Memo - Sept. 13-15 - Corporate Reconstruction of America

In this week's readings we will consider the enormous growth and intensification of industrial production in the U.S. in the last third of the nineteenth century--often called the "Second Industrial Revolution"--and the rise of the modern business corporation. This era witnessed some of the deepest, most violent social conflicts in the nation's history. Some of the greatest struggles involved workers' attempts to maintain some control over their labor and their culture, in the face of ever-increasing demands from employers.

The readings come from The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, by Alan Trachtenberg, a professor of American Studies at Yale, published in 1982. The book is a broad synthesis of the major transformations (and contradictions) of that era.
Why do you think he chose that title--The Incorporation of America? What do you think he meant by it?

Below are a few questions to consider while you read:
  • Why were people so afraid of machines? Were they afraid for the same reasons?
  • What aspects of mechanization had the greatest effect on how people worked?
  • What is a corporation, and why was its development important?
  • How successful was the labor movement in achieving its objectives?
Some questions to think about afterwards:
  • Trachtenberg writes that the "social distribution of knowledge" was moving "from the bottom up" (p. 69). What does he mean by this? What are the consequences of this movement?
  • According to Trachtenberg, machines (ch. 2) and strikes (ch. 3) symbolized different things to different people. How did this symbolism vary according to social position? why?
  • What were the most important innovations in business and technology in the late nineteenth century? In what ways did they clash with existing cultural traditions and expectations?