2. What is Vernacular?

"What Is Vernacular?" by John A. Kouwenhoven

The forms we have so long neglected are in reality the products of a unique kind of folk art, created under conditions which had never before existed. They represent the unself-conscious efforts of common people, in America and elsewhere, to create satisfying patterns out of the elements of a new and culturally unassimilated environment; but this patternmaking is something altogether different from the folk arts which in recent years have been collected and studied with such enthusiasm. It has nothing in common with the balladry of the Kentucky mountaineers or the decorative crafts of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Unlike these, it is the art of sovereign, even if uncultivated, people rather than of groups cut off from the main currents of contemporary life. The patterns it evolved were not those which are inspired by ancient traditions of race or class; on the contrary, they were imposed by the driving energies of an unprecedented social structure. In their least diluted form these patterns comprise the folk arts of the first people in history who, disinherited of a great cultural tradition, found themselves living under democratic institutions in an expanding machine economy.

It is this unique factor of a democratic-technological vernacular which has been overlooked in our estimates of art in the United States. The development of folk-art forms is always hard to trace. No one bothers to note the patterns of colors, shapes, sounds, and ideas which plain people produce--at least no detailed record is kept until long after the patterns have crystallized and have become habitual. It is especially difficult to trace the emergence of this vernacular, for the patterns through which it evolved were not designed to be kept in frames on the wall, or cherished behind glass doors. These patterns formed tools, machines, buildings, and other objects for use in the routine of daily life. It was into the design of useful things that these people inevitably turned the universal creative instinct. Repressed artistic impulses found release in uncounted rudimentary and personal expressions.

The purest form of this vernacular, the form in which its characteristics are most clearly revealed and can be most readily defined, is represented by technological design. Here craft tradition had least influence and the characteristic impulses of the new civilization were freest to display their energy in patterns available to all the people, cultivated and uncultivated alike.

The men and women who built a civilization in the American wilderness had to relearn a truth which many of their European contemporaries had been able to get along without: the truth of function. They had to become familiar with the nature of materials and the use of tools. The frontier country was strange indeed to those who had been accustomed to the ways of the older culture. James Hall, writing in the Illinois Monthly Magazine for June 1831, warned the Western emigrant that he must abandon his predilections, prejudices, and local attachments. "Instead of bringing society with him," Hall wrote, "he should cultivate the intimacy of the inhabitants, and by imbibing their feelings and sentiments learn to relish their society." And like his predilections and prejudices, his customary tools also had ultimately to be abandoned.

The United States won its independence from Britain with the aid of a tool which had been developed, though not invented, on the frontier. When Washington took command of the Continental Army at Boston he brought with him fourteen hundred frontier riflemen from western Pennsylvania. The Massachusetts troops who watched these leather-jacketed irregulars assemble on Cambridge Common jeered at the incredibly long-barreled guns which the strangers carried; there was something absurd about the length of such weapons in comparison with the stubby, smooth-bore firelock muskets which both the English and Massachusetts men were using. But Washington had been in western Pennsylvania some years before and had seen what those ungainly men could do with their ungainly weapons; and that afternoon on Cambridge Common the Massachusetts men saw too. The lanky Westerners drove seven-inch target posts into the ground and then strode off to take firing position: fifty yards, a hundred yards (at that distance a man with a smooth-bore musket could have hit such a small target only by sheer luck), a hundred and fifty yards, two hundred yards, two hundred and fifty yards. There they stopped, lined up in ragged order, and fired; and they hit the posts.

Here was a weapon which revolutionized fighting techniques. Men armed with these rifles didn't have to stand in line, like the British at Bunker Hill, firing volleys at short range and hoping some of the bullets hit someone. This was the Pennsylvania version of the German rifle-barreled gun, developed during the 1730s and 1740s by patient experiment among the gunsmiths around Lancaster, a hunting tool which could pick off a 'coon or a rabbit at long range in the lonely forests. And these rifles played a significant part in America's victory; for so greatly did the enemy dread their effectiveness that, as Roger Burlingame tells the story, Washington later asked other troops to wear the costume of the men who used them, even though there were nowhere near enough of the rides to go around.

The tools whose design first showed the influence of the American environment were, as one would expect, those which were most widely used in getting food, clearing the land, and making it fertile. The men who came over from Europe brought with them axes, spades, hayforks, manure forks, and plows, and used them as long as they lasted. But when these tools wore out it was difficult to import others, and local blacksmiths hammered out new ones for their neighbors.

Changes in design under such circumstances are made only very gradually; it was quite a while before there was a noticeable difference between the tools used in America and those still used in Europe. But changes nevertheless occur, as old habits give way to new requirements. Fenimore Cooper observed in 1828 that American plows were more "graceful and convenient" and American axes more admirable "for form, for neatness, and precision of weight" than their English equivalents, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London provided the first general opportunity for comparative study of the products of all nations, differences were strikingly apparent.

Twenty-five years later the reports of European observers at the United States Centennial Exhibition, held in 1876 at Philadelphia, were filled with detailed descriptions of characteristic American designs. Among the reports of the British Commission, for example, there is a comparison of British and American tools. Commissioner David McHardy noted that the English axe was bulky, while the American was thinned considerably below the eye--a shape which "enables it to be more easily drawn out after the blow is given, and the body of the axe, being much firmer, is not liable to twist in working." Again, in his report on agricultural and laborers' tools, he expressed surprise that the great improvements which had been made in the United States had not been introduced into Europe many years before. The old-style hayfork, for example, with its iron ferrule and strong ash handle, was "a very cumbrous tool"; the manure fork, with its three prongs--usually flat and about an inch broad, but occasionally made in the more efficient V shape--was doubly so. "No accurate judgment," he wrote, "can be formed of the many advantages which have been conferred on the laborer by the introduction of the American steel spade, shovel, manureforks and hayforks." An iron spade quickly became caked with dirt, an iron fork blunted its points easily; but the surfaces of the American steel tools remained clean, and the edges and points remained sharp. Furthermore, the new tools were much lighter; the difference of weight between the old-style and the new steel spades was from three to four pounds in favor of steel.

If, then, we are to judge from McHardy's report, European tools in 1876 had not yet adopted improvements which had been made in America at least sixty or seventy years earlier. For we have record that "long before" 1814 a member of the American Institute "left off the use of common iron spades and hoes," and employed a good workman to make his spade and hoe of trowel stuff, as he called it, "so hard that no stone could injure its edge, and so thin that the spade was driven by hand instead of foot, up to the hub, polished as a razor." With such spades, he testified, he could dig more in a day than two men with iron spades, "and dance in the evening."

Not all foreign observers admired the functional simplicity of American products at the Centennial. A member of the German delegation objected, for instance, that "certain objects of daily use which ought to be richly decorated, like grandfather clocks, show the sad state of American taste by the complete absence of ornamentation." At London's Crystal Palace a similar criticism had been implied in the official commentary on the American exhibits. "The expenditure of months or years of labour upon a single article, not to increase its intrinsic value, but solely to augment its cost or its estimation as an object of virtu, is not common in the United States," the exhibition catalogue had announced. On the contrary, both manual and mechanical labor were applied with direct reference to increasing the quantity of those articles which were suited to the wants of a whole people--with the result that the products of American industry seemed to the exhibition's officials to have "a character distinct from that of other countries."

It has frequently been said that Europe surpassed the United States in the mechanical sciences during the first half of the nineteenth century, and it is undoubtedly true that both England and Germany were far ahead of us in metallurgy and in the perfection and elaborateness of their heavy machinery. But to some extent, at least, the notion of European mechanical superiority in this period derives from the fact that technological history has been written chiefly by Europeans who were unfamiliar with American developments. There is ample evidence, however, that even in the first half of the century mechanical progress in America was in a number of important respects less inhibited than that in the Old World. In the development of machine tools, for instance, and of the precision gauges and accurate jigs and fixtures which made possible the mechanical duplication of metal parts for rifles, clocks, and a hundred other objects, the gunsmiths and mechanics of New England were far in advance of the Europeans. When Samuel Colt set up a factory in England in the early 1850s to supply the foreign market with mass-produced rifles and muskets and the famous Colt revolvers which he had been making in Hartford since 1848, he reluctantly discovered that he had to import from America both the machines and the men to operate them. English machines, as he told an investigating committee of the House of Commons, were not sufficiently precise, and skilled English workmen seemed to be unable to operate the machines made in America. Recognition of the superiority of American machine tools for precision work was given by the British government itself when it established the Royal Small Arms factory at Enfield Lock in 1853. It awarded the contract for practically all of the standard and special machine tools, and for the jigs, fixtures, and gauges required to mass-produce the Enfield rifle, to the firm of Robbins & Lawrence in Windsor, Vermont.

What was lacking among the European mechanics whom Colt had been unable to employ was the intense and daring mechanical imagination which foreign commentators repeatedly remarked as a characteristic of the American workman, and which remained such a distinctive feature of our industrial system that, no matter how decisively England maintained her world leadership in the scientific development of machines, America--as the London Times itself observed in 1878--nevertheless developed "more that is new and practical in mechanism than all Europe combined."

The whole subject of American mechanical history--or, to be more inclusive, technological history--has been too much neglected, especially those aspects of it which reflect its relationship to cultural history as a whole. The very materials from which such a history could be written are scattered, and in many cases have been lost. The scientist or the technical expert has little interest in regional or national variants in mechanism, as such; he is concerned chiefly with the discovery of mechanical principles (which have no nationality) and their efficient application. [In 1958, ten years after this was written, the first organization devoted to the serious study of the development and consequences of technology was established. Called the Society for the History of Technology, it publishes an international quarterly entitled Technology and Culture, with editorial offices at Case Institute of Technology, Cleveland, Ohio.]

Yet it is evident that machinery developed very differently in different countries. In the abstract, technology may be technology wherever it exists, but in actual practice its internationalism is a myth, or at best an ideal which has never been attained. During the nineteenth century wide divergence in national and regional practice existed, and much may be learned from a consideration of those differences of which evidence still remains. As early as 1840 the English author of a True Guide to the United States, published in London for the benefit of British mechanics and laborers who were planning to emigrate, summed up his experience of four years' work and five thousand miles of travel in the new nation by warning that a mechanic from the "Old Country" should be prepared to meet with "new and peculiar, if not improved, modes and ideas and make up his mind also to their immediate adoption." But unfortunately the author does not discuss the "new and peculiar" modes and ideas in any detail.

There is, however, valuable evidence regarding such differences in one branch of mechanics in John Richards' Treatise on the Construction and Operation of Woodworking Machinery, published in London in 1872. Richards was a native of Pennsylvania who lived much of his life abroad and was known throughout the world as a designer and builder of all kinds of machinery. As head of the American firm of Richards, London, & Kelley and of the English firm of Richards and Atkinson of Manchester, and as the designer and builder of machinery for the Russian Royal Arsenal, he originated over a thousand different machines and was familiar with contemporary practice in many lands.

