Review of Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800–1868

Review of Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800–1868

By Anne Kelly Knowles.

University of Chicago Press, 2013.

336 pages, 66 color plates and 10 halftones (approximately half are maps), 2 line drawings, 8 tables. $45.00, hardcover.

ISBN: 978-0-226-44859-6

Review by: Joseph Stoll, Syracuse University

Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800–1868

It was with great anticipation that I opened Mastering Iron, having previously heard highly positive comments and having seen glowing reviews. I found that the contents of the book fully justified what I had heard and seen. This is a most handsome book, and exudes high quality throughout. The cover is nicely designed and encloses pages of durable weight and finish. The pages are richly illustrated and includes colorful maps along with evocative period artwork.

In the introductory chapter, “Iron in America,” Knowles explains the rise of iron’s importance in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and its role in fueling the Industrial Revolution. The author further discusses how historical and economic studies have failed to compare development of iron industries across the iron regions of the US. These studies also lacked a comprehensive approach to factors of development. The scope of Knowles’ study is described as one that reconstructs and understands the concrete places and regions where iron was made, including the variety of factors that came into play throughout those places—labor, management, transportation, modes of production, and immigration.

In Chapter 1, “Mapping the Iron Industry,” Knowles begins with a mid-19th century cycle of events. This cycle included the importation of cheap iron from Britain that was countered with increased US tariffs to stimulate domestic iron production. This in turn caused overcapacity, again inviting cheap British imports that further depressed the American market. In the mid-1850s, ironworks began closing as the economy spiraled into the Panic of 1857.

At the beginning of this crisis, the American Iron Association (AIA) was formed by East Coast iron manufacturers. The AIA’s constitution was written by J. Peter Lesley, its first secretary, who was also a topographical geologist. Lesley, along with Benjamin Lyman and Joseph Lesley, attempted to survey the entire iron industry from Maine to Alabama in order to comprehend its state. This effort resulted in The Iron Manufacturer’s Guide—a giant reference work. The Iron Manufacturer’s Guide became the basis of Anne Kelly Knowles’ work. She extracted data from each textual entry and parsed the details into a relational data base, connected them to geographical locations in a locational database and linked them into a “Lesley Historical Geographical Information System.”

Knowles uses the contents of Lesley’s survey to answer basic questions about the historical geography of the American iron industry. These questions address a range of topics: how the industry spread and changed, regional rates of growth and decline, extent and rate of adoption of the British model, regional developmental differences, etc. Knowles uses GIS-generated maps and diagrams along with tables to frame the discussion of these questions. The author also discusses the surveyors’ difficulties and attitudes that come to light in their correspondence and notes, and how these might have influenced the data they collected.

In Chapter 2, “The Worlds of Ironworkers,” Knowles begins by using art and literature to identify the living conditions of iron workers, and the environmental hazards and health risks they encountered. She discusses the distinctions in the rural areas, villages, and cities in which Lesley found ironworks, but notes that Lesley’s distinctions did not fully represent the character of places where iron was made. Her discussion looks at a broader variety of ironmaking communities, and the social and economic relationships found in them. This discussion identifies regional differences in ironmaking and general characteristics of work environments and labor relations.

In Chapter 3, “High Hopes and Failure,” Knowles recounts the American attempts to adopt the British model of developing coal-fired ironworks, undertaken to sustain the mass-production of iron necessary to supply the needs of US industry, agriculture, and railroads. Knowles describes the Welsh Dowlais Ironworks, and the efforts to replicate this Welsh model at the Lycoming Company in Farrandsville, PA and the Lonaconing Company in Lonaconing, MD. She analyzes the problems and failures encountered at these places, providing an explanation of the slowness of modernization of the mid-19th century US iron industry.

In Chapter 4, “The Elements of Success,” Knowles turns to more successful examples of adoption of the British model of iron-making. These examples include the Lehigh Crane Iron Works in Catasauqua, PA and the Trenton Iron Works in Trenton, NJ.

In Chapter 5, “Iron for the Civil War,” Knowles discusses the industrial production capacity with which each side entered the war. She also discusses the ways each side was affected by the industrial demands of wartime, as well as the war’s effects on recruitment and retention of skilled iron laborers. The discussion also includes social and economic aspects related to wartime production, labor, and management. The description of iron production in the South features the Shelby Iron Company in central Alabama, whereas the discussion of Northern iron production includes the Union’s industrial advantages over the South and the myriad technologies they used. For both sides, product quality proved to be of vital concern.

In the concluding chapter, “American Iron,” Knowles summarizes the state of US iron manufacturing following the Civil War. This summary looks at regions, stories, individuals, and technologies involved in the changes that occurred between the antebellum and postbellum periods of iron manufacturing. The US industry is also compared to the British and European models of manufacturing, with explanations of the distinctions that developed in the US—including not just technology, but also labor-management relations.

At the end of the book, Knowles includes over 70 pages of useful material, beginning with “A Note on Historical GIS” that contains the sources used for the Lesley Historical Geographic Information System. Also included in this segment are notes, a glossary, and a bibliography.

There are multiple ways to approach this book. In addition to simply reading it in the conventional fashion, a reader can meaningfully navigate via graphics. With so many rich maps and illustrations that are stories in and of themselves, one can move sequentially through these and search out the textual content that is relevant to each. In fact, I repeatedly approached the book in exactly this manner. Still another method is to seek out the main characters and case studies in the book, to appreciate the in-depth scholarship the author demonstrates and the scope of the material covered.

The content of this book will be of interest to those in a variety of academic disciplines. To me, it seems particularly well-suited to historians and geographers—especially those with cultural, economic, and industrial interests. In addition, anthropologists, sociologists, and even art and literature historians will find the scope of material to be of interest.

There is so much to admire in Mastering Iron that any criticism is certain to seem petty. If a subsequent edition of this book is written, I would offer a pair of suggestions based entirely on my own approach and experience. First, I would welcome an introductory section to serve as a “layperson’s guide to iron-making.” The glossary which appears at the end of the book is helpful; however, an early survey of the technology and key developments in iron-making (perhaps including a timeline) would be of great benefit. There is an immensely helpful section in Chapter 5 that explains the puddling, boiling, and Bessemer processes in production. Many readers would likely appreciate having these and other related processes explained at the beginning of the book, to increase their understanding throughout.

A second suggestion relates to the maps and is as much an observation as a suggestion. There appears to be a variety of symbol design schemes among the different maps. For example, Figure 63 is a map showing Confederate ironworks and Union territorial gains, 1861–65. This map uses symbols of distinct shapes and hues to distinguish different types of ironworks. Figure 14 is a map showing furnaces and deposits of iron ore and coal, using only hue to distinguish between different types of furnaces. Figure 17 shows sources of semifinished iron and iron ore for rolling mills, ca. 1854–58. This map uses yet another combination, with sizes and hues to distinguish between different iron sources. Whether these different symbol designs are intentional, I do not know. While each map is clearly explained and well designed, in my opinion the overall work would benefit from greater consistency in the use of symbols.

A unique pair of figures are found in Chapter 1F that warrant special mention. Each combine a map and a graph to show patterns of construction of blast furnaces (Figure 9) and rolling mills (Figure 11) both geographically and also over time. The author notes the inspiration for these figures being the idea of a musical score. I found both the idea and the execution of these figures to be of compelling interest.

In summary, Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800–1868 is a wonderfully written and produced book. I give it my highest recommendation for anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of the US iron-making industry. I look forward to future work by this author.

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