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Industrialization and the Good Life

Published onApr 22, 2021
Industrialization and the Good Life

With the gradual accumulation of wealth, the utilization of natural forces through the agency of machinery, and the great improvements in the means of transportation, the consuming power of the masses has also greatly increased, and many things which were only regarded as luxuries have come to be considered by even the humblest in the light of necessities.

David A. Wells, 1875 ([142], 721)

The centerpiece of the Centennial Exposition was the giant twin Corliss steam engine, which was put into operation by President Grant at the opening ceremony to power the miles of belts and thousands of pulleys that ran the exhibited machinery. In a portent of the future, this engine was also used to show that steam power could be used to generate electricity, even though the electric light (Edison, 1879) and the electric induction motor (Tesla, 1888) had yet to be invented.

Exhibits in Machinery Hall showed the latest refinements in the American System of Manufacture, demonstrating that a product designed for machine production could be made substantially less expensively than, and as well as, the best handmade product. The American Watch Company of Waltham, Massachusetts exhibited the process by which it was able to manufacture a watch that could be sold for a dollar. The American System, originated by Eli Whitney in the United States, was first applied to watchmaking in 1850 by Aaron Lufkin Dennison and proved to be a remarkable example of the application of mass manufacture to a vernacular product. It resulted in a near-perfect typeform for a watch that was of high quality and yet could be made available to everyone at a low cost. The following principles of mass production were laid out by the American Watch Company:

The product must at the onset be conceived to be better than its competition in order to gain and hold immediate market acceptance.

It must be designed especially for mass-production processes rather than hand manufacture.

Individual parts must be interchangeable, and they and all operating systems must be pretested to meet exacting predetermined standards of endurance and performance.

Time, space, facilities, and capital must be sufficient to support the volume of work and to sustain the organization until it becomes self-supporting.

Distribution methods, marketing structures, and advertising programs must be commensurate with projected production quantities.

Foreign observers were obliged to acknowledge that America’s progress in manufacturing technology would force them to change their own methods. As one of the Swiss commissioners to the United States wrote to his countrymen: “For a long time we have heard here of an American competition, without believing it. The skeptics, and there were many of them, denied the possibility of a competition at once so rapid and so important.… I sincerely confess that I personally had doubted that competition. But now I have seen—and I have felt it—and am terrified by the danger to which our industry is exposed.” ([210], 11) As a result of his expression of concern, the Swiss were forced to improve their watchmaking industry until it was once again in competitive balance with that of the Americans.

It was evident that the design of products for mass production would have to observe rules of economy in materials and labor and in efficiency and dependability of service that would result in a machine aesthetic distinct from that of industrial-arts products. Wrote James Jackson Jarves in 1864: “We do not disparage the mechanical arts. They are as honorable as they are useful. Whenever our mechanics confine themselves to those utilitarian arts the knowledge of which is their professional study, they make their work as perfect of its kind as that of any other people. But when they seek to superadd beauty, a new principle comes into play, which requires for its correct expression not only a knowledge of aesthetic laws, but a profound conviction of their value.” ([48], 233) In this Jarves was reacting against a presumption that was as troublesome to designers in his time as it is today: that a utilitarian object that is manufactured can be given a cloak of aesthetic respectability with applied ornamentation and stylistic mannerisms. He did not doubt that “the American, while adhering closely to his utilitarian and economical principles, has, unwittingly, in some objects to which his heart equally with his hand been devoted, developed a degree of beauty in them that no other nation equals.” ([49], 323) In this respect for a machine-made utilitarianism he was reflecting the position of moralists like Ruskin, who argued that art, like nature and life, must be sincere, and rationalists like Lamarck and Darwin, who proposed theories of organic evolution as a struggle of an organism against the environment to evolve from a lower to a higher state of being. The heart of the theory was the proposition that every product, natural or man-made, was in effect a typeform and acquired beauty to the degree to which it approached the perfection of its species. Jarves believed with Emerson that the objects that man makes acquire aesthetic value because they spring irresistably from the wants and ideas of a people. Horatio Greenough, before him, had propounded the same philosophy and had discounted the notion that the form of the products of the mechanics was either accidental or inexpressive: “No! It is the dearest of all styles! It costs the thought of men, much, very much thought, untiring investigation, ceaseless experiment. Its simplicity is not the simplicity of emptiness or of poverty, its simplicity is that of justness, I had almost said, of justice.” ([41], 172)

Despite the observations of Greenough, Jarves, Emerson, and a handful of other Americans, it was the Europeans who sensed that a new design ethic was emerging in American utilitarian products. It was European visitors to the Centennial Exposition who, by comparing American products with their own clumsier equivalents, were able to develop a rationalistic theory of design based on utility. For example, one German observer at the fair wrote of the vernacular products that were exhibited: “The hatchets, hoes, axes, hunting knives, wood knives, sugar cane knives, garden knives, etc., are of a variety and beauty which leave us speechless with admiration.… on every hand we are met with the results of serious research and we are astonished to see how much our own well known tools could be improved.… Again and again we see examples of how American industry in its progress breaks with all tradition and takes new paths which seem to us fantastic.” ([78], 169) Later in the nineteenth century the principle of form as the result of function would become the rallying doctrine for functionalism, and in the next century it would be degraded into a functionalistic dogma with all of the presumptions of truth claimed by the earlier prophets.

The “dollar” pocket watch became a typeform for the product as well as an international symbol of the fact that American products could be made by machinery from inexpensive materials and yet were equal in functional quality to the more expensive foreign competition, and dramatically lower in cost Collections of the Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan.


Despite the success of the “dollar” watch, the American Watch Company found it necessary to advertise the fact that multiple manufacturing increased, rather than decreased, the accuracy and dependability of its products. G. & D. Cook & Company’s Illustrated Catalog of Carriages and Special Business Advertiser.


The general public was not concerned with such lofty notions as the relationship of function to form or the inherent aesthetic of manufactured objects—it was simply overwhelmed by the flood of affordable machine-made products that promised to improve material existence. People were flattered by the realization that inventors were exploring every advance in technology that might be of service to them and that manufacturers were catering to their needs and desires. Although at the Centennial Exposition most of the utilitarian products were relegated to the Wagon and Carriage Annex of the main building, the public searched out and absorbed with hungry eyes the precursors of today’s major appliances and an exhaustive array of ingenious smaller conveniences for the home. Among the gadgets were apple corers, ridiculed some years earlier by the English as “the last comical vagary of the funny and awkward American cousin.” Other devices shown, according to Harper’s, included “the almond-peeler, pea and bean shellers, peach and cherry stoners, raisin-seeders, bread and cheese cutters, butter-workers, sausage grinders and stuffers, coffee-mills, corn-poppers, cream-freezers, dish-washers, egg-boilers, flour-sifters, flat-irons, knife-sharpeners and lemon-squeezers.” The article went on: “Nor must the washing-machine, another strictly American notion, be disregarded. There are hundreds of patents. The typical forms are few; the variations on these forms are most amusingly numerous. The ins and outs of invention have been wonderfully diversified.…” ([141], 374)

The dominant domestic appliance of the 1800s was the cast-iron cooking stove, whose typeform had been established earlier in the century by Hoxie (1812) and James (1815). Within a few years there were many manufacturers competing with one another not only in functional innovation but also in rococo decoration, which was to persist well into the twentieth century. The Whitworth and Wallis report of 1854 on American manufactures documented the American stove’s unique combination of technology, function, and aesthetics:

Much ingenuity is often displayed in the arrangement of the parts of a stove, and the adaptation of the decoration to strengthen and sustain those portions requiring the greatest amount of metal. Great efforts are made after novelty, alike in construction, ornamentation and in name, for every stove has a distinct title by which it is known in the market; and the euphony of some of these is often more amusing than appropriate.… There is, however, a wide field for a better style than as yet prevails, and as an absolute necessity exists for a certain amount of decoration of surface alike to strengthen the panels, sustain the angles, and hide defects in casting, which would be too apparent on a mere plane surface, the ornamentation adopted often partakes of the character of an excrescence rather than of a decorative adjunct. ([76], 267)

(Although the first gas stove had already appeared on the market by 1850, several decades after illumination by gas had been demonstrated in Baltimore, fuel supply lines were still not extensive enough to threaten the dominance of the coal-fired stove for cooking and heating.)

The most significant domestic appliance to come out of the nineteenth century was the sewing machine. European inventors had already done their share when the American Walter Hunt invented the first practical lock-stitch machine in 1833. Although Hunt manufactured and sold his machines, he refused (like Benjamin Franklin and Oliver Evans before him) to obtain a patent. As a Quaker, he was concerned about the “economic morality” of his contraption for fear that its introduction would injure the “interests of hand sewers.” ([152], 36) It remained for Elias Howe, Jr., to invent and patent, in 1846, the basic design that became the mechanical typeform for the sewing machine. (Although Howe earned over a million dollars from the manufacture of his machine, it was Isaac Singer who achieved fame and whose name became virtually synonymous with “sewing machine.”)

These mechanical drawings of apple corers, from Edward H. Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary (1876) illustrate the nineteenth-century Americans’ preoccupation with invention.


This mechanical cake-batter mixer, made around 1865, shows some knowledge of clockwork mechanisms. Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art.


The insectlike character of this cherry pitter results quite naturally from the carved wooden patterns from which the cast-iron elements were made. It was patented in 1863. Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art.


The “Uncle Sam” range, promoted in the centennial year, proposed to feed the world. Its “beauty of design” was said to be unsurpassed. Library of Congress.


Isaac Singer’s patent for a sewing machineissued in 1851, was the first to include the final two features necessary for satisfactory operation: the presser foot and the ability to sew in a straight or a curved line. The crude shipping box served as a table for the machine and a housing for the treadle. Reference 9.


The sewing machine did more than any other product of the time to liberate women from domestic drudgery. At the same time, it industrialized the manufacture of garments, providing paid employment for thousands of women. In other words, it freed one class of women from interminable hours of slavery to needle and thread at the same time as it tied another class of women, mostly immigrants, to clothing factories. Good ready-made clothing became available to everyone at a cost of one-sixth of the time and energy required by hand sewing. And now that clothes were cheaper, the public was willing to exchange durability and service for style and fashion. This increased the demand for new clothing, encouraged further industrialization, and stimulated the distribution, promotion, and merchandising of the newly designed fashions that were created for each coming season. The Easter parade and the rush for back-to-school garments certainly owe their origins to the sewing machine.

The Singer Company, the major manufacturer of sewing machines, had its own pavilion at the Centennial Exposition celebrating the fact that, scarcely more than 25 years after Howe’s patent, 600,000 machines a year were being manufactured (a third of them by Singer) and sold in the United States and abroad.

Even more significant than the sewing machine itself may have been the merchandising system that was devised by the Singer Company to put a sewing machine into every American home. The system was in perfect harmony with the need of an industry that is tuned to high-volume production to convince a cautious public to purchase its products. It introduced the three basic principles of mass marketing. First, overcome public resistance. Singer accomplished this by setting up demonstration agencies that employed women in order to overcome the prejudice of the time that women were too stupid to be trusted with machines. Second, give something away. The company announced that it would take in any machine or even a substantial part of a machine at a trade-in value of half of the purchase price of a new one. This was a remarkable offer, in light of the fact that Singer sewing machines sold at retail for $100 at a time when the average American income was only $500 a year. And third, spread the payments out. The Singer Company introduced instalment purchasing on a national scale. Though the size of the payments was carefully adjusted to be within the buyer’s ability to pay, the company was able to charge an interest fee on the remaining debt, thus earning a profit over and above the physical value of the product. Thus the Singer Company, in the area of domestic appliances, closed the operational triangle of the American system of manufactures—mass production, mass distribution, and mass consumption. This system demands that the industrial designer be responsive to its three measures, production, distribution, and consumption. One of these elements without the others is impossible in the American economic system.

The Thompson factory in New York employed as many as 1,000 girls and 500 machines to manufacture as many as 90,000 hoop skirts a month. Under exhortations to “strive to excel” a girl could, it was said, earn $4 a week. Harper’s Weekly, 1859.


Ready-made clothing for gentlemen became the fashion when the sewing machine reduced the time it took to sew a frock coat from 17 hours to less than 3. A gentleman’s shirt took an hour to make instead of the previous 13 hours. By the time of the Civil War, some 100,000 operators were employed in the industry. Harper’s Weekly.


The sewing machine was emblematic of the explosive fervor of invention and the great rush to industrialization that characterized the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and it dramatically modified the lives and the economic and social values of the American public. It served to demonstrate, as the latest link in the modern clothing system that had begun with Whitney’s cotton gin and Slater’s mill, that every product is only one component in a larger system of human service, and that any change in one component in the system will force a compensatory modification in the other components. Though it should be presumed that the components in a system will strive constantly to achieve perfection, it is also true that any unchallenged downward movement will pull the entire system down to a lower level of quality. It is evident that human beings, who are also components in every system that serves them, are monitors of those systems. If they accept lower quality in any product, their choice will draw the system to a lower level; if they demand higher quality, they will get it. Thus, it is fair to say that in a free and open economy the consuming public gets what it desires and deserves.

Alexis de Tocqueville had observed in Democracy in America that the Americans were content to remain in a state of “accomplished mediocrity” because, in order to provide everyone rather than a select few with commodities, “the artisan in a democracy strives to invent methods which will enable him not only to work better, but cheaper and quicker; or, if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic qualities of the thing he makes, without rendering it wholly unfit for the use for which it is intended.” “Thus,” he wrote, “the democratic principle not only tends to direct the human mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with great rapidity a quantity of imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.” ([86], II, 58) There was no way that Tocqueville, perceptive as he was, could have foreseen that true mass production, with its computer-driven logic and automation, can only produce products of high quality if they are made in high volume and high speed in dehumanized manufacturing systems.

The Singer company invited all 4,000 of its employees to attend a special celebration at its building at the Centennial Exposition. Reference 59.


This trade card was used to promote the Singer sewing machine, ca. 1885. The machine is still manufactured in Japan with the same sphinx decoration under the trade name “Mercedes,” and in India under the name “Merritt.” Author’s collection.


The reverse of the same trade card showed a happy family at home with its Singer machine, and (most important) suggested that a young girl could operate the machine without fear. Author’s collection.


This advertisement for the “Domestic” sewing machine (ca. 1885) showed newlyweds thrilled with their acquisition. Library of Congress.


Tocqueville was convinced that a democracy under the guise of freedom of opportunity gave every man the opportunity to prey on his neighbor: “Handicraftsmen of democratic ages endeavor not only to bring their productions within the reach of the whole community, but they strive to give to all their commodities attractive qualities which they do not in reality possess. In the confusion of all ranks everyone hopes to appear what he is not, and makes great exertions to succeed in this object. This sentiment, indeed, which is but too natural to the heart of man, does not originate in the democratic principle; but that principle applies to material objects. To mimic virtue is of every age; but the hypocrisy of luxury belongs more particularly to the ages of democracy” ([86], II, 59)

Tocqueville also noted the following: “Materialism is, amongst all nations, a dangerous disease of the human mind; but it is more especially to be dreaded amongst a democratic people, because it readily amalgamates with that vice which is most familiar to the heart under such circumstances. Democracy encourages a taste for physical gratification: this taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is matter only; and materialism, in turn, hurries them back with mad impatience to these same delights, such is the fatal circle within which democratic nations are driven round.” ([86], II, 173) Americans have been much abused for their presumed materialism. Though the criticism may not be without some justification, materialism may be taken as a token of their victory over a hostile environment and as a symbol of their emancipation from intractable political systems. It may be argued that Americans are advancing to a state of post-materialism, in which condition they are entitled by law and economics to the comfort and security made possible by modern technology. Thus, a commitment to provide the general public with what it needs and wants may be taken as a democratic base for large-scale production. In his introduction to Democracy in America John Stuart Mill called particular attention to the statement on the American preoccupation with public service: “It would seem as if every imagination in the United States were on the stretch to invent means of increasing the wealth and satisfying the wants of the people.

The best-informed inhabitants of each district constantly use their information to discover new truths which may augment the general prosperity; and, if they have made any such discoveries, they eagerly surrender them to the mass of the people. I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare … the free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society … Men attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice: what was intentional becomes an instinct; and by dint of working for the good of one’s fellow citizens, the habit and taste of serving them is at length acquired.” ([86], II, 127)

The rapid industrialization of America was made possible by the expansion of a middle class that saw in industry a fountain of manufactured plenty that would elevate it to the level of culture and convenience of the aristocracy. The middle class claimed the right to own a completely detached home; the privilege of equipping the home with furnishings, furniture, appliances, and services reflecting owner’s taste; the promise of an income that would permit the purchase of these products, with a little to spare; the assurance of enough leisure time to share experiences once reserved for the upper classes (vacation, travel, recreation, entertainment, and cultural advancement); and indulgence in style and fashion in personal care, costume, domestic furnishings, and other manifestations of a better life. That many of these pleasures were machine-made and promoted by cultural surrogates was not so important as the fact that their acquisition represented a step up the ladder of status and recognition.

In 1869 the sisters Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe published a small, somewhat idealized book, The American Woman’s Home, as a “Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful and Christian Homes.” It had three fundamental purposes: to strike a rather cautious blow for the liberation of women, to prove that a woman could run her home on scientific principles that were as valid as those that occupied her husband’s professional time, and to demonstrate that the well-planned home of a middle-class family could be managed without the servants that were necessary in the larger homes of the rich. “At the present time,” they wrote, “America is the only country where there is a class of women who may be described as ladies who do their own work. By a lady we mean a woman of education, cultivation and refinement, of liberal tastes and ideas, who, without any very material addition or changes, would be recognized as a lady in any circle of the Old World or New. The existence of such a class is a fact peculiar to American society, a plain result of the new principles involved in the doctrine of universal equality.” ([9], 307)

The Beecher sisters proposed that the status of women could be elevated if the public schools were to offer them Domestic Science courses on the same academic level as the professions of men. The result, they envisioned, would be homes designed to provide “modes of economising time, labor and expense by the close packing of conveniences.” “By such methods,” they wrote, “small and economical houses can be made to secure most of the comforts and many of the refinements of large and expensive ones.” ([9], 463) They believed, some decades before Corbusier and others were given credit for the idea, that the true source of emancipation for women lay in the concept of the home as a domestic machine that was planned along scientific lines, with personal care, nutrition, education, and cultural needs to be served by organized methods. As a result inventors and manufacturers began to look upon the middle-class home as a lucrative market for labor-saving devices.

The concept of the home as a family-run food factory, essentially rural, with its icehouse, well-house, milkhouse, smokehouse, washhouse, and root cellar supplied by a vegetable garden, an arbor, an orchard, a cow barn, a pig pen, a chicken run, a corn crib, and a hay barn, was transformed into its urban equivalent by the invention of the glass preserve jar (Mason, 1858) and the tin can (Wilson, 1875). The ice-making machine (Gorrie, 1851) made possible the refrigerated railroad car (David, 1868), which carried fresh meat from Chicago, bananas from the Gulf of Mexico, and fruit and salmon from California to the rest of the country and led to a need for domestic refrigerators, which substantially reduced the housewife’s trips to the market. In short order, the extension of water and sanitary systems to urban and near-urban homes encouraged the development of washing machines and sanitary appliances. And when gas lines were laid and electric wires strung to these same homes, the way was clear for domestic heating, cooking, and lighting appliances and an avalanche of other products for work and entertainment.

The dynamic expansion of all manufactures was entirely in harmony with a population increase from 25 to 75 million between 1850 and 1900. In large measure the increase was due to the great influx of immigrants who were attracted to the United States not only by the opportunity to work in the expanding industries but also by the hope of sharing in their cornucopia of products as members of the new middle class. It was natural that during this period the working population of the country would shift to a post-agricultural state, as fewer than half would be needed on the farms to produce food and fiber for all.

The inevitable result of this increase and shift in population was a general decline in the traditionally close relationship between the production and the consumption of products and services. As a result, a distinct consumer class began to emerge that was aware of the need to look to its own welfare. It began to recognize that it had an obligation to use its power to control the quality of its purchases and the conditions under which they were manufactured. The manufacturing establishment in turn realized that, with increasing consumer action and sharpening competition, it would have to plan and launch promotional campaigns to attract the sympathetic attention and the continued loyalty of its prospective segment of the consuming public. The costs of such advertising, as well as the rights of the buying public to select from a great variety of alternatives and to expect related services (such as home deliveries, orders by mail, and payment on an installment plan), would have to be borne by the consumers themselves. Experience has since demonstrated that there is a significant correlation between the volume of advertising and the high material standard of living in the common-market atmosphere of the United States.

The American practice of promoting products directly to the public gave rise in the 1860s to the development of advertising agencies such as N. W. Ayer and Son of Philadelphia and J. Walter Thompson of New York. By the time of the centennial, N. W. Ayer was able to claim that his agency could place advertising for a client in any newspaper in the United States and Canada.

Although the earliest newspaper advertisement in America appeared in 1704, advertising did not become an important factor in publishing until 1784, when the Pennsylvania Packet and Advertiser in Philadelphia was obliged to begin daily publication in order to meet the demands of prospective advertisers. This established the model for most newspapers that depend primarily on revenues from advertising, and in the next 100 years there was a phenomenal growth in the number of dailies (aided by the introduction of wood pulp into papermaking, by the modification of Hoe’s rotary printing press to print directly from a roll of paper, and by the development of Bullock’s high-speed web press). Printing costs dropped even more after 1885, when Mergenthaler introduced his linotype machine.

The growth of newspapers was paralleled by a rapid rise in the number of periodicals (from 1,200 in 1870 to some 2,400 in 1880) when they, too, began to carry advertising. Newspapers and periodicals are still the primary means of carrying detailed information about goods and services to the American public. The news that is printed and the essays that are presented often seem secondary to the dissemination of marketing information.

The increase in manufactures and the improvements in promotional media also stimulated the development of new methods of merchandising that essentially displaced the traditional over-the-counter sales of country and general stores. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, which imported and retailed tea, coffee, and spices in the 1850s, grew into the A&P system of full-service grocery stores. Frank Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent stores (the first successful one opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1879) sold notions over open counters that, in a preview of today’s self-service stores, invited the customer to handle the merchandise prior to purchase.

Before industrialization, merchandise was carried to isolated villages and farmhouses by peddlers, and the availability of items was limited to what the peddler carried or what he remembered to bring the next time around. Then, after the Civil War, as the volume and the variety of products increased dramatically, the mail-order marketing system was born when Montgomery Ward launched his enterprise in 1872 with a single-sheet catalog. Before Montgomery Ward, sales by advertisement had been made only by occasional notices placed in magazines like Allen’sPeople’s Literary Companion, or Harpers Weekly. Other retailers, among them R. H. Macy and John Wanamaker, had also tried to establish mail-order businesses, without success. R. W. Sears parlayed his mail-order watch business of 1886 into his first catalog in 1891, and shortly afterwards joined with Roebuck to form the major mail-order company of the coming century.

The frontispiece for The American Woman’s Home pictured her as the central figure in three generations of domestic felicity. Reference 9.


The idealized home of Catherine Beecher called for a central stove room on the first floor that could be closed off from the rest of the house. Fresh air was to be brought in to supply the main stove and the two Franklin stoves. Reference 9.


The Beecher sisters claimed that their stove could, with one ordinary coal-hod of anthracite, keep “running for twenty-four hours, keep seventeen gallons of water hot at all hours, bake pies and puddings in the warm closet, heat flat-irons under the back cover, boil tea-kettle and one pot under the front cover, bake bread in the oven, and cook a turkey in the tin roaster in front.” Reference 9.


The Beecher kitchen work area, as well organized as a modern continuous-surface kitchen, provided for food preparation on one side and serving and cleaning up on the other. Reference 9.


Mason’s jar took domestic food preservation beyond the established methods. Mason was unable to protect his invention because it had been marketed publicly for more than a year before he filed for a patent. Collections of Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan.


J. A. Wilson invented a method by which meat could be preserved indefinitely. The tin can shape that he patented in 1875 continues to be made in the same form and has become generic to the corned beef product that it contains. U. S. Patent 161, 848, April 6, 1875.


There were hundreds of patents issued over the years for a mechanically operated washing machine that would displace the scrubbing board. The Cataract washer advertised in G. & D. Cook & Company’s Illustrated Catalog of Carriages and Special Business Advertiser of 1869 was one such machine.


The Home Washing Machine, manufactured in 1864, seems to have come closer to the typeform than many of the others. One geared crank worked a paddled wheel through the clothes, and another crank operated the wringer. Library of Congress.


The back roads and rural communities of America were served for many years by peddlers, who brought small domestic accessories, fabrics, and other products to the country housewife. Harper’s Weekly.


The first Woolworth five-and-dime store, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1879, F. W. Woolworth Company


Department stores, which have aptly been called the children of the machine age, could not have come into being without Otis’s 1852 development of safe elevators to move people and products about, without improved means of communication and promotion, and without the cash register (Ritter, 1879), the adding machine (Burroughs, 1885), and the Addressograph (Duncan, 1892). R. H. Macy in New York and Marshall Field in Chicago opened this new chapter in the history of merchandising when they began to departmentalize their dry-goods stores in the 1860s, and Jordan Marsh of Boston transformed his wholesale house into a departmentalized retail store in 1861. The department stores became glittering showcases of plenty as slender cast-iron columns replaced thick masonry walls to create uncluttered interior spaces and large show windows to display the products of industrialization. In 1877 John Wanamaker convinced Thomas Edison to install an early electric lighting system in his store. (When the lights were turned on for the first time, it is said, crowds gathered in the street outside the store to watch it blow up.)

If one half of industrialization comprised industry itself, the appropriate machinery, and the transportation system needed to move raw materials and finished products, the other half was business, including the promotion and sale of the products and the management of the enterprise. Managers emerged as a distinct occupational class that provided the controls and records that were essential to manufacturing and distribution, and also the management of commodities and services that supported an industrial economy. Management found its place not at the factories (which were best located near transportation, raw materials, and energy sources), but rather in efficient and economical office buildings located in urban centers.

It was Chicago, more than New York, that provided the major opportunity for architects and builders to conceive structures that could be erected quickly in a form that was particularly suited to the needs of business. While the Eastern establishment was preoccupied with the Beaux Arts style, the younger architects of mid-America, perhaps stimulated by the need to rebuild Chicago quickly after its great fire of 1871, seemed to be determined to create an original American environmental character that was free of the stultifying traditions of the Old World. Yet, curiously enough, the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago would be cast in eclectic European styles, and one of the first great architectural competitions of the century to come would result in the Wrigley Building, which concealed its steel skeleton in a costume of skyscraper gothic. More than likely the historical garment served as a cultural disguise until an urban public could become familiar with the presence of the tall intruders in its midst.

Despite these aesthetic aberrations, the new architecture in Chicago was based upon the potential of steel. The Bessemer process of steel-making (1856) had reduced the cost of rolled steel sections to less than one-fifth of their original price and made it an ideal material for structures that would not only be less expensive but also lighter and easier and quicker to build. Moreover, it was discovered that a steel frame encased in concrete (also a new material to large buildings in America) would be essentially fireproof. The steel skeleton, pioneered by William le Baron Jenney to complete the top floors of the Home Insurance Building in Chicago (1885), became the primary method of construction not only for business buildings but also for railway terminals, hotels, factories, and public buildings. A framework of steel and iron covered with sheets of hammered copper was engineered by Gustav Eiffel for the Statue of Liberty, France’s centennial gift to America. The second great monument of the nineteenth century, John Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge over the East River in New York (opened in 1883), depended upon strands of high-tensile steel wire to hold up the roadways. Steel, an engineered material that depended upon industrial methodology, had become essential for large structures, whose walls were transformed into curtains to become more of a burden to a structure than its support.

Advances in communication also benefited the business world. The Pony Express—a costly and unwieldy experiment that lasted only from April 1860 to October 1861—was abandoned not because of the hazards on its route between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, but because telegraph service was extended from coast to coast. Five years later, Cyrus M. Field’s transatlantic cable inaugurated dependable telegraph service between the United States and England. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone caught on quickly after it was demonstrated at the Centennial Exposition, and within a year there were 1,300 commercial telephones in use. Three years later 50,000 telephones were in service, providing businessmen with immediate voice communication from office to office and building to building. The typewriter (Sholes, 1867)—which had also been demonstrated at the Centennial Exposition by Philo Remington, who purchased the patent from Sholes—attracted enough attention as a business machine to open the male bastion of business to women, who were employed as secretary-typists. And then an avalanche of paper copies was set loose when Thomas Edison invented the mimeograph machine in 1876. Punch-card accounting (Hollerith, 1884) completed the rout of male stand-up bookkeepers. Even Waterman’s fountain pen (1884), hailed at the time as a personalized writing machine, added to the technological revolution in business.

The inventions and the subsequent industrialization of the latter half of the nineteenth century would not have been possible without the combination of the assured aristocracy of the upper class with the assumed aristocracy of the middle class and the aspirations of the lower class. Only after a large enough base of consumption had been established was it possible to justify the construction and operation of complex interdependent product and service systems (such as those required for domestic, business, and industrial purposes) or of transportation systems. The national railroad systems that were developed during this period depended upon a national effort in which all classes participated and from which everyone would benefit. After the invention of the air brake (Westinghouse, 1868) and the completion of the transcontinental link at Promontory Point in Utah (1869), thousands of travelers, rich and poor, abandoned the canal packets, the riverboats, and the prairie schooners for the railroads. Although the river steamboat did its best to hold onto its first place in American travel, its fate was sealed, as would be that of the railroads half a century later when scheduled air travel began. Such riverboats as were left were obliged to depend upon the romance of their appointments to justify survival. “This magnificent triumph of sculpturesque beauty,” an advertisement for one proclaimed, “wedded to the highest grade of mechanical skill … must be as rococo in its upholsterings as a bed-chamber of Versailles—must gratify every sense, consult every taste, and meet every convenience.” ([151], 81) Nevertheless, steam locomotion, whether by water or land, depended upon all classes for support, and irrespective of the quality of the ride or the luxury of the accommodations the schedule for all was the same (much as in modern air travel, in which “coach” and first-class passengers arrive at the same time).

In urban and suburban areas, rail cars drawn by horses and mules were the major means of public transport. In 1884 Van Depoele developed the electric trolley car, which was successfully put into public service in 1886 on the Scranton Suburban Railway, but in 1890 the American cities were still using 105,000 horses and mules to pull 28,000 cars along 6,600 miles of track, helping to expand the cities as the people moved out to suburbs along the rail lines.

Signs of the coming automotive age were everywhere. The first commercially productive oil well was drilled near Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 by Edwin L. Drake, and in 1872 George Brayton developed his first gasoline-driven engine. Newark, New Jersey, paved the first asphalt street in 1870. George Seldon filed the first American patent application for an automobile in 1879. He was wise enough, however, to manage somehow to delay its issuance until 1895, when the essential mechanical components of the vehicle and the environmental and economic components of the system were in place and he had put together a coalition of American manufacturers that would hold a near monopoly over the manufacture of automobiles for more than a decade.

Only the torch-bearing arm of the Statue of Liberty, France’s centennial gift to America, was finished in time for the Philadelphia exposition. Nevertheless, it was a major attraction. The designer was Frederick August Bertholde. Reference 59.


Proposals to span New York’s East River with a bridge had been put forth since 1811, but it was not until the development of steel cables that the long-span wire suspension bridge became possible. The Brooklyn Bridge, designed by John Roebling, was opened to the public in 1883. Its gothic towers are often ignored in the drama of its modern wire webbing. Author’s collection.


Introduced in 1876, the telephone rapidly became an essential part of everyday business. Its wires, together with telegraph and electrical cables, spread across the streets and the countryside. Today such signs of technological progress are seen as visual pollution and are being displaced by underground or wireless systems. New York Historical Society.


By the turn of the century, the telephone had become indispensible not only to the business world but also to personal life. Its typeform has changed twice since then and is now changing again. Library of Congress.


The typewriter opened the world of business to women. This basic configuration was patented by C. L. Sholes in 1867 and sold to Philo Remington in 1873. Only recently has this typeform left its plateau for the new forms made possible by the computer. Culver Pictures, Inc.


An advertisement for the steamships of the People’s Evening Line, lithographed by Currier and Ives in 1878. The Drew and the St. John are shown passing each other on the Hudson River between Albany and New York. Courtesy of The Mariners Museum, Newport News, Va.


The saloons of the steamships were open spaces not unlike the malls and hotel lobbies of today. Their elaborate appointments have yet to be surpassed. Some called them “floating palaces.” Courtesy of The Mariners Museum, Newport News, Va.


Charles J. Van Depoele’s electric streetcar grew out of his experience in woodworking and electrical arc lighting. Power was supplied by a small trolley that was pulled along by the car on an overhead wire. Van Depoele’s Scranton trolley ran 100 miles a day at 12 mph. Electrical World, December 1866.


The open trolley provided escape from the heat of a city summer—often to picnic grounds or amusement parks located at the city’s edges. Robert L. Weichert collection.


George B. Selden’s patent for a “road engine” was ignored by Henry Ford, who went ahead with his own automobile in apparent violation. By the time the courts ruled in favor of Ford, its period of monopoly had run out. U.S. Patent 549, 160, November 5, 1895.


However, the automobile as the predominant means of transportation would have to wait until the next century, when a system of public highways would be built. For the time being, urban and nationwide railways dominated transportation and hastened the cultural homogenization of the Americans. The acquisition of land for the railroads, the control of the ores and forests, the manufacture of steel for the rails, and the building of the trains created an aristocracy of wealthy Easterners who would turn to the Beaux-Arts as evidence of their cultural ascendancy.

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