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Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of American Building, 1900-1930

Author(s):Slaton, Amy E.
Reviewer(s):McSwain, James B.

Published by EH.NET (October 2001)

Amy E. Slaton, Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of American

Building, 1900-1930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xiii

+ 255 pp. $42.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-8018-6559-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James B. McSwain, Department of History, Tuskegee


Amy E. Slaton of Drexel University explores the cultural forces at work in

the modernization of plant construction. Specifically, she examines the use of

reinforced concrete to build manufacturing facilities and attendant

engineering skills and testing procedures, as well as claims of

rationalization, efficiency, and scientific underpinnings, and arguments for

social beneficence, worker happiness, and productivity. Her thesis is that the

functionalist reinforced-concrete factory of the 1900-30 era reflects

“commercial, architectural, and technological change” spun off from the

intensification of hierarchical arrangements of labor and management. She

finds networks of educators, engineers, and industrialists that supported and

strengthened class, ethnic, and gender perceptions in business and

construction affairs. While ostensibly offering scientific objectivity to

clients, these men consolidated and exchanged “knowledge systems” which they

used to elevate their “occupational and cultural” status.

The genesis of concrete testing and inspection was in a nineteenth-century

interest in controlling raw materials, which by 1900 had been incorporated

into university engineering programs. Materials testing laboratories found in

concrete a commodity in great demand after 1890 for commercial construction.

Lab instructors subsequently trained engineers and technicians who took

testing methods to the public. Instructors also wrote specifications for

concrete construction and sold their expertise to the construction trades

through consulting. While the construction industry in general moved towards

mechanization and simplification of labor to cut costs, advocates of testing

claimed their students should be exempted from this trend. As graduates of a

university curriculum in engineering, they possessed, instructors insisted,

the intuitive knowledge or insight to perform what would otherwise be regarded

as highly routine testing procedures.

According to Slaton, instructors consistently identified “native-born white

men” as the most suitable candidates for training. Working assiduously to

develop equipment and procedures for evaluating brick, paving materials, farm

structures, masonry and cement, instructors also tried to persuade industries

of the value of testing and evaluation of materials but only if in the hands

of college-trained engineers who possessed practical knowledge, understanding

of theory, and experience-sharpened intuition. These trained engineers were

agents of rationalization who could lower costs, produce reliable results, and

guarantee efficiency.

Slaton contends that through “published standards and specifications for

concrete” materials, specialists and university engineering instructors

extended their “hierarchical occupational vision” into the commercial world.

Standards upheld the notion that testing and inspection had to be done by

trained technicians. They also served as means to supervise construction

tasks, which complemented contemporary agendas for industrial administration.

By controlling testing and inspection of concrete on the job site, standards

and specifications not only assured material quality but also made

construction procedures routine. They were the systematic application of

“assessment techniques” that made premium scientific knowledge an “affordable

tool” for builders.

Slaton also argues that written prescriptions for concrete construction

established reasonable expectations of performance and quality in specific

categories such as set time, tensile strength, and volume consistency.

Standards assigned responsibility to various elements in the workforce

hierarchy, reinforcing skill distinctions, keeping testing out of the hands of

unskilled laborers, and preserving occupational opportunities for “onsite”

technicians and engineers. Of course, in as much as knowledge of what was

acceptable in concrete use was tentative and cumulative, professional

engineering organizations made routine, not the outcome of tests, but the

methodology. Predictably, they emphasized that testing demanded competent,

intelligent, and reliable operators, which meant university-trained people,

who could thereby guarantee the “usefulness” and economy of quality control.

Slaton argues that, despite the rhetoric about tester qualifications, concrete

specifications were ambiguous, subjective, imprecise, and inexact,

undercutting the claim that applied science and technology in concrete

construction required “occupational pedigree” and personal character.

In addition Slaton is interested in how knowledge of concrete was applied on

the job site to construct “utilitarian factory buildings.” The initial

challenge for companies that put up such buildings was to underline their

expertise in concrete but market these skills as affordable and competitive

commodities. The next hurdle was to sell consumers on the notion that

reinforced concrete buildings were efficient. Builders pointed out that the

concrete factory designs were uniform, minimizing “design expenses,” which

made them like many other “mass-produced artifacts” of the 1900-1930 period.

Firms most successful in this market were turn-key operations that combined

under one roof design, planning, engineering, and construction. These

companies streamlined and standardized construction methods, reducing them to

site preparation, digging foundations, building and pouring forms, surface

finishing, and installation of non-concrete fixtures. Various systems

appeared, such as the Kahn or Hinchman-Renton, that featured pre-assembled

columns, beams, girders, and reinforcement elements, which were trucked to the

site or cast on the lot, and then hoisted into place. This rationalization of

production and construction methods required less skilled labor and so cut

costs. This led inevitably to mechanization of concrete-mixing and

portability, so that suppliers could guarantee a steady flow of large amounts

of wet concrete to the job site. These steps Slaton found in the business

conduct of Aberthaw Construction Company (Maine), which she uses as a case

study to illustrate how a specific firm maintained “meticulous workplace

control” of labor and materials and advertised this as progressive business


Slaton concludes that the minimalist aesthetic of reinforced concrete

buildings was a deliberate design choice. It arose from the hierarchical

social system fostered by university instructors, their engineering students,

and construction management. Standardized concrete construction was allegedly

scientific, uniform like the standards and specifications issued to guide

concrete use in building, and “streamlined” by modern, progressive engineering

techniques. The uniformity of concrete factories reflected a contemporary

concern that workers function in an orderly atmosphere. The functionalist,

utilitarian design of the concrete building also mirrored the accelerating

trend of mass production and consumption, which subordinated everything,

including aesthetics, to its advancement. Functionalist design was, Slaton

contends, a deliberate rejection of “conspicuous waste,” and an embrace of

blanket truthfulness, austerity, simplicity, and “realism.” It provided

workers with a superior “physical environment” that fostered health, morale,

and contentment.

Slaton’s work is a sophisticated marriage of sociology and history. Historians

interested in the intersection of social factors such as gender or race, in an

industrial context, with professionalism, progressive-era mentalites, and

construction practices will enjoy Slaton’s complex and daring analysis of

their interactions, conflicts, and syntheses. There is an apparent dissonance

or disjunction in her work, but this comes from a novel meshing of seemingly

discontinuous or unconnected themes and problems.

I applaud Slaton for what she has attempted. Her book has many interesting

insights and makes original connections among technology, business, and social

values. Even so, I have reservations. I read the work hoping to learn about

concrete as a construction material, including its history, physical

characteristics, attractiveness as a substitute for steel, ongoing research

into its uses, development of standards, and the technical problems

surrounding its application to engineering difficulties. Slaton touches on

some of these categories, and explores them to the degree required by her

narrative. But ultimately, for her, examining concrete, particularly concrete

commercial factory construction, is only a platform from which to develop

complaints about how male engineers, university instructors, and construction

management fabricated circular arguments to justify university-educated,

technically accredited males dominating the industry. They made testing and

quality control routine, but resisted the logic that their own scientifically

refined, professional oversight could also be reduced to easily learned steps

that untrained laborers could perform.

Slaton insists that concrete specifications and construction standards were

ambiguous and subjective, proving that the authors of same were desperate to

salvage their professional worth in what should have otherwise been an

egalitarian exercise that women, uneducated workers, and the technically

deficient could undertake with equally acceptable outcomes. Slaton found talk

of character, reliability, and intuition as evidence that consumers and

management could rely upon university-trained engineers to turn out quality

concrete construction, to be self-serving, unconvincing, and prejudicial, all

blatantly contradictory to an otherwise modernist rhetoric of efficiency,

rationality, and standardization.

What I hoped to learn from her work is related to my research into municipal

engineering in the Gulf South, where city officials faced problems about

substituting concrete for brick in sewer and freshwater facilities, and fears

about the reliability of concrete. They sought the opinions of consultants

such as Rudolph Hering, or city engineers such as B.M. Harrod or Linus W.

Brown of New Orleans about the truthfulness or completeness of concrete

suppliers’ information brochures and manuals, and so forth, and sometimes

wrestled in court over the political and legal consequences of their decisions

or mistakes. I am not sure yet that Slaton has helped me with my parochial

research interests, but neither did she retard my efforts. For those astute

enough to benefit from her complicated work, she supplies many provocative

ties between otherwise seemingly unconnected topics.

James B. McSwain is author of “Fire-Hazards and Protection of Property:

Municipal Regulation of the Storage and Supply of Fuel Oil in Mobile, Alabama,

1894-1910,” (forthcoming 2002) Journal of Urban History.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII