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Mechanical Cotton Picker

Donald Holley, University of Arkansas at Monticello

Until World War II, the Cotton South remained poor, backward, and un-mechanized. With minor exceptions, most tasks — plowing, cultivating, and finally harvesting cotton — were done by hand. Though sharecropping stifled the region’s attempts to mechanize, too many farmers, both tenants and owners, were trying to survive on small, uneconomical farms, trapping themselves in poverty. From 1910 to 1970 the Great Migration, which included whites as well as blacks, reduced the region’s oversupply of small farmers and embodied a tremendous success story for both migrants and the region itself. The mechanical cotton picker played an indispensable role in the transition from the prewar South of over-population, sharecropping, and hand labor to the capital-intensive agriculture of the postwar South.

Inventions and Inventors

In 1850 Samuel S. Rembert and Jedediah Prescott of Memphis, Tennessee, received the first patent for a cotton harvester from the U.S. Patent Office, but it was almost a century later that a mechanical picker was commercially produced. The late nineteenth century was an age of inventions, and many inventors sought to perfect a mechanical cotton harvester. Their lack of success reinforced the belief that cotton would always be picked by hand. For almost a hundred years, it seemed, a successful cotton picker had been just around the corner.

Inventors experimented with a variety of devices that were designed to pick cotton.

  • Pneumatic harvesters removed cotton fiber from the bolls with suction or a blast of air.
  • Electrical cotton harvesters used a statically charged belt or finger to attract the lint and remove it from the boll.
  • The thresher type cut down the plant near the surface of the ground and took the entire plant into the machine, where the cotton fiber was separated from the vegetable material.
  • The stripper type harvester combed the plant with teeth or drew it between stationary slots or teeth.
  • The picker or spindle type machine was designed to pick the open cotton from the bolls using spindles, fingers, or prongs, without injuring the plant’s foliage and unopened bolls.

The picker or spindle idea drew the most attention. In the 1880s Angus Campbell of Chicago, Illinois, was an agricultural engineer who saw the tedious process of picking cotton. For twenty years he made annual trips to Texas to test the latest model his spindle picker, but his efforts met with ridicule. The consensus of opinion was that cotton would always be picked by hand. Campbell joined with Theodore H. Price and formed the Price-Campbell Cotton Picker Corporation in 1912. The Price-Campbell machine performed poorly, but they believed they were on the right track.

Hiram M. Berry of Greenville, Mississippi, designed a picker with barbed spindles, though it was never perfected. Peter Paul Haring of Goliad, Texas, worked for thirty years to build a mechanical cotton picker using curved prongs or corkscrews.

John Rust

John Rust, the man who was ultimately credited with the invention of the mechanical cotton picker, personified the popular image of the lone inventor working in his garage. As a boy, he had picked cotton himself, and he dreamed that he could invent a machine that would relieve people of one of the most onerous forms of stoop labor.

John Daniel Rust was born in Texas in 1892. He was usually associated with his younger brother Mack Donald Rust, who had a degree in mechanical engineering. Mack did the mechanical work, while John was the dreamer who worried about the social consequences of their invention.

John was intrigued with the challenge of constructing a mechanical cotton picker. Other inventers had used spindles with barbs, which twisted the fibers around the spindle and pulled the lint from the boll. But the problem was how to remove the lint from the barbs. The spindle soon became clogged with lint, leaves, and other debris. He finally hit on the answer: use a smooth, moist spindle. As he later recalled:

The thought came to me one night after I had gone to bed. I remembered how cotton used to stick to my fingers when I was a boy picking in the early morning dew. I jumped out of bed, found some absorbent cotton and a nail for testing. I licked the nail and twirled it in the cotton and found that it would work.

By the mid-1930s the widespread use of mechanical cotton harvesters seemed imminent and inevitable. When in 1935 the Rust brothers moved to Memphis, the self-styled headquarters of the Cotton South, John Rust announced flatly, “The sharecropper system of the Old South will have to be abandoned.” The Rust picker could do the work of between 50 and 100 hand pickers, reducing labor needs by 75 percent. Rust expected to put the machine on the market within a year. A widely read article in the American Mercury entitled “The Revolution in Cotton” predicted the end of the entire plantation system. Most people compared the Rust picker with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

Rust’s 1936 Public Demonstration

In 1936, the Rust machine received a public trial at the Delta Experiment Station near Leland, Mississippi. Though the Rust picker was not perfected, it did pick cotton and it picked it well. The machine produced a sensation, sending a shutter throughout the region. The Rust brothers’ machine provoked the fear that a mechanical picker would destroy the South’s sharecropping system and, during the Great Depression, throw millions of people out of work. An enormous human tragedy would then release a flood of rural migrants, mostly black, on northern cities. The Jackson (Miss.) Daily News editorialized that the Rust machine “should be driven right out of the cotton fields and sunk into the Mississippi River.”

Soon a less strident and more balanced view emerged. William E. Ayres, head of the Delta Experiment Station, encouraged Rust:

We sincerely hope you can arrange to build and market your machine shortly. Lincoln emancipated the Southern Negro. It remains for cotton harvesting machinery to emancipate the Southern cotton planter. The sooner this [is] done, the better for the entire South.

Professional agricultural men saw the mechanization of cotton as a gradual process. The cheap price of farm labor in the depression had slowed the progress of mechanization. Still, the prospects for the future were grim. One agricultural economist predicted that mechanical cotton picking would become reality over the next ten or fifteen years.

Cotton Harvester Sweepstakes

International Harvester

Major farm implement companies, which had far more resources than did the Rust brothers, entered what may be called the cotton harvester sweepstakes. Usually avoiding publicity, implement companies were happy to let the Rust brothers bear the brunt of popular criticism. International Harvester (IH) of Chicago, Illinois, had invented the popular Farmall tractor in 1924 and then experimented with pneumatic pickers. After three years of work, Harvester realized that a skilled hand picker could easily pick faster than their pneumatic machine.

IH then bought up the Price-Campbell patents and turned to spindle pickers. By the late 1930s Harvester was sending a caravan southward every fall to test their latest prototype, picking early cotton in Texas and late-maturing cotton in Arkansas and Mississippi. In 1940 chief engineer C. R. Hagen abandoned the idea of a tractor that pulled the picking unit. Instead of driving the tractor forward, the tractor moved backward enabling the picking unit to encounter the cotton plants first. The transmission was reversed so that it still used forward gears.

After the 1942 caravan, Fowler McCormick, chairman of the board of International Harvester, formally announced that his company had a commercial cotton picker ready for production. The IH picker was a one-row, spindle-type picker, but unlike the Rust machine it used a barbed spindle, which improved its ability to snag cotton fibers. This machine employed a doffer to clean the spindles before the next rotation. Unfortunately, the War Production Board allocated IH only enough steel to continue production of experimental models; IH was unable to start full-scale production until after World War II was over.

In late 1944, as World War II entered its final months, attention turned to a dramatic announcement. The Hopson Planting Company near Clarksdale, Mississippi, produced the first cotton crop totally without the use of hand labor. Machines planted the cotton, chopped it, and harvested the crop. It was a stunning achievement that foretold the future.

IH’s Memphis Factory, 1949

After the war, International Harvester constructed Memphis Works, a huge cotton picker factory located on the north side of the city, and manufactured the first pickers in 1949. Though the company had assembled experimental models for testing purposes, this event marked the first commercial production of mechanical cotton pickers. The plant’s location clearly showed that the company aimed its pickers for use in the cotton areas of the Mississippi River Valley.


Deere and Company of Moline, Illinois, had experimented with stripper-type harvesters and variations of the spindle idea, but discontinued these experiments in 1931. In 1944 the company resumed work after buying the Berry patents, though Deere’s machine incorporated its own innovative designs. Deere quickly regained the ground it had lost during the depression. In 1950, Deere’s Des Moines Works at Ankeny, Iowa, began production of a two-row picker that could do almost twice the harvesting job of one-row machines.

Allis Chalmers

Despite his success, John Rust realized that his picker was substandard, and during World War II he went back to his drafting board and redesigned his entire machine. His lack of financial resources was overcome when he received an offer from Allis Chalmers of Indianapolis, Indiana, to produce machines using his patents. He signed a non-exclusive agreement.


In late 1948 cotton farmers near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, suffered from a labor shortage. Since cotton still stood unpicked in the fields at the end of the year, they invited Rust to demonstrate his picker. The demonstration was a success. Rust entered into an agreement with Ben Pearson, a Pine Bluff company known for archery equipment, to produce 100 machines for $1,000 each, paid in advance. All the machines were sold, and Ben Pearson hired Rust as a consultant and manufactured Rust cotton pickers.

Ancillary Developments

The mechanization of cotton did indeed proceeded slowly. The production of cotton involved three distinct “labor peaks”: land breaking, planting, and cultivating; thinning and weeding; and harvesting. Until the 1960s cotton growers did not have a full set of technological tools to mechanize all labor peaks.

Weed Control

The control of weeds with herbicides was the last labor peak to be conquered. Desperate to solve the problem, farmers cross-cultivated their cotton, plowing across rows as well as up and down rows. Taking advantage of the toughness of cotton stalks, flame weeders used a flammable gas to kill weeds. The most peculiar sight in northeast Arkansas was flocks of weed-hungry geese that sauntered through cotton fields. The weed problem was solved not by machines, but by chemicals. In 1964, the preemergence herbicide Treflan became a household word because of a television commercial. Ultimately, the need to chop and thin cotton was a problem of plant genetics.

Western cotton growers embraced mechanization earlier than did southern farmers. As early as 1951, more than half of California’s cotton crop was mechanically harvested, with hand picking virtually eliminated by the 1960s. Environmental conditions produced smaller cotton plants, not the “rank” cotton in the Delta, and small plants favored machine picking. Western farmers also did not have to overcome the burden of an antiquated labor system. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Machine Harvested Cotton as a Percentage of the Total Cotton Crop, Arkansas, California, South Carolina, and U.S. Average, 1949-1972

Source: United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Statistics on Cotton and Related Data, 1920-1973, Statistical Bulletin No. 535 (Wash­ing­ton: Government Printing Office, 1974), 218.

Mechanization and Migration

The most controversial issue raised by the introduction of the mechanical cotton harvester has been its role in the Great Migration. Popular opinion has accepted the view that machines eliminated jobs and forced poor families to leave their homes and farms in a forlorn search for urban jobs. On the other hand agricultural experts argued that mechanization was not the cause, but the result of economic change in the Cotton South. Wartime and postwar labor shortages were the major factors in stimulating the use of machines in cotton fields. Most of the out-migration from the South stemmed from a desire to obtain high paying jobs in northern industries, not from an “enclosure” movement motivated by landowners who mechanized as rapidly as possible. Indeed, the South’s cotton farmers were often reluctant to make the transition from hand labor, which was familiar and workable, to machines, which were expensive and untried.

Holley (2000) used an empirical analysis to compare the impact of mechanization and manufacturing wages on the labor available for picking cotton. The result showed that mechanization accounted for less than 40 percent of the decrease in handpicking, while the other 60 percent was attributed to the decrease in the supply of labor caused by higher wages in manufacturing industries. Hand labor was pulled out of the Cotton South by higher industrial wages rather than displaced by job-destroying machines.

Timing of Migration

The evidence is overwhelming that migration greatly accelerated mechanization. The first commercial production of mechanical cotton pickers were manufactured in 1949, and these machines did not exist in large numbers until the early 1950s. Since the Great Migration began during World War I, mechanical pickers cannot have played any causal role in the first four decades of the migration. By 1950, soon after the first mechanical cotton pickers were commercially available, over six million migrants had already left the South. (See Table 1.) A decade later, most of the nation’s cotton was still hand picked. Only by the late 1960s, when the migration was losing momentum, did machines harvest virtually the total cotton crop.

Table 1
Net Migration from the South, by Race, 1870-1970 (thousands)

Decade Native White Black Total
1870-1880 91 -68 23
1880-1890 -271 88 -183
1890-1900 -30 -185 -215
1900-1910 -69 -194 -218
1910-1920 -663 -555 -1,218
1920-1930 -704 -903 -1,607
1930-1940 -558 -480 -1,038
1940-1950 -866 -1,581 -2,447
1950-1960* -1,003* -1,575* -2,578
1960-1970* -508* -1,430* -1,938
Totals for 1940-1970 -2,377 -4,586 -6,963

Source: Hope T. Eldridge and Dorothy S. Thomas, Population Redistribution and Economic Growth, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1964), 90. *United States Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1975), Series C 55-62, pp. 93-95.

Migration figures also provide a comparison of statewide migration estimates in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi with estimates for counties that actually used mechanical pickers (79 of 221 counties or parishes). During the 1950s these counties accounted for less than half of the total white migration from the three-state region and just over half of the black migration. The same was true in the 1960s except that the white population showed a net gain, not a loss. (See Table 2.) Though push factors played some role in the migration, pull factors were more important. People deserted the cotton areas because they hoped to obtain better jobs and more money elsewhere.

Table 2
Estimated Statewide Migration, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi
Compared to Migration Estimates for Cotton Counties, 1950-1970


1950-1960 1960-1970
State as a Whole Counties Using Mechanical Pickers Percent­age State as a Whole Counties Using Mechanical Pickers Percent­age
Arkansas -283,000 -106,388 37.6 38,000 -26,026 68.5
Louisiana 43,000 -15,769 36.7 26,000 -28,949* 111.3
Mississippi -110,000 -50,997 46.4 10,000 -771 7.7
Totals -350,000 -173,154 49.6 74,000 -55,746 75.3
Arkansas -150,000 -74,297 49.5 -112,000 -64,445 57.5
Louisiana -93,000 -42,151 45.3 -163,000 -62,290 38.2
Mississippi -323,000 -175,577 54.4 -279,000 -152,357 54.6
Totals -566,000 -292,025 51.6 -554,000 -279,092 50.4

Source: Donald Holley. The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000), 178.

*The selected counties lost population, but Louisiana statewide recorded a population gain for the decade.

Most of the Arkansas migrants, for example, were young people from farm families who saw little future in agriculture. They were people with skills and thus possessed high employment potential. They also had better than average educations. In other words, they were not a collection of pathetic sharecroppers who had been driven off the land.


During and after World War II, the Cotton South was caught up in a complex interplay of economic forces. The region suffered shortages of agricultural labor during the war, which led to the collapse of the old plantation system. The number of tenant farmers and sharecroppers declined precipitously, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped counting them after its 1959 census. The structure of southern agriculture changed as the number of farms declined steadily, while the size of farms increased. The age of Agri-Business had arrived.

The migration solved the long-standing problem of rural overpopulation, and did so without producing social upheaval. The migrants found jobs and improved their living standards, and simultaneously rural areas were relieved of their overpopulation. The migration also enabled black people to gain political clout in northern and western cities, and since Jim Crow was in part a system of labor control, the declining need for black labor in the South loosened the ties of segregation.

After World War II southern farmers faced a world that had changed. While the Civil War had freed the slaves, the mechanical cotton picker emancipated workers from backbreaking labor and emancipated the region itself from its dependence on cotton and sharecropping. Indeed, mechanization made possible the continuation of cotton farming in the post-plantation era. Yet cotton acreages declined as farmers moved into rice and soybeans, crops that were already mechanized, creating a more diversified agricultural economy. The end of sharecropping also signaled the end of the need for cheap, docile labor — always a prerequisite of plantation agriculture. The labor control that the South had always exercised over poor whites and blacks proved unattainable after the war. Thus the mechanization of cotton was an essential condition for the civil rights movement in the 1950s, which freed the region from Jim Crow. The relocation of political power from farms to cities was a related by-product of agricultural mechanization. In the second half of the twentieth century, the South underwent a second great emancipation as revolutionary changes swept the region that earlier were unattainable and even unimaginable.

Selected Bibliography

Carlson, Oliver. “Revolution in Cotton.” American Mercury 34 (February 1935): 129-36. Reprinted in Readers’ Digest 26 (March 1935): 13-16.

Cobb, James C. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Day, Richard H. “The Economics of Technological Change and the Demise of the Sharecropper.” American Economic Review 57 (June 1967): 427-49.

Drucker, Peter. “Exit King Cotton.” Harper’s 192 (May 1946): 473-80.

Fite, Gilbert C. Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865-1980. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984.

Hagen, C. R. “Twenty-Five Years of Cotton Picker Development.” Agricultural Engineering 32 (November 1951): 593-96, 599.

Hamilton, C. Horace. “The Social Effects of Recent Trends in the Mechaniza­tion of Agriculture.” Rural Sociology 4 (March 1939): 3-19.

Heinicke, Craig. “African-American Migration and Mechanized Cotton Harvesting, 1950-1960.” Explorations in Economic History 31 (October 1994): 501-20.

Holley, Donald. The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Johnston, Oscar. “Will the Machine Ruin the South?” Saturday Evening Post 219 (May 31, 1947): 36-37, 94-95, 388.

Maier, Frank H. An Economic Analysis of Adoption of the Mechanical Cotton Picker.”Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1969.

Peterson, Willis, and Yoav Kislev. “The Cotton Harvester in Retrospect: Labor Displacement or Replacement.” Journal of Economic History 46 (March 1986): 199-216.

Rasmussen, Wayne D. “The Mechanization of Agriculture.” Scientific American 247 (September 1982): 77-89.

Rust, John. “The Origin and Development of the Cotton Picker.” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 7 (1953): 38-56.

Street, James H. The New Revolution in the Cotton Economy: Mechanization and Its Consequences. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

Whatley, Warren C. “New Estimates of the Cost of Harvesting Cotton: 1949-1964.” Research in Economic History 13 (1991): 199-225.

Whatley, Warren C. “A History of Mechanization in the Cotton South: The Institutional Hypothesis.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 100 (November 1985): 1191-1215.

Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Citation: Holley, Donald. “Mechanical Cotton Picker”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. June 16, 2003. URL

The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South

Author(s):Holley, Donald
Reviewer(s):Heinicke, Craig

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)

Donald Holley, The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker,

Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. Fayetteville, AR:

University of Arkansas Press, 2000. xvi + 284 pp. $36 (cloth), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Craig Heinicke, Department of Economics, Baldwin-Wallace

College, Berea, Ohio.

At the end of World War II, the southern United States stood at a turning

point — would the region continue to catch up with the rest of the nation with

respect to wages, education levels and other economic indicators or return to

its separate path of labor-intensive agriculture, paternalism, racial strife,

underemployment, and lagging wages? Without the mechanical cotton picker there

is no doubt that the former would have been delayed; with it by the late 1960s

the South lost much of its regional character. How important can any one

implement or invention be in bringing about social and economic change?

Although Donald Holley (Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at

Monticello) does not show that the mechanical harvester was indispensable for

the South’s transformation (more on this below), he builds a good case that

this machine was more important than any other since the cotton gin in

transforming the region. By the author’s account, the cotton picker

“emancipated” both southern farmers and black workers from among the most

arduous forms of “stoop” labor, and with it from perpetual misery, inadequate

education, low standards of living and the tedium of unchanging expectations.

Donald Holley’s thoroughness in addressing the associated questions that arise

suggests that this book will be a lasting reference for those interested in

this subject.

After setting out the context in the early chapters, Holley documents how the

mechanical cotton picker came to be mass produced and marketed, beginning with

how its promoters struggled with cotton’s exasperating resistance to machine

techniques, the hallmark of American agricultural advance for much of the

twentieth century. Every aspect of the somewhat familiar story of the Rust

brothers’ inventive activity is examined (chapter three), along with the Rusts’

consciousness of the potential social upheaval that mechanization of the

harvest could unleash (chapter five). The fears of other contemporaries are

documented at length; one particularly striking comment was published amid the

Depression’s high unemployment, when the Rusts’ experiments seemed poised for a

final breakthrough: “The machine is said to be quite practical … That being

true, it should be driven right out of the cotton fields and sunk into the

Mississippi River” (p. 77, quoting The Jackson Daily News, August 31,

1936). The fears of the Rusts and others were for the unemployed themselves,

but the hesitancy of some was mixed with white paranoia: “Imagine, if you can,

500,000 Negroes in Mississippi just now lolling around on cabin galleries or

loafing on the streets” (p. 78). Ten years after that editorial, when the

mechanical harvester was on the verge of becoming a commercial reality, more

fears were expressed, but many also foresaw that the picker would solve the

problem of labor scarcity (chapter eight). Holley’s strength is documenting the

extremes as well as the middle ground, revealing that the harvester was neither

savior nor “Frankenstein’s monster.”

Part of the cotton picker story includes an account of how each major

manufacturer (not only International Harvester, but also John Deere,

Allis-Chalmers, and Ben Pearson) made a bid in the “cotton harvester

sweepstakes.” Among the most interesting passages are those that lay out

International Harvester’s marketing studies (chapter six), and two “case

studies” of cotton producers using the new machinery (chapter seven). While

past accounts have implied only the wealthy used the mechanical harvester in

its early stages, one of Holley’s cases involves a small landowner.

How did it come about that after years of tinkering, doubts, and anxiety about

the consequences, the International Harvester committed itself to regular

production of the “spindle” (so-called, due to the rotating “spindles” that

pulled lint from the cotton boll) picker? In late 1942 Fowler McCormick of

International Harvester announced that a viable picker was perfected —

although scheduled production awaited the year 1948. It is plausible that

war-time migration and the resulting labor scarcity would have increased the

anticipated value of the machine. Still, 1942 was relatively early in the

process; we know only in retrospect of the sustained rise in harvesting wages.

If the experience of World War I had been repeated, however, might not southern

landowners have expected a return to pre-war wages in the future? How much

different would the timing have been without the war?

The above questions are worth pondering, and are indeed to some extent

suggested by the text. The issue involves to what extent changes outside the

cotton and southern labor markets influenced the timing of the cotton picker’s

commercial production. What else was going on at the boardrooms and

decision-making units of the major farm implement makers? Knowing this, would

help us understand exactly how much of the move toward marketing this machine

was due to changes peculiar to the South, and how much of the move was

exogenously determined. Cotton was certainly a key commodity and machinery

makers would no doubt have been aware of the breadth of the potential market.

Still, other trends in the implement industry may well have influenced the

timing of the major manufacturers’ entries into this market. Despite leaving us

to ponder these questions, the book provides extensive documentation of

southern developments and makes a solid contribution to our understanding of

how a production “bottleneck,” a machine invented to fill that need, and the

social consequences that followed, shaped other major demographic and social


Related to the timing of the picker’s production is a well-documented debate

over whether the picker would “push” workers from the field or replace those

who had been “pulled” to better jobs in the cities (chapters eight and nine).

The book extensively surveys the range of contemporary and scholarly views. The

documentation is rich in its breadth of viewpoints; the author, however, also

forwards a statistical assessment of whether the “push” of workers from the

fields was greater than the “pull.” He finds that the latter dominated,

although not by much. The author’s labor supply and demand estimation is

perhaps too uncritical of the existing data series — for instance the “piece

rates” paid to hand pickers omit important expenses for hand labor — and his

county level regressions are somewhat unconvincing on the matter of causality,

while omitting important variables. The exercise, however, does provide another

angle from which to view the relevant questions. The documentary evidence,

thoroughly presented, will form a highly valued reference from which to assess

these important questions.

Government crop programs of the New Deal era are also important (chapter four)

in the overall process. The author takes the unconventional view that the

Agricultural Adjustment Act was less a cause of tenant “displacement” than

economic trends themselves, and argues that the AAA had positive effects in

helping to rid the South of rural overpopulation. It is not that Holley is

unsympathetic to the plight of the displaced. He recognizes, like those writing

a half century ago, that the poverty of South could not be abated with too many

people on the land. He also appreciates the limited alternatives that existed

in a place and time where the aftermath of slavery still held its loathsome


The book is convincing that the mechanical cotton picker was important beyond

its value to southern farmers, and thus that we can learn much from examining

the forces which brought it about and those which delayed its arrival. The

author goes one step further, arguing that the cotton picker was

“indispensable” for both the success of the Civil Rights Movement (p. 195), and

for the “transition from the pre-World War II South of overpopulation, poverty,

and sharecropping to the postwar, modern South” (p. 185). Reminiscent of the

“axiom of indispensability” in another context, this is an intriguing idea, but

not one that is tested directly. To show that momentous events (themselves

difficult to measure in any conventional sense) would not have taken

place absent a particular invention is indeed a demanding standard. A problem

with the cotton picker as “indispensable,” is that in part it was an

intermediary between other large demographic and economic shifts and their

results for southern markets and society. These include the effects of World

War II, the New Deal, and the internal evolution of southern society and

economy among others. These observations do not necessarily imply the cotton

picker was dispensable, but they certainly provide perspective on the idea. In

this case — as with railroads, economic growth and the question of

indispensability — the substitutes for the picker from the landowner’s

perspective may have been less attractive, but they were substitutes

nonetheless. Among those that could have relieved the southern plantation

sector’s thirst for a large docile labor force were abandonment of the cotton

“mono-culture” or capital movement to the cities and other industries. On the

labor supply side, there was also migration to the cities.

A slightly different point involves the degree to which the mechanical cotton

picker “emancipated” the southern farmer and African-American. For the latter,

the analogy is laced with meaning. We should note that if the harvester

“emancipated” blacks, then there was also a good deal of self “emancipation”

that preceded it. African-Americans chose to leave the South in large numbers

for three decades prior to 1948, before the first commercially marketed cotton

harvester entered the fields. In fact, that is part of the story the author

forwards, and why it was that many contemporaries thought the harvester mainly

“replaced” those who left the fields rather than kicking workers off the land.

By 1950 when the mechanical picker first became a viable alternative for hand

picking, the percentage of black workers in the South employed in agriculture

was 31 percent. Southern African-Americans were doing other things in addition

to picking cotton. The busses of Montgomery and lunch counters of Greensboro

were more than a step away from the fields.

Perhaps the term “emancipation” is used by the author to counter some of the

“bad press” that labor saving machines, including this one, have attracted over

the years; but we must be careful of overstatement on the other side. Still, we

can agree that on balance the cotton picker represented a positive step,

despite the fact that it brought with it ambiguities and pain for those workers

with few alternatives. It is certainly true that the changes in racial and

economic relationships associated with mechanical harvesting took place


It is difficult to get a handle on exactly how much one should attribute social

and economic change to any one any invention, and this case is no exception. A

great value of the book is that Donald Holley draws attention to the mechanical

cotton picker as among the most consequential inventions for the South in over

two centuries of history. It also was among the more important in

twentieth-century American agriculture, even if it was not indispensable for

the major social changes that followed it. In part, the cotton picker was

important because the demographic and social changes with which it was

entangled were so consequential; Holley is aware of this at every step, and in

the end provides the balance and completeness of documentation that should

assure the longevity of his work as a reference.

Craig Heinicke, Associate Professor of Economics at Baldwin-Wallace College,

has authored, “Driven from the Fields or Enticed to the City? The Cotton

Picking Machine and the Great Migration from the Cotton Belt, 1949-1964,” with

Wayne Grove (Syracuse University), Allied Social Sciences Association Annual

Meeting, Cliometric Society Sessions, 2002; and “African-American Migration and

Mechanized Cotton Harvesting, 1950-60,” Explorations in Economic History

1994, 31: 501-520.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power

Author(s):Dattel, Gene
Reviewer(s):Miller, Melinda

Published by EH.NET (March 2010)

Gene Dattel, Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2009. xiv + 416 pp. $29 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-56663-747-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Melinda Miller, Department of Economics, U.S. Naval Academy.

Gene Dattel, an independent scholar with a background in the finance industry, weaves together cotton and race into a sweeping narrative of racial oppression and its role in the economic growth of the United States. His central premise is that economic self-interest, and not moral or ethical imperatives, has driven much of American history. Although most of the facts in this book will be familiar, Dattel nicely draws together the literature on the cotton South, financial markets, and northern racism to make the compelling argument that the South?s desire for cotton and northern complicity irrevocably altered American racial history. The book?s narrative is divided into six parts.

In Part One, Dattel uses the Constitutional Convention to illustrate how ?the desire for economic development trumped … almost all else? (p. 5). He persuasively argues that freedom for slaves was sacrificed to commercial interests, order, and security.

Part Two explores cotton?s role in American economic growth from 1787 until 1861. It begins with an analysis of factors influencing the tremendous increase in the supply of and demand for cotton at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The remainder of this part explores the burgeoning cotton industry?s influence on the United States and its expansion throughout the South. Dattel carefully chronicles the business and finance of cotton while demonstrating that, through cotton, slavery touched the world: New York City profited from cotton finance; Britain, France, and New England depended on raw cotton; and the federal government depended on the tariff revenues made possible by cotton’s favorable effect on the balance of trade.

Part Three documents the conditions of blacks in the North before the Civil War. While the northern states had outlawed slavery, their citizens were not welcoming to African-Americans and wished to rid themselves of their black populations. Chapters 8 and 9 provide a detailed analysis of northern laws and document the hostile and racist atmosphere for blacks in the North. Chapter 8 focuses on the original northern colonies, while Chapter 9 discusses the western states. These two chapters can serve as a concise, freestanding compilation of racist laws and attitudes in the North. They could very nicely be incorporated into an economic history class to dispel any misperceptions students have about the history of racial (in)equality in the North.

Part Four focuses on the role of cotton in the Civil War and argues, ?none of this destruction would have occurred if not for cotton? (p. 166). Cotton served as both a bargaining tool and a means of credit for the South. These dual roles were possible largely because Great Britain?s textile industry relied on southern cotton. Chapter 13 delves deeply into the role of cotton in war financing. The Confederacy developed complicated financing schemes, including the famous Erlanger bond, which Dattel praises as both ?prescient and brilliant? (p. 188). Overall, however, the Confederacy bungled financing. The origins of its fundraising problems can be found, Dattel suggests, in the South?s choice to use cotton as a bargaining chip, and not just a fundraiser. Entertaining tales of blockade-runners who moved cotton out of the South and brought guns and supplies to the Confederates dominate chapter 14. There was also a large illicit flow of cotton within the United States. In another example of shameful and prejudiced northern behavior, General Grant blamed the Jewish population of Tennessee for this trade and expelled them from parts of the state. Part Four concludes with a discussion of the future of the freed slaves. For the North, there was a simple answer: containment of the freedmen in the South and in the cotton fields.

Part Five examines the lives of blacks and carpetbaggers from 1860 to 1930. The central argument of this section is that ?the possibilities for black acceptance in these years (1865-1876) have been grossly exaggerated in our history.? During Reconstruction, the lives of freedmen were largely shaped by two forces: the northern hatred of blacks, and the southern desire for cotton. Together, they led to Federal and state government policies that served to firmly anchor blacks to the cotton fields. These included the decision to restrict land acquisition by freedmen, the failure of most civil rights legislation, Supreme Court decisions that reinforced racist policies, and a lack of adequate schooling for freed slaves and their children. While this era also saw an increase in racial violence in the South, the life of northern blacks was so poor that southern blacks were essentially trapped.

Part Six takes on the issue of cotton production after the war, particularly the expansion of cotton and the rise of sharecropping. The state of postwar southern financial markets and the unique financing needs of cotton together served to severely constrain the economic advancement of freedmen. Dattel presents sharecropping as inevitable: ?With cotton production as the goal, sharecropping was a predictable outcome? (p. 331). He presents the tale of Mound Bayou, an all black town in Mississippi, to illustrate this point. Mound Bayou was both owned and controlled by blacks. Despite some initial success, it eventually succumbed to the vagaries of King Cotton and a lack of financial infrastructure and provides us with an ?abject lesson in the futility of black economic hopes after the Civil War? (p. 341). Both part six and cotton?s hold on African-Americans concluded with the rise of the mechanical cotton picker. This technology ended the need for black labor in the cotton fields.

Dattel?s choice to conclude with a technological innovation fits well with one of his underlying themes: history is largely shaped by technology and finance. As Dattel argues in the introduction, ?the slaveholder and the slave before the Civil War, and the plantation owner and the sharecropper afterwards, were all ? each in his own way –pawns in the hands of finance? (p. xi). Shortly thereafter he returns to this general theme when arguing that, ?the cotton boom was a perfect example of how machines and technology control human destiny? (p. 30). Dattel tends to treat both finance and technology as exogenous, and then argues that fates of both African-Americans and the South were ?foreordained? (p. 312) given the financial system and state of technological progress. Although insight can be gained from this approach, I think this ultimately fatalistic viewpoint of the past introduces two weaknesses into Dattel?s analysis. First, despite the repeated emphasis on finance and technology, an important set of questions remains unaddressed. Why did the financial system and technology evolve as they did? Were they, too, foreordained given some initial conditions? Or could government policy have influenced their organization and, ultimately, the status of African-Americans? A second, related issue concerns public policy. Dattel seems to leave little role for government programs, legislation, or institutions to influence the economic status of former slaves and their descendents. Despite a brief mention of current issues facing African-Americans on the closing pages, the potential role of government policy today remains unclear. Could anything mitigate racial disparities today? Or does finance and technology still trump all?

Melinda Miller is an assistant professor of economics at the U.S. Naval Academy. Her research focuses on slavery, emancipation, and racial inequality. She can be reached at

Copyright (c) 2010 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (March 2010). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Economic History of Tractors in the United States

William J. White, Research Triangle Institute

The farm tractor is one of the most important and easily recognizable technological components of modern agriculture in the United States. Its development in the first half of the twentieth century fundamentally changed the nature of farm work, significantly altered the structure of rural America, and freed up millions of workers to be absorbed into the rapidly growing manufacturing and service sectors of the country. The tractor represents an important application of the internal combustion engine, rivaling the automobile and the truck in its economic impact.

A tractor is basically a machine that provides machine power for performing agricultural tasks. Tractors can be used to pull a variety of farm implements for plowing, planting, cultivating, fertilizing, and harvesting crops, and can also be used for hauling materials and personal transportation. In the provision of motive power, tractors were a replacement for human effort and that of draft animals, both of which are still used extensively in other parts of the world.

Technical Description

The heart of a farm tractor is a powerful internal combustion engine that drives the wheels to provide forward motion. Direct ignition (diesel) and spark-driven engines are both found on tractors, just as with cars and light trucks. Power from the engine can be transmitted to the implement being used through a power take-off (PTO) shaft or belt pulley. The engine also provides energy for the electrical system, including the ignition system and lights, and for the most recent models, air conditioner, stereo system, and other creature comforts.

The drawing below, taken from an undated John Deere operating manual, shows a typical general-purpose tractor from the period around 1940. The machine is little more than an engine on wheels, with a seat for the operator and a hitch for pulling implements centered in the rear. Later models would feature an enclosed cab to keep the operator out of the weather, but this model features only simple controls and the metal seat. The drawing shows a wheel-tractor, which comprised more than 95% of machines sold for farm use. Tracked units, also called crawler tractors, were common in California, and of course, dominated construction and other non-farm uses for tractors.

Background and Technological History

Farmers in 1900, whether engaged in growing wheat, corn, or cotton, raising livestock, producing dairy products, or combining a variety of these or other products, had only two sources of power aside from their own strength: steam engines and draft animals. Steam boilers provided motive power for threshing small grains, and a very small number of farmers were using recently-developed steam traction engines for plowing and other arduous tasks. Draft animals provided most of the power on all types of farms, however. As of 1910, there were more than 24 million horses and mules on American farms, about three or four animals for the average farm. In addition to supplying farm power, the horses were also relied upon for transportation, of both goods and people.

Horses and mules pulled an impressive variety of farm implements at the turn of the century, including plows, disks, harrows, planters, cultivators, mowers, and reapers. Several important farm tasks were typically done by hand at this time, including picking of corn and cotton. The greatest amount of power was needed for plowing, often forcing farmers to keep one or two extra horses above the number needed for the remainder of the year. As an example, power requirements during plowing have been estimated at 60% of the annual total needs for growing wheat at that time. A new source of power, then, would be valuable to the farmer if it could replace the horsepower requirements of plowing, as long as the cost was less than that of maintaining one to two extra horses. It would be even more valuable if it could economically replace all of the functions currently performed by draft animals, and further if it could facilitate automation of the cotton and corn picking operations.

As early as the 1870s, engineers had succeeded in producing steam traction engines, referred to today as steam tractors. These monsters, weighing in excess of 30,000 pounds (excluding water), could move under their own power, and had impressive horsepower capacity. Unfortunately, their size, mechanical complexity, and constant danger of explosion made these traction engines unusable for most farms in North America. In all but the driest soils, steam traction engines tended to become mired in the mud and refuse to move. Because of these handicaps, the use of steam tractors increased slowly in the United States during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Annual production of less than 2000 units per year in the 1890s had increased to around 4000 in the ten years after 1900. Nonetheless, the rate of growth of steam horsepower was far smaller than the growth in animal horsepower. For the reasons mentioned above, adoption of steam power was clearly not a candidate to replace the horse.

The First Gasoline Tractors

With the commercialization of the internal combustion engine, a more practical alternative emerged. Farmers bought large numbers of stationary gasoline engines in the first decade of the twentieth century, and quickly became familiar with their operation. A wide variety of household chores were simplified by the use of stationary engines, including pumping water, washing clothes, and churning butter. Companies began developing gasoline-powered traction engines during the same period; the first commercial machines were sold in 1902, and quickly became known as ‘tractors’.

The first tractors shared similar traits to the steam traction engines. Weighing between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds, with huge steel wheels or tracks, these models were large and expensive. Fairly quickly, the large manufacturers, including Hart-Parr, International Harvester, Case, and Rumely had reduced the size and cost. By the time Ford introduced its Fordson model, the first successful small tractor, average weights were down to 2000-6000 pounds, and prices were under $1000. These tractors proved to be excellent at plowing, and were quite capable of driving mowers and reapers. The large steel wheels, low clearance, and substantial weight made them unsuitable for cultivating growing crops like corn and cotton, however.

Technological Improvements

Henry Ford, who had tinkered with steam and gasoline tractors prior to achieving his success with automobile production, introduced a small, inexpensive model which he called the Fordson during the World War I. This model sold well for several years, aided considerably by a war-caused shortage of horses. After a post-war crash in farm prices drastically reduced sales in 1920-21, Ford initiated a price war in 1922 by cutting the price of its Fordson from $625 to $395. Alone of the large competitors, International Harvester matched Ford’s price, and sales boomed for those two firms throughout the rest of the 1920s. Ford’s production of tractors were always a sidelight to his main business of manufacturing automobiles, however, and when the Fordson production lines were needed for the critical Model-A launch in 1928, Ford decided to leave the tractor business.

The competition with Ford drove International Harvester to make significant improvements in its tractors. The first innovation to appear was the power take-off, offered after 1922. This device, a metal shaft turned by the rotation of the tractor motor, allowed implements to be driven directly by the tractor engine, as opposed to obtaining power from a wheel rolling along the ground. The power take-off quickly became a standard feature on all tractors, and implement makers began the process of re-designing their equipment to take advantage of this innovation.

An even more important improvement by International Harvester was the introduction of a general-purpose tractor, the Farmall, in 1925. This model, with high ground clearance, small front wheels, and minimal weight, was designed for cultivating, as well as for plowing and cutting. It was tested in Texas in 1923, and was released for broad scale distribution in 1925. Competitors, such as Deere, Massey-Harris, and Case rushed to develop a general-purpose tractor (a ‘GP’) of their own, and by the mid-1930s, GPs had replaced the standard Fordson-type tractor. In addition, these same firms began the process of modifying their implements for these tractors, and the wholesale replacement of the horse began in earnest.

A Dominant Design Emerges

Three other improvements were critical in completing the technology base for the tractor. Deere released a power lift for its models beginning in 1927. This device allowed the implement to be raised before every turn by pulling a lever. Prior to this, the farmer had to lift the implement by hand at each turn, which was a time-consuming and enervating task. As with the power takeoff, the power lift was rapidly adopted by other tractor makers. Rubber tires first became available for tractors in 1932, and by 1938 had largely replaced steel wheels. The low-pressure tires not only did less damage to fields, but also allowed a higher forward speed, due to reduced friction. Finally, the development of diesel engines in the mid-1930s gave farmers access to a lower-cost fuel for their machines. Many tractors from that time forward had a small gasoline tank for cold starts, and a large diesel tank for the majority of the operation.

International Harvester pioneered a ‘one plow’ tractor at about this time, and began selling it in 1934. This tractor was smaller and less expensive than the original Farmall, but had the same general-purpose capabilities. Its introduction offered operators on small farms the chance to replace their one horse or mule with a tractor, and was responsible for the beginnings of the tractor’s diffusion in the South. These small tractors often featured adjustable front wheels and high ground clearance, which made them considerably more flexible than the larger models. Within a few more years, manufacturers were offering their larger models in ‘high-clearance’ versions as well.

A final innovation was responsible for bringing Ford back into the tractor business in 1937. In that year, the firm agreed to enter into a joint venture with Irish inventor Harry Ferguson. Ferguson had worked for almost 20 years to perfect a ‘three-point hitch,’ a device that produced superior plowing by continuously leveling the implement as it traveled over uneven terrain. The Ford-Ferguson tractors quickly amassed a significant market share (14% by 1940), and the hitch design was rapidly imitated.

By about 1938, the technology of tractor development had achieved what is known as a ‘dominant design.’ The Farmall-type general-purpose tractors, both large and small, would change little, except for increasing in size and horsepower, over the next 30 years. Beginning in the mid-1930s, and despite the ongoing depression in the United States, tractor sales increased rapidly. Figure 1 shows the number of tractors on farms from 1910 through 1960. By the latter date, the process of technological diffusion was essentially complete. With the exception of the deep South, the increase in percent of farms with tractors from year to year had stopped.

Development of Related Equipment

The general-purpose tractor proved to be an excellent replacement for the horse in plowing, soil preparation, planting, and cultivating tasks for a wide variety of field crops. In addition, the tractor was fully capable of providing power for mowing hay and for harvesting of wheat and other small grains. In the latter application, it facilitated the practice known as ‘combining,’ the simultaneous reaping and threshing of wheat. Horse-drawn combines had been available since the 1880s, and had found limited acceptance on the larger farms of the arid West. However, a large team of horses was required to drag the heavy, complex machine through the fields. The tractors of the 1930s and 1940s had no trouble pulling a re-designed combine, and they began a process of rapid adoption in the Midwest. Eventually, a self-propelled combine was produced, with the tractor engine and cab subsumed into the combine apparatus.

The general-purpose tractor was not capable of bringing mechanization to the corn and cotton harvest until separate, but related innovations produced a corn picker in the 1920s and a mechanical cotton picker after the Second World War. Prior to the development and adoption of the corn picker, corn was often cut with a binder, followed by manual shelling. One of the more important uses of stationary gas engines early in the twentieth century was for the shelling of corn. The picker combined the operations of cutting and shelling, and also distributed the stalks back onto the field, eliminating an additional step.

Mechanical cotton pickers fundamentally altered not only the harvesting of cotton, but the very nature of cotton growing in the United States. The mechanical picker, even after extensive development, produced higher crop losses than hand picking in the hot, humid areas where most cotton was grown — Mississippi, Alabama, and east Texas. In the dry areas of west Texas, however, the picker was very efficient, both in terms of labor effort and crop yields. The mechanical cotton picker thus precipitated a relocation of cotton production westward, resulting in large-scale migration out of the deep South in the years after World War II.

As with the combine, self-propelled corn and cotton pickers were soon developed, combining the power train and cab of the tractor within the implement’s apparatus. For this reason, pickers and combines are often considered as separate machines, and their development and diffusion are not included in discussions of the impact of the tractor. It should be pointed out, however, that none of these devices could have been powered efficiently by horses or steam; the gasoline-powered tractor was necessary for their development. As such, I will include combines and mechanical pickers in assessing the impact of the tractor on inputs to agriculture.

Recent Developments

The recent history of tractor development is less dramatic than the first 50 years. The peak year of tractor production was 1951, during which 564,000 units were made. From that time, the approaching saturation of the market produced a steady fall in production and sales. As one might expect, manufacturers responded by developing ever-larger tractors to supply farms that were growing in size. Interestingly enough, this pursuit of size left the small end of the market open to foreign competition, and, as in the case of the U.S. automobile industry, imports grew to dominate the small-tractor market.

Creature comforts have been improved markedly since the 1950s as well. Enclosed cabs soon had heating and air conditioning, and are now likely to be supplied with a television and stereo-CD. As a result, modern tractors are quite comfortable in comparison with the machines of 40 years ago, let alone versus the monsters of the early tractor era.

Production and Corporate History

From a slow start in the 1920s and 1930s, tractor production grew through the late Depression years, as farmers increasingly parted with their horses and mules. Figure 2 shows the annual output of farm tractors from 1909 to 1970, including the peak years of the early 1950s. It is likely that this peak would have been reached much sooner, had it not been for the disruption of the Second World War. Not only were raw materials such as steel, copper, and rubber severely limited due to wartime production needs, but the government actually limited the total number of machines that could be built each year, and allocated only the raw materials needed for that production. Many of the tractor factories were converted over to production of tanks, airplanes, vehicles, and other military goods.

Despite the presence of corporate giants such as International Harvester and Ford in the early development of the farm tractor, there were hundreds of firms that began producing or selling machines in the first two decades of the twentieth century. As is the case with many emerging industries, inventors, entrepreneurs, and promoters were attracted to this important and rapidly-growing field. The agricultural depressions of 1920-21 and 1930-32 drove many of these firms into mergers or out of business, and by the early 1930s seven companies dominated the industry. These firms, along with Ford, would make almost all of the wheel-tractors sold in the United States from 1930 through 1955.

The dominance of the seven firms is shown in Table 1, which presents market share data by decade for the key years of tractor industry growth. As discussed above, Ford dominated the market in the 1920s, then left the business to create production capacity for the Model A; upon returning to tractors in the 1940s, Ford once again became an important presence. International Harvester was the largest consistent seller, as well as being the technological leader, while Deere would grow into the most significant challenger. By 1963, Deere overtook International Harvester in a declining market, and remains the largest presence in agricultural equipment today.

Table 1. Market Share of Leading Wheel Tractor Manufacturers by Decade
1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950-55 Overall


4.0% 6.4% 21.7% 17.0% 14.5% 14.5%
International Harvester 21.4% 28.6% 44.3% 32.7% 30.6% 32.5%
Ford 20.1% 44.2% 0.0% 7.9% 19.3% 16.7%
Massey-Ferguson 2.9% 1.9% 2.9% 14.7% 10.8% 9.1%
Case 7.2% 3.6% 7.4% 7.6% 5.1% 6.2%
Allis Chalmers 6.2% 3.5% 12.6% 9.7% 10.3% 9.1%
Oliver 2.1% 2.2% 5.0% 4.8% 5.4% 4.4%
Minneapolis Moline 8.0% 0.7% 2.9% 3.2% 3.6% 3.1%
All Others 28.0% 9.0% 3.2% 2.5% 0.2% 4.4%
Source: White (2000)
Note: Totals include production of predecessor companies

Social and Economic Significance

The farm tractor had made a major impact on the social and economic fabric of the United States. By increasing the productivity of agricultural labor, mechanization freed up millions of farm operators, unpaid family workers, and farm hands. After the Second World War, many of these people relocated to the growing cities across the country and provided technically-skilled, hard-working labor to the manufacturing and service industries. Millions of others remained in rural areas, working off-farm either part-time or full-time in a variety of professions.

The landscape of the country has changed as a result. Farms have grown larger as one proprietor can manage to cultivate the land that several families would have worked in 1900. Small market towns, especially in the Plains states, have almost ceased to exist as the customer base for local businesses has dwindled. Land formerly devoted to raising and feeding horses has been converted to alternate uses or reverted to grassland or forest. Several generations of agricultural families have experienced the sadness of giving up the farm and the rural way of life.

On balance, however, the tractor has had a markedly positive economic impact. Horses and mules, while providing farm power, ate up more than twenty percent of the food they helped farmers grow! By replacing them with machines that consumed much less expensive quantities of fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluid, farmers were able to reduce their costs and pass these social savings along to food buyers. More importantly, the millions of farm workers freed up by the technology were able to contribute their labor elsewhere in the economy, creating large economic benefits. According to a recent estimate by the author, the U.S. would have been almost ten percent poorer in 1955 in the absence of the farm tractor. Along with the revolution in yields generated by the advances in biological and chemical research, the farm tractor has helped agriculture make a significant contribution to economic growth in the United States.

References for Further Study

Ankli, Robert E. “Horses vs. Tractors on the Corn Belt” Agricultural History 54 (1980): 134-148.

Berardi, Gigi M., and Charles C. Geisler, editors. Social Consequences and Challenges of New Agricultural Technology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984.

Broehl, Wayne G., Jr. John Deere’s Company. New York: Doubleday, 1984.

Clarke, Sally H. Regulation and the Revolution in United States Farm Productivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Danbom, David B. Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Gray, R. B. The Agricultural Tractor: 1855 – 1950. St. Joseph, Michigan: American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1954 (revised, 1975).

Griliches, Zvi. “The Demand for a Durable Input: Farm Tractors in the United States, 1921-57.” In The Demand for Durable Goods, edited by Arnold C. Harberger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Hayami, Yujiro, and Vernon W. Ruttan. Agricultural Development: An International Perspective. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.

Jasny, Naum. Research Methods on Farm Use of Tractors. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.

Jones, Fred R. Farm Gas Engines and Tractors, fourth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

McCormick, Cyrus. The Century of the Reaper. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Rogin, Leo. The Introduction of Farm Machinery in Its Relation to the Productivity of Labor in the Agriculture of the United States during the Nineteenth Century. University of California Publications in Economics: Volume 9. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1931.

Sargen, Nicholas Peter. “Tractorizationin the United States and Its Relevance for the Developing Countries. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979.

Schultz, Theodore W. “Reflections on Agricultural Production, Output, and Supply.” Journal of Farm Economics 38 (1956): 748-62.

Whatley, Warren C. “Institutional Change and Mechanization in the Cotton South.” Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1983.

White, William J. “An Unsung Hero: The Farm Tractor’s Contribution to Twentieth-century United States Economic Growth.” Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 2000.

Wik, Reynold M. Steam Power on the American Farm. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953.

Wik, Reynold M. Benjamin Holt & Caterpillar: Tracks & Combines. St. Joseph, Michigan: American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1984.

Williams, Robert C. Fordson, Farmall, and Poppin’ Johnny. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Citation: White, William. “Economic History of Tractors in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL

Southern Paternalism and the American Welfare State: Economics, Politics, and Institutions in the South 1865-1965

Author(s):Alston, Lee J.
Ferrie, Joseph P.
Reviewer(s):Heinicke, Craig

Published by EH.NET (December 2000)

Lee J. Alston and Joseph P. Ferrie, Southern Paternalism and the American

Welfare State: Economics, Politics, and Institutions in the South

1865-1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii + 170 pp.

$49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-62210-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Craig Heinicke, Department of Economics,

Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio.

Why was political power in the American South summoned in defense of a

“…complex system of reciprocal duties and obligations that had bound

agricultural employers and their workers, the elaborate but often unspoken

protocol of paternalism…” (p. 1)? What led that system to disappear, and why

was the defense of paternalism abandoned almost overnight, after having

persisted for close to a century following the U.S. Civil War? In this

important book, Lee Alston and Joseph Ferrie not only address the complexity

of southern paternalism, but also carry forward the task suggested by their

title — explaining how southern political interests affected the timing and

expansion of the “welfare state” legislative program in the U.S.

The authors argue that paternalism, also familiar as the “patron-client”

relationship, reduced transactions costs in labor-intensive southern

agriculture. Paternalism is said to be characterized by an implicit contract

wherein landowners provided a multitude of benefits to workers. Workers

responded by supplying “good and faithful labor,” including a long-term

commitment to the landowner. Cheaper to landlords than the available

alternatives, paternalism thus helped to sustain the agricultural economy of

the South for nearly a century after the disappearance of slavery in the U.S.

By contrast, “welfare state” programs would have substituted for the

landlord-as-benefactor and eroded such traditional relations.

The book’s first two chapters examine the inner workings of paternalism, as

well as its subtle contradictions in this setting. Among other matters the

authors consider the provision of medical care, protection from racial

violence directed at African-Americans, and agreements to “stand good” for

certain tenants in the face of creditors, as devices to ensure self-monitoring

by workers. That southern elites took great pains to preserve the system is

demonstrated by the political power invoked to defeat or co-opt welfare state

legislation such as the Social Security Act (chapter three) or the Farm

Security Administration (chapter four) that would weaken the social ties of

the traditional system. On the other hand, politicians supported the federal

Bracero program that had few direct benefits to southern elites but which

served to deter outmigration to western cotton regions (chapter five).

The sudden disappearance of this system is examined in chapter six. Here

Alston and Ferrie argue that “plowing up” paternalism resulted when machines

invaded agriculture and reduced the costs of monitoring and turnover and thus

the need for paternalism from the landowner’s perspective. The unemployment

associated with declining demand for labor also replaced the “efficiency wage”

feature of paternalism with one more akin to that of an industrial setting. At

this stage of political history, southern senators and congressmen still held

key positions in committees where the legislative agenda was set. Despite

their continued political power, they began to withdraw their opposition to

welfare state legislation, as the economic imperative of paternalism declined.

Once cotton agriculture was mechanized, southern politicians began to favor

the types of programs they had earlier resisted, programs that accentuated

outmigration. Workers who had benefited from paternalism despite their

distaste for many aspects of the system (deference by blacks to white

landlords, for instance), also no longer found a reason to buy into the


To make its arguments, the book uses mainly documentary and “circumstantial”

evidence, and, less often, quantitative data. Alternative explanations are

considered throughout. Racism and ideology, for example, may explain some part

of the absence of federal welfare expenditures funneled through southern

states in the 1930s. Still, the effort to exclude agricultural workers from

the Old-Age Insurance and Unemployment Insurance portions of the Social

Security Act, for instance, requires more than racism to explain it.

Alternative explanations also make it difficult to understand the expansion of

federal welfare programs in the 1950s and 1960s and the absence of southern

resistance to that expansion (pp. 58-59). The authors show the inadequacy of

such alternative explanations, and consistently demonstrate the explanatory

power of institutions and paternalism.

Among the unresolved questions raised by the book, is the degree to which

paternalism was a self-conscious attempt to elicit work effort and long-term

commitment, and the extent to which it was mainly the result of custom, its

manifestation seen by landlords as their “duty.” At one point Alston and

Ferrie argue that the more landlords appeared as beneficent, the more likely

they were to receive loyalty and hard work in return (p. 24). Yet one wonders

how effectively landlords could manipulate the system. Perhaps it does not

matter. Even if workers did not view landowners as charitable, they may have

responded to seemingly well-intentioned acts with increased work effort,

sensing that doing otherwise meant risking valuable necessities that could not

be purchased readily in the market. On the other hand, the legitimacy of the

system was at stake and any sense that magnanimity was false could undermine,

even if it would not destroy, the foundations of the social system. This

tension remains unresolved in the book. Since motives are not observed but

outcomes are, this is perhaps the best that can be achieved.

An unresolved question of a quite different nature involves the effect of

mechanization on monitoring costs. How great were the reductions in monitoring

and turnover costs wrought by the tractor and the mechanical cotton picker? If

the cost reductions were large enough that they led to the disappearance of

paternalism, why was great energy not devoted to reducing these costs? Perhaps

it was. After all, after World War II both public and private agents devoted

substantial resources to reducing the labor content in cotton cultivation and

to mechanizing the harvest in the South. Alston and Ferrie’s work suggests the

question of how large transactions costs were relative to the cost of the pure

labor input. The assumption of exogenous technology means this issue never

receives full attention. Some assessment of the matter and measurement of the

transactions costs savings — admittedly a difficult undertaking — might

bolster their paternalism hypothesis. Yet despite these unresolved questions,

the authors’ clear presentation and careful consideration of the evidence

produce a convincing argument in the end.

The range of the historical evidence used by Alston and Ferrie, and the

inevitable paradoxes that emerge, suggest that interpretations of such

evidence will vary. My guess is that economists will be more sympathetic to

the authors’ interpretation than others, but traditional historians will also

find much of merit here, as well as, perhaps, some points of contention. My

own view is that if disagreements emerge, this wouldconstitute a strength

rather than a weakness of the book: we need a fuller debate over these issues,

particularly given the relative silence among economic historians on the

abrupt disappearance of the plantation system compared with the attention

focused on earlier periods in southern history. Alston and Ferrie’s book not

only directs our attention to this relatively neglected period, but also

applies what has become the “new institutional economics” to questions well

suited to that framework. The compelling clarity of their central argument

means that we will learn all the more from dissertation topics and other

research projects that will most certainly follow their lead.

The main argument of the book is skillfully presented and convincing. The

approach, which reaches beyond economics and history and into the disciplines

of political science and sociology, remains fresh and innovative, despite the

book’s “long gestation” (p. xi) period. The book performs several valuable

services for the economic historian. First of all, it informs us on an

important case study in which informal but powerful institutions are

interwoven with those of formal political power. While acknowledging

ambiguities, the authors are able to sustain their main line of argument. The

authors also move us decisively forward on the matter of “?the demise of

plantation paternalism, a socioeconomic system that had endured the better

part of a century” (p. 98). We know that labor-intensive agriculture vanished

in the South, but we have here an explanation for why the entire set of

informal institutions vanished with it, and vanished so extraordinarily

quickly. Finally, as contemporary electorates and leaders sift through and

debate the merits of the welfare state and its role in “mixed” economic

systems, we benefit from the insights of Alston and Ferrie. We are shown a

case where political power imbalances and a set of legislative rules combined

at one time to thwart, and then later to promote a wide ranging legislative

program — a program whose effects have been widespread and long lasting, but

the permanence of which is anything but assured.

Craig Heinicke, Associate Professor of Economics at Baldwin-Wallace College,

is engaged in on-going research on the mechanization of cotton agriculture in

the U.S. South, labor markets and African-American migration during and after

World War II. For a recent example, see “Southern Tenancy, Machines and

Production Scale on the Eve of the Cotton Picker’s Arrival,” (1999), Social

Science History, 23, 3 (Fall).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Urban Decline (and Success) in the United States

Fred Smith and Sarah Allen, Davidson College


Any discussion of urban decline must begin with a difficult task – defining what is meant by urban decline. Urban decline (or “urban decay”) is a term that evokes images of abandoned homes, vacant storefronts, and crumbling infrastructure, and if asked to name a city that has suffered urban decline, people often think of a city from the upper Midwest like Cleveland, Detroit, or Buffalo. Yet, while nearly every American has seen or experienced urban decline, the term is one that is descriptive and not easily quantifiable. Further complicating the story is this simple fact – metropolitan areas, like greater Detroit, may experience the symptoms of severe urban decline in one neighborhood while remaining economically robust in others. Indeed, the city of Detroit is a textbook case of urban decline, but many of the surrounding communities in metropolitan Detroit are thriving. An additional complication comes from the fact that modern American cities – cities like Dallas, Charlotte, and Phoenix – don’t look much like their early twentieth century counterparts. Phoenix of the early twenty-first century is an economically vibrant city, yet the urban core of Phoenix looks very, very different from the urban core found in “smaller” cities like Boston or San Francisco.[1] It is unlikely that a weekend visitor to downtown Phoenix would come away with the impression that Phoenix is a rapidly growing city, for downtown Phoenix does not contain the housing, shopping, or recreational venues that are found in downtown San Francisco or Boston.

There isn’t a single variable that will serve as a perfect choice for measuring urban decline, but this article will take an in depth look at urban decline by focusing on the best measure of a city’s well being – population. In order to provide a thorough understanding of urban decline, this article contains three additional sections. The next section employs data from a handful of sources to familiarize the reader with the location and severity of urban decline in the United States. Section three is dedicated to explaining the causes of urban decline in the U.S. Finally, the fourth section looks at the future of cities in the United States and provides some concluding remarks.

Urban Decline in the United States – Quantifying the Population Decline

Between 1950 and 2000 the population of the United States increased by approximately 120 million people, from 152 million to 272 million. Despite the dramatic increase in population experienced by the country as a whole, different cities and states experienced radically different rates of growth. Table 1 shows the population figures for a handful of U.S. cities for the years 1950 to 2000. (It should be noted that these figures are population totals for the cities in the list, not for the associated metropolitan areas.)

Table 1: Population for Selected U.S. Cities, 1950-2000



% Change

1950 – 2000







New York
















































Kansas City
























Los Angeles








San Francisco








































New Orleans
















































Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Several trends emerge from the data in Table 1. The cities in the table are clustered together by region, and the cities at the top of the table – cities from the Northeast and Midwest – experience no significant population growth (New York City) or experience dramatic population loss (Detroit and Cleveland). These cities’ experiences stand in stark contrast to that of the cities located in the South and West – cities found farther down the list. Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, and Nashville all experience triple digit population increases during the five decades from 1950 to 2000. Figure 1 displays this information even more dramatically:

Figure 1: Percent Change in Population, 1950 – 2000

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

While Table 1 and Figure 1 clearly display the population trends within these cities, they do not provide any information about what was happening to the metropolitan areas in which these cities are located. Table 2 fills this gap. (Please note – these metropolitan areas do not correspond directly to the metropolitan areas identified by the U.S. Census Bureau. Rather, Jordan Rappaport – an economist at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank – created these metropolitan areas for his 2005 article “The Shared Fortunes of Cities and Suburbs.”)

Table 2: Population of Selected Metropolitan Areas, 1950 to 2000

Metropolitan Area





Percent Change 1950 to 2000

New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY






Philadelphia, PA






Boston, MA






Chicago-Gary, IL-IN






Detroit, MI






Cleveland, OH






Kansas City, MO-KS






Denver, CO






Omaha, NE






Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA






San Francisco-Oakland, CA






Seattle, WA






Houston, TX






Dallas, TX






Phoenix, AZ






New Orleans, LA






Atlanta, GA






Nashville, TN






Washington, DC






Miami, FL






Charlotte, NC






* The percentage change is for the period from 1960 to 2000.

Source: Rappaport;

Table 2 highlights several of the difficulties in conducting a meaningful discussion about urban decline. First, by glancing at the metro population figures for Cleveland and Detroit, it becomes clear that while these cities were experiencing severe urban decay, the suburbs surrounding them were not. The Detroit metropolitan area grew more rapidly than the Boston, Philadelphia, or New York metro areas, and even the Cleveland metro area experienced growth between 1950 and 2000. Next, we can see from Tables 1 and 2 that some of the cities experiencing dramatic growth between 1950 and 2000 did not enjoy similar increases in population at the metro level. The Phoenix, Charlotte, and Nashville metro areas experienced tremendous growth, but their metro growth rates were not nearly as large as their city growth rates. This raises an important question – did these cities experience tremendous growth rates because the population was growing rapidly or because the cities were annexing large amounts of land from the surrounding suburbs? Table 3 helps to answer this question. In Table 3, land area, measured in square miles, is provided for each of the cities initially listed in Table 1. The data in Table 3 clearly indicate that Nashville and Charlotte, as well as Dallas, Phoenix, and Houston, owe some of their growth to the expansion of their physical boundaries. Charlotte, Phoenix, and Nashville are particularly obvious examples of this phenomenon, for each city increased its physical footprint by over seven hundred percent between 1950 and 2000.

Table 3: Land Area for Selected U.S. Cities, 1950 – 2000

Metropolitan Area





Percent Change 1950 to 2000

New York, NY






Philadelphia, PA






Boston, MA






Chicago, IL






Detroit, MI






Cleveland, OH






Kansas City, MO






Denver, CO






Omaha, NE






Los Angeles, CA






San Francisco, CA






Seattle, WA






Houston, TX






Dallas, TX






Phoenix, AZ






New Orleans, LA






Atlanta, GA






Nashville, TN






Washington, DC






Miami, FL






Charlotte, NC






Sources: Rappaport,; Gibson, Population of the 100 Largest Cities.

Taken together, Tables 1 through 3 paint a clear picture of what has happened in urban areas in the United States between 1950 and 2000: Cities in the Southern and Western U.S. have experienced relatively high rates of growth when they are compared to their neighbors in the Midwest and Northeast. And, as a consequence of this, central cities in the Midwest and Northeast have remained the same size or they have experienced moderate to severe urban decay. But, to complete this picture, it is worth considering some additional data. Table 4 presents regional population and housing data for the United States during the period from 1950 to 2000.

Table 4: Regional Population and Housing Data for the U.S., 1950 – 2000







Population Density – persons/(square mile)







Population by Region





























Population by Region – % of Total





























Population Living in non-Metropolitan Areas (millions)







Population Living in Metropolitan Areas (millions)







Percent in Suburbs in Metropolitan Area







Percent in Central City in Metropolitan Area







Percent Living in the Ten Largest Cities







Percentage Minority by Region

















Housing Units by Region





























Source: Hobbs and Stoops (2002).

There are several items of particular interest in Table 4. Every region in the United States becomes more diverse between 1980 and 2000. No region has a minority population greater than 26.5 percent minority in 1980, but only the Midwest remains below 26.5 percent minority by 2000. The U.S. population becomes increasingly urbanized over time, yet the percentage of Americans who live in central cities remains nearly constant. Thus, it is the number of Americans living in suburban communities that has fueled the dramatic increase in “urban” residents. This finding is reinforced by looking at the figures for average population density for the United States as a whole, the figures listing the numbers of Americans living in metropolitan versus non-metropolitan areas, and the figures listing the percentage of Americans living in the ten largest cities in the United States.

Other Measures of Urban Decline

While the population decline documented in the first part of this section suggests that cities in the Northeast and Midwest experienced severe urban decline, anyone who has visited the cities of Detroit and Boston would be able to tell you that the urban decline in these cities has affected their downtowns in very different ways. The central city in Boston is, for the most part, economically vibrant. A visitor to Boston would fine manicured public spaces as well as thriving retail, housing, and commercial sectors. Detroit’s downtown is still scarred by vacant office towers, abandoned retail space, and relatively little housing. Furthermore, the city’s public spaces would not compare favorably to those of Boston. While the leaders of Detroit have made some needed improvements to the city’s downtown in the past several years, the central city remains a mere shadow of its former self. Thus, the loss of population experienced by Detroit and Boston do not tell the full story about how urban decline has affected these cities. They have both lost population, yet Detroit has lost a great deal more – it no longer possesses a well-functioning urban economy.

To date, there have been relatively few attempts to quantify the loss of economic vitality in cities afflicted by urban decay. This is due, in part, to the complexity of the problem. There are few reliable historical measures of economic activity available at the city level. However, economists and other social scientists are beginning to better understand the process and the consequences of severe urban decline.

Economists Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko (2005) developed a model that thoroughly explains the process of urban decline. One of their principal insights is that the durable nature of housing means that the process of urban decline will not mirror the process of urban expansion. In a growing city, the demand for housing is met through the construction of new dwellings. When a city faces a reduction in economic productivity and the resulting reduction in the demand for labor, workers will begin to leave the city. Yet, when population in a city begins to decline, housing units do not magically disappear from the urban landscape. Thus, in Glaeser and Gyourko’s model a declining city is characterized by a stock of housing that interacts with a reduction in housing demand, producing a rapid reduction in the real price of housing. Empirical evidence supports the assertions made by the model, for in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo the real price of housing declined in the second half of the twentieth century. An important implication of the Glaeser and Gyourko model is that declining housing prices are likely to attract individuals who are poor and who have acquired relatively little human capital. The presence of these workers makes it difficult for a declining city – like Detroit – to reverse its economic decline, for it becomes relatively difficult to attract businesses that need workers with high levels of human capital.

Complementing the theoretical work of Glaeser and Gyourko, Fred H. Smith (2003) used property values as a proxy for economic activity in order to quantify the urban decline experienced by Cleveland, Ohio. Smith found that the aggregate assessed value for the property in the downtown core of Cleveland fell from its peak of nearly $600 million in 1930 to a mere $45 million by 1980. (Both figures are expressed in 1980 dollars.) Economists William Collins and Robert Margo have also examined the impact of urban decline on property values. Their work focuses on how the value of owner occupied housing declined in cities that experienced a race riot in the 1960s, and, in particular, it focuses on the gap in property values that developed between white and black owned homes. Nonetheless, a great deal of work still remains to be done before the magnitude of urban decay in the United States is fully understood.

What Caused Urban Decline in the United States?

Having examined the timing and the magnitude of the urban decline experienced by U.S. cities, it is now necessary to consider why these cities decayed. In the subsections that follow, each of the principal causes of urban decline is considered in turn.

Decentralizing Technologies

In “Sprawl and Urban Growth,” Edward Glaeser and Matthew Kahn (2001) assert that “while many factors may have helped the growth of sprawl, it ultimately has only one root cause: the automobile” (p. 2). Urban sprawl is simply a popular term for the decentralization of economic activity, one of the principal symptoms of urban decline. So it should come as no surprise that many of the forces that have caused urban sprawl are in fact the same forces that have driven the decline of central cities. As Glaeser and Kahn suggest, the list of causal forces must begin with the emergence of the automobile.

In order to maximize profit, firm owners must choose their location carefully. Input prices and transportation costs (for inputs and outputs) vary across locations. Firm owners ultimately face two important decisions about location, and economic forces dictate the choices made in each instance. First, owners must decide in which city they will do business. Then, the firm owners must decide where the business should be located within the chosen city. In each case, transportation costs and input costs must dominate the owners’ decision making. For example, a business owner whose firm will produce steel must consider the costs of transporting inputs (e.g. iron ore), the costs of transporting the output (steel), and the cost of other inputs in the production process (e.g. labor). For steel firms operating in the late nineteenth century these concerns were balanced out by choosing locations in the Midwest, either on the Great Lakes (e.g. Cleveland) or major rivers (e.g. Pittsburgh). Cleveland and Pittsburgh were cities with plentiful labor and relatively low transport costs for both inputs and the output. However, steel firm owners choosing Cleveland or Pittsburgh also had to choose a location within these cities. Not surprisingly, the owners chose locations that minimized transportation costs. In Cleveland, for example, the steel mills were built near the shore of Lake Erie and relatively close to the main rail terminal. This minimized the costs of getting iron ore from ships that had come to the city via Lake Erie, and it also provided easy access to water or rail transportation for shipping the finished product. The cost of choosing a site near the rail terminal and the city’s docks was not insignificant: Land close to the city’s transportation hub was in high demand, and, therefore, relatively expensive. It would have been cheaper for firm owners to buy land on the periphery of these cities, but they chose not to do this because the costs associated with transporting inputs and outputs to and from the transportation hub would have dominated the savings enjoyed from buying cheaper land on the periphery of the city. Ultimately, it was the absence of cheap intra-city transport that compressed economic activity into the center of an urban area.

Yet, transportation costs and input prices have not simply varied across space; they’ve also changed over time. The introduction of the car and truck had a profound impact on transportation costs. In 1890, moving a ton of goods one mile cost 18.5 cents (measured in 2001 dollars). By 2003 the cost had fallen to 2.3 cents (measured in 2001 dollars) per ton-mile (Glaeser and Kahn 2001, p. 4). While the car and truck dramatically lowered transportation costs, they did not immediately affect firm owners’ choices about which city to choose as their base of operations. Rather, the immediate impact was felt in the choice of where within a city a firm should choose to locate. The intra-city truck made it easy for a firm to locate on the periphery of the city, where land was plentiful and relatively cheap. Returning to the example from the previous paragraph, the introduction of the intra-city truck allowed the owners of steel mills in Cleveland to build new plants on the periphery of the urban area where land was much cheaper (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History). Similarly, the car made it possible for residents to move away from the city center and out to the periphery of the city – or even to newly formed suburbs. (The suburbanization of the urban population had begun in the late nineteenth century when streetcar lines extended from the central city out to the periphery of the city or to communities surrounding the city; the automobile simply accelerated the process of decentralization.) The retail cost of a Ford Model T dropped considerably between 1910 and 1925 – from approximately $1850 to $470, measuring the prices in constant 1925 dollars (these values would be roughly $21,260 and $5400 in 2006 dollars), and the market responded accordingly. As Table 5 illustrates, the number of passenger car registrations increased dramatically during the twentieth century.

Table 5: Passenger Car Registrations in the United States, 1910-1980


Millions of Registered Vehicles

















Source: Muller, p. 36.

While changes in transportation technology had a profound effect on firms’ and residents’ choices about where to locate within a given city, they also affected the choice of which city would be the best for the firm or resident. Americans began demanding more and improved roads to capitalize on the mobility made possible by the car. Also, the automotive, construction, and tourism related industries lobbied state and federal governments to become heavily involved in funding road construction, a responsibility previously relegated to local governments. The landmark National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956 signified a long-term commitment by the national government to unite the country through an extensive network of interstates, while also improving access between cities’ central business district and outlying suburbs. As cars became affordable for the average American, and paved roads became increasingly ubiquitous, not only did the suburban frontier open up to a rising proportion of the population; it was now possible to live almost anywhere in the United States. (However, it is important to note that the widespread availability of air conditioning was a critical factor in Americans’ willingness to move to the South and West.)

Another factor that opened up the rest of the United States for urban development was a change in the cost of obtaining energy. Obtaining abundant, cheap energy is a concern for firm owners and for households. Historical constraints on production and residential locations continued to fall away in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as innovations in energy production began to take hold. One of the most important of these advances was the spread of the alternating-current electric grid, which further expanded firms’ choices regarding plant location and layout. Energy could be generated at any site and could travel long distances through thin copper wires. Over a fifty-year period from 1890 to 1940, the proportion of goods manufactured using electrical power soared from 0.1 percent to 85.6 percent (Nye 1990). With the complementary advancements in transportation, factories now had the option of locating outside of the city where they could capture savings from cheaper land. The flexibility of electrical power also offered factories new freedom in the spatial organization of production. Whereas steam engines had required a vertical system of organization in multi-level buildings, the AC grid made possible a form of production that permanently transformed the face of manufacturing – the assembly line (Nye 1990).

The Great Migration

Technological advances were not bound by urban limits; they also extended into rural America where they had sweeping social and economic repercussions. Historically, the vast majority of African Americans had worked on Southern farms, first as slaves and then as sharecroppers. But progress in the mechanization of farming – particularly the development of the tractor and the mechanical cotton-picker – reduced the need for unskilled labor on farms. The dwindling need for farm laborers coupled with continuing racial repression in the South led hundreds of thousands of southern African Americans to migrate North in search of new opportunities. The overall result was a dramatic shift in the spatial distribution of African Americans. In 1900, more than three-fourths of black Americans lived in rural areas, and all but a handful of rural blacks lived in the South. By 1960, 73% of blacks lived in urban areas, and the majority of the urban blacks lived outside of the South (Cahill 1974).

Blacks had begun moving to Northern cities in large numbers at the onset of World War I, drawn by the lure of booming wartime industries. In the 1940s, Southern blacks began pouring into the industrial centers at more than triple the rate of the previous decade, bringing with them a legacy of poverty, poor education, and repression. The swell of impoverished and uneducated African Americans rarely received a friendly reception in Northern communities. Instead they frequently faced more of the treatment they had sought to escape (Groh 1972). Furthermore, the abundance of unskilled manufacturing jobs that had greeted the first waves of migrants had begun to dwindle. Manufacturing firms in the upper Midwest (the Rustbelt) faced increased competition from foreign firms, and many of the American firms that remained in business relocated to the suburbs or the Sunbelt to take advantage of cheap land. African Americans had difficulty accessing jobs at locations in the suburbs, and the result for many was a “spatial mismatch” – they lived in the inner city where employment opportunities were scarce, yet lacked access to transportation and that would allow them to commute to the suburban jobs (Kain 1968). Institutionalized racism, which hindered blacks’ attempts to purchase real estate in the suburbs, as well as the proliferation of inner city public housing projects, reinforced the spatial mismatch problem. As inner city African Americans coped with high unemployment rates, high crime rates and urban disturbances such as the race riots of the 1960s were obvious symptoms of economic distress. High crime rates and the race riots simply accelerated the demographic transformation of Northern cities. White city residents had once been “pulled” to the suburbs by the availability of cheap land and cheap transportation when the automobile became affordable; now white residents were being “pushed” by racism and the desire to escape the poverty and crime that had become common in the inner city. Indeed, by 2000 more than 80 percent of Detroit’s residents were African American – a stark contrast from 1950 when only 16 percent of the population was black.

The American City in the Twenty-First Century

Some believe that technology – specifically advances in information technology – will render the city obsolete in the twenty-first century. Urban economists find their arguments unpersuasive (Glaeser 1998). Recent history shows that the way we interact with one another has changed dramatically in a very short period of time. E-mail, cell phones, and text messages belonged to the world science fiction as recently as 1980. Clearly, changes in information technology no longer make it a requirement that we locate ourselves in close proximity to the people we want to interact with. Thus, one can understand the temptation to think that we will no longer need to live so close to one another in New York, San Francisco or Chicago. Ultimately, a person or a firm will only locate in a city if the benefits from being in the city outweigh the costs. What is missing from this analysis, though, is that people and firms locate in cities for reasons that are not immediately obvious.

Economists point to economies of agglomeration as one of the main reasons that firms will continue to choose urban locations over rural locations. Economics of agglomeration exist when a firm’s productivity is enhanced (or its cost of doing business is lowered) because it is located in a cluster of complementary firms of in a densely populated area. A classic example of an urban area that displays substantial economies of agglomeration is “Silicon Valley” (near San Jose, California). Firms choosing to locate in Silicon Valley benefit from several sources of economies of agglomeration, but two of the most easily understood are knowledge spillovers and labor pooling. Knowledge spillovers in Silicon Valley occur because individuals who work at “computer firms” (firms producing software, hardware, etc.) are likely to interact with one another on a regular basis. These interactions can be informal – playing together on a softball team, running into one another at a child’s soccer game, etc. – but they are still very meaningful because they promote the exchange of ideas. By exchanging ideas and information it makes it possible for workers to (potentially) increase their productivity at their own job. Another example of economies of agglomeration in Silicon Valley is the labor pooling that occurs there. Because workers who are trained in computer related fields know that computer firms are located in Silicon Valley, they are more likely to choose to live in or around Silicon Valley. Thus, firms operating in Silicon Valley have an abundant supply of labor in close proximity, and, similarly, workers enjoy the opportunities associated with having several firms that can make use of their skills in a small geographic area. The clustering of computer industry workers and firms allows firms to save money when they need to hire another worker, and it makes it easier for workers who need a job to find one.

In addition to economies of agglomeration, there are other economic forces that make the disappearance of the city unlikely. Another of the benefits that some individuals will associate with urban living is the diversity of products and experiences that are available in a city. For example, in a large city like Chicago it is possible to find deep dish pizza, thin crust pizza, Italian food, Persian food, Greek food, Swedish food, Indian food, Chinese food… literally almost any type of food that you might imagine. Why is all of this food available in Chicago but not in a small town in southern Illinois? Economists answer this question using the concept of demand density. Lots of people like Chinese food, so it is not uncommon to find a Chinese restaurant in a small town. Fewer people, though, have been exposed to Persian cuisine. While it is quite likely that the average American would like Persian food if it were available, most Americans haven’t had the opportunity to try it. Hence, the average American is unlikely to demand much Persian food in a given time period. So, individuals who are interested in operating a Persian food restaurant logically choose to operate in Chicago instead of a small town in southern Illinois. While each individual living in Chicago may not demand Persian food any more frequently than the individuals living in the small town, the presence of so many people in a relatively small area makes it possible for the Persian food restaurant to operate and thrive. Moreover, exposure to Persian food may change people’s tastes and preferences. Over time, the amount of Persian food demand (on average) from each inhabitant of the city may increase.

Individuals who value Persian food – or any of the other experiences that can only be found in a large city – will value the opportunity to live in a large city more than they will value the opportunity to live in a rural area. But the incredible diversity that a large city has to offer is a huge benefit to some individuals, not to everyone. Rural areas will continue to be populated as long as there are people who prefer the pleasures of low-density living. For these individuals, the pleasure of being able to walk in the woods or hike in the mountains may be more than enough compensation for living in a part of the country that doesn’t have a Persian restaurant.

As long as there are people (and firm owners) who believe that the benefits from locating in a city outweigh the costs, cities will continue to exist. The data shown above make it clear that Americans continue to value urban living. Indeed, the population figures for Chicago and New York suggest that in the 1990s more people were finding that there are net benefits to living in very large cities. The rapid expansion of cities in the South and Southwest simply reinforces this idea. To be sure, the urban living experienced in Charlotte is not the same as the urban living experience in Chicago or New York. So, while the urban cores of cities like Detroit and Cleveland are not likely to return to their former size anytime soon, and urban decline will continue to be a problem for these cities in the foreseeable future, it remains clear that Americans enjoy the benefits of urban living and that the American city will continue to thrive in the future.


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Stanback, Thomas M. Jr. and Thierry J. Noyelle. Cities in Transition: Changing Job Structures in Atlanta, Denver, Buffalo, Phoenix, Columbus (Ohio), Nashville, Charlotte. Totowa, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun, 1982.

Van Tassel, David D. and John J. Grabowski, editors, The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Available at

[1] Reporting the size of a “city” should be done with care. In day-to-day usage, many Americans might talk about the size (population) of Boston and assert that Boston is a larger city than Phoenix. Strictly speaking, this is not true. The 2000 Census reports that the population of Boston was 589,000 while Phoenix had a population of 1.3 million. However, the Boston metropolitan area contained 4.4 million inhabitants in 2000 – substantially more than the 3.3 million residents of the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Citation: Smith, Fred and Sarah Allen. “Urban Decline (and Success), US”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. June 5, 2008. URL

Debt and Slavery in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds

Reviewer(s):Engerman, Stanley L.

Published by EH.Net (October 2013)

Gwyn Campbell and Alessandro Stanziani, editors, Debt and Slavery in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013. xiv + 185 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84893-374-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Stanley L. Engerman, Department of Economics, University of Rochester.

Debt and Slavery in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds contains nine essays plus a long introduction by the co-editors, dealing with topics related to the importance of debt in leading to enslavement in many places over a long period of time. The period covered ranges from about 300 B.C. (Early Rome) to 1956 (Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), and covers various nations of the world in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The editors introduction discusses the various types of slavery and the meaning of enslavement. While they consider most slaves to be the result of wartime capture, they point to the relative importance (though few numerical estimates are given) of slavery resulting from the failure to pay debt in full, which permits the creditor to enslave the debtor, presumably for life. They note the occasional practice of self-enslavement for debt and sale of children (p. 13), but little attention is given to its major role in times of subsistence crises. They distinguish, as do several of the authors, between pawnship (the provision of collateral for loans) and debt slavery, although they indicate that these categories are often difficult to distinguish ? and while pawnship may lead to slavery in some times and places, at other times and places it does not.

Marc Kleijwegt’s chapter on early Rome focuses on Moses Finley’s contention that chattel slavery began in Rome only after 326 B.C., with the abolition of the nexum as a form of temporary bondage, requiring its replacement by a different form of coerced labor. Kleijwegt argues, against Finley, that chattel slavery in Rome had begun earlier, and that debt enslavement did not end in 326 B.C., so that while some aspects of the arguments made by Finley did take place, these changes were less dramatic and sharp than Finley argued, and that this complicates the belief in an abrupt transition from debt bondage to chattel slavery? (p. 37).

In the most wide-ranging essay in terms of time and location, Alessandro Stanziani deals with enslavement for debt and by war captivity in several Mediterranean and Central Asian states as well as in Russia, China, and India. In some cases these were suppliers of slaves, and in others users of slaves.? In most cases, although debt slavery was important, war captives played a dominant role (p. 48), reflecting the political instability and military operations that characterized these areas.

Michael Ferguson details the Ottoman Empire state-initiated emancipations, mainly of African slaves from the third quarter of the nineteenth century. These may have been a minority of emancipations, but state-initiated emancipation generally led to keeping ex-slaves under state protection, where they often served in the military, or performed agricultural work. Two essays on debt slavery and pawnship, by Paul Lovejoy in West Africa and Olatunji Ojo on the Yoruba, focus on the distinctions and similarities between pawnship and slavery. Pawnship, a form of providing an individual as security for debt, did not necessarily lead to slavery, although there were important legal changes over time and its conditions varied from place to place. In West Africa, as elsewhere, most slaves were the result of violence, including kidnapping, not debt. The same was apparently the case among the Yoruba, where many slaves were also the result of violence, not debt. Most pawns who were to become slaves were women and children, “whereas adult males” were more likely to be taken in combat? (p. 90).

In an update of his classic article of some forty years ago, in “The Africanization of the Work Force in English America,” Russell R. Menard analyzes the transition from the debts entered into by indentured labor, mainly from England, to the growth in the importance of African slaves in the colonial Chesapeake and in Barbados. Based on the detailed work of Lorena Walsh and John C. Coombs in pointing to the differences in the types of tobacco produced in different parts of the Chesapeake, Menard argues for a shift in chronology and explanation from his earlier arguments. In regard to Barbados, he argues that the transition to slavery had begun prior to the sugar revolution, based on other export crops, although sugar greatly accelerated the growth in slavery.

In an attempt to link the development of commerce and credit in various parts of Europe, the Americas, and Africa to the role of slavery and the slave trade, Joseph Miller describes the role of European states and merchants in obtaining and shifting specie and funds in trading with Africa and elsewhere.? While this commercialization did benefit the Europeans, he argues that its effect upon African societies and economies was negative, leading to more militarization and the need to provide slaves to pay for the debts accumulated.

Henrique Espada Lima presents a detailed examination of various forms of coerced labor in Brazil in the nineteenth century, including some labor based on voluntary immigration from Portugal and the Azores.? There were provisions made for self-purchase by slaves, making for a conversion of slavery into debt, and thus having slaves pay financial compensation to their former owners (p. 131). Slavery finally ended in Brazil in 1888, 17 years after passage of the so-called law of the free womb, with no compensation paid to either slaves or slave owners. According to Steven Serels, it was debt, not taxation, which led to the increased labor force participation in cotton production in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan between 1898 and the coming of independence in 1956. This debt influenced both laborers and tenants, and bound these cultivators to the land and prevented them from regaining their lost independence? (p. 142) over the first half of the twentieth century.

All the essays are based upon extensive primary and secondary research, are clearly presented, and are quite useful additions to understanding the historical meaning of slavery, serfdom, pawnship, and different forms of coerced labor. As with such a diverse set of essays, there are differences in the caliber of the argument and in the authors? perceived importance of the role of debt slavery in different times and places. Nevertheless, the great value of this collection is to indicate the widespread frequency and social importance of this particular form of enslavement.

Stanley Engerman is co-author (with Kenneth Sokoloff) of Economic Development in the Americas since 1500: Endowments and Institutions, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Copyright (c) 2013 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Rise and Fall of the American System: Nationalism and the Development of the American Economy, 1800-1837

Author(s):Ha, Songho
Reviewer(s):Wahl, Jenny

Published by EH.NET (March 2010)

Songho Ha, The Rise and Fall of the American System: Nationalism and the Development of the American Economy, 1800-1837. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009. xiii + 184 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-85196-999-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jenny Wahl, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

This slim volume is part of a series on American financial history edited by Robert Wright. Although little new information or analysis appears in the monograph (a revision of the author?s dissertation), it is a compact summary of the concept and history of the American System that gathers together useful statistics on roll-call votes, obligations of the Second Bank of the United States, white and slave populations, federal expenditures for internal improvements, and land sales during the early Republic and antebellum periods. The thrust of the book is fairly conventional, although Ha does draw attention to one alleged feature of the American System ? its emphasis on cultural improvement ? more than most commentators. But he de-emphasizes what I consider a crucial factor that led away from the American System in the 1830s ? the underlying sectional tensions over slavery.

The book begins by exploring the phrase that gives rise to the title. Conceived by Alexander Hamilton and midwifed by Henry Clay (and, to a lesser extent, John Quincy Adams), the ?American System? began as a vision of a politically united, self-sustaining nation independent of Europe and especially England. The idea expanded over time to include specific programs designed to achieve this vision, such as high tariffs, federal spending on internal improvements, a national bank, and methods to disperse public lands.

The remainder of the book follows a historical timeline, touching upon Jeffersonian policies, the Missouri compromise, various tariff acts, controversies over the First and Second Banks of the United States, the nullification crisis, the Second Great Awakening, the financial panics of 1819 and 1837, and the Maysville Veto. Ha highlights one fascinating historical about-face: John C. Calhoun, father of the nullification doctrine and rabid states?-rights advocate by the 1830s, had earlier staunchly supported a national bank, urged federal spending on transportation to bind the union together more tightly, and aggressively pushed for high protective tariffs.

Arguably, the new spin in the book is its underscoring of the cultural dimension of the American System. Ha claims that John Adams supported education but only had time and energy during his administration to create the Library of Congress. Likewise, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe apparently advocated establishing a national university but occupied themselves with other endeavors while in office. John Quincy Adams argued strenuously for ?social improvement,? although Henry Clay advised him that a national university was a hopeless proposition. The American System may have given lip service to the nation?s cultural betterment, but Ha?s book does not leave me convinced that this was really a key element of the program.

Ha, currently an assistant professor of American History at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, is clearly a champion of the American System and its supporters. At times, he seems almost starry-eyed: he states that the ?supporters of the American System … tried to push what they believed was good for the union, rather than what was popular with their constituents? (p. 93); they ?were forward-looking and progressive people [whose] main issue … was how to improve the United States? (p. 132). He characterizes the main issue for Jacksonians, on other hand, as ?how to stop the federal government from meddling in their lives and economics? (p. 132). The underlying subtext for the rival factions, however, was slavery. Although Ha acknowledges that slavery and the cotton economy tended to isolate the South, I think he could have gone farther with this theme ? states?-rights advocates, at bottom, worried most about federal ?meddling? with the peculiar institution.

What is more, Ha fails to grapple with the thorny question of whether the American System at its heart was necessarily ?good for the union.? He includes a striking quote from a speech by John Tyler, who argued that protective duties would actually operate as a tax on farmers by increasing the prices of necessities (p. 66). Yet Ha does not explore Tyler?s prescient statement. Tariffs impede free trade, impair the workings of comparative advantage, and indeed raise prices for domestic consumers, ceteris paribus. The main beneficiaries of tariffs are import-competing domestic producers (and, to some extent, the Treasury). Whether this result was truly ?good for the union? is not adequately examined in Ha?s book.

Ha?s epilogue claims that the American System died during Jackson?s reign but rose again, Lazarus-like, during the Civil War. He lists the Morrill Tariff, the National Bank Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the Morrill Land Grant Act as evidence, saying that ?George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams would have been pleased to know that their dream of national improvement was on its way towards implementation, despite the tumults of the Civil War? (p. 133). This seems a slight mischaracterization ? federalists and anti-federalists, like the poor, were and are always with us. The Whigs picked up the nationalist banner in Jackson?s time and maintained a strong political presence until the formation of the Republican Party. And the recent Tea Party movement and antics by Texas Governor Rick Perry (who fervently believes his state still has the right to secede) suggest that opponents of the American System are certainly alive and kicking as well.

Jenny Wahl?s recent publications include ?Give Lincoln Credit: How Paying for the Civil War Transformed the U.S. Financial System,? Albany Government Law Review (forthcoming June 2010) and ?Blacks, Whites, and Brown: Effects on the Earnings of Men and Their Sons,? Journal of African American Studies (2009) (with Nathan Grawe). She can be reached at

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Child Labor: An American History

Author(s):Hindman, Hugh D.
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

Hugh D. Hindman, Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002. xi + 431 pp. $83.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7656-0935-5; $29.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7656-0936-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics and Business, Lake Forest College.

Although children had worked in the yeoman household with their families, as indentured servants and slaves for a master, and as apprentices in the putting-out system, society’s view on the child labor issue changed from pre-industrial America to industrial America. Hugh Hindman, Associate Professor of Labor and Human Resources at Appalachian State University, tells the history of the child labor problem in America from an interdisciplinary perspective incorporating social history, political reform and economic theory. By focusing on America, this book fills a void in the literature that discusses child labor in Great Britain extensively, child labor in Belgium, France, Spain and Japan adequately and has just begun to offer research on contemporary child labor in Latin America, Africa, India and Asia. To explore how child labor in America was both unique and special it addresses several key questions: (1) How important was child labor to the industrialization of America? (2) Why did child labor, which had existed for centuries, become a social problem in America during industrialization? and (3) What were the successes and failures at effective legislative reform?

The major contribution of this book is presented in Part II entitled “Child Labor in America” because it describes child labor in the main industries and trades of the American economy using primary sources. Hindman provides original evidence on the employment of children in coalmines (Chapter 4), glasshouses (Chapter 5), cotton textile factories (Chapter 6), tenement houses (Chapter 7), and canneries and food processing sheds (Chapter 9). In addition, he highlights evidence on children who worked in the sugar beet, cranberry, tobacco and cotton fields as migrant workers (Chapter 9) and on the streets as bootblacks, messengers and newsboys (Chapter 8). He carefully extracts from the primary data collected by the investigators for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and the nineteen-volume report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Report on Conditions of Woman and Child Wage Earners in the United States, 1910-1913 valuable information on the number of children employed, jobs children performed, work conditions, work-related illnesses and wages for each type of employment. Information on schooling options, safety issues and the strength of unions, employer organizations and restrictive regulations was drawn from NCLC publications (Child Labor Bulletins), government publications and secondary sources to identify the factors that could eliminate child labor in each industry. The interpretation of this relatively untapped source of data is impressive and wonderfully complimented by samples of the 7,000 photographs taken by the famous social photographer, Lewis W. Hine. These photographs not only document the existence of child labor during America’s industrial period but they also give a lasting impression of the degree of youthfulness, poverty and despair of the children who worked hard day after day.

Hindman’s history of the struggles of poor families to survive and of legislative and court battles waged by reformers provides lessons for the worldwide resurgence of the child labor problem today. The contemporary update of the child labor issue in America in Chapter 10 is especially informative. Using current statistics from the National Longitudinal Study, which show that “proportionally nearly as many children in America work today as at the turn of the twentieth century” (pp. 294-95) remind us that child labor has not disappeared. Although many perform freelance jobs (babysitting and yardwork), which is considerably different in nature from the factory or migrant jobs of the past, the fact that more than four million children and youth are illegally employed makes the issue more than purely academic. The conclusion of the book on global child labor in Chapter 11 reveals striking similarities in the types of work children do, the causes of child labor and the ineffectiveness of legislative action between America and developing nations.

The thesis “that industrialization is the cause of both the child labor problem and, later, its eradication” (p. 8) is not novel, but the fact that it applies to America as well as to Great Britain is novel and significant. Many economic historians have either claimed or shown this to be true for Great Britain (Levine (1987); Marx (1867); Nardinelli (1980); Piore (1994); Polanyi (1994) and Tuttle (1999)). No research to date has attempted to or succeeded in showing that for both Great Britain and America the same mechanism that created child labor also eliminated it. The thesis, although not well developed until Chapter 11, is supported by the evidence on wages and technological change in most of the industries. Poverty and antiquated machines created a need for employing children whereas rising standards of living and technological innovation led to the decline of child labor. For example, in America mechanical pickers replaced the infamous “breaker boys” in the coal mines, automated conveyor systems replaced the “dog boys” in glasshouses, and vending boxes replaced newsboys (p. 334).

The book does not, however, sufficiently analyze child labor using the tools of an economic historian. The “Discourse on Exploitation” is superficial and bases its conclusion on assumptions made about improvements in wages, Gross Domestic Product per capita and household income without providing any supporting data or references (pp. 312-319). The economic theory used in describing the model of the labor market for children is an over-simplified adaptation of existing theories. The theory of child labor found in Chapter 11 should have been developed earlier and applied to the vast amount of information Hindman has on the key industries and trades that employed children in America. The market for child labor consists of a supply and demand curve whose intersection yields the level of employment and the equilibrium wage rate. The supply of child labor is determined in a family context. Parents’ motivations to send their children to work in America were identical to the reasons uncovered in Great Britain and in developing countries — poverty (low family income), custom, habit, tradition and the absence of schooling. The demand for labor is determined by profit-maximizing firms. Hindman makes two unsubstantiated claims about the demand for labor, however. He argues that the demand for labor is not very well developed in the literature and he assumes that child labor is “low productivity labor” compared to adults (p. 331). Both Nardinelli (1990) and Tuttle (1999) fully develop the theory of the demand for child labor for the case of Great Britain. Although Hindman identifies factors which increased the demand for child labor in America (labor-intensive production processes, lower transaction costs for hiring entire families, more compliant and obedient workers, “nimble fingers,” and biased technological change (pp. 332-33), he does not apply them to his analysis of the various industries. Child labor reform and education are not seen as deterrents to employers in hiring children or to parents in sending their children to work during the early stages of industrialization.

Although it may not completely satisfy the appetite of the economic historian, this book will appeal to scholars in labor economics, law and economics and industrialization. Historians specializing in the history of childhood, labor history, social history and American history will want to read this book and have it on their shelves for reference. Hindman tells a story which needed to be told.

Carolyn Tuttle is presenting a paper at the 2003 Annual EHA Conference in Nashville (with Simone Wegge) entitled “The Role of Child Labor in Industrialization.” Her book, Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution (Westview, 1999), shows how technological innovation increased the demand for child labor in Great Britain.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression

Author(s):McGovern, James R.
Reviewer(s):Dighe, Ranjit S.

Published by EH.NET (February 2002)


James R. McGovern, And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001. xii + 354 pp. $69.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-275-96786-7; $24.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-275-97544-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ranjit S. Dighe, Department of Economics, State University of New York at Oswego.

James R. McGovern’s engaging new book is a social history of America in the 1930s whose main thesis is that the American people weathered the Depression Decade remarkably well, never losing their characteristic confidence and hopefulness. Although economics is not the book’s focus, the book will still be of interest to economic historians seeking a fuller picture of the response to depression and of American life in general during the 1930s.

The resilience and hopefulness of the American people in the Great Depression have been noted before. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Franklin D. Roosevelt trilogy described a nation that reflected its president’s sangfroid and confidence, taking to heart FDR’s famous line, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” An early review of Studs Terkel’s landmark oral history Hard Times called it “a huge anthem in praise of the American spirit” (Terkel, p. i). McGovern’s contribution is to give us a social history of the 1930s that places that spirit of hopefulness at its center and that emphasizes the progress that did occur during that decade. Far from being a decade of drift, McGovern argues, the 1930s continued America’s forward march, even if the country’s economic indicators did not.

The book is smartly organized by topic rather than chronologically, with twelve central chapters that are sufficiently self-contained that they can be read in any order. That flexibility is a particular virtue because the quality of the individual chapters is somewhat uneven. Because the book’s stronger chapters stand so well on their own, they are ideal as outside-reading assignments for American economic history classes and as quick refreshers for researchers trying to get a feel for 1930s America.

Although the author has clearly gotten his hands appropriately dirty with primary sources, the book’s key findings seem to come as syntheses of other research works, as is evident from the extensive endnotes and the inclusion of seventy-five books in the select bibliography of “books especially helpful to me.” This is not really a problem, since the author’s thesis is unique. Indeed, some of the book’s strongest chapters are those that rely most heavily on secondary sources. The key primary sources used are the official papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Civil Works Administration chief Harry Hopkins, numerous reports from the Federal Writers Project and photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and microfilms from a dozen-plus newspapers

Title notwithstanding, the book is really about the New Deal years of the 1930s, not the entire Depression. The Great Contraction of late 1929 to early 1933 does not fit so well with the book’s thesis about the “relative poise and ease” with which Americans confronted the worst economic catastrophe in their country’s history. McGovern himself admits in the book’s conclusion that a “more severe and longer-lasting Depression” would have severely tested the people’s resilience. Thus the Great Contraction is handled separately in the first chapter, “A Troubled Nation, 1929-1934,” which describes a nation under severe strain and desperate for a way out. While the chapter does a fine job of telling its story with primary-source quotes from people feeling the pinch of the Depression, the story is nevertheless a familiar one. Since one cannot tell this story without some discussion of the contraction’s economic causes, McGovern briefly discusses them, and manages to do so in terms that most economic historians would find reasonable. He describes the contraction as a collapse of aggregate demand brought on by a massive decline in consumer confidence, likely precipitated by the stock-market crash (a la Romer 1990) and amplified by the thousands of bank failures.

Again, while the book is a social rather than economic history of the depression years, economic historians and their students will still likely want to know how Americans coped with the country’s greatest economic catastrophe. Here McGovern does a good job of sketching the various institutions, from families and churches and communities to New Deal programs to movies and radio and magazines to urban entertainments and immigrant networks, that gave Americans strength and nourishment. McGovern properly focuses on those institutions in the 1930s not merely as coping mechanisms but as central features of American life whose evolution and various changes are essential developments in the country’s history. The book is at its best in detailing those institutions, as in the chapters on rural and small-town communities, African Americans in the South’s cotton belt, and the sporting and nightlife attractions of New York City and Chicago.

The book reaches its zenith in Chapters 8 through 10, “Seeing Tomorrow,” “Americans Go to the Movies,” and “Americans Listen at Home,” all of which would be excellent supplementary readings for an undergraduate economic history class. “Seeing Tomorrow” surveys the numerous economic advancements and innovations that did occur in the 1930s: the spread of radio, the wider use of electricity (aided by such New Deal projects as the Tennessee Valley Authority) and appliances such as refrigerators, the great dams, the great skyscrapers and bridges, the spread of commercial air travel, and, of course, the two major world’s fairs, in Chicago (1933-34) and New York (1939-40). One easily overlooks how many of America’s great landmarks were built in the 1930s, including the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder), and the Golden Gate Bridge. These landmarks were instant sensations with tourists (the still-unfinished Boulder Dam drew more visitors in 1934-35 than the Grand Canyon!) and with the rest of the public, who eagerly read about them in picture magazines such as Life (which also made its debut in the 1930s).

Chapters 9 and 10, on the movies and radio, are delightful and grounded in subtle yet convincing economic explanations of the trends in both media. Motion pictures and radio were two of the country’s rare economic success stories in the 1930s. The growing popularity of Hollywood movies and national radio broadcasts gave Americans a common (pop) culture and a greater sense of connectedness. The 1930s are almost universally acknowledged as a golden age of Hollywood, but its films in 1930-34 and 1935-39 were of distinctly different types. The earlier period was the heyday of the “kiss kiss” and “bang bang” movies (think Mae West and Jimmy Cagney), whereas the later period saw a decided turn toward more wholesome and uplifting fare, as exemplified in the films of Frank Capra. McGovern makes a convincing case that the shift occurred because the public voted with its dollars against the sensational and for the inspirational. Chapter 10 makes much the same argument for consumer sovereignty on the part of the American radio public, who demanded, and got, similarly affirming family fare that would help them maintain a positive attitude in the face of economic adversity. In both cases we see an interesting endogenous relationship, in which the public demands positive messages in its entertainment media, gets them, and finds comfort and inspiration in them.

Another chapter that I suspect will be of interest to economic historians is Chapter 6, “Rural Worlds Confirmed,” which is devoted mostly to debunking John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Although Steinbeck’s classic is one of my favorite books, and one I have even used as a supplementary reading in my economic history class, McGovern argues effectively that the typical experience of the 315,000-plus “Okies” who migrated to California in the 1930s was not nearly so dire as that of Steinbeck’s fictitious yet archetypal Joad family. Many Oklahomans had already moved to California, under better conditions, in the 1920s, and many of the 1930s migrants were able to draw on the resources of already-established Okie communities in California (Merle Haggard’s Bakersfield comes immediately to mind). Moreover, far from finding nothing but dismal migrant farm work, the majority of Okies seem to have eventually experienced upward mobility in California, and chose to settle down in a single place, even if it meant a temporary stint on relief. To be sure, the misery and exploitation that Steinbeck described was the reality of many of the new arrivals in California, especially the Mexican immigrants, but California was hardly the dead end that his book implied.

McGovern is less sure-footed, and sometimes tendentious, when he ventures out of the realm of social history and into the areas of political and labor history. Chapters 2 and 3, “The President” and “The New Deal,” seem almost to have been written by two different people. Chapter 2 is a glowing tribute to the inspirational character and personality of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas Chapter 3 is a near-indictment of the New Deal for failing to provide adequate relief or sufficiently vigorous anti-poverty programs. (And yet the concluding chapter strongly praises the New Deal’s relief and reform programs, as well as the “responsive and innovative government under Roosevelt.”) Taken together, the two chapters underscore McGovern’s theme of a confident and hopeful people who prevail over extreme hardship, but they could have been organized better. Moreover, McGovern seems to overstate the New Deal’s failings so as to strengthen his story of American perseverance.

While the New Deal obviously fell well short of producing a full economic recovery, it did provide substantial relief to millions of Americans, a fact that McGovern seems to soft-pedal. McGovern presents the high official unemployment figures for the late 1930s as evidence of the inadequacy of New Deal relief, yet he does not mention the “Darby-corrected” unemployment rates (the Darby correction is to follow current practice and count government relief workers as employed), which lower the late-1930s unemployment rates drastically and suggest that the New Deal provided a lot of employment relief. The Darby-corrected unemployment rates in 1937 and 1940, for example, are in the single digits, more than five percentage points lower than the official unemployment rates of 14.3 percent and 14.6 percent. Although the American social safety net of the late 1930s was not without some gaping holes, the New Deal did mark a sweeping regime change, moving the United States once and for all into the world of welfare-state capitalism. Even though Roosevelt never embraced socialism, aspects of the New Deal were clearly socialistic, as Peter Temin (1989) has noted. In fact, by 1938 federal spending on employment programs was a larger share of GDP in the United States (6.3%) than in Britain, France, Germany, or Sweden (Lipset and Marks 2000, p. 286).

If Chapter 3 seems to take a left-wing approach to the New Deal and its shortcomings, several of the subsequent chapters seem to approach matters from the opposite end of the political spectrum, telling a rosy story of American exceptionalism based on individualism and contentment. The chapter on “American Workers,” for example, seems to go out of its way to minimize the gains in union membership and strength in the 1930s. McGovern cites the sixteen percent unionization rate as evidence that very few workers “regarded the situation to be so threatening to warrant union membership” (p. 275), without noting that the unionization rate of nonfarm workers was much higher (about twenty-nine percent). He attributes the union setbacks in the severe “Roosevelt recession” of 1937-38 not so much to the recession but to a general disenchantment with unions, and gives the misleading impression that the unions’ late-1930s setbacks were the beginning of the end for them, when in fact their gains would continue through the mid-to-late 1940s (when some two-thirds of factory workers belonged to unions). Most egregious of all is the following slam at FSA photographer Dorothea Lange, whose harrowing photographs (including the classic “Destitute Pea Picker in California, Migrant Mother of 6″) are among the most enduring representations of the Depression: “Although middle-class intellectuals like Lange showed a great capacity to empathize with poor folks living on the edge, they seem less well endowed to depict an abiding personal and cultural strength in their subjects. To do so, of course, would imply that they could begin to help themselves” (pp. 105-06). Thankfully, such snideness is relatively rare, and McGovern seems to contradict that statement in the book’s conclusion, when he says Lange underscored her subjects’ “real courage” as outstanding. (That assessment seems closer to the mark: Lange told an interviewer that the most important things about her subjects were “their pride, their strength, their spirit” [Davis, p. 49]).

Ultimately, such flaws are vastly outweighed by the book’s contributions. Beyond fulfilling his goal of portraying an America that maintained a sense of hopefulness and progress during hard times, McGovern has written a fascinating account of a vibrant American cultural and social life that (as William Faulkner might have said) not only endured but prevailed in the Depression Decade. Together with the books cited below, plus Irving Bernstein’s great trilogy on the labor and political history of the period and William J. Barber’s slender volumes on Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s economic policy-making, McGovern’s book belongs on a list of essential reading about the American economy and society in the Great Depression.

(James R. McGovern is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of West Florida.)


Bernstein, Michael A. (1987) The Great Depression: Delayed Recovery and Economic Change in America, 1929-1939. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Darby, Michael (1976). “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941,” Journal of Political Economy 84: 1-16.

Davis, Keith F. (1995) The Photographs of Dorothea Lange. Kansas City: Hallmark Cards, Inc.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Gary Marks (2000). It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: W.W. Norton.

Romer, Christina D. (1990). “The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 105: 597-623.

Temin, Peter (1989). Lessons from the Great Depression. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Terkel, Studs (1970). Hard Times. New York: Avon Books.

Ranjit S. Dighe is Assistant Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Oswego. He is the author of several papers on American labor markets in the Great Depression, as well as The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (2002, forthcoming).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII