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Industrial/Manufacturing History and Labor Day
Once more, a dive into yet another neglected aspect of the study of our past: the history of making stuff.
Yes, we’ve been making stuff since we first napped stones, or used a stick to pry open a shell. You know all about that…
Do you, now?
To be clear, I’m not talking about what we make, all the whiz-bang gimmicks that humans have come up with in the past scores of thousands of years. I’m talking about how we make all that stuff and, more important, how we make all that stuff more efficiently, more effectively.
No, it’s not technology; it’s making how technology happens.
Technology is the end-product of manufacturing; it’s the stuff we make. When we started transforming raw materials—knapping stones by pressing and striking, heating and cooling—that was the beginning of manufacturing. When we first made an airplane in a factory, that is manufacturing. What the Wright brothers did to build those first flyers was more art than it was science, or at least a judicious mixture of the two. When the Army wanted three of them, they had to move out of their bicycle shop to a bigger plant. They taught others what they were doing.
They built a factory.
The word “factory” has many origins, but for our purposes, factor in Latin means “maker” or “doer.” It came to mean where workers come together to make things; normally goods. The first factories made textiles on looms powered by water mills or treadmills, though there were others that used a power source. They were not cheap to put together… and that’s one reason manufacturing history is so thin: the owner/operators are interested in making money, and don’t have the resources to preserve their past.
And more’s the pity.
I worked in heavy manufacturing for most of my professional life, but I chose history as a college major. In industry, I described how to use and how to make what the factory put out. In college, I talked about how these products were used—and abused—and from time to time how they were made. Towards the end of my college career, my military history research was paying more attention to how the tools of war were made—what the requirements were; how these requirements were met and how well. Along the way, I realized the factories can’t make yesterday’s output after they make today’s.
Because they don’t care about their history?
Yes, and no. They do care in their way… but not to the extent that they can replicate yesterday’s output… and increasingly, support the products already out there. One reason for this, regrettably, is marketing. The peddlers of the stuff have to create new markets for the factory’s wares at the expense of supporting the installed base—old customers. Another reason is advances in engineering and materials. Another is better manufacturing techniques.
But the need for new customers always trumps the need to help the old ones.
Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s so. That’s one reason you never hear about industrial and manufacturing history except in the abstract, always associated with the products they make and always under the umbrella of technology. But it would be difficult to expand such a discipline because the factories aren’t much interested. We scrap old factory machines; there’s no Museum of Screw Cutting Lathes, no Historical Abstract of the Vertical Milling Machine, nor will there be in the foreseeable future. Wish it was different, but it isn’t.
Labor Day is Monday
As we look forward to the coming of fall, to school starting again, to the lawn cleanup and, inevitably, the coming of winter, we realize that one more summer has ended, that the grill cover is still stuck in the garage… somewhere… and that the pool needs draining.
It once had a higher purpose: celebrating labor.
We recognized the achievements of labor in the factories and the fields with parades once, around the turn of the 20th century. The origins are obscure; the first parade was in New York City on 5 September 1882 when ten thousand workers took off work to march from City Hall to Union Square. Other parades followed; Labor Day became a Federal holiday in 1894. There have been parades since, but even growing up in Detroit, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen one. So at least think about all those people who make all those gadgets you use every day… no matter where they are.
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On 3 September:
1900: Wisner's Buzz Wagon premiered in a Labor Day parade in Flint, Michigan. The first automobile to be made in Flint, the Buzz Wagon, was so named because of the loud noise it made… and was the first car (of somewhat over 500 million (so far) made under the General Motors aegis.
1939: Great Britain, France, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand declared war on Germany, beginning World War Two. This term was first applied to the 1939-45 conflict on 11 September by the Manchester Guardian, but would not come into popular use until 1941 in the US. the term had been used in hypothetical terms as early as 1919.
And, today is NATIONAL WELSH RAREBIT DAY. This toasted cheese dish didn’t start in Wales (though it’s hard to tell where it did) and it contains no rabbit at all. A variant made with tomato soup is called blushing bunny or, in my childhood home, rinktum.