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Minding the Machine

Minding the Machine: Languages of Class in Early Industrial America

Stephen P. Rice
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 243
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  • Book Info
    Minding the Machine
    Book Description:

    In this innovative book, Stephen P. Rice offers a new understanding of class formation in America during the several decades before the Civil War. This was the period in the nation's early industrial development when travel by steamboat became commonplace, when the railroad altered concepts of space and time, and when Americans experienced the beginnings of factory production. These disorienting changes raised a host of questions about what machinery would accomplish. Would it promote equality or widen the distance between rich and poor? Among the most contentious questions were those focusing on the social consequences of mechanization: while machine enthusiasts touted the extent to which machines would free workers from toil, others pointed out that people needed to tend machines, and that that work was fundamentally degrading and exploitative. Minding the Machine shows how members of a new middle class laid claim to their social authority and minimized the potential for class conflict by playing out class relations on less contested social and technical terrains. As they did so, they defined relations between shopowners—and the overseers, foremen, or managers they employed—and wage workers as analogous to relations between head and hand, between mind and body, and between human and machine. Rice presents fascinating discussions of the mechanics' institute movement, the manual labor school movement, popular physiology reformers, and efforts to solve the seemingly intractable problem of steam boiler explosions. His eloquent narrative demonstrates that class is as much about the comprehension of social relations as it is about the making of social relations, and that class formation needs to be understood not only as a social struggle but as a conceptual struggle.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92657-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    Readers of theNorth American Review,an elite monthly periodical published in Boston, found in the first issue of 1832 an article titled “Effects of Machinery,” which set out to examine “the influence of machinery . . . in its effects on society.” “The question is,” the unidentified author wrote, “is this influence—confessedly, and beyond calculation, vast—good or evil?” After acknowledging that there presently was a “conflict of opinions” on this question, the author commenced with his own argument, which was that machinery was a virtually unalloyed benefit. In making this case, he addressed three charges made by...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Antebellum Popular Discourse on Mechanization
    (pp. 12-41)

    On a Thursday evening in April 1826, over one hundred people gathered at the National Hotel in New York City for the American debut of Johann Maelzel’s exhibition of mechanical devices. Advertisements had been running in the newspapers for days, promising New Yorkers a viewing of the “celebrated and only Automaton Chess-player in the world,” along with an “Automaton Trumpeter” and some “Automaton Slack Rope Dancers.” While the opening night’s attendance was relatively low, newspapers the next day proclaimed the evening’s fare to be astonishing, especially the chess-player.“At the appointed hour,” wrote theNew-York Evening Post,“the curtain was withdrawn,...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Head and Hand: The Mechanics’ Institute Movement and the Conception of Class Authority
    (pp. 42-68)

    On the evening of November 27, 1833, Gulian C. Verplanck rose before an audience in New York City’s Clinton Hall to deliver the introductory address for a course of scientific lectures organized by the Mechanics’ Institute of the City of New-York. Verplanck was a well-known New York man of letters who had recently served in the U.S. Congress. His address, which theKnickerbockerlater published under the title “The Influence of Mechanical Invention on the Improvement of Mankind,” sought to highlight the role of the mechanic in the progress of civilization. Verplanck opened his remarks with an arresting image. “Suppose...

  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  9. CHAPTER 3 Hand and Head: The Manual Labor School Movement
    (pp. 69-95)

    Several months before Gulian Verplanck stood before the Mechanics’ Institute of the City of New-York to contemplate the limits of the hand without the head, theAmerican Annals of Educationpublished an article that took up a similar theme. The article, published in June 1833, was a review of a report just published by the Society for Promoting Manual Labor in Literary Institutions, a recently organized reform society seeking to combine physical exercise with study in the nation’s schools of higher education. The author of the review—almost certainly William A. Alcott, the journal’s editor—began by noting the indissoluble...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Mind and Body: Popular Physiology and the Health of a Nation
    (pp. 96-114)

    The manual labor school movement was an early and important venue for a much broader discussion of health and human physiology that extended through the decades before 1860. Like proponents of manual labor schools, writers and lecturers on the more general subjects of health and physiology implored American men and women to improve their bodies as well as their minds. According to these health reformers, whose ranks included physicians, clergymen, and educators, the ill use people made of their bodies—in their dietary habits, their work practices, and their manner of dress, to name a few—was injurious to health...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Human and Machine: Steam Boiler Explosions and the Making of the Engineer
    (pp. 115-144)

    In an 1853 speech at the first annual fair of the Metropolitan Mechanics’ Institute in Washington, D. C., Joseph Henry, director of the Smithsonian Institution, urged the members of his audience to consider the analogy between the human body and a machine. “The human body is itself an admirably contrived complex machine,” Henry observed, “furnished with levers, pulleys, cords, valves, and other appliances for the application and modification of the power derived from the food.” Comparing the body to a “locomotive engine,” Henry noted that both bodies and engines are directed and controlled by a “thinking, willing principle,” which he...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 145-156)

    The making of the American middle class was as much a conceptual undertaking as it was a social undertaking. New modes of labor-divided and mechanized production in the first decades of the nineteenth century created a division between “headwork” and “handwork” in a way that had not been seen before. Proprietors, manufacturers, managers, and overseers, along with a growing number of clerks, bookkeepers, bankers, and retail merchants, joined lawyers, physicians, teachers, and ministers to constitute a new and unprecedentedly large nonmanual workforce. In the course of their work, these men invariably used their hands—to write a check, emphasize a...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 157-198)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 199-222)
  15. Index
    (pp. 223-230)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-231)