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Down and Out on the Family Farm: Rural Rehabilitation in the Great Plains, 1929-1945

Author(s):Grant, Michael Johnson
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (February 2004)

Michael Johnson Grant, Down and Out on the Family Farm: Rural Rehabilitation in the Great Plains, 1929-1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xi + 233 pp. $39.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8032-7105-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Department of History (Emeritus), University of Wisconsin, Madison,

Cornucopia or cruel hoax? Bread basket or buffalo range? Our vast interior plains have challenged Americans since their acquisition. Michael J. Grant adds to our knowledge of this enigmatic region with his study of a controversial aspect of New Deal agricultural policy. Intrigued by the empty farmhouses scattered across the western Nebraska landscape of his boyhood, and remnants of a federal housing and work project that he examined as a National Park Service employee, Grant investigated federal efforts to assist farmers in the Great Plains during the 1930s. Begun as doctoral research, his book examines the farmers of the four twenty-inch-rainfall-line states, stretching from Kansas poleward to North Dakota. More specifically it is a “quantitative investigation of farm life,” focusing on farm operators that he calls “borderline farmers” (p.5), in the 1920s and 1930s. Grant explains that market forces, regional grain yield potentials, climatic variability and middle-class cultural trends forced plains farmers to expand farm units and increase the mechanization and capitalization of their business operations. In these years also drought combined with the country’s most pervasive depression to push legions of operators toward bankruptcy.

“Borderline farmers,” Grant explains, were agriculturalists who “struggled to enlarge their operations to support a middle-income lifestyle,” and who “lived on the borderline between indigence and the limited security of middle-income farmers … grossing between $500 and $1,000 annually during the 1930s” (pp., 2, 3, 30). They were, he further explains, “out of synch and overwhelmed by the expansive scale of farming” that seemed to be required in the plains states (p. 7). They “were not necessarily unfit. Rather, they were out of their league.” They yearned to expand their businesses in line with managerial trends but lacked the necessary means. “Borderline farms were large enough to aspire to such ends but not profitable enough to provide the necessary means” (pp. 34-35).

Grant lays a foundation for this study by first examining farm tenancy in the plains states. Under his definition tenants might or might not be borderline farmers but many apparently were. He then sketches the development of remedial legislation through the Hoover presidency and the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover sought to alleviate agricultural stringency by supporting large marketing and credit facilities designed to restore farm income and provide credit but maintained that grassroots relief was a state or local concern. Under Roosevelt, however, the federal government provided direct assistance to the individual farmer.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of early 1933 inaugurated an era of emergency activity on behalf of agriculture and a general commitment to the restoration of parity of income between the agricultural and nonagricultural sectors. Prior to 1935 needy plains farmers received direct relief in the form of money or subsistence supplies, work on public works projects, and emergency relief in the form of feed and seed grants, livestock purchase, and loans through programs administered by various government agencies, both extolled and denigrated, although apparently no sobriquet emerged as cutting as the transformation of the National Recovery Administration into “Nuts Running America.” Simple relief measures, however, did not prepare borderline farmers for coping with post depression challenges. In the spring of 1934 the decision was made to replace work and direct relief in rural areas with programs designed to rehabilitate the businesses of farm clients and prepare them for success in normal times. This work became the responsibility of the Resettlement Administration (RA) and, shortly thereafter, the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Alone among the New Deal agricultural agencies, they provided subsistence and operating credit for farmers. The resources of thousands of plains farmers were deemed inadequate to win approval as FSA clients. Nevertheless between 1935 and the early 1940s the agencies granted loans to 95,000 plains families and 73,000 obtained cash grants. Initially the agencies sought as many clients as possible and tried “to keep commercial agricultural production down while helping their clients furnish as much of their own subsistence as possible.” This, Grant believes, “ran counter to both reason and agricultural trends in the plains,” where enhanced returns followed increases in crop acreage (p. 107). Under the Bankhead-Jones Tenant Purchase Act of 1937 the FSA assumed responsibility for assisting tenants in purchasing farms and here selection was restricted to tenant farmers who possessed substantial resources.

The rehab programs suffered from administrative problems. Conceived by humanitarian Democratic planners, program employees at the state and local levels often had Republican ties which made them unsympathetic to agency objectives and were also resentful because they did not receive full civil service status. In general, FSA personnel helped clients to develop farm plans that moved them away from cash crop agriculture toward a mixed livestock and subsistence economy. When prospects improved in the late 1930s many clients viewed that strategy as unduly restrictive.

Grant follows his general account of the development of RA and FSA activities in the Plains States with a chapter presenting a “grass roots” study of the rural rehabilitation program, selecting a county in Kansas and another in North Dakota as subjects for a closer examination of these federal programs. From the FSA clients in each county, Grant selected one case to provide detailed descriptions of the way in which the rehabilitation loan system worked, drawing upon some two dozen other case files (archived as Farm Home Administration files) to illustrate other aspects of the lending process. Administrators carefully screened applicants to insure that an infusion of capital, development of a farm productivity plan, and tutelage of the farm wife would allow families to succeed. Was rural rehabilitation in each county a success? Grant concludes that it succeeded in helping farm families survive and maintain a farm business. But emphasis on the subsistence side of the farm business meant that the clients farmed “in place” whereas, he argues, the inescapable trend in plains farming was to increase the commercial scale of farming (p. 160).

In a final substantive chapter, Grant discusses the various detractors and defenders of the rehabilitation programs within the American public and the growing consensus in Congress that the increasing prosperity of agriculture during the war years rendered them unnecessary despite the pleas of the Farmers’ Union. With the approbation of the Farm Bureau, Senator Harry Byrd, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, succeeded in slashing the FSA budget by half in 1943. Despite a flurry of interest in providing loans to veterans, by war’s end new funding had ceased. In a brief conclusion Grant argues that “the greatest triumph of the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration was in showing borderline farmers around the country that they mattered” (p. 201).

Grant’s description of the New Deal programs and their work in the Plains States is wide ranging, providing thumbnail sketches of key policy figures, the reactions of agricultural organizations and members of Congress to the programs as well as opinion in the general public. He is evenhanded in discussion of the programs, noting their limitations, shifting goals and ideological inconsistencies but crediting them with successfully assisting many deserving farmers. He enlivens the narrative with numerous references to specific farmers and their wives and quotations from farmer letters or recollections. Grant’s book is an excellent overview of an important aspect of New Deal agricultural policy.

One caveat, however. Grant presents much quantitative data and his county studies reveal the various economic factors in play at that level. Confronted, however, with detailed data sources like those provided by the agency files of the FSA (now archived as Farm Home Administration records) some researchers would have chosen clients for study by systematic sampling and prepared a data base that included common variables drawn from a considerably larger number of farm operations than those cited by Grant. Such a data base would have allowed the researcher to apply statistical techniques of analysis that could more definitively evaluate the relative importance of relevant factors than do Grant’s somewhat impressionistic methods.

Allan G. Bogue’s most recent publication (with Brian Q. Cannon and Kenneth J. Winkle) is “Oxen to Organs: Chattel Credit in Springdale Town, 1849-1900,” Agricultural History 77 (Summer 2003), 420-452.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America

Author(s):Norwood, Stephen H.
Reviewer(s):Sundstrom, William A.

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Stephen H. Norwood, Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xii + 328 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2705-3; $19.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8078-5373-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William A. Sundstrom, Department of Economics, Santa Clara University.

Strikebreaking was a popular and often successful strategy for U.S. employers prior to the federal labor legislation of the 1930s. Replacement workers, as they are known these days, were used in more than 40 percent of late nineteenth century strikes, and strikebreaking had a strong, positive correlation with the likelihood of the employer winning the strike (Rosenbloom 2002, chapter 6). Strikebreaking often plays a central role in accounts of the violence in the struggles between labor and capital in American history. Striking workers had to keep “scabs” out to shut down production, and they resorted to a range of persuasive and coercive tactics to do so. Employers, for their part, sought out strikebreakers who would be resistant to persuasion or coercion, and who could give as good as they got.

In Strikebreaking and Intimidation, Stephen Norwood, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, examines several episodes and aspects of strikebreaking during the early twentieth century. The book has something of a split personality, which is revealed in its title and subtitle. On the one hand, it provides vivid, if not unbiased, accounts of the ruthless tactics pursued by American employers in their efforts to break strikes and weaken unions, with a special emphasis on entrepreneurial thuggery and espionage. These stories will not be entirely unfamiliar to students of American labor history, but Norwood has added some fascinating and often disturbing details. On the other hand, the book aspires to a more ambitious interpretation of strikebreaking, linking it with a putative crisis of American masculinity as the country entered the twentieth century. The evidence in defense of this provocative thesis is uneven and ultimately unconvincing.

The alleged connection between strikebreaking and the crisis of masculinity is most clearly presented in the first chapter, which explores the employment of college students as strikebreakers early in the century. Citing some other studies, Norwood argues that social and economic change had by the late nineteenth century undermined the props of preexisting norms of masculinity in American culture, particularly among the elite. The cultural response was the rise of a “cult of masculinity,” which in the collegiate setting was epitomized by football and violent “cane rush” rituals. Norwood documents several strikes during which brawny college football players were recruited by local employers to replace striking workers, usually with the blessings of their coaches and college administrators, and sometimes with violent results.

That college students sometimes cut class to bust unions was new and interesting to me, but Norwood urges the reader to see a deeper significance: “Strikebreaking was the perfect replacement for the banned violent rituals [e.g. cane rushes]. It provided students with the opportunity for mass participation, denied in organized college athletics, and satisfied their pressing need for a ‘test of masculinity'” (p. 24). The claim is a functionalist one, and difficult to prove. Too often Norwood adds his own gendered spin to evidence that might be given other interpretations. For example, during a 1903 Great Lakes shipping strike, University of Chicago track and field athletes were recruited as strikebreakers. Norwood notes that “One of the students summed up his manly adventure by declaring, ‘It was more fun than a track meet'” (p. 25). The phrase “manly adventure” is Norwood’s; what the student was thinking, beyond that it was fun, is hard to tell. Was he happy for an excuse to avoid homework? Was he slumming it with his mates? Was he fulfilling the expectations of his dad, perhaps a Great Lakes shipper or other anti-union capitalist? Was he ordered to do it by his coach, and then making the best of it? Nothing in the book allows us to distinguish among these motives, and this is not an isolated example.

Subsequent chapters recount episodes of strikebreaking in specific industries, with a focus on the entrepreneurs and companies that specialized in recruiting and protecting strikebreakers or company managers put in charge of strikebreaking and labor espionage. Chapter 2, for example, explores the genesis and operations of such national strikebreaking companies as Bergoff Bros. and Waddell, which recruited and transported replacement workers on a contract basis, most notably during the numerous urban transit strikes of the early twentieth century. Whatever one’s views of scab labor, Norwood establishes that replacement streetcar workers had a tough job. The lack of a centralized work site made it difficult or impossible to protect them from the guerilla tactics of striking transit workers and their supporters, who sometimes resorted to blocking or blowing up streetcar rails and beating or stoning the strikebreakers. Norwood suggests that the strikebreakers often carried firearms and were not afraid to use them. Given the circumstances, it is not hard to understand why.

Journalistic accounts of the strikebreaker often compared him with the frontier gunslinger popularized in the westerns of the time. Norwood finds great significance in this metaphor, and even embellishes it with his own, comparing strikebreakers with modern-day fighter pilots (p. 48). But this reader was left wondering what had been demonstrated here. The inclination of journalists to dramatize or even sensationalize events by appealing to icons of popular culture is with us still and may ever be; but can we infer from these accounts the motivations or interpretations of the participants in the events? Was it the strikers and strikebreakers who suffered a crisis of masculinity, or merely their journalistic observers? Similarly, when striking coal miners impugned the strikebreakers’ masculinity or portrayed themselves as defenders of virtuous womanhood against immoral and barbaric scabs, were these rhetorical tactics or genuine reflections of how the miners understood their struggle? A proper understanding of the connection between mercenaries and masculinity would seem to demand answers to such questions, but Norwood is often surprisingly uncritical of the reliability or context of his primary sources.

The book is on more solid ground, in my view, in documenting the centrality of violence and espionage as anti-union tactics prior to the Wagner Act. Outside of the skilled trades, unions had difficulty monopolizing the labor supply, and strikes were often a necessary tactic in gaining union recognition or a closed shop. Thus in many strikes, much more was at stake than just the terms of a contract. To mobilize and protect strikebreakers and spy on or infiltrate unions, employers often hired outside agencies such as the Pinkertons, the Bergoff Brothers, or the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Some firms, including Ford Motor Company, handled union-busting internally. Harry Bennett, the head of Ford’s notorious “Service Department,” may have been driven by a “lifelong need to affirm his masculinity” (p. 175), but such pop psychology aside, it is remarkable that during the 1920s and 1930s this immense, technologically progressive, and much-admired American company left its personnel management largely in the hands of a thug with mob connections.

Norwood relies extensively on accounts of pro-union journalists and interviews with former union activists, and there can be little doubt that these are necessary sources for reconstructing these events. Still, at times he treats union polemics with more credulity than they deserve, and one is left wondering how often violence was instigated or exacerbated by strikers, who from a position of weakness may have acted “with the folly and extravagance of desperate men,” as Adam Smith once put it.

Once strikes turned violent, local or state authorities often entered the picture, more often than not on the side of the employers. State militias and state police played a role in many strikes, and the militias were responsible for some of the most infamous incidents of strike-related violence, including the so-called Ludlow massacre at a strikers’ tent colony during a 1914 Colorado mining strike. Private enterprise may have played a uniquely important role in American, as compared with European, union-busting, but time and time again the state became involved even in the United States, and often decisively.

It would be asking too much of the author to expect a full-blown comparative study of strikebreaking, but a little more attention to the contrast between U.S. and western European strikes would have been informative. In particular, U.S. employers may have been less reluctant to threaten, employ, or provoke violence during strikes because they could have some confidence that the state would intervene on their behalf if violence erupted. By contrast, labor’s greater influence in European politics made it less certain that the state would take the employers’ side, as Gerald Friedman (1988) has pointed out. Such differences in the political context of labor struggle may be more important than the insecurities and yearnings of the American male psyche in explaining the violent character of American labor relations.

Strikebreaking and its associated violence became much less common after World War II. By creating a legal and bureaucratic route to union representation and contract negotiations, the National Labor Relations Act largely obviated recognition strikes. Prohibitions of unfair labor practices constrained the anti-union tactics available to employers. Norwood acknowledges these factors but also attributes some of the change to evolving norms of masculinity. As he puts it, “By the 1960s the conflation of masculinity with physicality and aggression was less pronounced than in the early twentieth century, even in the working class” (p. 229). The consequence was a decline in both the demand and the supply of physical violence on both sides of labor disputes. Perhaps so (although a scan of the Hollywood blockbusters of recent years suggests that the old machismo may have made a comeback); still, one wonders whether the timing of these alleged cultural changes is consistent with the regularization of labor relations as early as the conservative 1950s.

Unions have been in decline in the U.S. private sector for several decades, and Norwood like many observers sees a renewed aggressiveness in corporate anti-unionism as a significant contributing factor. But how significant is it, relative to the broad industrial, occupational, technological, and ideological shifts that have taken place in the United States over the same period? The last line in the book approvingly quotes a union official, who states that “intimidation and interference by employers is such a standard practice in today’s workplaces that the freedom to form a union doesn’t really exist at all” (p. 247). Anyone who has read the book’s harrowing accounts of strikebreaking — state militiamen setting fire to tents occupied by strikers’ families at Ludlow in 1914, Harry Bennett’s thugs kicking the daylights out of UAW organizers in 1937– is likely to question the author’s sense of perspective.


Gerald Friedman, “Strike Success and Union Ideology: The United States and France, 1880-1914,” Journal of Economic History 43 (1988): 1-26.

Joshua L. Rosenbloom, Looking for Work, Searching for Workers: American Labor Markets during Industrialization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

William A. Sundstrom is professor of economics at Santa Clara University. His current research interests include internal migration in the United States and the labor-market effects of New Deal policies.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry

Author(s):Linden, F. Robert van der
Reviewer(s):Dunn-Haley, Karen

Published by EH.NET (May 2003)


F. Robert van der Linden, Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. xv + 349 pp. $35 (hardback), ISBN: 0-8131-2219-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Karen Dunn-Haley, Ph.D., California State University, Monterey Bay.

The Airlines and Uncle Sam: A Match Made in the Heavens?

September 11 and a recession sent U.S. airlines into a financial tailspin, and one result has been a lingering debate over the extent and the form of government assistance to the airlines. Recently, one commentator noted, “Breaking up may be hard to do, but it appears especially tough for the government and the airline industry.”[1] F. Robert van der Linden, Curator of Air Transportation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, has written a detailed account of the complex manner in which the airlines and the government tied the knot in the 1920s and 1930s. This history serves to remind readers that two early twentieth-century Republican administrations, subsequently widely misunderstood as laissez-faire, played a role in the initial development of commercial aviation. Readers of van der Linden’s thorough study might conclude that it is not terribly surprising, nor inconsistent, for a twenty-first century Republican administration to assist the airline industry in its continued survival.

The federal government embraced the nascent airline industry early on. Although Congress ignored a bill introduced in 1910 to employ air mail, a year later Postmaster Frank Hitchcock staged air mail service as part of an international air meet on Long Island, when “pilot Earle Ovington was sworn in as American’s first air mail pilot and, squeezing a full mail sack between his legs, took off … for Mineola some five miles away. Six minutes later, Ovington banked his aircraft and pushed the bag out of the cockpit. The bag fell to the ground near the local postmaster” (p. 5).

More serious governmental efforts followed. Motivated by an awareness that European aviation was surpassing that of the United States, Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1915. NACA addressed issues of aircraft design and performance, but it was up to further legislation to ensure that a market existed for the new airplanes. In 1925, Congress passed the Kelly Air Mail Act, which allowed private airlines to carry the mail, and in the following year, it passed the Air Commerce Act, which created a Bureau of Aeronautics within the Commerce Department.

Air mail revenues were crucial to the formation of the first airlines as they struggled to develop and provide passenger service. In the tradition of historians Ellis Hawley and Morton Keller, van der Linden describes the politics leading to the 1925 Air Mail Act and the follow-up legislation, and he explores the reasons behind government support for fledgling airlines in the 1920s. After acknowledging the precedent set by the federal support of public roads in the nineteenth century and the post office subsidies granted to American steamship lines and, later, the merchant marine, van der Linden shows how this tradition was applied to air travel. In so doing, he casts a favorable light on then Department of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, who “actively promoted the new [aviation] industry through rational regulation and judiciously applied subsidies and incentives” (p. ix). Walter Folger Brown, the Postmaster General for President Herbert Hoover, most often also appears in heroic terms. According to van der Linden, it was Brown’s air mail awards and guidance that “forged three large, stable, financially powerful aviation holding companies, each formed around a solid core of air transportation companies, solely dependent upon the federal government and thereby dedicated to operating in the public interest” (p. 185).

However, what some viewed as a triumph, others viewed as corrupt. The second half of the book looks at the 1934 Senate investigations led by Hugo Black, which put under a microscope the air mail contracts established by Walter Brown. It has often been said that the passage of a law is like making sausage — not pretty. This book makes it clear that the metaphor falls short when discussing the passage of laws and the making of policy that supports new industries, which are unformed and chaotic by virtue of their infancy. As a result of the Senate investigations, which alleged “conspiracy, corruption and favoritism” (p. 271) in the awarding of air mail contracts, President Franklin Roosevelt suspended the contracts with private airlines and resorted to delivery by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Sadly, a hard winter and inferior flying equipment led to twelve Army Air Corps pilots killed in only a few weeks. Retaliating, Eastern airlines chief Eddie Rickenbacker labeled the use of Army pilots as “legalized murder” (p. 277). Facing this outcry, Roosevelt was forced to compromise by allowing private air mail contracts while supporting a new law — the Air Mail Act of 1934 — that forbade the vertically integrated airline holding companies. Van der Linden concludes: “Although the monopolistic holding companies are now gone, the oligopoly of airlines and manufacturers … remains virtually intact and unchanged. … The foundation built in those difficult Depression-era years has served the nation and its citizens well, with the federal government, as it was from the very beginning, ultimately in control” (p. 290).

Although, he makes reference to advances in the engineering and the design of airplanes during what is regarded as the golden age of American aviation, van der Linden’s book is a political and business history at its core. He explores the lobbying that took place as the 1925 Air Mail Act was conceived, and he traces the genealogy of the nation’s first airline companies as they merged and purged. More generally, van der Linden compares and contrasts the New Nationalism of Progressive Republicans with the New Freedom of Progressive Democrats. Airlines and Air Mail challenges the reader to keep track of the evolving company names, as well as the movers and shakers in the industry; a chart indicating the companies (with the names of the owners and chairmen) as they developed over time would have been a helpful addition to the book.

