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Early American Technology

Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things From the Colonial Era to 1850

Edited by Judith A. McGaw
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  • Book Info
    Early American Technology
    Book Description:

    This collection of original essays documents technology's centrality to the history of early America. Unlike much previous scholarship, this volume emphasizes the quotidian rather than the exceptional: the farm household seeking to preserve food or acquire tools, the surveyor balancing economic and technical considerations while laying out a turnpike, the woman of child-bearing age employing herbal contraceptives, and the neighbors of a polluted urban stream debating issues of property, odor, and health. These cases and others drawn from brewing, mining, farming, and woodworking enable the authors to address recent historiographic concerns, including the environmental aspects of technological change and the gendered nature of technical knowledge. Brooke Hindle's classic 1966 essay on early American technology is also reprinted, and his view of the field is reassessed. A bibliographical essay and summary of Hindle's bibliographic findings conclude the volume. The contributors are Judith A. McGaw, Robert C. Post, Susan E. Klepp, Michal McMahon, Patrick W. O'Bannon, Sarah F. McMahon, Donald C. Jackson, Robert B. Gordon, Carolyn C. Cooper, and Nina E. Lerman.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1140-2
    Subjects: History, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Experience of Early American Technology
    (pp. 1-15)
    Judith A. McGaw

    More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since Brooke Hindle penned the first systematic survey and evaluation of the history of early American technology. At that time he offered a convincing case that technology “belongs very close to the center” of early American history. Nonetheless, his assessment that “the central role of technology in early American history has only ... begun to receive some of the attention it requires” remains largely true today. And, as documented by Nina Lerman’s survey of books in early American technological history, which follows this volume’s concluding essay, many of Hindle’s more specific...

  5. Technology in Early America: A View from the 1990s
    (pp. 16-39)
    Robert C. Post

    In 1966 the University of North Carolina Press published a small book for the Institute of Early American History and Culture,Technology in Early America.Along with the interpretive essay by Brooke Hindle that is reprinted below, it comprised a sixty-five-page critical bibliography, also by Hindle, and a directory of artifact collections by Lucius F. Ellsworth of the Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation.Technology in Early Americawas part of a series, Needs and Opportunities for Study, sponsored by the Institute, earlier volumes having been written by Whitfield J. Bell, Jr. (on science), William N. Fenton (on Indian-white relations), Bernard Bailyn (on...

  6. The Exhilaration of Early American Technology: An Essay
    (pp. 40-67)
    Brooke Hindle

    The central role of technology in early American history has only recently begun to receive some of the attention it requires. Strikingly, the craftsmen, mechanics, engineers, and entrepreneurs who built that technology were enthusiastically—even ebulliently—aware of the pervasive significance of their work. Historians have not been unresponsive, but they have often been uninformed and they have usually been too preoccupied with other investigations to give it serious study. Thus, the history of technology, invigorating and stimulating as it is, has not yet reached an academic status parallel to other fields of history. But increasingly specialists who have cultivated...

  7. Lost, Hidden, Obstructed, and Repressed: Contraceptive and Abortive Technology in the Early Delaware Valley
    (pp. 68-113)
    Susan E. Klepp

    In 1936, Norman E. Himes published his now-classic work,Medical History of Contraception.Himes sought to demonstrate that all human societies have attempted to “control fertility by artificial means.” All, that is, except western Europe. There he found that only folkloric methods of doubtful efficacy prevailed before 1800 and that even these few techniques were not widely diffused in the population. Himes concluded that most women for most of European history had little or no knowledge of contraceptive technology. Social and economic historians have generally followed Himes in asserting that techniques of fertility control were unavailable to Europeans or Americans...

  8. “Publick Service” versus “Mans Properties”: Dock Creek and the Origins of Urban Technology in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia
    (pp. 114-147)
    Michal McMahon

    Dock Creek was a complex entity even before its civil history began. By the time of Philadelphia’s founding in 1682, the natural state of the cove and streams of the watercourse had already been used by the native peoples and European settlers who moved along the lower Delaware River. What the Delawares called the Coocanocon provided a safe harbor when rough weather caught small boats nearby on the broad river.

    The tidal cove presented an ideal site to set fish traps and collect shellfish, gather seaweed to be used for fertilizer, and cut hay from the abundantSpartina,the marsh...

  9. Inconsiderable Progress: Commercial Brewing in Philadelphia before 1840
    (pp. 148-163)
    Patrick W. O’Bannon

    Until a generation ago, the notion of technological determinism informed the approach of historians of technology. An outgrowth of the industrialization of the American economy, technological determinism views technology as operating largely outside the bounds of societal influence, with one advance leading inevitably and inexorably to the next. Since then, historians of technology have developed a more complex understanding of the interaction between technology and society, recognizing that human choice has a major impact on the shape technologies take. Historians of technology now study societal influences, pressures, and goals to help explain the dynamic between human agency and technological systems.¹...

  10. Laying Foods By: Gender, Dietary Decisions, and the Technology of Food Preservation in New England Households, 1750–1850
    (pp. 164-196)
    Sarah F. McMahon

    Between 1750 and 1850, rural New England households began to modify the pronounced seasonality of their customary diet as they secured a more ample and varied food supply throughout the year. The daily fare of colonial New Englanders had alternated between fresh foods in warmer seasons and a more limited variety of stored provisions during the colder months. In combination, two efforts led to the gradual deseasonalization of the diet after the mid-eighteenth century. First, changes in agricultural decisions and practices increased the quantity and variety of staple foods that composed the yearly fare. For example, the stocks of swine...

  11. Roads Most Traveled: Turnpikes in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the Early Republic
    (pp. 197-239)
    Donald C. Jackson

    When historians’ thoughts turn to the Transportation Revolution of the nineteenth century, most attention centers on the canals and railroads built across North America. The importance of these methods of personal and material conveyance is recognized in special museums, journals, and professional societies. In addition, every year thousands of modern-day enthusiasts book nostalgic excursions on canal boats and antique trains, journeys that avowedly offer direct participation in America’s travel heritage. In contrast, old roads and turnpikes, the other component of the nineteenth-century transportation troika, receive scant public attention and are the subject of no popular appreciation societies. Ironically, many of...

  12. Custom and Consequence: Early Nineteenth-Century Origins of the Environmental and Social Costs of Mining Anthracite
    (pp. 240-277)
    Robert B. Gordon

    When a new technology is first used, its practitioners must make design decisions that are difficult to alter at a later time. The proprietors of a canal might choose a narrow width to keep construction costs low and, later, after they have tunnels and bridges in place, find that increased traffic requires a larger waterway. In the meantime, factories and residences would have been built along the route, making the desirable engineering improvement difficult to execute.¹ Equally important, and often more intractable, are social customs and usages established in the early years of a new technology that subsequently cause inefficiencies,...

  13. A Patent Transformation Woodworking Mechanization in Philadelphia, 1830–1856
    (pp. 278-327)
    Carolyn C. Cooper

    One of the earliest nationwide institutions of the new American republic was the patent system, established by the Constitution in 1790 and revised substantially in 1793 and 1836, intended to promote “the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Even as the Patent Office building loomed large on the landscape in Washington at the time of its construction in the 1830s and 1840s, so did the burgeoning system of interaction by inventors, businessmen, patent examiners, lawyers, users of the inventions, and, ultimately, the...

  14. “So Much Depends upon a Red Wheelbarrow”: Agricultural Tool Ownership in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic
    (pp. 328-357)
    Judith A. McGaw

    My title derives from one of the best-known Imagist poems, by William Carlos Williams. The poem goes:

    so much depends


    a red wheel


    glazed with rain

    water beside the white


    I begin by invoking the Imagist spirit because their mission—replacing the generalizations and abstractions of Victorian poetry with what they called “direct treatment of the ‘thing’”—is an approach historians studying early American agricultural technology might profitably emulate.² Unfortunately, a salient characteristic of scholarship treating early American farming is nicely captured by aPeanutscartoon a graduate student gave me some years ago. The strip features...

  15. Books on Early American Technology, 1966–1991
    (pp. 358-430)
    Nina E. Lerman

    The following bibliography is a composite of many ideas and approaches. It embodies, of necessity, my own view of what constitutes history of technology, and it incorporates the outlooks of other scholars on the works they find relevant in their particular fields. This compilation is offered, therefore, not as a summary, but as a starting point, a preliminary navigational chart to encourage further exploration. It is intended as an update to Brooke Hindle’s earlier bibliography on the same subject, and it shares with that work the “ultimate objective” Hindle articulated in his introductory essay: “to raise technology to its proper...

  16. Appendix: Brooke Hindle’s pre-1966 Bibliography
    (pp. 431-460)
  17. Index
    (pp. 461-480)
  18. Notes on the Contributors
    (pp. 481-482)