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Copper for America: The United States Copper Industry from Colonial Times to the 1990s

Author(s):Hyde, Charles K.
Reviewer(s):Burt, Roger

Published by EH.NET (August

, 1999)

Charles K. Hyde. Copper for America: The United States Copper Industry from

Colonial Times to the 1990s Tucson: University of Arizona Press,

1998. xvii + 267 pp. Tables, maps, notes, and index. $40 (cloth), ISBN

0-8165-1817 3.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Roger Burt, School of Historical,

Political and Sociological Studies, University of Exeter.

Much Needed and Overdue

For too long, mining has been the lost relation of American economic history–

rarely featured in its principal journals and hardly noticed in most

textbooks. This is largely because there have been few general/national

histories of the industry to set the parameters of the subject. In this volume,

Hyde begins to fill that vacuum. It is not a research monograph, but rather a

synthesis of the wide-ranging secondary material that has accumulated on this

subject during recent years. That material has been produced largely on a

regional basis, principally by western historians, and Hyde adopts a similar

regional structure for the book. It starts with a much-needed review of the

early foundations of the industry in the northern east-coast states and

Tennessee, and goes on to follow the western progression of the industry

through Michigan,

to Montana

, Arizona and elsewhere in the West. The story is at first one of rapid

expansion and growth, projecting America into world leadership in the industry

by the last decades of the nineteenth century, but then of gradual and

continuous contraction and decline in the face of increasing overseas

competition. The last two chapters of the book deal with these twentieth

century developments in the industry and also provide an overview of the role

of U.S. multinational mining companies in developing new mines in Africa,

South America and elsewhere.

Throughout the book, the author’s approach is very much that of the

entrepreneurial or business historian, looking at the processes of expansion

and contraction in terms of the promoters, investors and corporate enterprises

that managed them. This is not its only context–the notorious labor problems

that beset many of the mining districts in the years around the turn of the

century also receive careful attention as do many other aspects of the

industry’s economic and social development – but is a central theme and will

particularly recommend the book to a business history audience.

At a general level, the book makes an extremely important and strategic

contribution. Although there is now an extensive literature on the

history of the non-ferrous metals industries, it is all rather specialized and

localized and there have been very few attempts at this kind of national

overview. Hyde has given the subject exactly what it needs to project it onto a

wider stage and it is

to be hoped that others will attempt similar studies of other sectors of the

industry. Since they all share so much that is common in terms of technology,


managerial expertise, finance, etc. this might also result in a much-needed

single study of the sector as a whole.

However, at a more detailed level, there are several slightly puzzling and

troubling problems with the book. Firstly, on working through it,

there is really relatively little attention given to the declared aims,

set out in the introduction, to compare and contrast the character and

development of the three principal copper mining districts, and to integrate

changes at the regional level with changes in the national and global copper

industries. Similarly, the suggestion in the introduction that the book might

consider the interesting question of whether managerial short-sightedness and

incompetence contributed to the industry’s decline, never really materializes,

notwithstanding the presentation of a range of evidence to support such a

discussion. It remains very closely focused throughout on the narrative of

regional business history. Secondly, for a book that is essentially a synthesis

of existing work, the sources are sometimes limited, closely drawn and perhaps

a little dated.

For example, having referred in the Preface to Larry Langton’s Cradle to

Grave (Oxford, 1991)–undoubtedly the most important general work on the

Michigan industry to appear in recent years–no reference is made to it in the

footnotes to the chapters dealing with that region. It is almost as though

what we have here was conceived and constructed in separate parts at a

considerably earlier date and only recently assembled into the current whole.

But all of these are minor quibbles on what, overall, is re ally a very

excellent and worthwhile piece of work. In particular, it will fulfill the

strategic function of bringing more closely together the historians of mining

and smelting with the mainstream of business history, to the considerable

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative