Capital Relationships

In the second half of Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon introduces the idea of ‘capital relationships.’  In our explorations of nature we have come across of a number of different types of relationships even though we not have seen them as so.  Each of these relationships effects and changes the environment around it.  As I was reading about Cronon’s examples of ‘capital relationships’ I found myself debating whether these relationships positively or negatively affected the environment.  Every time a relationship seemed black and white, Cronon would provide evidence that would make it more ambiguous.

My initial thought was that commodification, the driving force behind these relationships, in general made things less natural and thus negatively affected the environment.  The idea of ‘using’ nature instead of living off the land seemed destructive.  The example of the white pine particularly stuck out to me as a relationship that was abused.  The white pine seemed especially victimized in this so-called relationship.  The white pine was very strong and easy to transport by water.  That fact combined with the creation of new technologies such as the buzz saw made white pine a high-demand commodity.  This type of exploitation negatively affected what Cronon calls the ‘moral economy’ of cities.  The exploitation created this perception of cities as a corrupt and sinful place that should be avoided. Agrarian fears of the city were especially prevalent because of this exploitation. Farmer’s protested the idea of middleman economics.  They saw themselves only as middlemen. Much like the white pine, they felt they were trapped in an abusive relationship with cities.

However, as Cronon continued to develop these relationships he showed how they could also have positive affects on cities as well.  For instance, with cities developing new technologies for mass production and transportation, farmers were forced to create new innovative farming strategies and get a higher education.  The expansion of railroads also helped farmers and agrarian communities by bringing them closer to the cities.  Before railroads, there was poor communication and high storage requirements put on farmers which creates risk and efficiency.  The lack of an effective transportation system also created a frontier economy based mostly on credit.  The expansion of the railroad created a faster and more predictable economy that could be counted on year round.  As Cronon states, “the geography of capital was about connecting people to new markets and remake old landscapes.”

Throughout this class we have encountered relationships with the environment that have seemed completely bad or completely good on the surface.  However, as we learned more about them they became much more complicated.  Is using the land for our own purposes inherently un-natural, or is the land their for that purpose?  There has to be a line where we go from living off the land to abusing it.  From all our readings however, this line seems incredibly ambiguous.  These questions made me think about prwarren’s post on Cronnon’s use of binaries    I think this type of writing actually hurts his arguments.  I think his book is truly about complex capital relationships that are multilayered.  The use of binaries just make things seem too black and white.

Cronon and Interconnectedness

Cronon speaks using binaries–country/city, commodity/not commodity, first nature/second nature. While individuals (a majority of the class) found Cronon’s use of a “first” nature and a “second” nature to be less than helpful, Parts II and III of his work make his distinction of the two natures all the more clear. In my opinion, Cronon loosely uses these terms for his reader to understand the connections and shifts that happened in the nineteenth century.

In the latter two thirds of his book, Cronon nuances his readers’ understanding(s) of the impacts of railroads and trains. He states, “The train did not create the city by itself. Stripped of the rhetoric that made it seem a mechanical deity, the railroad was simply a go-between whose chief task was to cross the boundary between city and country” (97). The train connected urban and rural areas. Is Cronon suggesting the rise of cities acted as a go-between for humanity and nature? Nineteenth-century cities were test-runs. Either way, cities and a “controlled” and “healthier” version of nature could not exist without the other.

How would humanity and nature with the rise of capitalism learn to coexist? Cronon argues that in order to understand this, all stories must be told. He insists, “But one can understand neither Chicago nor the Great West if one neglects to tell their stories altogether. What often seem separate narratives finally converge in a larger tale of people reshaping the land to match their collective vision of its destiny” (369). Thus, here exists another binary. I use the term “binary,” because that is how Cronon presents them, but in the end, he de-bunks his representation and suggests what most of our discussions end on each week–humanity and nature are more interconnected than most think. To further add to my point, think back to last week’s discussion about water politics. Ian stated, “Some might argue that the Erie Canal being man-made removes it from nature, but the water that fills it and the first that inhabit it are both indicative of this waterways places within the environment.” Cronon suggests that commodification and the rise of capitalism came about thanks to the agricultural system. Trains and railroads facilitated this change in a passenger’s seat position. Humanity and nature can no longer (and most likely never could) be mutually exclusive.