Much of his book is of interest only to the specialists for whom it was intended, but there are a number of passages which bear on the development of the vernacular tradition. Richards says, for example, that the distinction between English and American woodworking machinery at that time was perhaps the greatest that had "ever existed in a system of machines both directed to the same, or nearly the same, purposes." Most of the basic machines for wood conversion had been invented at the end of the eighteenth century in England by Samuel Bentham. But from then on the development took place chiefly in the United States, largely because wood was so much more widely used here, not only in building houses, bridges, and ships but even in framing steam engines and in other capacities where iron was used in Europe. In 1844 a number of American machines were imported into England, but--according to Richards--since "the ruling idea in these machines was economy in cost and rapid performance in the hands of skilled men, neither of which elements fitted them for the English market," practically no use was made by English builders of the modifications they might have suggested. It was not until after the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, where the performance of the American machines was amply demonstrated, that English engineers adopted the American improvements.

Necessity, coupled with what Richards called "a strong ingenuity and boldness of plan," had led to the development in America of an entire system of machines for sawing, planing, boring, mortising, and tenoning, plus hundreds of special machines for manufacturing carriages, plows, furniture, joiner's work, bent work, and so on.

What Richards meant by ingenuity and boldness can best be understood by reference to specific machines which he describes. One of these was the reciprocating mortising machine; that is, a machine designed to drive a chisel back and forth into the wood to cut out a square hole. Reciprocating motion in a machine always involves more vibration--and consequent wear--than rotary motion, and at the high speeds required in wood machines the jarring is severe. A skilled engineer, Richards observed, who was conversant with all the principles of the operation and the difficulties to be encountered, would not be inclined to attempt construction of reciprocating mortising machines, and European builders avoided them. But in the United States, "either through an ignorance of the difficulties to be encountered, a greater boldness in such things, or the high price of labour," they were extensively made and generally used.

Another example was the "muley-saw mill," which originated in, and was largely confined to, the Western states. This was an unprecedented device which seemed to defy all the accepted notions about reciprocating--as distinguished from circular--saws. The blades of reciprocating saws had always been operated under tension--that is, tightly stretched between upper and lower frames, which must be strong enough to stand heavy transverse and compressive strain as they moved up and down. The weight of these frames tended to limit the rate of teeth movement of the saw, thereby reducing the saw's efficiency. The muley-saw was simply an expedient to increase the cutting speed of the blade by dispensing with the heavy-tension frame and all possible weight in the reciprocating parts. The blade was left slack, merely guided--above and below the log--by light lateral supports of wood which prevented it from bending. The result was, surprisingly, that the lumber was "cut more true, as to dimensions, than that cut on mills of any other kind; just the opposite of what would be expected from the plan of operating a saw without tension."

Repeatedly through Richards' book one encounters evidence that Americans produced bold and original machines "which upon theoretical deductions would scarcely have been made." This does not, however, mean that all American machinery approached the high level of mechanical perfection which was standard in England. It did not, for a number of reasons. For one thing, European machines were less likely to be improvised than those made in the United States; they were rarely made for the personal use of the designer, or even of the buyer, but rather for a workman employed by the buyer, and this required that they be made to operate as nearly as possible without the intelligence of the workman, even if the original cost was high. In the United States, however, machines were frequently made for the designer's own use, and were usually sold, as Richards noted, "only to those who use them and understand their use." Most of the early American woodworking machines, for example, were designed and built by carpenters, cabinetmakers, and shipbuilders for their own use. To these men iron was a new material. They had in mind "no constants, or rules for proportions, like an engineer or machinist, but blindly supplied a shaft here, a pulley there, with bolts and framing to support them," very much as they would have made a house or a piece of furniture.

As Richards puts it, the carpenter carried out his architectural ideas in framing his woodworking machines; "the metal was disposed in scrolls and network, and all conceivable forms except those that the strains would indicate, figures of vines and shrubbery, 'pomegranates and lily- work' were raised in relief, the whole was painted in gorgeous hues, and as if to cap the climax, the rough iron surfaces were generally finished off with a coat of transparent varnish." (See Fig.1) In ways like this the cultivated tradition in America, acting through the agency of craft techniques, interacted with, and modified, the vernacular. But the influence of the cultivated tradition was largely confined thus to surfaces; the carpenter-builders may have trimmed their woodworking machines with extravagant and uncouth decorations, but the operation of their machines was not open to such criticism. We have it on Richards' authority that nowhere in the world had machines for making doors, sash, and joiner work generally, equaled those made by these carpenter-builders. If they lacked the finish and elaborateness of European machines, that was characteristic of a tradition in which, as Richards said, "the movement and application of the cutting edge was the prime object, everything else unimportant."

Actually, whatever was built or made in the vernacular was likely to be marked by constraint and simplicity. There was no room in such a tradition for diffuseness, there were no resources to spare for the ornate, and it was merely sound sense to design a thing as economically as one could. But in the United States these qualities seem to have become especially characteristic. We had to have machines and tools that would work well in a rough land, would economize labor, and would save the owner from running to far-off shops for repairs. This meant light, simple, tough tools. But as time went on even elaborate machinery took on distinctive qualities. W. F. Durfee, one of the judges at the Centennial, commended the metalworking machines made by Pratt and Whitney of Hartford, Connecticut, for "the admirable character of their general design, which shows the result of careful study and large experience applied to the determination of the proportion and union of parts in the several tools, with the view of eliminating unnecessary details, thus at once cheapening their construction and improving their qualities as working machines."

The great Corliss steam engine in the Centennial's Machinery Hall was a contemporary masterpiece of this tradition in design. The largest and most powerful engine that had ever been built up to that time, it was installed at the exhibition to provide power for all the lathes, grinders, drills, weaving machines, printing presses, and other machinery displayed by the various exhibitors. It weighed altogether 1,700,000 pounds, yet so perfectly was it made that it worked almost as quietly and with as little vibration as a watch.

In large engines of this kind it had long been customary for the designers to strive for architectural or other ornamental effects. Important engines, here and abroad, were usually framed with elaborate Gothic arches or Corinthian columns (see Fig.2); struts and braces which by every engineering requirement should have been straight lines were often disposed in graceful curves. By contrast with such engines the Corliss design was unequivocally severe, and before the exhibition was opened to the public many commentators, including the editor of the Scientific American, thought that it would therefore be disappointing to the general public.

But to anyone who reads the mass of contemporary comment on the exhibition it is obvious that the commentators need not have worried. Even those who, like the correspondent of the Manufacturer and Builder, had at first criticized "the undoubted clumsiness of the design," grudgingly admitted after the exhibition opened that the engine looked "much better in motion than it did when standing still."

People said all the fine things that duty required about the pictures and statues in Memorial Hall, but in the presence of the Corliss engine they were exalted. It stood there at the center of the twelve-acre building, towering forty feet above its platform, not an idealization but an unmitigated fact. Yet to the thousands who saw it, it was more than merely the motive power for the miles of shafting which belted their energy to machines throughout the building. (See Fig.3)

Consciously or unconsciously, each visitor in his own way testified to its aesthetic impact. Sixty years later the Midwestern poet, Harriet Monroe, remembered being taken from Chicago to Philadelphia to visit the Centennial and recorded that she, at sixteen, was far more impressed by the Corliss engine "turning its great wheels massively" than by any of the art exhibitions. "Josiah Allen's wife," the perennially popular humorist-philosopher of Samantha at the Centennial and a dozen later "Samantha" books, had spoken for thousands of ordinary citizens when she wrote that "that great 'Careless Enjun' alone was enough to run anybody's idees up into majestic heights and run 'em round and round into lofty circles and spears of thought they hadn't never thought of runnin' into before." And the French sculptor Bartholdi said in an official report to his government that the engine had "the beauty and almost the grace of the human form." It was such engines which led a London Times correspondent to report that "the American mechanizes as an old Greek sculptured, as the Venetian painted." Even the Brahminic Atlantic Monthly concluded rhetorically that "surely here, and not in literature, science, or art, is the true evidence of man's creative power; here is Prometheus unbound."

Not often were the technological elements of our environment welded into such a vernacular masterpiece. One could scarcely expect the millennium in the turbulent life of nineteenth-century America. But it is essential to realize that in the very decades which our cultural historians have called the ugliest and bleakest in our history--the years of "chromo-civilization" and the "Gilded Age"--American people had developed skills and knowledge which enabled them to create patterns of clean, organic, and indigenous beauty out of the crude materials of the technological environment.

Most people, of course, failed to recognize in such patterns the substance of art. Inherited notions of beauty and the influences of education interfered with any such recognition. A typical account of the Centennial recorded that "although the first thought would be that no arrangement of axes, hatchets, picks, shovels, etc., could be made that would be pleasing to the eye," an exhibit of such articles was nevertheless "attractive."

Such an attitude inevitably encouraged those attempts to decorate machinery which we have already noted. So prevalent were architectural details in nineteenth-century machinery that it has frequently been assumed that the early designers themselves were originally architects, but there is considerable evidence that this was not the case. Drawings of new machines--other than rough sketches on boards, or chalk marks on the floor--were seldom used in the early years of the nineteenth century. Toward the middle of the century, to be sure, advertisements occasionally appear like that of G. P. Randall, "Architect and Builder," who announced in the pages of a Vermont newspaper in 1846 that he would design not only churches, residences, and bridges, but also "simple and complicated machinery, stoves, etc." But early machines were designed out of the inventor's head, as it were, and changes were made as the work progressed. Since most of these machines were built largely of wood (metal and metal-working facilities being scarce), machine building came into the realm of the cabinetmaker, who had the necessary knowledge and tools. The United States Patent Office for many years required a small-sized working model of an invention instead of the formal drawings required today, and a cabinetmaker usually made the model if the inventor himself did not do so. Since the patterns for the finished machine would closely resemble the model, patternmaking gradually developed as a branch of the cabinetmaker's trade. Accustomed to making furniture, and acquainted with architectural detail through the making of woodwork "trim" for house builders, the skilled craftsman quite naturally embellished the prosaic machine patterns with scrollwork, claw feet, delicately carved legs, and fluted columns.

Opposed to this transferred ornamental habit there was no tradition, no codified grammar, of technological design, but only an intuitive sense of appropriate form. William Sellers, of Philadelphia, for instance (whom the English designer Whitworth is said to have called the greatest mechanical engineer in the world), simply went on the theory that "if a machine was right, it would look right." (See Fig.4) John Fritz, one of the important figures in the development of the Bessemer process in the United States, was typical of the empirical engineers. One of his favorite remarks after he had finished work on a new machine which he had designed was: "Now, boys, we have got her done, let's start her up and see why she doesn't work." By and large American mechanical engineers adopted original methods of design, taking the problem presented to them and working out the design (as Joseph M. Wilson expressed it) "without any blind adherence to old established forms or precedents."

This empirical attitude was characteristic of almost all early efforts to pattern the technological environment. The men who designed and built the clipper ships of the 1840s and 1850s worked in much the same way as Sellers did in the designing of his machine tools, and the essential characteristics of their designs were the same. Economy of line, lightness, strength, and freedom from meaningless ornament made Donald McKay's Flying Cloud and Sovereign of the Seas not only two of the swiftest sailing ships of their time but also two of the most beautiful vessels that ever sailed the ocean.

The day of the clippers was brief. During the very years when they were the monarchs of the seas, steamships were being developed and perfected to a point where they would inevitably drive the clippers out of existence. But in steamship design, likewise, the vernacular tradition developed its characteristic qualities.

On the Ohio and Mississippi a distinctive type of vessel was developed on principles some of which had been worked out by a man whose name scarcely ever appears in the history books: Henry Miller Shreve. Attempts by Robert Fulton and other Easterners to design steamboats for the Western rivers had ended in several costly failures. Shreve had grown up on the rivers, working as bargeman and later as captain of the Enterprise, the first steamer that ever ascended the Mississippi to Louisville. He knew what the rivers required, and when he built the Washington in 1816 it was in essential respects unlike any other steam vessel then known. Previously, the boilers had always been placed in the hold of the vessel and the cylinders set upright. Shreve set his machinery on the deck, thus permitting the use of flat-bottomed, shallow hulls similar to the keelboats which had long been familiar on Western rivers. Further, he designed and built a high-pressure engine with a cylinder which was horizontal, instead of vertical as in the high-pressure engines of Oliver Evans. And the success of the Washington established Shreve's system as the basis of all Western steamboats for many years.

Nevertheless, there were countless variants in the design of American river steamers. In 1838 an English engineer, David Stevenson, reported in his Sketch of the Civil Engineering of North America that after minutely examining all the most approved American steamboats he could trace no genera, principles which had served as guides for their construction.

Every American steamboat builder holds opinions of his own [he wrote], which are generally founded, not on theoretical principles, but on deductions drawn from a close examination of the practical effects of the different arrangements and proportions adopted in the construction of different steamboats . . .; and the natural consequence is, that, even at this day, no two steamboats are alike, and few of them have attained the age of six months without undergoing some material alteration.

In transatlantic navigation, of course, these shallow-draft boats would be useless, and in that field English builders took a quick lead. But even here the vernacular tradition modified the design of American ships. In 1853 Captain Mackinnon of the Royal Navy crossed on the American Collins liner Baltic, built by Jacob Bell, of New York, and shortly thereafter published an article comparing the Baltic's design and performance with those of English ships. Basically, he found, the American ship was superior. An English vessel would have a heavy bow with a vast bowsprit, "an absolute excrescence," the captain angrily called it, "a bow-plunging, speed-stopping, money- spending, and absurd acquiescence in old-fashioned prejudices about appearance...." But American ships were hampered by no such devotion to traditional design. They had, instead, a long and gently graduated bow without a bowsprit, with the result that they rode the waves gently even in a heavy sea, without shipping water and without the shock and stagger of the blunt-bowed Britishers.

The Baltic and the other American steamships of the early fifties were designed and built by the same shipyards that were turning out the famous clippers. Steam clippers and sailing clippers were constructed side by side. Of course the steamships, not being intended to carry an immense spread of canvas, could be much narrower than any sailing vessel that had ever been designed. But the contemporary newspapers in maritime cities throughout the world were full of descriptions of sailing clippers which sound very much like Captain Mackinnon's account of the steamship Baltic. The Mauritius Commercial Gazeteer (December 7, 1855) said the bow of the Herald of the Morning, designed by Samuel Pook, of New York, was "so sharp as to take the form of a razor, the keel forming the edge; there are no rails at the bow, which is quite unencumbered."

The clipper ships, like the Western riverboats, were not any one man's invention. Rather, they were a composite creation, the product of literally scores of keen minds. McKay himself declared in an interview that before making the model of his Stag Hound (1850) he had familiarized himself with "all the celebrated clipper models." The designer did not know how his ship would perform until it was actually put to the test. He borrowed ideas from vessels which were under sail and combined them with his own intuitive sense of the lines which were appropriate to the requirements of the ships he intended to build. George Steers, designer of the schooner-yacht America which won the international yacht race in 1851 and brought to this country the prize cup which is still called by its name, was particularly proud of a model he was working on shortly before his death. It tapered so beautifully from the center that the eye could not find the exact center spot--"just like the well-formed leg of a woman," from which, he said, he had borrowed his idea.

Magnificent as these ships were, the railroad locomotive was the dominant symbol of technological progress during the nineteenth century. As would be expected, the design and performance of American locomotives revealed the characteristics of the vernacular tradition and consequently differed considerably from contemporary European engines. We can perhaps get the clearest sense of this difference by referring to accounts of contemporary American civil engineers. These experts profoundly admired English locomotives, as they did all English machinery. United States Commissioner William Anderson, in his official report on railway apparatus exhibited at the Universal Exposition in Paris, 1878, stated that "the locomotives exhibited in the British section were, as may be said of the machinery exhibits of the United Kingdom generally, remarkable for the skill, the directness, the strong common sense, and the faithfulness illustrated in their construction." And Charles Barnard, writing in 1879, flatly asserted that "the finest piece of steam mechanism in the world is undoubtedly the English locomotive engine."

Barnard goes on to describe these engines: a cylindrical boiler and a capacious firebox, resting upon a massive and rigid frame of iron plates, which in turn was supported by wheels of extraordinary size and strength. In front there might be a pair of smaller wheels, but these like the larger ones were fastened by their axles to the rigid frame which supported the boiler. "One cannot," he wrote, "fail to admire the thoroughly English solidity and stability of the machine.... Every part of the mechanism is admirable--strong, accurate, and fitted to its work with marvellous precision."

But the moment the English locomotive was taken from its island lines--relatively straight, and as level as money and labor could make them--and was used in, say, Canada or Australia, it exhibited a number of defects, especially a certain want of pliability. For in those countries, as in the United States, distances were so vast, territory was so thinly populated, capital resources were so limited, and speed of construction was so essential, that the railroads had to negotiate considerable grades and abrupt curves without too much insistence on a straight line or a level roadbed. On such winding and uneven roads the English locomotive was either derailed by the curves, or wrenched and twisted by having only three of its four wheels on the track at one time.

To cope with American roadbeds a very different locomotive was developed which, to anyone accustomed to English engines; would seem a "crazy affair, as loose-jointed as a basket." It had no massive frame. In Barnard's words:

The framework is light and open, and yet strong. The supporting springs that take the weight of the machine from the axles are not secured directly to the frame, but to the levers extending both across and along the engine.... The engine is thus hung upon the fulcrums of a system of levers, balanced equally in every direction. Let the road follow its own wayward will, be low here and high there . . . the basket-like flexibility of the frame and its supports . . . adjusts the engine to its road at every instant of its journey.

Further, it had a group of small wheels at the front--the pilot truck, or track feeler--which was designed to carry the engine around sharp curves. This truck not only was supported on equalizing bars and levers, as were the driving wheels, but also incorporated an arrangement which shifted the weight of the engine so that, like a circus rider, the engine leaned inward on curves to counteract centrifugal force. (See Fig.5).

The characteristics of the American locomotive had appeared early. The first really successful railroad locomotive in the world--George Stephenson's Rocket--was built in England in 1829, yet in the very next year H. L. B. Lewis, of New York, was advertising his invention of a simple contrivance, consisting of wheels attached to the front and rear of the engine, "so arranged that they have a horizontal and lateral motion, so as to admit of their adapting their position to any curve in the track, or any inequality on the top sides of the rails." Two years later, in 1832, Jervis designed the Brother Jonathan--the first locomotive to use the lead-truck principle. Five years later Garrett and Eastwick built the Hercules, the first engine on which a driving-wheel equalizer invented by Joseph Harrison, Jr., was used; the weight of the engine rested upon the center of a separate frame, the driving-wheel axles being placed in pedestals or supports which allowed the wheels to adjust to uneven track. In 1842 Eastwick and Harrison's Mercury combined a highly flexible system of truck suspension with a further development of the equalized driving-wheel arrangement, and an extremely light frame. From that point onward, the essential characteristics of the American locomotive rapidly developed. 1

For about twenty years after 1850, it is true, extraneous attempts were made to apply "art" to the iron horse. As in the large stationary steam engines described earlier, this art consisted, in large measure, in architectural detail, used in constructing the engine cabs which after 1850 became common on American locomotives. Baldwin's eight-wheeled engine of that year had a cab with large decorative panels on the sides, Corinthian columns supporting an ornamental cornice, and Gothic arched windows. As late as 1868 the Nathaniel McKay, designed by and named after the son of the clipper-ship designer, Donald McKay, retained the Gothic point in its cab windows. But by 1875 the return of the clean, functional form is reflected in the restrained and attractive design of John C. Davis' engine for the Baltimore and Ohio. (See Fig.5)

The characteristics of economy, simplicity, and flexibility which the products of the vernacular displayed so clearly in the United States are closely related to the design of the American system of industrial production itself. There is a clue to this relationship in the comment already quoted from the catalogue of London's Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851: that productive labor in the United States was "applied with direct reference to increasing the number or quantity of articles suited to the wants of a whole people."

Let us return for a moment to those long-barreled rifles which Washington's frontiersmen demonstrated on Cambridge Common. Each of those rifles was made by hand, and because they were handmade, no two were exactly alike. If more guns were needed, skilled craftsmen had to be found to make them, and each gun that was made had to be shaped and fitted with individual care.

As a matter of fact, in 1798, when war with France seemed imminent, the government found itself in need of large quantities of rifles. To meet that need, Eli Whitney, of Connecticut, agreed to manufacture "ten thousand stand of Arms, or Muskets, with Bayonets and Ramrods complete" in two years--an undreamed-of quantity in a land where skilled gunsmiths were rare. To achieve this task Whitney proposed "to substitute correct and effective operations of machinery for that skill of the artist which is acquired only by long experience."

Whitney's part in the development of what came to be called the "American system" of manufacture, employing machine-made, standardized, interchangeable parts, is less well known than his invention of the cotton gin. The gin's more immediate and obvious economic and social effects commanded the historian's interest long before the origins of mass-production seemed important. But interchangeable-parts manufacture, which had been introduced in France by H. Blanc in the 1780s, and which Whitney and the mechanics at the United States Government arsenals developed here in the next two or three decades, is one of the basic constituents of modern civilization. Whitney may not deserve so much credit as he claimed in connection with the introduction and elaboration of the system. Recent investigations by Robert S. Woodbury show that Blanc himself was anticipated by a Swedish maker of clock gears who, fifty years earlier, made parts by machinery so precisely that they were interchangeable. But quite apart from the question of who deserves the credit for inventing such a system, the fact remains that in America it was rapidly developed and was soon applied to a number of manufactures. By the early 1870s it had been applied so extensively to the manufacture of sewing machines, for example, that 600,000 were made and sold in a single year. Firearms, agricultural machinery, watches, and even locomotives were produced by this so-called American system of manufacture.

