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The American Reaper: Harvesting Networks and Technology, 1830-1910
Published by EH.Net (November 2012)
Gordon M. Winder, The American Reaper: Harvesting Networks and Technology, 1830-1910. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012. xiii + 257 pp. $120 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4094-2461-1.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Finlay, Department of History, Armstrong Atlantic State University.
Employing methodologies from historical geography, economic sociology, business history, and other subdisciplines, Gordon Winder’s The American Reaper is a solid and significant contribution to the history of American grain harvesting implements. Winder offers several revisionist challenges to standard accounts, both those that have treated Cyrus McCormick as a heroic inventor, as well as those that have touted the International Harvester Corporation (IHC, formed in 1902) as a path-breaking model of a vertically integrated and internationally dominant firm.
A professor of economic geography at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Winder introduces the notion of “product systems” (p. 46) to explain how a wide range of innovators, manufacturers, patent lawyers, consumers, and others formed the networks that fostered the growth of this industry. Reaper manufacturers forged licensing agreements, subcontracted with suppliers and branch factories, shared expert personnel and innovations, hired widely dispersed sales agents, and formed alliances to protect patent advantages in order to remain competitive. Winder’s interest in geography is also important, as both his maps and his narrative highlight the spatial relationships among the many participants in this decentralized marketplace. By focusing on smaller scale and under-capitalized manufacturers – many of which operated only seasonally – Winder offers good evidence for an alternative to the standard narrative of a triumph of big business and mass production. In 1872, even the largest factory, McCormick’s in Chicago, relied on 109 different suppliers of screws, castings, paints, and many other parts and supplies.
The industry reached a turning point in the 1880s, which Winder labels as “breaking through to mass production” (p. 105). The emergence of steel as a raw material enabled McCormick and other firms to gain control of the shop floor, breaking the power of skilled iron molders. Less costly employees could operate the new machinery and nevertheless deliver products that had competitive advantages over those of smaller manufacturers. Some firms like McCormick inched slowly in the direction of vertical integration. Others, including its main competitor, the Deering Harvester Company, moved more aggressively to acquire hardwood forests in Missouri, pine forests in Mississippi, coal fields in Kentucky, iron mines in Minnesota, and blast furnaces in Chicago. Under some pressure from the rise in steel prices that followed creation of the United States Steel Company, McCormick and Deering agreed to merge as the IHC in 1902, but only after a long and contentious process.
Another feature of The American Reaper is its transnational approach. Admitting that his title is a bit of a “misnomer” (p. 33), Winder devotes considerable attention to the cross-border networks that linked firms and individuals in both Canada and the United States. Further, he highlights how Canadian firms like Massey Manufacturing Co. and A. Harris Son and Co. (which merged as Massey-Harris in 1892) carved out a considerable portion of the harvesting machine marketplace. Winder also addresses the industry’s many impacts in Europe and around the world. Although foreign sales never amounted to a large percentage of the industry’s bottom line, the larger point is that reaper firms valued their international role and did not feel constrained by national boundaries. McCormick was again a leader, beginning with a successful splash at London’s Crystal Place Exhibition in 1851. From then on, the company made competing at world’s fairs and similar events a priority, actively networking with foreign governments and agricultural societies that also promoted agricultural modernization through new technologies. Winder concludes that the reaper was an “iconic product of ... social construction activity,” the result of “active engagement with the internationalizing culture of modernity” (p. 173).
One of Winder’s chapters is particularly innovative: a thorough analysis of 361 letters among the correspondence of New York reaper manufacturer Dayton Morgan during the year 1867. That topic might seem arcane, but Winder successfully employs Bruno Latour’s writings on the sociology and geography of science to demonstrate how businessmen, like scientists, learned to trust information originating far away. It also shows how business networks actually operated, and it notably highlights how public and private investments in railways, telegraphs, and a reliable postal service provided the infrastructure for people like Morgan to build trusting relationships among suppliers, salesmen, patent attorneys, and other actors in the complex world of manufacturing and selling farm equipment. In an industry where personal relationships were vital, yet the distances among the participants often substantial, Winder shows how Morgan’s voluminous correspondence with allies and his frequent travels across the “industrial countryside” (p. 189) enabled him to collect debts, carve out sales territories, and win enough patent disputes to remain competitive in this challenging marketplace.
Despite its strengths, the book has a few nagging weaknesses. Although his case is solid and convincing, Winder struggles to make the narrative engaging. A good deal of the quantitative information presented is trivial and difficult to weave into a lively prose; these data might have been left in footnotes and tables. The book’s roots as a 1991 dissertation are also evident, with many redundant passages, repeated themes, and slightly dated historiographical points that seem aimed at a major professor.
In sum, The American Reaper is unlikely (especially at its cover price) to become a bestseller, but specialists will benefit from both its important information and its thoughtful analytical insights. This is an important contribution to the economic history of American agriculture and the business history of manufacturing firms, and it offers a clear explanation of how complicated local, national, and transnational networks operated in one of the era’s most important industries.
Mark Finlay is Professor of History at Armstrong Atlantic State University. His publications include Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security (Rutgers University Press, 2009) and several articles on the history of the agricultural sciences and technology. He is currently working on an environmental history of the Georgia coast. firstname.lastname@example.org
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