The Social Basis of the American System of Manufacturing*

by John E. Sawyer
The Journal of Economic History, Volume XIV, 1954, p. 361-379


OF THE many tasks confronting economic history, none are more shrouded in uncertainty than those encompassed in the theme "Institutional and Cultural Factors in Economic History." We have in general treated these factors respectfully, but as a profession we have preferred to work in areas more clearly defined and with tools more fully developed. As a result few areas have received less sustained attention than the zones where we must seek the interplay of economic, social, and cultural forces.

My general question is whether for analyzing problems of differential economic growth - and particularly cases of sustained indigenous development that is neither imposed from without nor centrally controlled or financed from within - we may not have to give greater attention to areas lying beyond traditional economic categories and familiar quantities, to probe further into the ways in which social and cultural factors bear upon economic processes, stimulating or retarding the beginnings of growth, and acting to sustain or dampen out phases of growth once under way.

There are good reasons behind caution in the past, and for caution in the future, in venturing beyond the side of the street better lit to date by both theory and statistics, and expectations of what is likely to be promptly or firmly proved had best be modest. But the darker areas on the other side of the street, which the newer psychological and social sciences have been exploring, seem too important to economic history to be left either to the poets and novelists of successive generations, or solely to bold spirits, like Weber or Schumpeter, who have at intervals swept across our horizon.



The particular case to which I would like to turn the discussion is one close to home—a case centering on the American system of manufacturing and the possible part that social and cultural factors may have played in its origins or in its persisting features. My concern at this point is not with final evaluations—the subject is too big and complex and still needs too much examination for that—but rather with developing the question as it has presented itself in two substantial sets of evidence more than a century apart, one from our own day and one from the period of its beginnings.

Perhaps the most pointed and most considerable body of recent evidence on this problem is that which emerged from the experience with the American foreign aid programs in the years since the Second World War (under the E.C.A.—the Marshall Plan—and its successor agencies, M.S.A. and F.O.A.).1 This experience may be roughly divided into two parts, that of Americans abroad and that of Europeans here.

The relevant parts of the record of American operations overseas have now become sufficiently familiar to need no extensive review. Aid programs which got under way under assumptions that the task was largely one of dollars and tools, and that a given input of these would yield given results, again and again were confronted by evidence of unexpected sharpness on the extent to which these, while essential, were not enough. A given allocation of funds or equipment or technical assistance simply did not produce anticipated results. In some instances even virtually identical plants that had been set up abroad by American firms had shown conspicuously lower output records than their counterparts at home. Gradually, in case after case and country after country, those closest to the task found themselves struggling with the more intangible aspects of productivity. They found their attention directed not just to the formal framework of credit, market, and business organization but beyond that to a full range of considerations that we would place under the headings of social and cultural factors: the ways in which prevailing value systems, family patterns, social stratification, and a network of social relationships extending far beyond the place of work affected not only the character of the firm and of the market but the behavior and aspirations of various participants in the economic process—entrepreneurs, investors, technicians, workers, jobbers, retailers, and, not least, consumers.

Out of this disparate but very practical experience emerged a new light on the American scene, a reverse light pointing to the economic significance of attitudes and social arrangements at home that had received only perfunctory attention.

More significant for our special example is the supporting evidence from the other side of the coin, the second major part of the record, the positive observations of the now hundreds of European "productivity teams" who have come to the United States since 1949 to look into the highways and byways of American economic life. Of their findings and conclusions we are fortunate in having an extensive published record, now totaling several hundreds of reports and many thousands of pages.2 This mass of reports, particularly some of the major series like the British and the French, when taken together with the American reports from abroad, constitute an unusually extensive and detailed body of observations on comparative industrial practices. Although these reports need a great deal of sifting and correction for obvious limitations inherent in such visits and reports, for uneven depth and quality, and for certain predispositions or private interests, they are in the main the serious work of responsible economic agents thoroughly familiar with their home industries—executives, engineers, foremen, and others—who quite generally came here with real and practical problems in mind, to find out all they could about the nature of and reasons for whatever superiority the United States might have in their several lines of activity.

I have not surveyed the whole of this literature. I can, however, report from a significant sample of the major series that their reports present social and cultural factors in at least as strong an image as did those on European countries. The importance assigned to social and cultural conditions and pressures, in trying to explain differences in productivity, is both persistent and considerable. A British writer, reviewing the entire series published in England by the Anglo-American Council on Productivity, concludes:

When the sixty-six A.A.C.P. Teams between 1949 and 1952 made comprehensive inquiries in so many American industries (most of which they already knew by their own technical experience) not one could report that the U. S. prodigies of production were achieved by methods unknown, or technically impossible, in Britain.3

Though technical materials were typically the initial focus of investigation, and the lengthy explanations they require occupy a large part of the space, few reports, no matter how technical their starting points, fail to turn to social and cultural themes.




A careful examination of twenty-five reports selected from this British series as being relevant to our problem shows sociocultural categories of explanation given major place in roughly two thirds, and what appears to be a still more crucial role in about half of these.4 An example of this over-all emphasis may be chosen from the report on an industry that has not always fared so well at home, the building industry, where the findings were summarized as follows:

. . . in this Report we have examined the main psychological, organizational and technical differences between the British and American building industries with the object of isolating the factors which make for high productivity in the United States. In our opinion, the most important, but not the only, factors are (i) . . . pre-planning . . . (ii) . . . coordination . . . (iii) the adequacy of supplies . . . (iv) . . . mechanical aids (v) . . . continuous research . . . and (vi) the nation-wide stimulus of the American industrial climate....

This last reason . . . is perhaps the most important of all. Acceptance of the need for high productivity as an essential factor in industrial life is universal in America, and it permeates the will and action of the operatives as well as of the employer groups.5

Statements in like vein can be duplicated in the British or other reports. Any one report, however, is subject to many possible distortions. It therefore appears more useful to try to illustrate a range of particular themes that recur again and again in a wide variety of reports; and, without attempting any full tally, to do this in sufficient fullness both to make clear some of the kinds of things that struck foreign observers as important today and to indicate themes that an earlier run of evidence suggests have been of persisting significance.

Thus on the general outlook of Americans toward economic life:6

[Productivity] is part of the American way of life, an article of faith as much as a matter of economics.... Americans believe that it is their mission to lead the world in production efficiency. Every small town has its own newspaper and radio station, and the performance of local industries is daily news. Individuals, trade unions and management are equally convinced that their different ends will be served only by high productivity.... (Coal, p. 4.)

There, the feeling that "the sky is the limit" still prevails and Americans generally seem to believe not only in the possibility of self-advancement by individual effort but also in the desirability of making that effort. (Freight Handling p. 50.)

In an average American factory there seems to be . . . a sense of urgency and aliveness.... It is characteristic of Americans that they seldom hesitate to make changes. . . . The executive is keenly aware that better methods are always possible, and labour believes that the more there is produced the more there is to divide. (Furniture, p. 70.)

. . . there seems to be no feeling in America, as there so often is here, that a sojourn at a university has unfitted the graduate for the rigours of a business life .... there is a lack of snobbishness among educational bodies and the American people in general about success in business, which is as highly regarded as professional success. (Retailing, p. 72.)

On entrepreneurs and the executive role:

Amongst the top executives we met, we encountered a freshness and breadth of outlook . . . a readiness to encourage and pass on knowledge to juniors. It is accepted that industry offers an excellent career for people possessing brains, character, and ability. (Hosiery and Knitwear, p. 8.)

"Cost-consciousness" ... does not simply mean cutting costs.... It also means not missing opportunities. He will just as readily embark on large-scale and ambitious expenditure if the rewards . . . appear sufficient. (Management Accounting, p. 37)

American managements look continually towards the future. They base their decisions on an intelligent anticipation of trends rather than wait until the pressure of current events forces them to make decisions. (Production Control, pp. 7, 17.) We found that the principal would unhesitatingly change his specialist supplier, even if the association had been lengthy, whenever a similar product at lower cost or of superior quality was available from another quarter. (Simplification in Industry, p. 9.)

American managers have such a different conception of their job.... [He] conceives it to be his duty above all else to increase his sales.... This concentration on turnover leads naturally to a conception of retailing as an aggressive process; something the retailer does to his customers rather than something they do to him. (Retailing, p. 46.)

The U.S. has outpaced the U.K. in the matter of increasing national productivity because U.S. management has, overall, shown much more foresight, courage and vigour in taking and applying the various decisions to make progress round the spiral. (Machine Tools, p. 44.)

On staff and the lower levels of management:

The managerial candidate tends to receive education of a more general character to a later age than is customary in Britain, and to acquire his technical knowledge by actual service.... He is thus led by training and circumstance to seek the widest personal exchange of knowledge and views on technical and administrative practices ... and this habit, early acquired, appears to continue.... (Hosiery and Knitwear, pp. 6-7.)

. . . we are convinced that the American foreman as defined is better informed about company policy and tends to have wider responsibility.... It is both the policy and practice of American management to bring a well-informed responsible member of management into closer day to day contact with the operative than is possible in most British factories. (Training of Supervisors, p. 7; also p. 1O.)

On labor and the attitudes of workers and toward workers:

. . . in not a single case did we find serious opposition to the introduction of new methods of materials handling or mechanical aids. Trade union officials generally expressed the view that such changes were inevitable and that progress could not be impeded. (Materials Handling in Industry, p. 39.)

We found a very positive attitude to work, with tea breaks uncommon and lunch breaks of only half-an-hour. Moreover, we found that the American worker appears to have no objection to overtime, nor to shift work: a great number of firms were working two or three shifts. (Packet Foods, p. 64.)

An American feels that he can, if he chooses, move from one industry to another. . . . In Britain the "tradesman" values the position he has gained by his years of apprenticeship and training; in America the workman equally values his position of independence in industry. (Furniture, p. 5.)

American unions' attitude to company profits is typical of their acceptance of a capitalist economy.... Usually, high profits are considered a sign of efficiency . . . and the main concern of unions is to obtain a fair share of them. (Trade Unions and Productivity, p. 52.)

The American workman is not a mere workman; he is an American and he aims to live as well as and to use his own expression to "have fun" to the same extent as any other American. There is not that social distinction between management and worker which is found in Britain. (The Brassfoundry, p. 6.)

On consumption patterns and pressures:

The American's social status is measured in terms of ownership, not so much of money as of material goods . . . [and] is most important to Americans, especially to women. They are fond of their homes, fond of good clothes, fond of going one better than the family next door. In this respect there is far greater competition than is found in Britain, and it is the womenfolk who promote this competition and urge their men to make it possible. (The Brassfoundry, p. 6.) . . . the American housewife is less conservative and more adventurous, and seems always willing to buy something new or different. (Retailing, p. 7.)

In the lively American economy, the market continuously exercises great pressure on the producer for new textile products, with novelty, with eye-appeal, and/or of low price. From this pressure results a receptivity to new ideas, methods, devices and equipment on the part of both management and workers, which we found most refreshing. (Hosiery and Knitwear, p. 7.)

On certain characteristics of the American system of manufacturing:

. . . one common characteristic which seems to emerge: . . . a conscious effort by the manufacturer to achieve greater productivity by studied methods and not by ad hoc improvements. (Packet Foods, p. 62.)

As low cost is the main object of American industry no premium is placed on craftsmanship for its own sake. Only so much accuracy and refinement of finish are put into the article as are necessary if it is to meet the standard of the quality range for which it was originally designed. (Management Accounting, p. 7)

We attempted to find the key to this unexpected alliance of variety and standardisation . . . standardisation and simplification, as we saw them operated in the United States, are nothing more than means towards mechanisation. (Packaging, p. 25.)

The marked machine consciousness in America.... Whilst the cost of the equipment is naturally taken into account, the returns on it are calculated not merely in the narrow sense of money but in the wider sense of adding to the firm's general resources and improving the working conditions of the staff. (Freight Handling, pp. 49, 50.)

The principles and methods which American management applies are well known in this country but are practiced much more universally and vigorously in America. (Management Accounting, p. 14.)

The list could be multiplied, or similar citations presented from other series. A sampling of the comparable French materials, for example (some of them of book length), strongly confirms themes emphasized above in the British reports, though reflecting problems of French society in their special attention to the worker and the ways in which the American social order favorably affects his status, attitudes, and integration in the industrial effort.7 When all the proper discounts have been made, an impressive number of interested and qualified European observers from all levels, who often came here with other explanations in mind, went away giving high place in their list to the surrounding social framework; or, as French reports have phrased it, to the impress of the culture on the human factor.



This review may have already sufficiently indicated a problem of the first order for economic history—or rather the importance of the host of problems involved in trying to break into, analyze, and assess the part played by varying social or cultural influences in particular patterns of economic activity.

We have thus far, however, been dealing with a highly contemporar, world and with evidence subject to special cautions. I am therefor' concerned about the skeptic who might argue that, lacking dimension in time, simplifying Americans abroad and impressionable European. here have misjudged the signs and read effects as causes, mistaking the social consequences of different economic growth as significant causes contributing thereto. We would, of course, readily agree with the important measure of truth behind this. Both cause and effect are obviously present in these cases and materials. The extent to which the social character of modern America has been shaped and sustained by abundant resources and extraordinary rates of economic growth needs no laboring here. But I should not want to see our problem slither away under a screen of sound insistence on historical interaction into the underbrush where inquiry halts before the truism that everything influences everything else, nor see it reduced to a problem of concern only to those whose interest is in the results of economic growth rather than its causes.

In the balance of this paper I would therefore like to move backwards in time to see if we cannot find there a second bearing on our question, a parallel run of evidence, that will help "fix" this problem as of central causal significance for economic history.

The prodigious and distinctive growth of American industries in the decades since 1870 might be a good case to examine. Here again the accounts of travelers and foreign industrial missions give heavy emphasis to social and cultural conditions among the determinants. Both the prevailing creed and the open structure of American society were surely mightily at work in the developments of this era, in the release and channeling of men's energies. It is, however, a most difficult period in which to assign these factors a proper place. For this is also the period in which the standard "big" explanations of American growth become so clearly operative and tend to occupy the scene—the period when the thunder of the railroads at first tends to drown out all else, when vast continental resources come into play, when population growth and rising incomes make a bigger internal market than European countries had known, and heavy industry grows apace. These latter developments loom so large and loud, and explanations tied to scale, size, and rates of growth so fill the stage, that to insist on giving sociocultural factors their due, however appropriate, presents many of the difficulties of listening for the strings in a Wagnerian crescendo.

It therefore seems more fruitful to turn further back to earlier and quieter decades, before these explanations geared to bigness in effect "take over" American economic history, and to seek the point at which a distinctive pattern of American manufacturing first appears and the reasons advanced in contemporary accounts for its appearance.




We find that during the first half of the nineteenth century there emerged patterns of producing (and marketing) manufactured goods that by the I850'S had become widely known abroad as the "American system of manufacturing." Centering in southern New England and in the light metalworking industries, notably in firearms, clocks, watches, locks, and tools of various kinds, and then spreading into neighboring states and a broadening range of industries, there came into being the basic elements and patterns of modern mass manufacturing; that is, the principles and practice of quantity manufacture of standardized products characterized by interchangeable parts and the use of a growing array of machine tools and specialized jigs and fixtures, along with power, to substitute simplified and, as far as possible, mechanized operations for the craftsman's arts. Hand in hand with the technical advances8 went parallel developments in the organization of productive effort and in the new methods necessary to market standardized quantity products.9

While we do not have answers to many questions that interest us, the substantial material set forth in the literature thus far10 seems to provide a sufficient basis for the following general propositions: (I) that a distinctive pattern of manufacturing had come into being in the United States in the period before the Civil War, having many of the characteristics, technical, economic, and social, that the world today associates with contemporary American manufacturing; (2) that while there were both anticipations and parallel developments abroad, and the debt to Europe remained heavy and continuous, the new society made important independent contributions to the development of this system throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century, in tools, techniques, and above all in ways of approaching and organizing both production and distribution; (3) that these early American innovators often seem to have more clearly seen the general principles and potentialities of their departures from traditional ways than their contemporaries elsewhere;11 (4) that these new patterns and the extensive social transformation that they involved met with far less resistance here than abroad; on the contrary, that the new horizons and ways of working, organizing, and consuming were facilitated by the prevailing social framework and accepted and encouraged as the natural way of doing things, with an ease and generality that was unique.

The basic features of all this were in being by the mid-century and successfully applied to a broadening range of industries among the Northern states. A rising "industrial consciousness" that gave early support to practical education and a technical literature hastened their spread.12 The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 served as a kind of milestone where the world began to discover and to record its reactions to what "the colonists" had done.13 Examination of its records and those of the industrial exhibitions held by Western nations in the years between 1851 and 1867 shows more than twenty industries in which an "American system of manufacturing" was recognized. Agricultural machinery, firearms, sewing machines, rubber goods, and woodworking and other machine and hand tools were most prominent, but the list ranged ever wider from certain textile machinery through cutlery and precision instruments to carriages, pianos, and paper bags. European comment often gave much attention to the crudity, the lack of finish, the use of wood in place of metal, or the light construction of various articles; but admiration for their simplicity, originality, effectiveness, and above all their economy and volume of production led not only to recognition at the world fairs but to the increasing entrance of American products and methods into European markets as imports, or through licensing or notably less formal practices. American manufacturers also began to establish plants abroad in this era, and the factory that Colt set up in England in 1851 quite literally astounded professional opinion.14 Finally, as early as 1853 European industrial commissions began arriving in the United States to report on the American system of manufacturing, and the British Ordnance Committee of 1854 initiated a widening stream of European commissions that came not only to observe but to buy tools and equipment and borrow personnel and methods as well.l5

The kind of things that caught the attention of expert European machine makers and manufacturers is clearly and briefly illuminated in the reports of the British commissions that came here in 1853 and 1854. These reports have the special value of bringing to bear on American developments the perspectives of highly qualified judgment from the acknowledged leading industrial nation of the time. The single "Report of the Committee on the Machinery of the United States of America" (1854) will here serve our purpose.16

Arising from the concern of the Ordnance Department with the inefficiency of small-arms production in Britain, this committee, with John Anderson, Inspector of Machinery, as its central figure, conducted an extensive survey of standardized manufacturing in the Northeastern states in the spring and summer of 1854. While their assignment led to a special focus on the manufacture of firearms in both private plants and national armories—and calls attention to the role of large government contracts, funds, and facilities in the early development of this particular field—their observations fortunately ranged far beyond. Even in covering their formal mission, they did not stop with the examination and purchase of machine tools employed but went on to study the systematic organization of the flow of work and the more general features of the system—from its bookkeeping to the speed of production and the facility with which interchangeable parts were finally "assembled." To this end, their Report notes many details:

Besides the machinery and tools which have been enumerated, there are hundreds of valuable instruments and gauges....

The Committee also observed that everything that could he done to reduce labour in the movement of materials from one point to another was adopted. This includes mechanical arrangements for lifting material, &c., from one floor to another. carriages for conveying material on the same floor, and such like polished on buffs. in the same manner as practised in England; but on the whole less attention is bestowed on . . . high finish given to the parts, only to please the eye.17

But apart from praise for the best machinery seen in the small-arms industry, the Report is studded with references on other fronts to new tools or new ways of adapting and using machinery, which "struck the Committee as useful or new" as it moved about. Thus, in the first few pages they specifically enumerate for later discussion:

A peculiar shaped screw augur....Extensive rope spinning machinery .... An apparatus for cleaning metal ....A new sort of trip hammer....A new sort of steam tilt hammer.... Machine for polishing lasts....A vertical saw, for cutting irregular forms.... An apparatus for testing the quantity of power required to work a machine....A machine for sifting sand....Patent magnetic sewing machine....Yankee chaff cutter.... Tourbine water-wheel.

....Machine for cutting files....Cask making machinery....Packing up machinery.18

Of greatest significance is the diversity of industries in which they found the "thorough application" of the manufacturing principles we are discussing. Thus for New Haven, in addition to Whitney's armory, their Report reads:

Jerome's Clock Manufactory. In this establishment clocks are made in immense quantities for home use and exportation; 600 per diem being the yield, with 250 men employed.

Machinery is most extensively used in all parts of the manufacture, and the clocks produced at a very low price, the movements of some costing only $1.

Messrs Davenport and Mallory's works. This [is] a manufactory of padlocks and locks; and the same system of special machinery is applied to every particular part; and all . . . can be interchanged.

The work is turned out at very low cost, some padlocks being made for 5 cents (2 1/2 d), and 2000 produced daily.

Messrs. Candie [sic] and Company's Factory. This is a manufactory of india-rubber shoes, in which machinery is applied as far as practicable, and with 175 hands 2000 pair are daily produced.19

As the committee went its round, on to New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Utica, and back to New England, the list grows impressively. It includes a stone works where "machinery has been extensively applied"; a chandelier and lamp factory with "all the work carried on on a manufacturing principle"; an accoutrements works similar to those in England "except [for] the extent of the premises and work-rooms, and the wholesale way in which the work was conducted"; "a large manufactory of leather in which machinery was extensively applied"; biscuits "made in larger quantities, and machinery used in almost all the processes"; and so on for spades and shovels; wagon building; nails made by a boy at 200 per minute; railway spikes, whips, and melodions, all made on the factory principle; pails and tubs where "machinery is used most extensively, by means of which 1000 buckets are produced daily at a very cheap rate, and exceedingly well made"; railway cars, doors and sash, wooden pegs, screws "made by self-acting machinery which is particularly good . . . Nettlefold's is perhaps the best Screw Manufactory in England, but very inferior to Mr. Grigg's"; and so on to furniture, bedsteads produced at 15,000 yearly, boot trees, boat oars, carriages and other items, all found in production on similar lines.20

The committee also recorded its disappointments with certain fields (like sewing machines for their purposes, for example), and at many points noted that equipment was rough or quality poor. More significant, however, are the repeated recommendations that particular American methods and standards should be adopted in England. Perhaps the most concise over-all assessment offered is the following:

As regards the class of machinery usually employed by engineers and machine makers, they [the Americans] are upon the whole behind those of England, but in the adaptation of special apparatus to a single operation in almost all branches of industry, the Americans display an amount of ingenuity, combined with undaunted energy, which as a nation we would do well to imitate, if we mean to hold our present position in the great market of the world.21

The Report as a whole reaches far beyond machinery in its emphasis on speed and efficiency, on ingenuity, simplicity, and specialization, perhaps above all, on "the admirable system everywhere adopted, even in those branches of trade which are not usually considered of much importance."22




All this, it will be remembered, had emerged in the period before the big explanations became operative and at a time when principles of comparative advantage might have argued for other lines of growth —before the transcontinentals and the open hearths; before the ores of the Mesabi or the opening up of oil; before the great capital accumulations associated with later decades; and, most important, before that always-cited bigger American market had come into existence. Until after the mid-century the total internal American market was smaller than that of leading European countries and markedly reduced as an effective market by geographical spread.23 In fact the germ of the pattern, the basic principles and features of the whole, and their successful application, took shape before 1850 in small industries in sparse New England towns, which often had to sell their products in thin and scattered markets.

Yet it was in this place and time that the "underdeveloped" country—the country for whose manufacturing future Lord Sheffield and others had not long before recorded such dismal views—overleaped the more mature economies of the leading countries of Europe in certain distinctive patterns of manufacturing and marketing. While output in these lines was of small import in the volume of the world's trade in 1850, they represented a growing front of high importance for the future of manufacturing. We have here a massive fact requiring explanation.

Major parts of such an answer, of course, lie within traditional economic spheres—the high cost of labor and shortage of traditional skills the rapidly expanding market for cheap manufactures, improving transportation, the new technological possibilities, and the range of factors associated with differential rates and timing of growth. But I do not think these considerations, nor the favorable formal political and legal framework of the young Republic, will begin to carry us far enough in trying to understand why the United States jumped so rapidly from home and handicraft and imported manufactures into such patterns as we have seen; why it did not longer follow its predicted history; or why these developments in manufacturing came as they did, where they did, and when they did.




Directions which we must press further seem once again to be most clearly suggested in the contemporary accounts of European observers who over the first half of the nineteenth century, as today, have left a massive record of their findings and of their views on the reasons why. While again requiring caution and correction, what they saw and thought deserves our serious attention.

Here I have turned to three main bodies of evidence from the early or middle decades of the nineteenth century, each carrying within it the comparative perspectives of the Old World on the New: the great and varied literature of the general travelers who came and passed judgment upon us and upon our economic life in profusion; the official reports and unofficial commentaries arising from the international exhibitions; and the various specialized reports of industrial commissions that came to examine our methods of manufacture, such as that reviewed above. While I am still mid-stream in these materials and thus shall defer any full appraisal, I can report from an extensive screening to date: first, the overriding weight of testimony supporting the basic social and cultural themes familiar from the classical accounts of Crèvecoeur, Tocqueville, and others; and, second, the cross-consistency among these three bodies of contemporaneous material. This extends, thus far, both to the general emphasis on a distinctive social order in explaining distinctive economic patterns and results and to particular characteristics of the new society that are felt to have pressed on these results.

Experts commenting on our machinery or industrial commissions studying our techniques of standardized manufacturing sustain the prevailing themes of the general traveler. In much the same vein and many of the same words, their reports turn to differences in the nature and diffusion of education in America; the absence of rigidities and restraints of class and craft; the freedom from hereditary definitions of the tasks or hardened ways of going about them; the high focus on personal advancement and drives to higher material welfare; and the mobility, flexibility, adaptability of Americans and their boundless belief in progress. These and closely related patterns are linked directly to economic behavior and economic results—to initiative, originality, systematic effort, and boldness; the "eager resort to machinery" and productive use of small capital, at a time when small capital was decisive; the ceaseless search and ready adoption of the new and more efficient; the intense responsiveness to shifting opportunities and expanding horizons; the "go-aheadism" that visitors from all categories so often placed at the root of the "immense drive" of American manufacturing.24

Not all comment was laudatory by any means, in tone or intent. Large numbers of observers freely expressed their displeasure or even disgust with American institutions and American ways. But whether they talked of "a noble desire to elevate one's station" or "vulgar dollar chasing," and whether they liked or denounced a society in which business rode high and a wide open social structure fostered mobility, rootlessness, restlessness, and the like, and gave enhanced significance to the visible results of economic success, they were pointing to social values and a social order uniquely favorable to the particular patterns of manufacturing that we have been discussing.

Some of Europe's best-qualified observers made the connections most sharply of all. Thus James Nasmyth, one of England's outstanding machine makers, told a Parliamentary Committee that he had been humbled by the experience of going through the factory Colt established in England in 1851.

The acquaintance with correct principles has been carried out in a fearless and masterly manner, and they have been pushed to their full extent; and the result is the attainment of perfection and economy such as I have never seen before. [Many English mechanics knew the correct principles] but there is a certain degree of timidity resulting from traditional notions, and attachment to old systems, even among the most talented persons, that they keep considerably behind.... In many cases young men mind four machines. One had been a butcher, another a tailor, another a gentleman's servant.... You do not depend on dexterity—all you want is intellect.25

Or to return to the findings of John Anderson and those associated in the British Ordnance Committee on the Machinery of the United States of 1854:

. . . indeed every workman seems to be continually devising some new thing to assist him in his work, and there being a strong desire, both with masters and workman all through the New England States, to be "posted up" in every new improvement, they seem to be much better acquainted with each other all through the trade than is the case in England.26

Again in their conclusions they give special attention to

. . . the dissatisfaction frequently expressed in America with regard to present attainment in the manufacture and application of labour-saving machinery, and the avidity with which any new idea is laid hold of, and improved upon, a spirit occasionally carried to excess, but on the whole productive of more good than evil.

And to working conditions and results, noting, for example:

The care universally bestowed on the comfort of the workpeople, particularly attracted the notice of the Committee; clean places for washing . . ., presses to contain their change of clothes, and an abundant supply of good drinking water, in many cases cooled with ice.

The regular attendance and cleanliness of the workmen, and the rigid exactness with which the work is continued up to the last minute of the working hours.27

While we cannot begin now to exploit additional sources, a single passage from the British Commissioners' reports on the New York Exhibition of 1853 may offer an appropriate place at which to stop:

As there is no apprenticeship system, properly so called, the more useful the youth engaged in any industrial pursuit becomes to his employer, the more profitable it is for himself. Bringing a mind prepared by thorough school discipline, and educated up to a far higher standard than those of a much superior social grade in society in the Old World, the American working boy develops rapidly into the skilled artizan, and having once mastered one part of his business, he is never content until he has mastered all.... The restless activity of mind and body—the anxiety to improve his own department of industry—the facts constantly before him of ingenious men who have solved economic and mechanical problems to their own profit and elevation, are all stimulative and encouraging; and it may be said that there is not a working boy of average ability in the New England States, at least, who has not an idea of some mechanical invention or improvement in manufactures, by which, in good time, he hopes to better his position, or rise to fortune and social distinction.

On this intelligent understanding of the true position of things, and the requirements of the social system around him, the skilled workman rests his position.28

Though these and like observers give appropriate emphasis to other causes as well—notably the shortage of skilled labor—they show no equivocation in assigning a very central place to the goals and values and structural characteristics of the American social order in explaining the distinctive manufacturing developments under review.




More significant still for our larger question are the similarities that appear between these earlier accounts relating to the nineteenth-century beginnings of the "American system of manufacturing" and the comparable accounts of European observers of recent years with which we began this discussion. New notes have, of course, appeared. Much more striking to me, however, is the stability, the parallelism in what European observers have emphasized about the American scene in 1850 and 1950. This stands out—as perhaps the quotations have suggested— for both the characteristics of American manufacturers and the system that produced them. It stands out also for particular social and cultural characteristics that are felt to have fostered these results.

There is no need to strain the case, I believe. Giving allowance to the influence of stereotypes, and noting changes that also are visible, the extraordinary similarities in gross emphasis and in detail in these bodies of observations more than a century apart suggest that we have here no fleeting phenomena, no marginal factors in economic history. They suggest that we are dealing here, in Professor Kuznets' words, with both antecedent and sustaining conditions of economic growth. And in so doing, they point to a task for economic history stretching far ahead.

JOHN E. SAWYER, Yale University

The balance of his introduction or the "Conclusion" of the corresponding Report by Joseph Whitworth offer impressive testimony in this vein.

Back to top of page


*I should like to express my appreciation to the many individuals who offered helpful comments following the oral presentation of my briefer paper; to Carl Sapers, Ann Satterthwaite, and Emily McWhinney for helpful assistance at various points; and to the Carnegie Corporation for a grant that enabled me to embark on this project.


1) A gradually changing range of functions has been successively handled by the European Cooperation Administration, the Mutual Security Administration, and, since August 1953, by the Foreign Operations Administration. In another connection I have had occasion to review certain aspects of this experience, and I should like to indicate my debt to the officials here and abroad who discussed these problems with me.


2) These missions, varying in size and composition and in the length of their visit from a few weeks to more than a year, have generally published their reports through their respective national productivity agency or under the auspices of the O.E.E.C. They include both "industry" reports and reports of "specialists" on particular functions (like training, accounting, packaging, materials handling, and so forth). Since 1953 the F.O.A. has broadened the program to include a growing number of non-European missions.


3) Graham Hutton, We Too Can Prosper: The Promise of Productivity (London: Allen and Unwin, 1953), p. 18. L. Rostas in his earlier and more formal study is primarily concerned with problems of method and measurement of physical and technical factors, and only briefly refers to the dimensions we are pursuing.—Comparative Productivity in British and American Industry, National Institute of Economic and Social Research, Occasional Papers, XIII (Cambridge: The University Press, 1948), pp. 66-67.


4) Though not a complete selection, see such diverse reports from this series as those on The Brassfoundry, Building, The British Cotton Industry, Machine Tools, Retailing, Trade Unions, or the Training of Supervisors; or any of the additional titles cited below.


5) Building, p. 63. see also the Introduction and pp. 55-56. This Report can at once illustrate the emphasis in question and some or the cautions in order in using this material.


6) All references in this section are to the Reports indicated in the British (A.A.C.P.) series. What cannot be reproduced here is the weight of emphasis arising from repeated attention to these themes.


7) See, for example, Aspects de l'entreprise américaine or L'industrie de la Machine-Outil in the French series, published by La Société Auxiliaire pour la Diffusion des Editions de Productivité (S.A.D.E.P.) in Paris.


8) Primarily worked out, according to Joseph W. Roe, in England and New England in the decades between 1800 and 1850.—English and American Tool Builders (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916), pp. 4-5 and ff. In these early decades, of course, "tolerances" in no way approached those associated with precision manufacturing today.


9) On the latter phase the early history of the Connecticut clock industry offers an interesting example of the cases in which a market had to be created in order that the economies of quantity manufacture might be realized.


10) Most notably in the writings and researches of Joseph W. Roe, Charles H. Fitch, D. L. Burn, A. P. Usher, V. S. Clark, A. H. Cole, Felicia Deyrup, and others, conveniently cited and briefly summarized in the Bibliography of the very useful recent book by George R. Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860 (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1951), pp. 220 ff. and 418-24. To titles there listed may be added two additional books of a somewhat different nature, Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), and Jeannette Mirsky and Allan Nevins, Thc World of Eli Whitney (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1952).


11) Eli Whitney, for example, thus wrote in 1812 (somewhat naively and boastfully) in seeking a new government contract for 15,000 muskets:

The subscriber begs leave further to remark that he has for the last la years been engaged in manufacturing muskets; that he now has the most respectable private establishment in the United States for carrying on this important branch of business. That this establishment was commenced and has been carried on upon a plan which is unknown in Europe, and the great leading object of which is to substitute correct and effective operations of machinery for that skill of the artist which is acquired only by long practice and experience; a species of skill which is not possessed in this country to any considerable extent.-

Roe, English and American Tool Builders, pp. 132-33. Such contracts and financing played a critical part in Whitney's remarkable early development of quantity manufacturing on the principle of interchangeable parts.


12) For an interesting discussion of the early phases of this, which already had considerable momentum by 1830, see Samuel Rezneck, "The Rise of Industrial Consciousness in the United States, 1760-1830," Journal of Economic and Business History, IV, No. 4 (August 1932), 784-811.


13) Merle Curti, "America at the World Fairs, 1851—1893," American Historical Review, LV, No. 4 (July 1950), 833-56, provides an instructive overview of the longer period and many leads into the literature. The American showing in 1851 was both late and very incomplete. The comments below draw on the official and unofficial materials arising from the five exhibitions held between 1851 and 1867.


14) See the remarks of James Nasmyth quoted below, p. 377.


15) Charles H. Fitch, "Report on the Manufactures of Interchangeable Mechanism," Tenth Census of the United States [1880]: Manufactures, II, 619-20.


16) Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, Accounts and Papers (21), 1854-1855, L. For convenience, page references follow those of the Report itself. D. L. Burn summarized many of the essentials of both this Report and those of the British Commissioners to the New York Industrial Exhibition of 1853 in an interesting article nearly twenty-five years ago, "The Genesis of American Engineering competition, 1850-1870," Economic History, II (January 1931), 292 - 311. For our purposes they deserve attention in their entirety.


17) Committee on Machinery, pp. 38 and 43. (The verb "assemble" is regularly put in quotes ) They were particularly impressed by an ingenious sequence of sixteen machines for producing gunstocks, "devised and set to work with its present degree of perfection." In the course of their trip they placed orders for approximately $100,000 worth of tools and equipment (1854 dollars). Ibid., pp. 8-12.


18)Ibid., pp. 8-12.


19) Ibid., pp. 11-12. A later passage duly explains that the keys were not identical.


20) Ibid., pp. 13-20. Also see Chapter iv for fuller discussion of the manufacturing of many of these items. Particularly interesting for our purposes are those on pails, nails, spikes, screws, or, for the break with craft traditions, melodions.


21) Ibid., p. 32.


22) Ibid., p. 84.


23) Though understating the case in omitting the factor of established overseas markets, population figures by "countries" crudely reflect the relatively smaller market of American producers through the first half of the century as compared to those in leading European countries. Thus for 1850 population for the United States is given 23.2 millions, 27.5 for the United Kingdom, and 35.8 for France.—W. S. and E. S. Woytinsky, World Population and Production (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1953), p. 44.


24) These observations are based on each and all of the three bodies of evidence mentioned at the beginning of the preceding paragraph.


25) Before a Parliamentary Select Committee on Small Arms, 1854, XVIII, Q. 1367, as quoted in D. L. Burn, "The Genesis of American Engineering Competition" 296-97.


26) Loc. cit., p. 38.


27) Ibid., p. 85. At another point, however, higher absenteeism is mentioned.


28) New York Industrial Exhibition: Special Report of Mr. George Wallis, Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, Command Paper, 1854, XXXVI, p. 3 (of Mr. Wallis' Report).

Back to top of page

Scanned, edited and tagged by Stefan Pollklas, Oct. 2, 1997.