The relationship between humanity and nature is constantly being reworked and re-positioned. Cronon talks about Chicago’s temporary gateway status. He states, “Gateway status was temporary, bound to the forces of market expansion, environmental degradation, and self-induced competition that first created and then destroyed the gateway’s utility to the urban-rural system as a whole” (377). Thus, Cronon suggests there was (and is) a cyclical component. This interpretation is a great segue into future class discussions about humans and natural disasters.

We speak using generalizing terms, but when paired with nuanced examples and complex interpretations, deeper meanings arise to this too often glossed-over relationship. His book gets off to a slow start, but comes full-circle in the end.


Cronon and “Natural” Chicago

Parts II and III of Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis offer a further explanation of the concepts of first and second nature, which were introduced in Part I. During Part II, Cronon details how the wheat, lumber, and meat industries developed during Chicago’s rise as a gateway city. In Part III, the focus shifts from nature to the city and specifically to the distribution of capital. Cronon, in the midst of his discussion on capital, goes so far as to use it interchangeably with his term “second nature” (269). This was extremely surprising to me. After the lengths Cronon went to in Part I to clearly define first and second nature, I did not expect another interpretation of either term later in the book. Nevertheless, I do think that capital and Cronon’s definition for second nature are very similar and can be used interchangeably. Early on, Cronon defines second nature as “the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature” (xix). This broad definition would include the wheat, lumber, and meat industries, as well as houses and trains, grain elevators and steamboats. All of these, in one way or another, are capital.

Another claim that I had trouble accepting, and one that Wade struggled with as well, was Cronon’s statement that, “it would be a mistake to believe that Chicago had always offered these advantages, or that there was anything ‘natural’ about them” (295). It seems to me that the development of Chicago as a gateway city was at least partially the result of a couple natural advantages. One important element in Chicago’s rise–into what Cronon claims was the second most important American city behind New York–was its location along the Great Lakes. Chicago’s position along Lake Michigan offered an avenue for the faster transportation of goods to the eastern market. This was a completely natural advantage, and one that Chicago wisely exploited. Second, Chicago’s location in the middle of the continent naturally meant that it would serve as a gateway for westward expansion. So long as the spread of human civilization is considered natural, the location of Chicago should be characterized as a natural advantage. Its location on the western edge of civilization, at the time of its founding, meant that other cities were bound to develop further west of Chicago and in turn Chicago would serve as the passageway for goods moving from these western cities to the eastern markets.

An aspect of the book that I enjoyed, especially after reading Steinberg last week, was Cronon’s discussion of the pollution of Chicago’s waterways by the meatpacking industry. The similarities between 19th century Chicago and 19th century New England were striking. Clearly it was not just the textile industries of New England that viewed water as an asset. For industry, the waterways were something to be used and exploited, not maintained. Water was something comprehended in solely economic, not environmental, terms. As the role water plays in the distribution of disease had yet to be understood, there was not the slightest hesitation to dump waste into rivers. Rather, at the time it seemed like an excellent managerial decision.

Dislocation in Nature’s Metropolis

I enjoyed reading Parts II of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. His exploration of the process of grain, lumber, and meat becoming commodities was fascinating, especially when he showed the distinct roles grain elevators, fences, and stockyards played in those processes. I had never considered that animals (along with alcohol) are easier to transport than plants: “pigs (along with whisky) were generally the most compact and valuable way of bringing [farmers’ corn crops] to market” (226). Not only is this an interesting idea, it is also an example of the geography/transportation of capital. Cronon quotes from one source, “‘Corn thus becomes incarnate; for what is a hog, but fifteen or twenty bushels of corn on four legs?'” (226).

One of Cronon’s conclusions in Part II is that “once within the corporate system, places lost their particularity and became functional abstractions on organizational charts” (259). Cronon carries the theme of dislocation into Part III. After carefully connecting Chicago to its hinterlands/rural areas to their Metropolis through the three commodities in Part II, “Nature to Market,” Cronon commences a different investigation in Part III, “The Geography of Capital.” Through a clever investigation of individuals’ estates at bankruptcy or death, Cronon composes a series of maps that illustrate Chicago’s position as the “gateway city” and why it beat  St. Louis for the title. A gateway, though, is hardly a place in itself because it isn’t a destination. As goods are entering and exiting, the gateway is a place of dislocation. The examples of Montgomery Ward and Company’s mail-order catalogs and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair further demonstrate the dislocation. The mail-order catalogs, Cronon writes, “offered its readers a map of capital, of second nature.” “The most remarkable thing about the catalog, like capital itself, is how thoroughly it obscures these relationships [between metropolis and hinterland]” (339). Similarly, Cronon refers to Henry Adams’s analysis of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Adams called the fair a “Babel of loose … unrelated thoughts and half-thoughts” (344). 

Initially, I thought the book was only about Chicago, so I didn’t expect to encounter so much dislocation. Since the story is about the rise of Chicago and the West, it makes more sense: the whole thing is about dislocation. It’s weird that moving goods around was/is essential to the process of creating capital.

I, like Wade, am interested in the relationship between second nature and capital. I don’t think second nature (refresher: “the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature” [xix]) is the exact same thing as capital, but I wish Cronon would have clarified their relationship. Maybe the difference between second nature and capital is that there is a way to have second nature without creating capital, such as the example of a self-sufficient pioneer.

Chicago’s Place on the Frontier, and Looking at First and Second Nature

Parts II and III of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis expand upon Cronon’s telling of the story of Chicago from an environmental history perspective.  In part II, Cronon tells the stories of the production, commodification, and transportation of grain, lumber, and meat and how they evolved along with the evolution of Chicago.  In part III, Cronon looks at Chicago geographically, discussing the importance of the city’s location and how the expansion of industrialization westward affected the growing frontier.  I found the organization of these two parts, and his book as a whole, effective.  Cronon tries to tell the story of a city with his book, and the fact he was able to do so while not telling a chronological story is impressive, and in the end made the work more effective as a work of environmental history.

I found Cronon’s further discussion of the railroad impact in the west interesting and a valuable expansion of his discussion in part I.  He discusses the railroad’s impact on Chicago and the surrounding areas in depth in part I, but in part II he writes that the railroads helped instigate the destruction of the bison, something we have already read about in this class.  The railroads made going out and hunting the bison easier, and having a metropolis to bring the bison back and make money only motivated people further to hunt the bison and accelerate their destruction, and at the same time negatively impact Native American life.  He also compares the pre and post railroad worlds in the west, showing how the railroad helped merchants in many ways and wasn’t overwhelming the frontier country but instead bringing them closer together.

Throughout his work, Cronon looks at nature as two types, first and second nature, with first nature being what would exist without any outside intrusion and second nature being the world build upon first nature.  I didn’t love this definition after reading part I, and still don’t after reading parts II and III.  In part II, Cronon does a good job of showing how nature and humans interacted through Chicago with the commodification of elements of nature, but in doing so he weakened the notions of first and second nature.  For Cronon, first nature would be trees in a forest, and humans collecting the trees for lumber and using it commercially would be a result of second nature.  While this is a clear example of humans “dominating” nature and theoretically fits into his classification of nature, as Ian mentioned below, humans worked in harmony with nature in the transportation of the lumber.  By separating nature into two separate spheres, it ignores the concept of humans working in harmony with nature, even if in the example Ian presented humans shaped the environment.  I also agree with Wade in my complaint about this definition, as using first and second nature works in some cases, but it leaves no room for something in between (or Cronon fails to do so) like when something natural becomes a commodity.

Cronon’s Look at Meat

            In chapter five of Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon discusses the importance and growth of Chicago’s meatpacking industry in the 19th century. He discusses how, helped by the surrounding railroads, the Chicago stockyards grew over time into a large, vital part of the nation’s meat industry. The meat packing industry is one that has gotten a lot of attention historically. Cronon makes note of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle, which famously prompted reform of the meatpacking industry by outlining the factories’ horrible, unsanitary conditions. (208) Of course, problems still persist today. A simple Google search would reveal countless videos of the inhumane and unclean conditions in many factory farms today—things like hundreds of pigs crammed into tiny, filthy enclosures. While these accounts are quite disturbing, they also point to something Ian discussed in his post—namely, the way commodification of natural things completely changes the way we look at and interact with those things. Ian refers to water as the thing commodified in his post, and I agree and actually believe that the commodification with animals hammers the point home in an even more dramatic way, as in this case the things being commodified are living animals, who are of course hurt in the process.

            In class, we have often discussed how natural resources can be taken advantage of in a way that still seems “natural” to us. One big point of difference between natural and unnatural use of these resources has been the idea of whether the person using them is doing so on a small scale to support their self, rather than on a large scale to sell the end product to a mass market. So, in this case, consider the idea of a farmer who raises some cows and pigs to feed himself as opposed to something like a stockyard or a factory where a corporation is raising the animals to slaughter and sell. Most of us probably consider the activity of the lone farmer to be a more “natural” way of using the animals. Much as animals eat one another in nature, this man is simply using what animals he needs to feed himself in a way that somewhat mimics the natural food chain. I don’t have proof to back this up, but one would assume those animals are kept in better, less abusive conditions than animals being raised to sell to a large market. Again, as Ian discussed, when water was commodified, companies used it as a place to dump waste, which of course hurts the water’s quality. This is analogous to the case of the comparison between the small vs. large farm. In the big farm or stockyard, there is bound to be lower standards of quality and a more mistreatment of the animals. I found Cronon’s chapter on meat to be an interesting example of how, once something natural has been commodified and turned into a product, it is treated more carelessly and most likely suffers in quality (especially interesting because any company would claim to strive to get its customers the highest possible quality of product).

Cronon’s Complications with Second Nature

Unlike previous readings throughout this semester, this week’s portion of Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis left me with two very different reactions. While Parts II and III of the book were both filled with information pertinent to the growth of Chicago in the nineteenth century, the end of the monograph left me puzzled with Cronon’s analysis.

I found Part II of Nature’s Metropolis very effective in emphasizing the importance of natural resources in the development of Chicago. Cronon’s thorough assessment of the emergence of incorporated grain, lumber, and meat into Chicago’s – and eventually the country’s – economy demonstrated how the power of “first nature” was inescapable. In the production of crops, Cronon explains that the glaciers that once existed in the Great Lakes region were responsible for the richness of the soil surrounding Chicago (98). Additionally, Chicago’s lumber trade declined after forests north of the city were exhausted of their trees. Only these forests, due to the network of waterways that ran through them, were able to supply the rather treeless Chicago with lumber (200). These examples served to show that Cronon’s concept of “first nature” was responsible both for the creation and the destruction of different pieces of Chicago as a metropolis.

Cronon also linked his concepts of “first” and “second” nature in Part II. In his discussion of wheat as the definitive cash crop of Chicago, Cronon writes about the importance of the gridding of land and the grain elevator in commoditizing nature. As the railroad established its presence in the Midwest, the transport of grain increased dramatically in scale and necessitated the use of a grain elevator to make the process more efficient (126). The use of the grain elevator railroad also contributed to the creation of the Chicago Board of Trade in an effort to standardize grain qualities for consumers (119). Also bringing agriculture off the farm and into the city was meat production in plants on the South side of Chicago. The commoditizing of meat, Cronon argues served to convince Chicagoans that meat had become an “urban product” (256). While Cronon effectively reveals a relationship between first and second nature, he seems to fail to discuss the implications of this link. When a natural product like wheat became commoditized, did it too become second nature? Unfortunately, Cronon leaves us with inconclusive answers for inquiries like these.

While I found Part II holistically convincing, Part III of Nature’s Metropolis saw Cronon’s arguments beginning to unravel. I also think at this point Chelsea’s commentary on “humans allow(ing) capital to rule their lives” becomes clearly applicable. Even Cronon becomes obsessed with capital when he makes the claim in his chapter “Gateway City” that second nature is capital (269). Though I understand Cronon’s demonstration that second nature can be traced by the seemingly unceasing flow of capital as noted by Chelsea, I am left completely clueless as to why he didn’t make the distinction at the beginning of his book between “nature” and “capital” as opposed to his created concepts of “first” and “second” nature. Moreover, in our discussion several weeks ago on Part I of Cronon, we talked about how Cronon considered both the creation of railroads and cities a step in ecological evolution. However, in “Gateway City” Cronon asserts that there was nothing natural about the advantages Chicago had in becoming a metropolis (295). In Part III of this book, Cronon appears to become more concerned with the economic and cultural history of late nineteenth century Chicago than with the environmental approach taken in the first parts of his narrative. Sadly, with all these contradictions and conflicts in his arguments, I found Cronon’s conclusions, or lack thereof, disappointing.

Nature’s Place as a Product

William Cronon’s Parts II and III of Nature’s Metropolis analyze the commodification of various goods which became national commodities through Chicago as a major trading center. Through these two sections, Cronon describes the standardization of grain production, the significant rise in the trade of lumber,  as well as  the development of the intercontinental meat packing industry, all of which passed through Chicago as a bridge into the national market of the USA.

One of the most interesting chapters of Cronon’s Part II is his work on the growth of the lumber industry in Chicago, specifically in the way humans used natural forces to their advantage. In describing the seasonality of the lumber industry, Cronon indicated that loggers often flooded skidways with water, which then froze, allowing them to easily move the enormous loads of logs from point A to B (156). This tactic seemed incredibly innovative to me and represented both humans “using” their environment, as well as shaping it. In terms of using it, the loggers knew that water naturally froze when cold enough, which it often is during the winter months of Chicago, so they took advantage of this natural occurrence for their benefit. Meanwhile, they also altered their environment by flooding and freezing a region that would not have faced these conditions without human alteration. Though Cronon does not mention any negative effects of this change, it would be interesting to see how the transportation methods of the Chicago logging industry in the 1870s effected the environment and its natural inhabitants (outside of humans).

Again on the topic of water, Cronon makes similar claims compared to Theodore Steinberg regarding the pollution of water through its usage to dispose of waste. In his description of the waste from the Chicago pork packers, Cronon indicates that they used the water to dispose of these materials, taking on the perspective of “out of sight, out of smell, out of mind” (249). Steinberg, in his work of Nature Incorporated indicated that New Englanders also took on this ignorant perspective regarding their effects to the environment. The similarity between the ideologies of these two areas provided an answer for me regarding our question in class about country wide claims we could make about water politics. It seems that across the country, Americans in the 19th century viewed water as their tool for whatever they deemed fit, instead of a natural resource that could be destroyed. Through their negligence, both the purity of the water in New England and Chicago was diminished through the dumping of waste.

I believe Chelsea’s comment about capital dominating human life defines my comments about the way both Cronon and Steinberg indicated American perceptions of water. Rather than water as a natural commodity, something for everyone to enjoy, it seems that people only saw it for the benefits it could provide them in terms of financial gain. With the Chicago Meat Packers, water for them was an easy and free way to dispose of waste, saving them money but costing the environment. Similarly in New England, the industrialists also took on this ideology, while also viewing the water as a controllable energy source to provide them power for their factories. Though I agree with Chelsea’s description, I believe her statement about humanity’s priority of financial gain only sometimes effecting nature needs to be expanded in order to truly incorporate all the effects that human monetary decisions have had on the environment, specifically in the 19th century. The killing off the buffalo for robes and leather, the laying of the railroad throughout the land, and the establishment of cities into the west all were based off economic growth, each effecting the environment in a number of ways. I would love to be wrong about this, as it would reflect a better humanity, but our past large scale economic decisions seemed to have affected the environment in a number of lasting ways.

The Domination and Geography of Capital in the Industrialization of Chicago

William Cronon, in Parts II and III of Nature’s Metropolis, discusses the movement of natural materials to market and the movement of capital, products, and people within the context of industrializing Chicago. Grain, lumber, and meat become major natural materials to pass through Chicago. Cronon writes about the importance of farmers to Chicago and that without the farmers, there would be no city. With the help of the railroads, farmers transported and provided efficient access to new areas. The creation of the elevator caused technology to replace individual workers. With these railroads and new technology, access to wood became easier and more expansive. People began to look towards Chicago for lumber. Essentially, nature was transferred to capital. And, more importantly, not “wasting” land, meat, or capital was priority. This idea of the movement of natural materials emphasizes one of Cronon’s main theses in his work on the rise of Chicago: The geography of capital was as important as the geography of nature.

Cronon also discusses the importance of Chicago as a “Gateway City.” Not only was it a gateway city for the West, but also for the eastern cities attempting to benefit from the commodities and flow of exchange from the West. Because of Chicago’s exchange between what Cronon refers to as “first” and “second” nature, “the commodities that flowed across the grasslands and forests of the Great West to reach Chicago did so within an elaborate human network that was at least as important as nature in shaping the region.” (264) Cronon also argues that Chicago as a new metropolis revealed the importance of railroads, elevators, and refrigerator cars to the West (265). Although competing with surrounding cities like St. Louis, Chicago flourished as the gateway between the Northern/European capitalist economy and the colonizing West. (295) Mail-order catalogs in 1872 allowed for the technological combinations of “railroads, urban manufacturing, wholesaling, improved postal service, and advertising” to be delivered anywhere. (333) With Chicago’s rise as a metropolis, Cronon argues, the geography of capital was about connecting people to make new markets and remake old landscapes and therefore “capital produced a landscape of obscured connections.” (340)

In the Epilogue, Cronon argues that Chicago caused its own demise as a metropolis in some ways. For example, opening a market in the region encouraged human migration, environmental changes, and economic developments that gave rise to other great cities, diminishing its competitiveness. Reading about Chicago and its rise as a great city dependent on the exchange between nature and capital made me think about our discussions of nature and changing landscapes. I am solidified even more in my opinion that humans allow capital to rule their lives and that sometimes the environment is affected by such decisions completely dependent on attempting to gain as much capital as possible from the endeavor. This reminds me of a comment Justin made last week about how “industrialization consumes American lives.” “Wasting” capital appeared to be more important than “wasting” nature, such as the white pine, though they were so intertwined in the development of the industrializing city. Eventually, however, the pursuit of capital experienced its limits and Chicago, as a gateway city, no longer fulfilled that status. I agree with Cronon’s view that we fool ourselves when we think of choosing between the city and the country and that we often forget how they fully shape each other. We must understand both the city and the country to realize they are one and we as humans are a part of one entity.

Supplementary Reading: The Response to Industrialism 1885-1914 by Samuel P. Hays

Samuel P. Hays’ book Response to Industrialism 1885- 1914 offers a comprehensive look at the history of American industrialism starting in the post Civil War era through the beginnings of the first world war. It is the third book in a series of four that relates the history of this country from its founding through the beginning of the Cold War.[1] The main goal of Hays book is to examine how industrialization affected all aspects of American society as well as the nation as a whole. He does not just focus on the positive effects of industrialization but also the negative consequences that were just as present. These negative consequences inspired societal responses to industrialism known as the Progressive and Populist Movements. While many saw industrialism as being crucial to American success on the world stage, Hays attempts to help the reader understand the downsides to industrialism and the resulting counter movement that helped reorganize American politics, society and economy.

While the book is divided into nine chapters there seem to be three distinct sections that outline different influences of industrialization. The first section is directed at the structural changes that industrialism brought to the American landscape and society. He focuses on changes such as transportation and communication. He argues that the improvement of technology in these fields was a major catalyst for the growth economically of America. The building of railroads created a mass market and allowed for mass production. The invention of the telephone created knowledgeable consumers and allowed for quicker business decisions.[2]

As a result of these improvements there were several resulting consequences. The agricultural sphere became commercialized as railroads allowed for foodstuffs to be transported greater distances, granting consumers access to greater choice. Industrialization also increased the importance of cities. As factories came to dominate the urban landscape, cities became the nerve centers of the country.  Industrialization also transformed American government. Hays believed that government reflected the attitude of the people. People initially valued the promise of wealth that industrialization created, which led government to become a pro business advocate.

Despite these changes, of which many people saw as positive, the second section of the book deals with the negative influences that industrialization had on different spheres of American society. This section is by far the longest and reflects Hays belief that industrialization had significantly negative impacts on average Americans of all regions. He begins with a general analysis of the perception of wealth. Originally, the economic growth of the country created a hope in all Americans that they could overcome their economic restrictions. Industrialization was the vehicle that would allow them to rise above their social class and experience what the wealthy already knew.

However, the pursuit of wealth along with the growing income disparity led many to finally realize the harsh reality. The pursuit of wealth was leading to a deterioration of societal norms such as good morals. Material success reduced the role of religion in society. No longer were people concerned with pursuing a righteous path. While the morality of American society was jeopardized, it also economically destabilized the lives of many citizens throughout the nation. Farmers in the South and the West were now forced to compete with commercial farms. They became concerned about their well being when they realized that their cost of production was higher than the prices that their products could be sold due to competition from the industrial farms.

In the urban sphere similar concerns were forming. The urban sphere was the area of the country most boosted by industrialism. The number of factories made cities an attractive region for both Americans and immigrants looking for work. Factories offered them a source of consistent labor and a more secure source of income. Unfortunately, factory work provided almost no possibility of upward mobility. The increase in immigration also increased competition thus providing business owner’s power over their employees. The ability for employers to limit wages created dire situations in cities for the vast majority of the growing population in cities. The increase in poverty was a major factor in the moral degradation of the urban environment.[3]

As a result of these conditions that were the result of industrialization, it forced American society into action. In the agricultural realm local farmers banded together to pressure the political parties into action. They formed labor forces whose presence was a threat to the business agriculture of the region. The farmer collective was the start of the greater conflict that took place between big business and labor that would be contested throughout the nation.[4] Just as the farmers unionized, a similar phenomenon was taking place within the cities. For too long big business dominated its employees. By the late 1800’s those in the cities began collectively organizing in order to increase their rights, for the situation had gotten to the point that urban life for the lower classes was no longer tolerable.[5] The income disparity was obvious and the wealthy made no attempts to hide it.

The second section ends with an analysis of the rural and urban spheres fight back against those who most benefitted from industrialism by attempting to reform the political sphere. This came to be known as the Progressive Movement. With the rise of industrialism, political machines had arisen in order to protect the interests of business. However, by the end of the 19th century reformers decided that enough was enough and directed their attentions at modifying the political sphere to look out more for the interests of laborers.[6] The conflict within the political sphere grew so heated that the debate reached the Supreme Court, which was required to make some monumental rulings on the relationship between business and the American public.[7] Samuel P. Hays is very critical of industrialism. It unleashed many negative effects on the American society and inspired a countermovement that unleashed a battle between ordinary labor and big business that would come to define the period.

Despite these criticisms Hays concludes his book with a final section devoted to the greater success that industrialism made possible for each region as well as the nation as a whole. While he acknowledges that the East was by far the greatest beneficiary of industrialism, Hays believed that as a region both the South and West received positive benefits as well. The West was greatly improved thanks to the construction of railroads, dams and aqueducts. The South was revamped and as a result became described as the “New South” that still had agricultural roots but now possessed increased mechanization to allow improved efficiency.[8] An interesting argument that Hay puts forward at this point was the idea that though industrialism had benefitted the South and West, the greatest benefit was still felt in the East for the South and West were in part Eastern colonies.[9]  Regardless of if one does or does not agree with this statement the result of these improvements in all regions of the nation, was the emergence of the United States as a world power. With these substantial resources the US was primed to become competitive in the world. Thus the next step was to expand outwards and compete imperially with Europeans nations. The end of the 19th century saw a significant rise in the external conflicts that the US became involved in leading into the First World War.

Samuel P. Hays’ book is a great source for understanding the impact of industrialism on American society during the second half of the 19th century. He does a particularly good job of complicating the typical narrative of industrialism. That narrative was one that only focused upon the overall success of industrialism. It ignored the consequences for society. Hays’ narrative focuses on those consequences and helps the reader understand the sacrifice that Americans had to make in order to progress. While industrialism brought many benefits to Americans it threatened their way of life and so they needed to respond. This is what prompted the Progressive countermovement that would come to dramatically change many aspects of American society.

The overall purpose of the book is commendable but there are a couple of shortcomings. First, Hays makes very little reference to any other historical work. The editor praises Hay in his use of the “rich storehouse of recent scholarship”[10] yet this scholarship is presented in a very limited manner throughout the text. A second criticism has to do with the book’s relationship to the environment. Hay states “industrialism was less important in changing the motives of Americans than in profoundly altering the environment…”[11] Despite this claim Hay spends very little time exploring the alteration of the American landscape. Instead he narrows his focus to the people who worked the environment and their perceptions of the changes that took place due to industrialism. The only point in his book where Hay explicitly references the land was during his analysis of the change in the political sphere. With the election of Theodore Roosevelt there was the rise of the conservation movement but Hay spends only a few moments on the topic proclaiming it a generally unsuccessful movement.[12]

William Cronon’s book Nature’s Metropolis is a book very similar to Samuel P. Hays. Both books analyze the affects of industrialism on the development of American society. Cronon’s book is a little more specific in its focus by looking only at Chicago. Still they approach industrialism in a similar manner to try and reveal how industrial improvements affected different spheres of society. Unlike Hays however, Cronon takes a greater interest in analyzing industrialism’s affect on the environment. He traces how human perceptions of land have changed. They moved away from seeing the land as simply a natural setting and instead began to commoditize all aspects of the land such as prairies, forests, animals and water. This type of analysis is missing from Hays book and if present could have added an interesting dimension to his argument.

My final criticism of Hays’ book is that he attempts to analyze too many different aspects of a changing American society. Whether it is economically, socially, religiously or some other aspect, Hays attempts to provide some sort of commentary. This is very useful if a reader is using the book to gain some general knowledge on a subject but unfortunately the breadth of the project meant that many of his commentaries are shallow in their analysis. An example of this can be seen with his description of the decrease in religiosity. He spends only a moment describing the regression of religion from society but does not fully explain what religion’s role had originally been in society or why this was changing. Hays general neglect of topics such as this does not hamper his overall narrative but it does leave the reader with further questions. As a work in general Samuel P. Hays efforts should be applauded for he does a good job of highlighting the different influences that industrialism had on different spheres of American society and though he devotes little attention to its influence on the environment, his narrative is useful in our understanding of catalysts of change during this period.



Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: WW Norton &

Company, 1991).



Hays, Samuel P. The Response to Industrialism 1885-1914 (Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 1957).


[1] Each book in the series was written by a different author.

[2] Samuel P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism 1885-1914 (Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 1957), 5-9.

[3] Hays, 20-24.

[4] Hays, 44.

[5] Hays, 32.

[6] Hay, 106.

[7] Hay, 158.

[8] Hay, 124.

[9] Hay, 126.

[10] Hay, viii.

[11] Hays, 190.

[12] Hays, 157.