Practically from the start of industrial manufacturing, gawkers appeared to marvel at the sight. The cotton mills of sooty Manchester were an obligatory stop for every clued-in visitor to that city. In the summer of 1915, Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory in Michigan, the first with a continuous assembly line, drew three to four hundred visitors a day. So prominent a feature of the industrial landscape were factory tourists that Diego Rivera painted them into his mural sequence Detroit Industry (1932–1933). In one panel, the throngs at Ford’s River Rouge plant (young, old, women, men, Dick Tracy among them) look on, their mouths downturned, as the line of chassis—pierced by steering wheels and ministered to by bent-over, jumpsuited workers—rolls by. In 1971, 243,000 people visited River Rouge. Later that decade, the Commerce Department’s USA Plant Visits, 1977–78, a compendium of factories that offered tours, ran to 153 pages.
Although American manufacturing output today is near a historic high, the percentage of manufacturing jobs drifted steadily downward in the decades after World War II, and then in 2000 plunged sharply. Factories currently employ less than 8 percent of the American workforce, a consequence of offshoring as well as automation. Perhaps because there is not much romance in watching robots go about their day, the factory tour pickings are now more meager. In the Chicago area in the 1960s, you could have seen how steel, furniture, newspapers, pottery, automobile parts, hosiery, and, yes, sausages were made. Today, the only factory tours left in the city are epicurean: craft distilleries, artisanal chocolateries, and a popcorn factory. If you want to have a look at manufacturing of the Make-America-Great-Again variety in Illinois, you will need to drive nearly two and a half hours to Moline, where the John Deere company, headquartered there since 1848, still provides free tours of the harvester works.
With nostalgia for manufacturing jobs now thoroughly weaponized in American politics, Joshua Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World is timely. Freeman, a historian of American labor and the author of American Empire, the Penguin history of the post–World War II United States, takes as his subject huge factories, the behemoths of his title: River Rouge; the Soviet steel complex Magnitogorsk, east of the Urals; and China’s Foxconn City, with its hundreds of thousands of workers, arguably the largest factory ever in operation. Focusing on these giants, Freeman suggests, reveals what happens when concentrated production and economies of scale are taken to the showiest extreme. It also helps to explain the hold that factories have had on the imagination over the past 250 years: the promise (largely delivered on) that industrialization would lift billions out of poverty,…
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