The book’s illustrations consist overwhelmingly of photographs of people — either U.S. postal officials or executives of airline companies, such as Philip G. Johnson, William E. Boeing, Thomas E. Braniff, Earl P. Halliburton, and Sherman Fairchild. This emphasis provides the clue from the start that van der Linden has written a book centered on people and a book about how these people, both executives and bureaucrats, set the stage for commercial aviation.

The book would have been strengthened had the author stepped back on more occasions to comment on the overall significance of the details he presents. However, Airlines and Air Mail is a must read for anyone attempting to sort out the beginnings of American commercial aviation. This book also should attract readers interested in how the federal government has failed and succeeded at regulating industries in the past and present — whether it be the past handling of such basics as the food and agricultural industry or whether it be the current crisis over how to regulate new and old forms of telecommunications. In addition, scholars devoted to examining the transition from the New Era to the New Deal will find much to learn in van der Linden’s account.

Endnote: 1. Edward Wong, “Inconsistency: New Hobgoblin for the Airlines,” New York Times, May 3, 2003.

Karen Dunn-Haley is the Interim Coordinator of the Faculty Mentor Program at California State University, Monterey Bay. She is the author of a dissertation, “The House that Uncle Sam Built: The Political Culture of Federal Housing Policy, 1919-1932” (Stanford University, 1995). More recently, she has provided background research for the authors of Inventing America: A History of the United States (W.W. Norton, Inc., 2002).

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The English Poor Laws, 1700-1930

Author(s):Brundage, Anthony
Reviewer(s):King, Steve

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

Anthony Brundage, The English Poor Laws, 1700-1930. Basingstoke and New

York: Palgrave, 2002. vii + 185 pp. $69.95 or ?49.50 (hardcover), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Steve King, Department of History, Oxford Brookes


This book joins those of Lynne Hollen Lees, Alan Kidd and Pat Thane in trying

to provide an accessible overview of the English and Welsh poor law system up

to its final decline in the 1920s. Like Lees, Brundage orders his narrative

chronologically and characterizes the different periods into which he breaks

the book with catchy titles of the sort that my undergraduate students at least

have found attractive. The book opens with a short introduction which in turn

starts with the story of one of the most famous workhouse children, Charlie

Chaplin, and moves very briefly through the variety of different approaches

that historians have taken in the writing of poor law history. To this reviewer

such an opening looked attractive and I was heartened by Brundage’s

determination to confront the problem of conveying “something of the complexity

and significance of the poor laws, without losing sight of the individual human

dimension” (p. 3). This is precisely what undergraduate students need, though I

did not see how such an aspiration was going to be achieved in 185 pages.

Chapter two, undoubtedly the weakest in the book, looks at the

eighteenth-century poor law. It briefly traces the legislative roots of the Old

Poor Law and then rapidly canters through institutional provision, Knatchbull’s

Act, medical care, attempts at poor law reform by Gilbert, the impact of the

Napoleonic war and the development of allowance systems. At the end of the

chapter we have almost seven pages on poor law thinkers, a theme carried on in

chapter three and certainly the territory where the author seems to be most at

home. Of course, a broad survey should not be lambasted for skating over big

issues, but in this chapter I feel that Brundage has neither fulfilled his

desire to give us the human dimension, or to communicate to students some of

the nuances of the eighteenth-century poor law. Thus, it is incorrect to say

that the township was the basis for the administration of relief in the north

from the outset of the Old Poor Law (p. 9); it is arguable whether “relatives

were pressed to assume the obligation” of looking after aged or impotent

relatives (p. 11); it is very arguable indeed whether parishes were “pleased”

with the system of farming the poor given the speed with which most abandoned

experiments (p. 13); it is too simple to say that the first task of the

overseer was to assess settlement and remove where possible (p. 13) given that

removal activity took place in spurts; and it is certainly not the case in

large areas of eighteenth-century England that for married women on relief ‘an

additional child often meant simply an increased allowance’ (p.15). For me,

these caveats detract from some of the strengths of the chapter. It is

excellent, for instance, that Brundage grapples with the concept of open and

closed parishes and with the issue of failed legislation here. These are

concepts that I keep talking about to my students and I am glad to see them


Chapter three deals with the period between 1800 and the decision to undertake

radical investigation of the operation of the Old Poor Law in 1832. Brundage

traces the influences (evangelical, economic, post-war dislocation and

political) shaping debate on the poor law and deals briefly with the

intervening legislation such as that establishing select vestries. Finally, he

identifies the Swing Riots as the factor which cemented the perceived need for

reform. I found the chapter frustrating. It provides a decent review of the

competing agenda’s for reform and my students have found the summary of figures

presented on page 40 very helpful. The chapter also provides some great turns

of phrase that I wish I had thought of. The idea that “the principles of

economics burrowed ever deeper into the culture and social values” of the

middling and political classes (p. 44) is a great example. However, the poor

themselves and the human element are completely missing from this chapter.

There is absolutely no reference to the work of Thomas Sokoll on pauper letters

in Essex and more widely the tendency for recent poor law historians to

repopulate this period with the poor through their narratives does not get a

mention. This is a shame, for such work provides a useful foil to the drier

politico-legislative angle that my students find hard work.

Chapter four deals with the shaping and initial imposition of the New Poor Law,

starting with the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Poor Law Report,

moving through the processes and politics of Union creation and popular and

community resistance against the imposition of the New Poor Law, and ending

with the role of the Andover workhouse scandal in hastening the demise of the

Poor Law Commission. Brundage, as we would expect from his previous books,

clearly feels most comfortable in this territory, and the chapter is well

written and convincing.

Chapter five deals with the period 1847-1870. It shows that a scandal-prone

poor law settled down into relatively anonymous middle age, with attempts to

expand poor law activities in the spheres of education, medical care (albeit

“haltingly and unofficially,” p. 96), treatment and control of the insane,

vagrancy, structural poverty and the complex laws relating to settlement and

Union finance. The chapter ends by showing how a combination of the Lancashire

cotton famine, growing pauperism in London and a series of medical scandals led

to calls once more for poor law reform. My students found this the most useful

of all the chapters, and its style and coverage is very much better than that

of chapter two.

Chapter six deals with the important subject of the crusade against out-relief,

the Charity Organisation Society and the democratization of the poor law Board

through the addition of working class and female Guardians. Brundage correctly

notes that “While most smaller towns and rural districts seem to have gone on

much as before” (p. 116), some places were alive to the chances offered by the

crusade and adopted it with vigor. He also points out, very usefully for

undergraduates, that this period witnessed a tension between those who had an

agenda of attacking the poor and those who had an agenda for extending the

services and scope of the poor law. Once more, it is a pity that the poor and

their strategies and voices are not heard here. Page 124 starts along this road

but more is necessary to humanize the poor law. It is also a pity that some

misinterpretation of the secondary literature confuses the reading. It is not

the case on page 126, for instance, that Hurren argues for Pell and Spencer

being in opposition.

Chapter seven deals with the final decline of the New Poor Law, tracing

experiments in poplarism, the scope, character and findings of the Royal

Commission on the Poor Laws, Liberal Welfare Reforms and the impact of the

Great War. The chapter is competently executed and feeds through into a

conclusion, which is actually a lot better than some of the chapters on which

it is based. Importantly, Brundage argues that “English poor law experience

[was] simultaneously consensual, contested and contingent.” Once I had

explained this sentence to my undergraduates, they were able to grasp more of

the nuances of the poor relief. Their question though was “whose poor law

experience?” This is my question too, for while Brundage gives us a review of

the poor law from the angle of administrators, politicians, charitable donors

and others, the poor and their economic, cultural and social experiences are

almost completely missing. Maybe this does not matter for a general survey, but

I cannot help feeling that a slightly longer book that really did keep sight

“of the individual human dimension” (p. 3), would have made a more valuable

contribution to the undergraduate reading list. This said, my students like the

volume; the copies in our library have rather more stamps than some of their

natural competitors!

Steven King is Head of the Department of History and Director of Research for

the School of Arts and Humanities at Oxford Brookes University, England. He has

recently edited The Poor in England 1700-1900: An Economy of Makeshifts

(Manchester University Press, 2003) and is currently working on a study of

female poor law guardians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

World War II and the Scramble for Labour in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1939-1948

Author(s):Johnson, David
Reviewer(s):Jones, Laird

Published by EH.NET (December 2002)

David Johnson, World War II and the Scramble for Labour in Colonial

Zimbabwe, 1939-1948. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications, 2000. iv

+ 179 pp. ISBN: 0-908307-85-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Laird Jones, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

At first glance, David Johnson’s monograph on Zimbabwean labor during the

Second World War appears unlikely to interest the general economic history

reader. It is a rather slim volume with a seemingly over-focused title. Turning

the pages, however, it is soon apparent that the author has attempted a much

broader project. Interpreting the war years as a crucial watershed, Johnson

seeks to connect two major bodies of research in modern African history: the

development of an early colonial economy and labor regime, and the rise of

postwar political and labor activism. Far from being narrowly focused, his

study weaves together a number of labor-related themes, from farm work to

industry, and policy to protest.

What is most refreshing about the book is that it examines Zimbabwean labor

history outside the shadow of the South African literature, making comparisons

and drawing upon theses developed elsewhere in colonial Africa. In particular,

the author cites Walter Rodney on the war as a watershed, Fred Cooper on the

war and workers, and Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale on settler politics and the

colonial state. Of course, Johnson does make reference to scholarship on

Zimbabwe and South Africa, but the broader perspective is both informative and

more appealing to a wider audience.

The argument begins strongly. The introduction asserts, “the war was a pivotal

moment in the relationship between capital and labor in Zimbabwe, then Southern

Rhodesia. Under the guise of support for the British war effort,

undercapitalized settler producers — who were unable to attract an adequate

supply of labor through a dependence on market forces — used their political

power to influence the state to coerce Africans into wage employment in order

to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities presented by the expansion of

internal and external markets.” Moreover, the author connects these efforts to

postwar labor unrest and later mass nationalism. He cautions, “settler

prosperity and the economic development on which it was built were not without

contradictions. The expansion of the war and post-war years … greatly

increased the social basis for Africans to challenge their economic and

political subordination.”

The first chapter clearly establishes that military service was not a

significant Southern Rhodesian contribution to the allied war effort. Africans

generally dreaded it. Nor did white settlers volunteer in great numbers. Even

the Southern Rhodesian government did not encourage mass enlistments. Instead,

it pursued a strategy of training small, highly skilled combat units. In part,

Johnson argues, this official reticence stemmed from longstanding fears of

armed rebellion. No settler-dominated legislature wished to see large numbers

of Africans under arms, whatever the circumstances. But in greater part,

Johnson maintains, reluctance to raise a larger fighting force stemmed from the

desire of settler farmers, would-be manufactures and mine operators to

capitalize on the war economy, and for this they required African laborers, not

African soldiers.

Chapter two outlines the wartime stimulus to the Southern African economy, and

settler efforts to cash in, which Johnson terms, “the lucrativeness of

loyalty.” The Southern Rhodesian government, for example, hosted a number of

British flight training facilities. Construction of these bases proved a

windfall for settler contractors, as did provisioning the influx of military

personnel for local merchants. More important, wartime demand revived the

mining industries and gave company owners greater leverage to lobby for higher

mineral prices. The agricultural sector expanded too and in Zimbabwe none saw

their situation more improved than tobacco planters. Finally, wartime shortages

of imported European consumer goods proved an impetus to secondary

industrialization in many Southern African cities.

The key variable in the wartime economic boom, the author argues in chapter

three, was African labor. Since the official repeal of corv?e labor in the

1920s, settler employers had faced a dwindling supply of local workers. Many

young people simply found cash crop agriculture on the Reserves more

remunerative than wage labor on settler farms or in the mines. For nearly two

decades the situation failed to become acute, because during the Depression

there was sharply reduced demand, and worker shortfalls were made up with low

wage migrants from less prosperous neighboring colonies. It was the war,

Johnson points out, which brought the matter to a head. In settler agriculture,

mining and industry there was sharply increased demand for workers, and at the

same time, several neighboring colonies severely restricted the outflow of

migrants, ostensibly to aid their own war efforts. Rather than relying on

market forces, however, Southern Rhodesian employers attempted other options —

professional recruiting organizations, appeals to more distant labor pools, and

increased demands on their remaining work force. Settler farmers had long

lobbied the Southern Rhodesian government to reimpose forced labor, and

following the failure of the 1941-42 maize harvest finally pushed through the

Compulsory Labor Act.

Forced labor, in the midst of a war against authoritarianism, was a dicey

matter. The author presents considerable evidence in chapter four that

conscription was most unpopular in the Reserves. Further, he suggests that even

the colonial state was contradicted in this effort. Certainly, elected

officials sought to reward settler employers. However, conscription quotas

placed on African chiefs or headmen in the Reserves undermined the legitimacy

of the colonial regime on the ground. And a return to forced labor risked

criticism from anti-colonial and labor activists in Europe. Therefore,

officials justified the scheme as essential to the war effort and organized it

accordingly. Young people were formed into large units, and worked in gangs,

traveling from one job site to the next. Some might be engaged in military

construction, others in roadwork, and many in agricultural fieldwork.

These four chapters contain several noteworthy assertions. First, the author

documents that settlers maneuvered within the context of the war to gain

political and economic advantage. The point has certainly been made previously

for Eastern and Southern African in the case of the First World War, but less

for the Second. This contention also provides better context for postwar

politics, at least for settler efforts to set legislative agendas and to impose

reactionary forms of control on African populations. Second, Johnson points out

that settler enterprises exploited forced labor long after the literature

suggests. Moreover, they did so during a crucial recovery, which some argue was

a take-off period for large-scale, settler agriculture. Whereas others have

attributed this belated settler success to better access to extension services

or transport, new hybrid seed types, mechanization or political control over

para-statal marketing boards, the author reintroduces the question of primitive

accumulation and returns African labor to center stage. This contention too has

great bearing on the postwar situation as well as on the present, but

unfortunately these connections are not developed.

The argument becomes clouded in chapter five, which outlines the postwar repeal

of compulsory labor, as well as employer initiatives to organize state-related

recruiting entities to make up shortfalls. Most failed, the author argues,

since during the immediate postwar period there was relative prosperity in the

Reserves, and few young people were willing to seek low wage agricultural

employment. Moreover, those in need of work headed to urban areas or undertook

clandestine migration to South Africa. Thus, the author places European settler

and African peasant agriculture in competition, a common theme in the Southern

African literature, and implies that in the postwar period, from a labor

standpoint, it was settler agriculture that suffered. Unfortunately, while

these are interesting observations, supported in some instances by documentary

evidence, they seem difficult to sustain without considerable further research.

How could settler agriculture expand throughout the period in the wake of an

apparent worker shortage? Did “external” migrant labor again come to play a key

role? What about other factors besides labor? Likewise, “peasant” agriculture

has largely been considered to be in commercial decline after the war.

Certainly there were belts of prosperity close to urban food markets or

transportation routes. But in more isolated areas, those that had for years

been exploited as labor pools, had conditions really improved to the point that

few people would take occasional farm work?

The sixth and final chapter jumps to the urban areas to outline postwar African

political and labor activism. It is a rather abrupt transition in that the

preceding chapters deal largely with settler farmer politics and rural labor.

At several points the author does state that wartime conditions led to an

expansion in mining and stimulated secondary industrialization, but beyond

these generalizations, he provides little information on actual conditions in

mines, factories or transportation facilities. The policy connections are also

difficult to discern. Did wartime compulsory labor policy play any role in

sparking postwar urban protests? Were there rural-urban linkages? Were there

other wartime urban or industrial policies that factored into postwar unrest?

Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly and the author offers no conclusions.

David Johnson’s initial study constitutes a promising beginning to a massive

topic. It provides some important analyses, on wartime politics and forced

labor in particular. The data on clandestine migration to South Africa also is

original and impressive. However, given the book’s limited length, its

contributions are not thoroughly developed. In the future, the author needs to

flesh out his thesis with further research on rural-urban linkages in labor

activism or political protest, on the impact of urban wartime policies, and

perhaps on the process of secondary industrialization.

Laird Jones teaches African and World History at Lock Haven University. His

research is in late modern East African urban and economic history. He is

currently working on a project about consumer imports.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate Welfare, 1890-1930

Author(s):Mandell, Nikki
Reviewer(s):Stanger, Howard R.

Published by EH.Net and H-Business (June 2002)

Nikki Mandell, The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate

Welfare, 1890-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

x +208 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2685-5, $ 19.95 (paper),


Reviewed for H-BUSINESS and EH.NET by Howard R. Stanger, Canisius College,

Department of Management and Marketing.

In “The Corporation as Family,” historian Nikki Mandell (Wisconsin-Whietwater)

argues that welfare work was a more widespread and significant approach to

wrestling with the “labor problem” beginning around 1890 than previously

thought. Using a gendered analysis of the welfare workers themselves, Mandell

focuses on the content and functioning of welfare programs. These workers

promised that welfare work would ameliorate labor conflict and recast the

employment relationship into a harmonious labor-management partnership.

Mandell contends that employers used the ideal Victorian family as the model

for changing workers’ behaviors. Within this framework executives and owners

would play the role of “corporate fathers,” welfare workers would serve as

“corporate mothers,” and employees would be treated as “corporate children” in

need of guidance and preparation for their roles in the new business

partnership. Welfare workers tried unsuccessfully to reform both corporate

children and, especially, their fathers. “Despite their willingness to

experiment with welfare work, employers never fully committed themselves to

(it)*They remained more interested in controlling their workers than in drawing

them into a cooperative partnership. They supported welfare work because it

promised a more disciplined workforce” (p. 101).

At its peak in the mid-1920s, roughly 80 per cent of the nation’s largest

companies practiced some form of welfare work. Welfare work impacted millions

of workers-notably women and immigrants– in industries such as department

stores, telephone and insurance companies, textile and machinery manufacturers,

and iron and steel.

Companies carefully tailored welfare work to both men’s and women’s expected

roles at home and at work. Good programs promoted health and safety in the

workplace and in the home. They also included a variety of educational,

recreational, and social activities, as well as financial programs. To tie male

workers to their firms over the long run, employers experimented with profit

sharing and stock and bonus plans. Women’s financial benefits were more

short-term, such as Christmas and vacation savings plans. Employers also used

financial plans to inculcate in workers middle-class habits of thrift. In all

cases, employers determined eligibility and could terminate plans unilaterally.

This system of welfare work provided an alternative to repression and

benevolent paternalism (e.g., company towns). These approaches seemed less

effective in an environment where large corporations were under intense public

scrutiny and where owners lost intimate contact with their employees. Moreover,

paternalism created dependent workers who desired their independence from

management. For employers, the move toward welfare work was guided by pragmatic

business considerations.

Welfare workers, notably women such as NCR’s Lena Harvey and Elizabeth Briscoe

of Bancroft & Sons, helped establish the model of the Victorian family. The

real Victorian family performed a dual mission: to train children to take their

place in industrial society, and to provide a home that would be a refuge from

the harsh realities of industrialism. Men, women and children played distinct

but interdependent roles. Victorian men were resolute, unsentimental,

ambitious, aggressive, and highly competitive. For them, success meant

leadership status and control over others, especially in the economic arena.

Women were self-effacing, compassionate, nurturing, and timid. Their job was to

create a harmonious home environment and instill moral values and habits of

discipline and deference in their children. Skilled in domestic matters,

Victorian women furnished a home that reflected the family’s sophistication and

their husband’s status. Regarding the children, “(w)hile male employees were

expected to become budding Horatio Algers, welfare work tried to groom female

employees for the role of Mrs. Alger” (p. 53).

The desire to pattern labor relations after the Victorian family model was

rooted in the turn-of-the century debates over the “crisis” in the family as

many families, especially working-class and immigrant ones, failed to live up

to the idealized Victorian model. These families also seemed the most

vulnerable to the changes wrought by urbanization and industrialization, and

were targeted by welfare workers.

Men comprised a significant portion of welfare workers (the extent is not

known), but Mandell highlights the contributions of the most significant women.

Regardless of their heterogeneous backgrounds, welfare managers’ duties and

responsibilities were similar to the Victorian mother’s. In this sense, then,

Mandell contends that welfare work should not be considered paternalism, but

rather “corporate maternalism” because executives were relieved of the more

feminine aspects of the system and focused instead on employee discipline. As

she notes, “If the corporation was indeed a family, there could be no systemic

or permanent class conflict between labor and capital” (p. 46).

The largest task for welfare workers was to prepare employees for their role in

the corporate Victorian family. Many of their efforts began in the home since

harmony in the workplace depended upon workers exercising the same middle-class

values and habits that built security and stability at home. In fact, home

visits formed the earliest and most basic part of welfare programs. Proponents

of welfare work believed that the root causes of the labor problem were the

shortcomings of workers themselves. Workers and their advocates targeted big

corporations. Welfare managers faced two daunting obstacles: mediating the

mutual antagonisms between labor and management, and creating a legitimate

place for themselves in the masculine corporate hierarchy. To do this, they had

to create a new definition of the professional business manager-the corporate

staffer. The latter is given significant attention by the author and stands as

one of her most important contributions to the study of welfare capitalism.

To succeed, welfare workers had to establish the appropriate qualities that

would gain acceptance with executives. Male welfare managers borrowed from the

Social Gospel movement, which offered a “new man” who, like Jesus, expressed

his masculinity through service to others, self-sacrifice, and cooperation. He

also preserved the masculine qualities such as rationality, initiative and

strength. While men feminized their manhood, women welfare managers jettisoned

their moorings to the social housekeeping movement’s female moral authority but

kept necessary qualities such as compassion, nurturing, and self-sacrifice.

They also had to demonstrate “executive ability,” logic, pragmatism, and a firm

temperament. Male and female roles merged to create a more androgynous welfare

manager eager to serve the needs of business.

Welfare managers used the methods and language of efficiency and system to

reform labor relations, and demanded centralized control over all labor

matters. Mandell points to an ironic situation that welfare workers created in

their attempt to gain legitimacy: that systematization and efficiency were not

really conducive to the intimacy and nurturing needed to humanize business.

Despite making claims of having unique business skills required to mediate

between labor and management, they had a difficult time convincing executives

and production managers to heed their advice.

Employers were unwilling to extend welfare managers authority over anything but

“maternal” corporate functions. Even though economic benefits were part of the

reform equation, executives restricted the economic partnership by determining

eligibility requirements, especially measures of loyalty. Employers used

financial benefit plans because they believed they would build ambition and

foster manly independence in their employees. They showed little interest in

providing workers with short-term economic security, an important goal of both

welfare managers and workers. In addition, employers and production managers

were unwilling to cede total control over labor matters to welfare workers,

with whom they fought on many occasions.

Welfare managers also experienced obstacles when dealing with workers who

rejected the assumption that they were equal partners in the proposed

cooperative business enterprise. Working-class men’s sense of masculinity

derived from the immediacy of their job conditions. For them, skill, physical

strength and stamina, and a cooperative ethos translated into higher wages,

manly independence, and the ability to support a family. Working-class women

sought the freedom to interact freely with men on and off the job. They

resented the strictures of welfare workers’ oversight. Working-class men and

women were suspicious of both their corporate fathers’ and mothers’ motives and

negotiated the terms under which they would participate in welfare activities.

Strikes and other manifestations of labor discontent occurred in welfare firms

offering evidence that workers’ needs sometimes went unmet. In general,

business had failed to address the underlying causes of conflict: better wages,

shorter hours, stable employment, the failure to curb supervisors’ autocratic

control, and onerous labor policies.

But argues Mandell, welfare work also was an internally flawed system because

the familial roles prescribed to employers, welfare managers, and employees

proved impossible to replicate in the corporation. By WW I, as employers’

interest declined, and as larger economic, social and political forces

challenged the Victorian ideal itself, the system of welfare work passed out of

favor. Swept away along with the system of welfare work was the central role

that women played in it. By the early 1920s, only a few women held managerial

positions. Why were women cast aside in favor of male personnel managers?

As part of the ongoing managerial reform movement, personnel management

promised to assist employers in selecting prospective employees who had the

requisite values and skills. Personnel management also attempted to keep

employees satisfied and sell the virtues of the company. Employee

representation plans (ERPs) also blossomed during the 1920s. Similar to

personnel management but less widespread, ERPs also were likely to be found in

large companies. By the early 1920s, the welfare system seemed archaic in the

modern world of managerial capitalism, yet welfare work remained-and even

expanded-a vital component of both personnel management and ERPs.

There was no inherent reason why women would become marginalized. However,

Mandell locates the root of their exile to the federal government beginning

during WW I when it made labor relations a top priority. It required all

federal contractors to employ personnel managers. Along with the Taylor

Society, the government advocated training courses for personnel managers. The

first one was set up in the spring of 1918 at the University of Rochester and

soon followed at other major universities. The National Association of

Employment Managers formed in May 1918 to promote the professionalism of

personnel managers but it excluded women. In general, “Men seemed to better

match the profile of the business manager, especially as the personnel movement

redefined labor relations as a masculine occupation. Men also had access to the

labor relations courses offered by university schools of business” (p. 151),

where women were excluded for admission. Moreover, by the early 1920s, women’s

roles in business narrowed to clerical and sales positions.

Despite valiant efforts by key women welfare managers, they lost their

leadership positions in corporate labor relations by the mid-1920s. Yet welfare

work left an ambiguous legacy: “Although women had pioneered the field and had

called for the kind of systematization and centralization that was the hallmark

of personnel management, their greatest experience lay in welfare work. As

welfare work became a subdivision of personnel management, welfare workers

became subordinate staff within those departments” (p. 153).

“The Corporation as Family” makes an important contribution to the literature

on welfare capitalism. While it covers familiar terrain in its descriptions of

welfare programs in well-known firms, it is novel for its focus on the welfare

managers and their largely unsuccessful struggles to gain respect from

employers and employees alike, and establish relevancy in the emergent

corporate bureaucracies.

A few unanswered questions remain, however. First, How did welfare work and

unionism interact apart from bouts of labor unrest? Were the experiences of

union workers different from unorganized workers? Did unions negotiate the

terms of welfare work? If so, were union workers more satisfied with the

offerings than nonunion workers? Second, How did women later regain prominence

in the field of personnel and human resources? At what point and why did this

shift occur? These, of course, are very minor issues that do not detract from

Mandell’s fine book.

Howard Stanger is Associate Professor of Management and Marketing at Canisius

College in Buffalo, NY. His recent published works include an overview of labor

relations in the newspaper industry since 1975, and the creation of a corporate

culture in the Larkin Company of Buffalo, NY, 1875-1907. He is currently

working on the history of Larkin’s welfare practices, and a textbook on

employee and labor relations (with Raymond Hogler).

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Asia-Pacific Dynamism, 1550-2000

Author(s):Latham, A.J.H.
Kawakatsu, Heita
Reviewer(s):Perdue, Peter

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)


A.J.H. Latham and Heita Kawakatsu, editors, Asia-Pacific Dynamism, 1550-2000. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. xiv + 281 pp. $110 (hardback), ISBN: 0-415-22778-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter Perdue, Department of History, MIT.

This book collects thirteen essays first presented at the Twelfth Congress of the International Economic History Association in Madrid, 1998. They all discuss the sources of dynamic economic growth in East Asia. The good news is that there is no Party line: the authors provide a wide range of theoretical and analytical perspectives. The bad news is that there is no Party line: no single coherent explanation emerges from such a disparate assemblage. Still, the authors introduce new data, make some surprising discoveries, and provoke new thoughts.

The essays fall are of three types: those that mainly introduce new data, those that test models developed for the European experience against empirical evidence from Asia, and those that pretty much tell the same old story, with some nuances. Some authors recognize the vital significance of inter-Asian linkages; others still treat each country in isolation. Because of space limitations, I can only discuss the first and second types in detail, but I should mention the useful survey article by D.A. Farnie on the Asian textile industry, Debin Ma’s comparison of Chinese and Japanese silk exports, and Derek Aldcroft’s discussion of education in the four little tigers.

The most impressive new data comes from Jeffrey Williamson’s extensive compilation of real wages in Asia. As he notes, wages for unskilled laborers measured against rice prices provide much more accurate gauges of economic development than aggregate measures which disguise unequal distributions of income. His argument confirms some things we expected, introduces surprising anomalies, and generates an agenda for further research. The period after the 1870s was one of rapid and extensive global integration, driven by new technologies driving down transportation and communication costs, and by the prodigious expansion of European empires around the world. Living standards converged in Europe and the Atlantic economies, but what happened to Asia? Williamson finds that in general, measured by real wages, Asians failed to take advantage of this new global conjuncture. Japan, the best performer, just kept up with England, but failed to catch up. Its real wages were one-third of Britain’s in the 1830s, and were the same in the 1920s. Other countries fell back to fifteen percent or less of Britain. Even though most Asian countries switched to free trade regimes in the late nineteenth century, they did not converge with the global leaders, and the gap between top and bottom widened. The relative ranking of countries, with Japan and Korea at the top, and Burma, India and China at the bottom, changed little from 1917 to 1997. Williamson generally is convinced by arguments that in the eighteenth century India and China were roughly equal to Europe, but he raises the key question, “Why did Asia exploit globalization so badly between 1870 and 1914?” He does not think that imperialism played an important role, but he seems to define imperialism very narrowly, in terms only of its direct economic effects on colonized regions. Other writers in this collection find imperial pressure on all the states of Asia, including uncolonized China, to be quite significant. This is an excellent, provocative, data-rich piece, with much food for thought.

Myung Soon Cha likewise uses new data creatively to make the bold argument that Japanese rule “created the modern economy of Korea” from 1905 to 1950. By measuring the coefficient of variation of price, wage, and interest rate series, he shows substantial progress toward market integration in the colonial period. Japanese railroad, telegraph, and telephone connections brought a regionally segmented economy together by creating much more integrated agricultural and labor markets. Capital markets did not progress so far. Although Japanese capital inflows helped to bring down interest rates, state interventions by both colonial and South Korean independent governments impeded financial markets. Like Williamson’s thesis on the failure of Asian industrialization programs to close the relative wage gap, Cha’s thesis on the positive effects of colonial rule will raise the ire of nationalists, but he has persuasive empirical backing.

Testing Eurocentric models of economic development against Asian experience also produces surprising results. Jaymin Lee finds that Alexander Gerschenkron’s thesis on late industrialization fails when applied to its home base in Europe, but succeeds in regard to Korea after the 1960s. Gerschenkron stressed the importance of sudden growth spurts led by producer goods industries, with extensive support from banks and the state, but according to Lee, Gerschenkron’s thesis fails to fit Germany and Russia, which according to revisionist studies, actually grew slowly, with market forces more important than the state or large banks. Actually, Lee overstates his case: Gerschenkron was really only off in his timing, not in his main argument. Germany after 1870 and Stalinist Russia do bear out his thesis better than earlier periods. Korea certainly did have a growth spurt in the 1960s led by heavy and chemical industries, with strong state guidance, confirming Gerschenkron’s model. But this exclusive focus on rates of growth may be misplaced, if economic development depends on leading sectors in key industries and certain key technological innovations, which only show up in growth rates long after they are introduced. Korea’s only difference was that the technological backlog was so large that new large-scale industries, in a relatively small country, had an immediate effect on growth.

Hans Bass looks at the degree of diversification of exports in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as an index of continuous innovation, related to Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction.” He finds that Taiwan successfully diversified its exports, beginning with agricultural commodities, moving to processed agricultural goods, then to electronics and machine tools, and now to high-tech products. True enough, but he makes a more dubious argument that the PRC is following Taiwan with a thirty-year time lag. The PRC did begin with oil and food exports, and has now moved to textiles, but there is little evidence that it has gone any further yet. The global environment is quite different from the Cold War period when the U.S. favored Taiwanese protectionism and access to U.S. markets. Taiwan could create without destroying much; the PRC in the World Trade Organization must create new markets and destroy many industrial jobs at the same time.

On the question of appropriate industrial size, Bass argues that Taiwan’s small family enterprises face disadvantages in global markets, because of “paternalism” and disadvantages of the “Confucian family tradition.” He may be right, but I wish he had relied for his “business sociology” on anthropologists and sociologists who have studied real Chinese firms rather than amateurs like Francis Fukuyama. Bass endorses the Goldilocks Principle that the best scope is “neither too small nor too large,” but gives no guidance as to when too much is too much. He knows that large state-owned enterprises in the PRC are “in a desperate condition,” but does not address the social costs of breaking them up.

David Clayton tests the assertions of Douglass North about property rights and institutions by examining Hong Kong from 1842 to 1960. He discovers that Hong Kong commercial organization worked quite well for a long time with two parallel sets of institutions: the British Chamber of Commerce, supporting state-enforced commercial codes, and Chinese organizations based on temples, ethnicity, native place, and family ties. Both flourished side by side, with little move toward integration or formalization, until the 1940s, and both opposed any regulation by the state. But then, “we need to bring politics into the story” (p. 160). The postwar colonial state intervened strongly to secure property rights and regulate markets, since piracy in the South China Sea fostered criminal flight, and the trade embargo on the PRC forced a redirection of trade. Then both the Chinese and British businessmen accepted a much larger state role in regulating business practice. So much for the fairy tale of the “laissez-faire” state in postwar Hong Kong. North’s thesis does not look too strong in this view: sometimes efficient economies need the state to enforce property rights, and sometimes they do not. Historical particularities matter.

Three of the most fascinating essays examine the currency systems of imperial China. Akinobu Kuroda critiques Sir John Hicks’s discussion of the origins of money. Hicks thought that money originated as a store of value by merchants in the West, but in Asia money was first created by the state as a means of payment. Hicks thought that governments always had an interest in increasing the supply of coin, so as to profit from minting. Kuroda shows that, on the contrary, Chinese empires put primary emphasis on maintaining high quality copper cash coins, so as to maintain unity across the empire. They did not overmint coins in search of seignorage profits. Local marketers, however could “regulate local liquidity without institutional support” (p. 190). The great silver influx of the sixteenth century greatly facilitated interregional trade, but it did not disturb local copper coin circulation, where currency values varied widely. The coexistence of autonomous local currency with interregional silver flows meant that China was much less integrated that it seemed. Silver was a skim coat on top of very diverse local marketing circuits. Historians have debated the degree of market integration in imperial and modern China a great deal. Kuroda once again focuses our attention on the parallel currency system as a key to this paradox.

Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giraldez have published many insightful articles on the effects of New World silver flows in Asia. Here they propose a bold contrarian thesis: that the great silver influx to China was harmful, not beneficial, to her economic development. Following the anti-bullionist arguments of Adam Smith, they claim that since China had to export huge quantities of silk textiles to obtain silver to commercialize her economy, she lost large resources that could have increased overall wealth at home. I find the argument ingenious but misconceived. The authors admit that silver imports stimulated the silk industry greatly and caused overall per capita income to increase; they insist, however that “economic development was weaker than would have been the case had China maintained a paper-money regime” (p. 206). This counter-factual statement begs many questions. Paper money had failed not once, but three times in earlier Chinese history: under the Song in thirteenth, the Yuan in the fourteenth, and the Ming in the fifteenth century. Each time, a state in fiscal crisis overissued paper money, causing inflation, debasement of the money, and commercial chaos. There’s no reason to think that late Ming or Qing rulers could have resisted the seductions of easy money any better. There are, indeed, social costs to using exports to gain foreign currency, but the alternatives are costly too: monetary instability with no precious metal backing. Since the authors do not try to measure these costs, we can’t decide if they would balance out. Can the authors show that the domestic silk industry would have grown faster in the absence of silver imports? Even in Europe, the best they can claim is that a shift from commodity-based money to paper in the nineteenth century “probably did contribute something” to European expansion (p. 210). In short, an ingenious abstraction from classical economic theory has outrun the particular conditions and empirical evidence that might make it applicable.

David J. St. Clair’s article on California argues that the Gold Rush indeed stimulated the development of manufacturing industry in California, while connecting the West Coast closely to Asian markets. California exported nearly all its silver to Asian markets, as well as much of its quicksilver [mercury], which was a key new element in improving the extraction of precious metals from ore. The Californian population boom stimulated flour and lumber mills, capital-intensive mining techniques, and new technologies of pumps, steam engines, and blacksmithing, among others. Through the nineteenth century, silver was still China’s lifeline to the world, even though she had to export much of it to buy opium. These three essays carry the story of precious metals as vital threads of the global economy from the sixteenth to the end of the nineteenth century.

The collection ends with two essays that appear to have nothing to do with each other. Actually, they form a stimulating pair of meditations on continuity and crisis in two different areas: banking and rice trade. Frank H.H. King stresses the high maintenance of tradition in the transition of the Hongkong Bank from a colonial to a multinational financial organization. The International Officers, generalists in a sea of specialists, still hold the bank together at the top with a corporate culture passed down, though adapted from, the old Hongkong Bank. A.J.H. Latham, on the other hand, points to constant turmoil in Asian rice markets in the 1990s as evidence that China itself is a “very unstable player in world markets.” He even blames the onset of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 on China’s devaluation of the Yuan in 1994, whose impact was aggravated by China’s need for rice imports resulting from floods on the Yangtze River in the same year. Thus he connects environmental degradation with international trade, showing how China impacts the world beyond its frontiers. Though too brief to be entirely persuasive, his comments are intriguing.

It is heartening to see increased attention to Asian economic development in historical perspective, based on new data sources and testing of models. As a whole, this volume adds much to ongoing study of Asian development, and opens paths for new questions and new answers.

Peter C. Perdue, T. T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at MIT, has published a book and several articles on economic and environmental change in imperial China. He is now completing a manuscript on the military, economic, and cultural implications of the Qing dynasty’s conquest of Central Eurasia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The New South’s New Frontier: A Social History of Economic Development in Southwestern North Carolina

Author(s):Taylor, Stephen Wallace
Reviewer(s):Phillips, William H.

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)

Stephen Wallace Taylor, The New South’s New Frontier: A Social History of

Economic Development in Southwestern North Carolina. Gainesville:

University Press of Florida, 2001. xix + 186 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by William H. Phillips, Department of Economics, University

of South Carolina.

In this book, Stephen Wallace Taylor, assistant professor of history at Macon

State College, has written a descriptive view of economic conditions in North

Carolina’s southwestern tip since 1880. This mountainous region, bordered by

Asheville on the east and Gatlinburg, Tennessee on the north, is identified

today by its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the

modern mind, it is a recreational area that was never affected by American

industrialization. However, Professor Taylor recounts the history of an area

that was actively engaged in timber and mining operations, with local boosters

dreaming of future industrialization based on water-generated electrical power.

This future was sidetracked in the twentieth century by wider national

concerns: the rise of the conservation movement in the early 1900s, and the New

Deal showcase of government regional planning, the Tennessee Valley Authority


Taylor gives an important role in his story to postbellum writers who

stereotyped the region as one of isolated mountainfolk. This included the

popular writings of Horace Kephart, who idealized a pioneer lifestyle that had

disappeared from commercialized America. In fact, the inhabitants of the

mountains were survivors, who rotated between agriculture, mining and timber as

economic opportunities warranted. Of necessity, they were more mobile than the

writers imagined, and the region had many seemingly timeless villages that had

once been boomtowns.

In the early 1900s the booming sectors were copper and lumber. Although the

copper expansion was limited by marginal ores, large scale clear-cutting fed

major lumberyards that required company town housing. The future of the area

seemed to ride on Alcoa and the aluminum industry. With massive power

requirements for plants in eastern Tennessee, Alcoa begin buying land in

anticipation of building a massive dam at Fontana, on the Little Tennessee

River. Although the reservoir would result in the loss of precious farmland,

boosters hoped that surplus power from the dam could fuel a local industrial


The 1920s and early 30s were a critical time for the Smokies. Forest depletion

in the most accessible areas led to timber industry decline. Then the Great

Depression reduced mineral demand. Besides the direct impact on the local

copper mines, concern about over-capacity led Alcoa to put its water power

plans on hold. Into this gloomy atmosphere came a national drive by

preservationists and conservationists to create national parks and forests in

the eastern United States. The fascination with America’s mountain regions

began with the health resorts favored by wealthy industrialists. Attention was

further focused on southwestern North Carolina by Vanderbilt’s estate in


Local boosters argued that the region could get tourism dollars now, while

industrial development would come with the eventual construction of Alcoa’s

dam. The first decision to be made was whether to create a national park,

favored by preservationists, or a national forest, favored by conservationists.

The park option would generate the most tourism, while the forest option would

enable the timber industry to continue operations. Despite significant

opposition from lumber companies, who still had large land holdings, Congress

approved the Smoky Mountains Park in 1925.

The park was not actually formed until the onset of the Depression, by which

time another institution with interest in the area entered the scene. The

Tennessee Valley Authority’s business was regional planning. The key to that

planning was complete control over the water flow of the Tennessee River

watershed. This meant that Alcoa’s control of a future dam on the Little

Tennessee River would permanently hamstring its operations. Alcoa’s monopoly

position in the aluminum market further intensified the hostility of TVA’s New

Deal progressives, who sought to purchase the dam site and run the dam in the

agency’s interest.

Before this political battle could completely play out, World War II raised the

stakes. Aluminum for airplanes was now a critical need, and the power from the

Fontana Dam was needed as soon as possible. A bid by Alcoa to retain ownership

and have the Federal Government pay for construction costs backfired

politically. The result was that Alcoa was forced to sell the Fontana site to

the TVA in return for a guaranteed power supply. Professor Taylor believes that

with the TVA in charge of the dam and its uses, the interests of the Smoky

Mountain region and its inhabitants were inevitably given little weight. TVA’s

main contact with the local area was during the dam’s construction, after which

it concentrated on distributing the power into eastern Tennessee. Even the

recreational use of the reservoir was limited, as annual summer draw downs to

meet power needs left docks and boat ramps stranded.

The perception that Tennessee was getting most of the benefits of federal

policy was reinforced by the actions of the Park Service in the Smokies. Many

inhabitants of land included in the park felt that officials misled them over

how long and under what conditions they could continue to reside there. Some of

this was due to changing views of what the park should be. The final policy was

one that attempted to eradicate traces of the land development that had already

occurred within park boundaries. This created more dislocation on the North

Carolina side, where more development had taken place.

The final battle revolved around the “North Shore Road.” This was a road that

the Park Service had agreed to build along Fontana Lake to replace a route

inundated after dam construction. Such a road would have given Bryson City,

North Carolina immediate entry into the park, enhancing its value as a tourist

stop. Park officials came to feel that such a road would create too much damage

to park land, and they successfully lobbied for abandonment of the original

plan. As a result, the Cherokee Reservation became North Carolina’s entryway to

the park, with the subsequent diversion of tourist dollars. Local civic

boosters especially resented the success of Gatlinburg, whose entryway on the

Tennessee side became the most popular destination for visitors.

The only shortcoming in this well written book is the lack of a critical

assessment of the area’s true industrial potential. In the absence of a

concrete proposal of what industries would have moved into the area had not the

TVA diverted the dam’s power, it is difficult to take the dreams of civic

boosters at face value. Unless an industry was to develop around some unique

mineral resource in southwestern North Carolina, the region was only left with

the standard Southern industrialization strategy: labor-intensive

manufacturing. But if labor is mobile, it is easier for Southern manufacturers

to entice the local population to more convenient locations for plant

operation. In their early years, Piedmont textile firms regularly sent labor

recruiters into the mountains offering train tickets. Perhaps a look at the

North Carolina furniture industry or Dalton, Georgia’s carpet industry might

reveal how the region could have forged an industry built around local craft

skills. Despite this reservation, the book will be very useful to historians

interested in the economic development of the Appalachian region.

William H. Phillips is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of

South Carolina. He is currently researching the development of the Southern

cotton gin manufacturing industry and, more generally, patents issued to

Southern inventors before World War I.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression

Author(s):McGovern, James R.
Reviewer(s):Dighe, Ranjit S.

Published by EH.NET (February 2002)


James R. McGovern, And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001. xii + 354 pp. $69.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-275-96786-7; $24.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-275-97544-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ranjit S. Dighe, Department of Economics, State University of New York at Oswego.

James R. McGovern’s engaging new book is a social history of America in the 1930s whose main thesis is that the American people weathered the Depression Decade remarkably well, never losing their characteristic confidence and hopefulness. Although economics is not the book’s focus, the book will still be of interest to economic historians seeking a fuller picture of the response to depression and of American life in general during the 1930s.

The resilience and hopefulness of the American people in the Great Depression have been noted before. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Franklin D. Roosevelt trilogy described a nation that reflected its president’s sangfroid and confidence, taking to heart FDR’s famous line, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” An early review of Studs Terkel’s landmark oral history Hard Times called it “a huge anthem in praise of the American spirit” (Terkel, p. i). McGovern’s contribution is to give us a social history of the 1930s that places that spirit of hopefulness at its center and that emphasizes the progress that did occur during that decade. Far from being a decade of drift, McGovern argues, the 1930s continued America’s forward march, even if the country’s economic indicators did not.

The book is smartly organized by topic rather than chronologically, with twelve central chapters that are sufficiently self-contained that they can be read in any order. That flexibility is a particular virtue because the quality of the individual chapters is somewhat uneven. Because the book’s stronger chapters stand so well on their own, they are ideal as outside-reading assignments for American economic history classes and as quick refreshers for researchers trying to get a feel for 1930s America.

Although the author has clearly gotten his hands appropriately dirty with primary sources, the book’s key findings seem to come as syntheses of other research works, as is evident from the extensive endnotes and the inclusion of seventy-five books in the select bibliography of “books especially helpful to me.” This is not really a problem, since the author’s thesis is unique. Indeed, some of the book’s strongest chapters are those that rely most heavily on secondary sources. The key primary sources used are the official papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Civil Works Administration chief Harry Hopkins, numerous reports from the Federal Writers Project and photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and microfilms from a dozen-plus newspapers

Title notwithstanding, the book is really about the New Deal years of the 1930s, not the entire Depression. The Great Contraction of late 1929 to early 1933 does not fit so well with the book’s thesis about the “relative poise and ease” with which Americans confronted the worst economic catastrophe in their country’s history. McGovern himself admits in the book’s conclusion that a “more severe and longer-lasting Depression” would have severely tested the people’s resilience. Thus the Great Contraction is handled separately in the first chapter, “A Troubled Nation, 1929-1934,” which describes a nation under severe strain and desperate for a way out. While the chapter does a fine job of telling its story with primary-source quotes from people feeling the pinch of the Depression, the story is nevertheless a familiar one. Since one cannot tell this story without some discussion of the contraction’s economic causes, McGovern briefly discusses them, and manages to do so in terms that most economic historians would find reasonable. He describes the contraction as a collapse of aggregate demand brought on by a massive decline in consumer confidence, likely precipitated by the stock-market crash (a la Romer 1990) and amplified by the thousands of bank failures.

Again, while the book is a social rather than economic history of the depression years, economic historians and their students will still likely want to know how Americans coped with the country’s greatest economic catastrophe. Here McGovern does a good job of sketching the various institutions, from families and churches and communities to New Deal programs to movies and radio and magazines to urban entertainments and immigrant networks, that gave Americans strength and nourishment. McGovern properly focuses on those institutions in the 1930s not merely as coping mechanisms but as central features of American life whose evolution and various changes are essential developments in the country’s history. The book is at its best in detailing those institutions, as in the chapters on rural and small-town communities, African Americans in the South’s cotton belt, and the sporting and nightlife attractions of New York City and Chicago.

The book reaches its zenith in Chapters 8 through 10, “Seeing Tomorrow,” “Americans Go to the Movies,” and “Americans Listen at Home,” all of which would be excellent supplementary readings for an undergraduate economic history class. “Seeing Tomorrow” surveys the numerous economic advancements and innovations that did occur in the 1930s: the spread of radio, the wider use of electricity (aided by such New Deal projects as the Tennessee Valley Authority) and appliances such as refrigerators, the great dams, the great skyscrapers and bridges, the spread of commercial air travel, and, of course, the two major world’s fairs, in Chicago (1933-34) and New York (1939-40). One easily overlooks how many of America’s great landmarks were built in the 1930s, including the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder), and the Golden Gate Bridge. These landmarks were instant sensations with tourists (the still-unfinished Boulder Dam drew more visitors in 1934-35 than the Grand Canyon!) and with the rest of the public, who eagerly read about them in picture magazines such as Life (which also made its debut in the 1930s).

Chapters 9 and 10, on the movies and radio, are delightful and grounded in subtle yet convincing economic explanations of the trends in both media. Motion pictures and radio were two of the country’s rare economic success stories in the 1930s. The growing popularity of Hollywood movies and national radio broadcasts gave Americans a common (pop) culture and a greater sense of connectedness. The 1930s are almost universally acknowledged as a golden age of Hollywood, but its films in 1930-34 and 1935-39 were of distinctly different types. The earlier period was the heyday of the “kiss kiss” and “bang bang” movies (think Mae West and Jimmy Cagney), whereas the later period saw a decided turn toward more wholesome and uplifting fare, as exemplified in the films of Frank Capra. McGovern makes a convincing case that the shift occurred because the public voted with its dollars against the sensational and for the inspirational. Chapter 10 makes much the same argument for consumer sovereignty on the part of the American radio public, who demanded, and got, similarly affirming family fare that would help them maintain a positive attitude in the face of economic adversity. In both cases we see an interesting endogenous relationship, in which the public demands positive messages in its entertainment media, gets them, and finds comfort and inspiration in them.

Another chapter that I suspect will be of interest to economic historians is Chapter 6, “Rural Worlds Confirmed,” which is devoted mostly to debunking John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Although Steinbeck’s classic is one of my favorite books, and one I have even used as a supplementary reading in my economic history class, McGovern argues effectively that the typical experience of the 315,000-plus “Okies” who migrated to California in the 1930s was not nearly so dire as that of Steinbeck’s fictitious yet archetypal Joad family. Many Oklahomans had already moved to California, under better conditions, in the 1920s, and many of the 1930s migrants were able to draw on the resources of already-established Okie communities in California (Merle Haggard’s Bakersfield comes immediately to mind). Moreover, far from finding nothing but dismal migrant farm work, the majority of Okies seem to have eventually experienced upward mobility in California, and chose to settle down in a single place, even if it meant a temporary stint on relief. To be sure, the misery and exploitation that Steinbeck described was the reality of many of the new arrivals in California, especially the Mexican immigrants, but California was hardly the dead end that his book implied.

McGovern is less sure-footed, and sometimes tendentious, when he ventures out of the realm of social history and into the areas of political and labor history. Chapters 2 and 3, “The President” and “The New Deal,” seem almost to have been written by two different people. Chapter 2 is a glowing tribute to the inspirational character and personality of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas Chapter 3 is a near-indictment of the New Deal for failing to provide adequate relief or sufficiently vigorous anti-poverty programs. (And yet the concluding chapter strongly praises the New Deal’s relief and reform programs, as well as the “responsive and innovative government under Roosevelt.”) Taken together, the two chapters underscore McGovern’s theme of a confident and hopeful people who prevail over extreme hardship, but they could have been organized better. Moreover, McGovern seems to overstate the New Deal’s failings so as to strengthen his story of American perseverance.

While the New Deal obviously fell well short of producing a full economic recovery, it did provide substantial relief to millions of Americans, a fact that McGovern seems to soft-pedal. McGovern presents the high official unemployment figures for the late 1930s as evidence of the inadequacy of New Deal relief, yet he does not mention the “Darby-corrected” unemployment rates (the Darby correction is to follow current practice and count government relief workers as employed), which lower the late-1930s unemployment rates drastically and suggest that the New Deal provided a lot of employment relief. The Darby-corrected unemployment rates in 1937 and 1940, for example, are in the single digits, more than five percentage points lower than the official unemployment rates of 14.3 percent and 14.6 percent. Although the American social safety net of the late 1930s was not without some gaping holes, the New Deal did mark a sweeping regime change, moving the United States once and for all into the world of welfare-state capitalism. Even though Roosevelt never embraced socialism, aspects of the New Deal were clearly socialistic, as Peter Temin (1989) has noted. In fact, by 1938 federal spending on employment programs was a larger share of GDP in the United States (6.3%) than in Britain, France, Germany, or Sweden (Lipset and Marks 2000, p. 286).

If Chapter 3 seems to take a left-wing approach to the New Deal and its shortcomings, several of the subsequent chapters seem to approach matters from the opposite end of the political spectrum, telling a rosy story of American exceptionalism based on individualism and contentment. The chapter on “American Workers,” for example, seems to go out of its way to minimize the gains in union membership and strength in the 1930s. McGovern cites the sixteen percent unionization rate as evidence that very few workers “regarded the situation to be so threatening to warrant union membership” (p. 275), without noting that the unionization rate of nonfarm workers was much higher (about twenty-nine percent). He attributes the union setbacks in the severe “Roosevelt recession” of 1937-38 not so much to the recession but to a general disenchantment with unions, and gives the misleading impression that the unions’ late-1930s setbacks were the beginning of the end for them, when in fact their gains would continue through the mid-to-late 1940s (when some two-thirds of factory workers belonged to unions). Most egregious of all is the following slam at FSA photographer Dorothea Lange, whose harrowing photographs (including the classic “Destitute Pea Picker in California, Migrant Mother of 6”) are among the most enduring representations of the Depression: “Although middle-class intellectuals like Lange showed a great capacity to empathize with poor folks living on the edge, they seem less well endowed to depict an abiding personal and cultural strength in their subjects. To do so, of course, would imply that they could begin to help themselves” (pp. 105-06). Thankfully, such snideness is relatively rare, and McGovern seems to contradict that statement in the book’s conclusion, when he says Lange underscored her subjects’ “real courage” as outstanding. (That assessment seems closer to the mark: Lange told an interviewer that the most important things about her subjects were “their pride, their strength, their spirit” [Davis, p. 49]).

Ultimately, such flaws are vastly outweighed by the book’s contributions. Beyond fulfilling his goal of portraying an America that maintained a sense of hopefulness and progress during hard times, McGovern has written a fascinating account of a vibrant American cultural and social life that (as William Faulkner might have said) not only endured but prevailed in the Depression Decade. Together with the books cited below, plus Irving Bernstein’s great trilogy on the labor and political history of the period and William J. Barber’s slender volumes on Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s economic policy-making, McGovern’s book belongs on a list of essential reading about the American economy and society in the Great Depression.

(James R. McGovern is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of West Florida.)


Bernstein, Michael A. (1987) The Great Depression: Delayed Recovery and Economic Change in America, 1929-1939. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Darby, Michael (1976). “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941,” Journal of Political Economy 84: 1-16.

Davis, Keith F. (1995) The Photographs of Dorothea Lange. Kansas City: Hallmark Cards, Inc.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Gary Marks (2000). It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: W.W. Norton.

Romer, Christina D. (1990). “The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 105: 597-623.

Temin, Peter (1989). Lessons from the Great Depression. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Terkel, Studs (1970). Hard Times. New York: Avon Books.

Ranjit S. Dighe is Assistant Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Oswego. He is the author of several papers on American labor markets in the Great Depression, as well as The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (2002, forthcoming).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production

Author(s):Smil, Vaclav
Reviewer(s):Johnson, D. Gale

Published by EH.NET (November 2001)

Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the

Transformation of World Food Production. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

xxii + 338 pp. $34.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-262-19449-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by D. Gale Johnson, Professor of Economics, Emeritus,

University of Chicago.

This is a book about nitrogen, an essential nutrient for all plants. It

begins with the discovery and demonstration of the role of nitrogen in plant

growth. The nitrogen available to plants has several natural sources — the

ammonia present in rain and that deposited by leguminous crops, supplemented

by manure, derived from both animals and humans. The story is told of the

intellectual conflicts between Justus von Liebig, who maintained that all

nitrogen available to plants came from the atmosphere, and researchers at the

famous Rothamsted Experimental Station in England who through experiments with

wheat showed that the nitrogen from the atmosphere was insufficient to have a

significant effect on yields while the application of ammonium sulfate or

manure resulted in significant increases in yields, roughly double those of

fields fertilized only by the nitrogen in rain. Professor Smil of the

Department of Geography of the University of Manitoba develops this and other

stories in an interesting and informative way.

The major story is the development of the process by which nitrogen can be

extracted from the air. In contrast to other sources of nitrogen, such as

guano and South American sodium nitrate, which were exhaustible, there is an

inexhaustible supply of nitrogen in the air. The problem was how to extract

that nitrogen at reasonable cost.

Chapter 4 deals with the work of Fritz Haber who achieved the successful

extraction of ammonia from the air. Chapter 5 discusses the role of Carl Bosch

and the BASF firm in the commercialization of the process. An important reason

for the rapid development of commercialization was the First World War.

Germany was cut off from its supply of nitrates, used in the production of

munitions. BASF stepped in and supplied the material.

In Chapter 8 Smil speculates about the effect that the availability of

synthetic nitrogen has had on the world’s population. He argues that the world

is enormously dependent on nitrogen and that less than half of the current

world population could be fed without the availability of synthetic nitrogen:

” . . . only about half of the population of the late 1990s could be fed at

the generally inadequate per capita level of 1900 diets without nitrogen

fertilizer. And if we were to provide the average 1995 per capita food supply

with the 1900 level of agricultural productivity, we could feed only about 2.4

billion people, or just 40% of today’s total” (p. 160).

Smil notes that during the nineteenth century that the world was able to feed

the unprecedented population increase from 1.0 billion to 1.6 billion by

expanding the cultivated area (p. 39). The expansion occurred primarily in

North America, Australia and Russia and was sufficient to permit an increase

in per capita food supplies. The expansion of area continued in the twentieth

century but concern was expressed at the beginning of the century that

insufficient land was available to meet the needs of the growing population.

William Crookes argued that if the low wheat yields that existed in the 1890s

were to continue (and they did for at least a half century), the increase in

global demand would result in a deficiency of wheat as early as the 1930s.

What Crookes did not foresee, and what Smil does not recognize, was the role

the tractor played in contributing to the food supply, especially in the

industrial nations, after World War I. It was estimated that draft animals

utilized a quarter of all the harvested output of American agriculture in the

1920s (Gray, 1924). In fact, researchers in the United States Department of

Agriculture wrote a long article in the early 1920s in which they indicated

that the United States would have to reduce its consumption of animal products

in order to feed a population of 150 million (Gray, 1924). The United States

reached a population 150 million in 1950 and was somewhat better fed than in

1920. Why were these very competent researchers wrong in their projection?

First, they did not foresee that by the time the population reached 150

million that horses and mules would be largely replaced by the tractor,

releasing up to a quarter of the nation’s crop output. Second, one reason for

their gloom was that grain yields in the United States had increased very

little since the 1860s and they saw no reason to expect significant yield

increases in the future.

Smil makes no mention of the tractor and other forms of mechanical power that

have contributed significantly to the available food supply for humans — true

much more so in the industrial countries than in the developing countries but

clearly significant for the world as a whole.

While there is no doubt that synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has had an enormous

impact on the world’s food supply, Smil largely fails to recognize that this

innovation was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the enormous

increase in food that has occurred over the last half century. The varieties

of grain available prior to the mid-1930s were not responsive to significant

amounts of added nutrients. Yields of corn and wheat in the United States were

essentially the same in the late 1920s as in the late 1860s or even in 1800

(USDA, 1962). The corn yield per acre averaged 25.3 bushels in 1866-70 and

26.5 in 1925-29, while wheat yields were 12.3 and 14.1. Wheat yields in

England were 2.08 metric tons per hectare in 1832-59 and 2.25 tons in 1918-45

(Austin and Arnold, 1989), an increase of less than 10 percent in nearly a


Hybrid corn, which became commercially available in the mid-1930s, was the

first variety of grain that was responsive to significant amounts of nitrogen

and other nutrients. By 1960 corn yields in the United States were double what

they were in the late 1920s and are now five times that level. In the 1960s

new high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat were developed and large yield

increases have been achieved. Smil notes that the use of nitrogen fertilizers

did not increase significantly until the late 1940s when U.S. consumption was

approximately 0.25 million tons; it reached 11 million tons by 1980. It didn’t

increase prior to the 1940s because it was not profitable to use.

It is very surprising that Smil says so little about the complementary

relationships between improved grain varieties and the rapid growth of

nitrogen application. I found only two brief references to hybrid corn (pp.

116 and 150) and one reference to the Green Revolution (p. 139), plus a rather

demeaning footnote.

The footnote (no. 30, p. 296): “The Green Revolution did little for yields of

nonstaple cereals, legumes and oil crops. Its diffusion has been very uneven .

. . and some of its socio-economic and environmental consequences have been

widely criticized in many books published since the 1960s.” There is no

recognition that grain yields in developing countries more than doubled

between 1964-66 and 1994-96 after a long period of stagnation and the daily

per capita supply of calories in the same countries increased by 23 percent

between 1970 and 1996 — a quite remarkable achievement for a flawed


It is rather ironic that a major environmentally adverse effect of modern

grain production is the leaching of nitrogen into rivers, lakes and other

sources of water supplies. Smil recognizes the negative effects of the high

level of use of synthetic nitrogen for the industrial countries (pp. 192-197)

and for rice in the developing countries (p. 219). It is somewhat odd for him

to attribute environmental costs to the Green Revolution without directly

acknowledging the role that his heroes — Haber and Bosch — had in harming

ecosystems throughout the world.

This is a remarkably well-documented book — there are 813 footnotes. It has a

high standard of scholarship. It makes a very strong case for the importance

of the extraction of nitrogen from the air for the lives of all of us.

Unfortunately the author largely ignores other important developments that

were essential for the effective utilization of synthetic nitrogen.

Together with important innovations in plant breeding, the availability of low

cost nitrogen broke the pattern of low grain yields that had persisted for at

least a century and probably longer. The world is a very different place as a



Austin, Roger B. and Michael H. Arnold (1989), “Variability of Wheat Yields in

England: Analysis and Future Prospects,” in Jock R. Anderson and Peter B. R.

Hazell, editors, Variability of in Grain Yields. Baltimore: Johns

Hopkins University Press, pp. 100-106.

Gray, L. C., et al (1924), “The Utilization of our Land for Crops, Pasture and

Forest,” in United States Department of Agriculture, Yearbook of

Agriculture 1923. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

United States Department of Agriculture (1962), Agricultural Statistics

1962. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

D. Gale Johnson is the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor

of Economics Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He is the author of

World Agriculture in Disarray, revised edition 1991 and “Agricultural

Adjustment in China: Problems and Prospects,” Population and Development

Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, June 2000.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII