, each coated with layers of defensive industry and government controls. Thus, any system that may have been conceived originally as an inspired methodology along the cutting edge of technology tends to become less flexible in time and slowly slips back to become a deterrent to progress in the very area that it served so brilliantly in the beginning.)

A second new building system came into being in 1842 when Daniel D. Badger erected a storefront in Boston from cast-iron sections. Cast iron had become a popular material for stoves, fountains, and garden furniture, and its architectural application opened the way for “a style of street architecture, as applied to retail shops, of a different character to that which now prevails, and which is in imitation of European modes alike of construction and decoration.” ([76], 264) James Bogardus of New York must be credited with building, in 1848, the first full building facade of cast iron using manufactured interchangeable parts. Again, the system was admirably suited to the technology of the times since it depended largely on low-cost, primarily immigrant labor to carve the wooden patterns, cast the molten iron, put the parts together, and then paint the whole to look as though it had been built of wood and stone. In 1856 Bogardus described its advantages: “Such a building may be erected with extraordinary facility and at all seasons of the year. No plumb is needed, no square, no level. As fast as the pieces can be handled they may be adjusted and secured by the most ignorant workmen. The building cannot fail to be perpendicular and firm.… It follows that, a building once erected, it may be taken to pieces with the same facility and dispatch.” ([12], 7)

Within a decade a controversy was raging among architects over the threat of manufactured buildings. A court case had just been won in which architecture had been acknowledged as a profession that commanded a fee, and members of the newly founded American Institute of Architects (1856) were understandably sensitive about their prerogatives in directing the course of architecture in America. On one side of the argument were those who saw any mechanized and industrialized method of building as a threat to the traditional arts of designing unique structures of stone and wood—particularly since the finished forms of the structures were in no obvious way different from the historic styles of architecture upon which they themselves depended for inspiration. On the other side were those who wanted the architects to participate in the new technology. Henry Van Brunt read a paper to the AIA that put forth this conviction: “This is called an Iron Age … for no other material is so omnipresent in all the arts of utility.… But architecture, sitting haughtily upon her Acropolis, has indignantly refused to receive it, or, receiving it, has done so stealthily and unworthily, enslaving it to basest uses, and denying honor and grace to its toil.” ([21], 79)

The balloon frame, so called because of the lightness of the structure, was apparently conceived around 1835 by George W. Snow of Chicago as a method of pre fabrication to take advantage of standardized lumber sizes, manufactured nails, and unskilled labor. After a century and a half it continues to dominate the building of private houses in the United States, despite repeated promises of mass-produced homes. Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The first full-sized building constructed from cast-iron standardized parts by James Bogardus was erected in 1848 at the corner of Centre and Duane Streets in New York. Museum of the City of New York.


Despite their innovative technology, these two new systems depended in part for acceptance upon prevailing architectural style. Balloon framing was (and still is) the preferred method for domestic architecture built primarily in the colonial style. And, although the cast-iron system evolved into the welded steel skeleton, commercial buildings continued for decades to be clothed in historic style.

The latter half of the nineteenth century was aptly called the Iron Age by Van Brunt. In its cast and wrought forms, iron was the most challenging building material of the time. Its potential was dynamically demonstrated by the main structure of the great International Exposition held in London in 1851.

The concept of industrial exhibitions was invented by the French in the aftermath of their revolution. When it was found that workmen were starving despite the fact that storehouses were filled with wares, the Marquis d’Aveze obtained permission to hold a public exhibition in the garden of the Maison d’Orsay in an attempt to sell the overstock. The success of the sale led to the first official exposition, held in 1798 in the Champs de Mars in a “Temple of Industry” erected for the purpose. The exhibition attracted particular attention by inaugurating a system of jury awards for excellence in design and workmanship. After that, national exhibitions were held for half a century, not only in France but also in other countries. Then, in 1849, when the French abandoned a recommendation to expand their fair to international status, the concept was picked up by the British.

In 1849 Prince Albert of England invited other countries to participate in an exhibition in which prizes would be awarded to outstanding work in four great divisions: raw materials, machinery and mechanical inventions, manufactures, and the plastic arts. After the original competition for an appropriate building failed to produce a structure deemed worthy of the scale of the exposition, it was decided to accept a daring new concept proposed by Joseph Paxton that was based on his experience with iron structures and glass in building greenhouses. The Crystal Palace was, in effect, an inspired modern adaptation of the traditional cruciform with its naves and transepts—”designed, however, in a new style of architecture; not massive, dark and somber, but light, graceful, airy and almost fairy-like in its proportions.… a true ‘Crystal Palace,’ and a noble example of the use of our modern material—iron—for building purposes.” The spectacular success of the exhibition, financially and otherwise, established the prototype for a series of similar international exhibitions that lasted well into the present century. The first several, including the first American Exhibition in 1853, featured unabashed copies of the Crystal Palace.

Although the London exhibition was meant to demonstrate the superior capability of the British, some critics warned that it had helped the foreigners, especially the Americans, more than the British.

The American products that were exhibited were criticized at first as being severe and even tasteless, with little or no ornamental value. The official catalog of the exhibition contained the following statements: “The expenditure of months or years of labour upon a single article, not to increase its intrinsic value but solely to augment its cost or its estimation as an object of virtu, is not common in the United States. On the contrary, both manual and mechanical labour are applied with direct reference to increasing the number or the quantity of articles suited to the wants of a whole people, and adapted to promote the enjoyment of that moderate competency which prevails among them.” ([76], 17) This was, at the very least, grudging admission that American manufactured products that were contrived to serve some specific human need were achieving respectability and a character that was distinct from those of other countries. American pianos, epergnes, carriages, and other aspirations to culture were passed over for ice-making machines, cornhusk mattresses, fireproof safes, meat biscuits, lifeboats, railroad switches, nautical instruments, artificial eyes and legs, and such technological wonders as Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber products, Samuel Colt’s revolver, and Cyrus McCormick’s reaper. The London Times, which had derided the reaper as “a cross between a flying machine, a wheelbarrow and an Astley chariot,” later acclaimed it more than any other product displayed: “The reaper will amply remunerate England for her outlay connected with the Great Exhibition.”

The great cast- and wrought-iron Crystal Palace in London was a dramatic prophecy of architecture of the future. The Palace was manufactured on the spot by a system of traveling scaffolding, with each element thoroughly tested to ensure its safety. Ewing Galloway.


An American carriage by Clapp and Son of Boston that was exhibited at the Crystal Palace. The English catalog cited this as a demonstration that the Americans were not “insensible to the luxuries and conveniences of life.” The Crystal Palace Exhibition Illustrated Catalogue.


A pianoforte designed and manufactured by Nunn and Clark of New York and shown at the Crystal Palace. Noted the catalog: “… as [the Americans’] wealth increases so also does their taste for the elegant and the beautiful and their desire to possess what will minister to the refinements of life.” The Crystal Palace Exhibition Illustrated Catalogue.


The American Chair Company of New York exhibited this novel rotating chair, whose seat was supported by flexible springs. The Crystal Palace Exhibition Illustrated Catalogue.


Charles Goodyear’s exhibition of hard India rubber goods at the Crystal Palace. Goodyear was caught up by the “India-rubber fever” in 1835, and determined to invent a process that would cure the material’s inability to withstand either cold or hot weather. He invented vulcanization by accident, launching an industry that in short order employed 60,000 and made over 500 different products. Boston Public Library.


The success of Samuel Colt’s revolving-barrel pistol was based not only upon Colt’s inventiveness but also upon his ability to reduce it to standardized parts for mass production. Reference 75.


Cyrus McCormick caught the fever of invention from his father and determined to develop a reaper superior to all others. By the time he was 22 he had demonstrated a machine that was six times more effective than cutting grain with a hand scythe. His invention won a grand prize in London and made him a millionaire before he was 40. State Historical Society of Wisconsin, McCormick Collection.


The rudest shock to British pride, however, was the victory of the yacht America, which “appeared among the English yachtmen like a phantom; so different in build and appointments from their own craft, that they at once came to the conclusion that if ‘she was right, they were all wrong’” ([75], 10), over the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes on August 23, 1851. Since that day, the America’s Cup has been displayed proudly in the New York Yacht Club, as American yachts have emerged victorious in every contest.

The London Times, characterized by Daniel Webster as “the bitterest, the ablest and the most Anti-American press in all Europe,” summarized the surprising achievements of the Americans a few weeks before the close of the exhibition:

It is beyond all denial that every practical success of the season belongs to the Americans. Their consignments showed poorly at first, but came out well on trial. Their reaping machine has carried conviction to the heart of the British agriculturalist. Their revolvers threaten to revolutionize military tactics as completely as the original discovery of gunpowder. Their yacht takes to a class to itself. Of all of the victories ever won, none has been so transcendant as that of the New York schooner. Besides this, the Baltic, one of the Collin’s line of steamers, has “made the fastest passage yet known across the Atlantic”.… So we think, on the whole, that we may afford to shake hands and exchange congratulations, after which we must learn as much from each other as we can. ([150], 4)

The London Observer summarized the manufacturing philosophy of the Americans as follows:

They produce for the masses, and for a wholesale consumption. There is hardly any thing shown by them which is not easily within the reach of the most moderate fortune. No Government of favoritism raises any manufacturers to a pre-eminence, which secures for it the patronage of the wealthy. Everything is entrusted to the ingenuity of individuals, who look for their reward in public demand alone. With an immense command of raw produce, they do not, like many other countries, skip over the wants of the many and rush to supply the luxuries of the few … they have turned their attention eagerly and successfully to machinery, as the first stage in their industrial progress. They seek to supply the shortcomings of their labor market, and to combine utility with cheapness. The most ordinary commodities are not beneath their notice.… ([75], 127)

The schooner America, designed and built by George Steers in 1851 for a group of members of the New York Yacht Club, raced and beat the Royal Yacht Squadron in her first trip across the Atlantic. Smithsonian Institution.


The U.S. mail steamship Baltic was built by the Novelty Iron Works of New York in 1850 for the Collins Line, and competed in a transatlantic race with the English Cunard Line. With government subsidies, Collins managed to break all records. However, high costs and ocean tragedies cost the Americans the race in the end. Reference 75.


Two years after the London Exhibition closed the British sent two observers, Joseph Whitworth, a technologist famous as a builder of machine tools, and George Wallis, the headmaster of a Government School of Art and Design in Birmingham, to New York City to visit the American “Crystal Palace” exhibition in order to report on the nature of American markets. Because the opening of the exhibition had been delayed, they elected instead to tour American cities and manufacturing centers. Their observations recognized the value of the American system of manufactures and signaled a counterflow of technical knowledge from the United States to Europe. Wallis in particular was impressed by the differences between American and European consumers and their effect on manufactures. He wrote that the American consumer typically expected an article to last for only a short time and was therefore more reluctant to pay a premium for either quality or durability. The tastes of American consumers were more homogeneous than those of Europeans and were concentrated at the low end of the quality spectrum. The taste for short-lived articles, Wallis reported, “is said to run through every class of society, and has, of course, a great influence upon the character of goods generally in demand, which … are made more for appearance, and less for actual wear and use, than similar goods are in England.” (76, 304) A taste bias in favor of homogeneous low-quality goods of short life expectancy was, of course, highly favorable to the introduction of mechanical techniques.

Whitworth and Wallis also observed that the Americans were reluctant to incur additional costs in ways that did not improve the efficiency of the final product in some narrowly defined utilitarian sense. While they commended the native ingenuity, energy, and perseverence in the development of machinery and utilitarian products, they deplored the cupidity of merchants who often force the manufacturer not only to copy foreign designs but also to mark the product with the name of the original maker. Their important report foreshadowed the development in the United States of a “common market” philosophy of products that was not to appear in Europe until the next century. Under it, manufactured products are generalized in character and adjusted in quality until they find the broadest market commensurate with public expectation, need, and ability to pay.

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