Thursday 12 July 2012

I've been spending some time researching the USA and planning my summer trip there. In preparation I've been reading a lot of material on American economics and US industry. For those interested, my favourites so far have been Daniel Nelson's Managers and Workers (1975) and Jo Ann E. Argersinger's Towards A New Deal in Baltimore (1988). I've also been looking into the Pulitzer Prize-winning business historian Alfred Chandler, whose works have been highly influential over the last four decades. His work celebrated the emergence of the American corporation as the pinnacle of business achievement, which other firms and countries ought to have been emulating. This is an interesting thesis, although I think that current events in the financial world might have brought this claim into question. Even so, recent works such as H.W. Brands' American Colossus (2010) have still focused on post-civil war America as the roaring crucible in which the USA (and by extension, the twentieth century) was forged.

 

Symbolic: legend has it that the Colossus at Rhodes was the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty.

  

All-American Colossus: At some point both Greece and the USA have been economic colossi but only one is still a global big-hitter. Nevertheless, are we using the correct indices of success?

 

Anyone reading this will know that I closely engage with the idea of British post-war industrial decline. This decline is then usually projected backwards into earlier periods, and signposts towards post-war decline are detected and explained. This is a teleological approach which I attempt to counter. It's been interesting spotting discussions of decline related to the USA, particularly at this talk I attended last year at the LSE given by Joseph Nye in which he observed, that, like in the British case, this decline is relative rather than absolute. Nevertheless, if we look at twentieth century British industrial regionalism, the pattern of both firms and workers moving south and east is difficult to ignore.

Southern comfort: business historians such as Peter Scott have explored industrial restructuring within Britain itself. It has to be remembered that twentieth-century industrial history isn't all about the emergence of globalisation.  

Many of the places I will be visiting in the much-discussed American Rust Belt are depopulated, post-industrial shadows of their former thriving selves. I've experienced something similar (although on a smaller scale) in areas of Britain I've been visiting for research over the past two years. Cities I've visited like Salford, Kirkcaldy, Dundee, plus areas of Glasgow and Edinburgh were seriously hit by the shift away from domestic industrial production, and it shows. It's not unusual to find factories, residential streets, and even entire industrial districts which closed in the 1960s and 70s and are now devoid of human activity. Once the teenagers got bored of smashing the windows and spraying graffiti on the old workshop walls, no-one has used the buildings for anything since. Some cities like Manchester have clearly received funding for urban renewal, but some have obviously not. I vividly recall walking down a deserted main street in Salford and noting that none of the buildings were being used for anything anymore.

To move to an American example:

Then: the Clothcraft factory in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1914 the factory was described by one American industrial leader as the 'best plant anywhere'. 

 

Now: 98 years later, Clothcraft is a long-abandoned shell. Budget clothing production has been outsourced overseas.  

For those interested, my travel schedule is as follows: New York, NY - New Haven, CT - Cleveland, OH - Purdue, IN - Washington DC - Baltimore, MD - Washington DC - Ottawa - New York. If anyone has any suggestions as to anywhere to visit, interesting people to meet, or fun activities for my spare time, please do let me know.

In DC I'll be researching the Wallis Simpson controversy. Mrs Simpson was famously the 'Baltimore belle' and the people of the city really did seem to have been particuarly interested in her fate. It's often easy to forget that the whole Wallis and Edward story was seen to be exceptionally spectacular, and given the backdrop against which it was set, this is really saying something. I've also been researching the Baltimore Sun, a newspaper which I would never have heard of were it not for the brilliant early 2000s TV show The Wire (quote compilation here).

True dat: Baltimore, MD is now synonymous with American industrial decline.

I've also been researching Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. They were of course early acolytes of F.W. Taylor and conducted motion studies in many US organisations, from bricklaying to the Army to sandwiches. I've also been following up their students to work out their subsequent influence, which I've a feeling was greater than extant histories usually suggest. Lillian had a PhD in psychology and it's been very interesting to consider how that influenced her work on efficiency and motion studies. Finally, I've been hunting down the joint Gilbreth-Gilbreth paper on why social etiquette and manners should be treated as 'waste'.

I think it'll make for wonderful reading.

(c) Michael Weatherburn, July 2012. 

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