There is no need to describe here in detail the development of this system, or how it works in specific cases. The essential point in the present context is that it had collaborated with all the other factors we have considered to strengthen and accentuate the characteristic qualities of the American vernacular tradition. On the one hand, if rifles, reapers, sewing machines, and watches had not already been characterized by simplicity and plainness, it would have been considerably more difficult to apply the new system in the first place; on the other hand, once the system was applied, it inevitably encouraged further simplification and further stripping away of non-essentials. (An American cast-steel plow, as manufactured by the famous Collins Company of Hartford in the early seventies, weighed only forty pounds; whereas a contemporary English wrought-iron plow, which could cut a furrow of equal width and depth, weighed two hundred and fifty pounds.) Furthermore, an industrial structure based upon such a system is pointless unless it turns out large quantities of goods. To some people mass production still seems necessarily to imply inferior products, but there is no technological reason why it should not always produce superior goods. When mass-produced American watches were subjected to comparative tests at the Centennial, only twenty-five years after the new system had been introduced in their manufacture, two different makes surpassed the best performances of fine Swiss watches. There is, to be sure, nothing in the mass-production process which insures that its machines will necessarily be used to turn out the highest-quality products; but the quality can be high if the creators and owners of the machine so desire. Furthermore, the products are uniform and can be made available to more people and at lower prices than is otherwise possible.

The rapidity with which America adopted the new manufacturing procedure, and the relative slowness with which it was accepted in Europe, may well have had some connection with another peculiarity of the American industrial system. Writing in 1841, the English mechanical authority Robert Willis noted that in Great Britain power was transmitted from the prime mover (a steam engine, water wheel, or turbine) to the various machines in different parts of a factory by means of long shafts and toothed gear wheels, but in America by large belts, moving rapidly and quietly. Toothed-wheel transmission is by nature a rigid setup; if the location of the machinery is changed, new shafts and new gears must be arranged. But a system of belts and pulleys is comparatively flexible; the arrangement of machinery can be changed with considerable freedom. It was therefore relatively easy for American manufacturers to rearrange existing factories in a manner appropriate to the new system of interchangeable parts.2

Mass production as we know it today, however, depends as much upon mechanical handling of materials as upon interchangeable parts, and the development of mechanical conveyors and their use in an integrated manufacturing procedure can be traced to an even earlier date than Whitney's system. Thirteen years before Whitney set up his armory in New Haven, Oliver Evans built a flour mill in Newcastle County, Delaware, in which he installed belt conveyors, screw conveyors, endless-chain bucket elevators, and, as Joseph W. Roe has noted, nearly all of the modern transporting devices in substantially their present form. A few years later these devices were installed in Thomas Ellicott's mill near Baltimore (See Fig.6), in which, as Evans wrote, they performed "every necessary movement of the grain and meal, from one part of the mill to another, or from one machine to another, through all the various operations, from the time the grain is emptied from the Wagoner's bag, or from the measure on board the ship, until it is completely manufactured into flour . . . ready for packing into barrels, for sale or exportation. All of which is performed by the force of water, without the aid of manual labor, except to set the different machines in motion."

It is this system of mechanical handling plus the system of interchangeable parts which united to make modern mass production, and it is strange that so little attention has been paid to their development by the historians of our civilization. Whitney is usually spoken of only as the inventor of the cotton gin, and Evans--if he is mentioned at all--is referred to as the inventor of an ungainly, amphibious steam carriage called Eructor Amphibolis. But it is their contributions to the design of the industrial structure itself, to the fundamental principles of mass production, that command our attention here. For it is to them that we owe the manufacturing system which made the products of technological design available to great numbers of people.

It was Henry Ford, aided by such ingenious technicians as C. W. Avery, William Klann, and Charles E. Sorensen, who finally combined Whitney's system of interchangeable parts and Evans' system of mechanical conveyors to create the modern system of power-driven assembly-line manufacture. When two French engineers, Arnold and Faurote, published their study of Ford Methods and Ford Shops in 1915 they described in some detail the Ford system of motor and chassis assembly. Ford practice, they noted, was to place the most suitable component of an assembly on elevated ways or rails, and carry or push it past successive stationary sources of component supply and past successive groups of workmen who fixed the various components to the basic part of the assembly. Since the components were perfectly gauged and absolutely interchangeable, each piece could be affixed in a predetermined time and the whole assembly could be chain-driven along the rails at a uniform rate.

Arnold and Faurote stated that Ford had introduced this system in 1914, and they credited it as "the very first example of chain-driving an assembly in progress of assembling." Ford himself, writing in 1923, said he had installed the first moving assembly line (for flywheel magnetos) "along about April 1, 1913." But revolutionary as the Ford assembly line was, it rested upon a conception which had long been developing in American industry. For the idea of conveying a job mechanically past workmen at fixed stations, each of whom performs a special operation, came directly from the Chicago meat packers, and the basic procedure in their plants had originated in the hog-slaughtering houses of Cincinnati almost eighty years before Ford adapted it.

The earliest detailed account of the Cincinnati slaughterhouse procedure seems to be that published in 1861 by Charles L. Flint. According to Flint, the carcasses of the hogs were slid from the bleeding platform (where their throats had been cut) into a long scalding vat, floated along through it to a lever-operated contrivance which lifted them out onto the higher end of a long, inclined table down which they were slid past eight or nine pairs of men, each of whom had some special job to do in the process of shaving and cleaning the hog. At the end of the table the carcass was hung from a hook on the rim of a huge horizontal wheel, about six feet above the floor, which revolved around a perpendicular shaft. As soon as the hog was swung on its hook the wheel turned one eighth of its circuit, bringing the next hook to the table to receive its carcass and carrying the first carcass a distance of four feet to the workers who performed the first operation in the process of gutting it. Successive turns carried the carcass to other workers who in turn performed their jobs until finally, just before the hook returned to the table for another hog, the gutted and washed carcass was lifted off and carried to another part of the building and hung up to cool.

Sometime in the early sixties the horizontal wheel was replaced by an overhead railway loop, around which hooks traveled on pulleys, carrying the carcass past the workers' stations until, at the end of the loop, they swung off on a straightaway along which they conveyed it to the cooling chamber. (See Fig.7). Thus it was no longer necessary to carry the carcass by hand from the end of the disassembly line to the storage room, as it had been with the wheel conveyor. But in all essential respects the principle of the mechanized assembly line remained unchanged.

Just when the system Flint describes was introduced we do not know, but his account indicates that it was already well established in Cincinnati by 1860, and there is clear evidence that in principle, at least, it originated much earlier. When Harriet Martineau visited Cincinnati in 1835 she was driven about the town by Dr. Daniel Drake (of whom more in a later chapter), who showed her the slaughterhouses on Deer Creek. She did not want to see inside, but the doctor described their method of operation and she recorded what he told her.

One man [she noted] drives into one pen or chamber the reluctant hogs, to be knocked on the head by another whose mallet is forever going. A third sticks the throats, after which they are conveyed by some clever device to the cutting-up room, and thence to the pickling, and thence to the packing and branding. [Italics mine.]
One wishes Miss Martineau had been able to stomach the "reeking carcasses" and had seen and described the clever device which conveyed them from station to station. But whatever it was, a horizontal wheel or other conveyor, it is clear that the basic system must have been essentially the same as that described by Flint.

Our lack of precise knowledge about the origin of the system is an indication of the extent to which we have hitherto neglected the underlying technological factors of our civilization. Up until recently it has frequently been asserted that the system Ford took over from the meat packers and made the core of modern mass-production industry had originated in the seventies or eighties and had thus been a product of the surge of industrialization which is held to have transformed America in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Siegfried Giedion, in his history of mechanization, dates the system from the late sixties or early seventies, on the basis of patent-office records and such information as he was able to get from Cincinnati's local historians. Yet Miss Martineau's account is pretty conclusive evidence that the industrial system which Giedion justly calls "the dominant principle of the twentieth century" had in all its essentials been put into actual practice more than sixty-five years before that fateful century began. Whatever the precise date may have been, the evidence at hand is sufficient to emphasize that the increasing tempo of industrialization in late nineteenth-century America was a development of technological factors which were already deeply rooted in our national experience during the "agrarian" decades of the thirties and forties. It should effectively remind us that the technology of mass production is as indigenous to the United States as the husking bee.

All this emphasis on mechanical and technological factors in nineteenth-century America may seem to ignore the fact that until 1860 the United States was primarily an agricultural country. But the proportion of people engaged in agriculture, or the relative value of agricultural and manufactured products, is not the most significant index of the role of technology in a nation's life.

Before the American land could be a union in fact as well as in name, the land itself had to be made smaller and more compact than it had been when it took Washington nine days to proceed from Philadelphia to Cambridge to take command of the Revolutionary Army. A number of forces contributed to this contraction and unification of the continent. There were threats from the outside which drove the people to unite in self-protection; there was a vast increase in population to fill the empty spaces; there were the people's common interests in development of new land, in conquest of the wilderness; there was the homesick need of the pioneer to keep in touch with those left behind in the settled regions; there was the invasion of Washington by the frontier in the person of Andrew Jackson; and there was the belief in Union of dynamic idealists like Lincoln. But, as the technological historian Roger Burlingame has said, "without the continuous, inevitable progress of technology--of which, indeed, very few were conscious--all these causes would have failed to operate."

Before the Declaration of Independence there were apparently only two steam engines in the thirteen colonies: one at Passaic, New Jersey, in a copper mine and the other in a Philadelphia distillery. England had forbidden the colonies to engage in most industries, in an effort to keep them dependent on British manufactures. But once the Revolution was achieved, industrial expansion and technological invention proceeded at a rapid rate. As a matter of fact, in the seventeen years between the end of the Revolutionary War (1783) and the end of the century, three major technological achievements had already laid the foundations for future national unification. Whitney's cotton gin unified the South by giving it a new source of wealth--cotton--and a common interest in slavery as a means of exploiting it. Slater's reproduction of English textile machinery in New England began the Industrial Revolution in that section and linked it economically to the South, whose cotton fields supplied the raw materials for the mills. And finally Fitch's steamboats--later promoted by Livingston and Fulton and ingeniously adapted to shallow rivers by Henry Shreve and others--enabled the pioneer to settle the West and at the same time bound him inextricably to the East. McCormick's reaper later made the East and the South dependent on the West for food, and the railroads and other subsequent inventions implemented and strengthened the interdependence of all these diverse regions.

The importance of these factors becomes clear when we remember that the unity of no other nation in history rested to a similar degree upon technological foundations. In the light of that fact the characteristics of the vernacular assume a special significance in the United States. For it is clear that they had inadvertently become national in a way that had nothing to do with the naive nationalism which patriots had self-consciously demanded from our literature and our art.

It was this tradition in which were developed, and kept universally available, certain elements of design and certain principles of structure which were a direct, uninhibited response to the new environment and which finally had decisive influence in the hands of men of skill and vision. This stream of art often failed to create beauty of its own. But its patterns at least reflected actuality, however ugly that actuality often was; and the forms evolved in it were firmly rooted in contemporary experience.


1 The difference between American and British locomotives early in the twentieth century was thus described by the English railroad expert, Vaughan Pendred, in The Railway Locomotive, New York, 1908, p. X: "The British locomotive is, above all others, simple, strong, and carefully finished.... The American locomotive is the incarnate spirit of opportunism.... In Europe complication is favored rather than disliked.... In all cases the national character appears to stamp itself on machinery of every kind." Return

2 By 1878 the American system of belt and pulley transmission was being adopted in Europe. See William T. Porter, "Machines and Machine Tools," Reports of the United States Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition, 1878, Washington, 1880, Vol. IV. Return

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