Ideas | Craig Fehrman

How factories built nations and lifestyles

Lowell, MA - 10/7/1980: Victoria Wyderka, 75, has been working at Wannalancit Mills, a cotton mill in Lowell, Mass., for over 40 years, Oct. 7, 1980. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff) --- BGPA Reference: 170309_EF_019
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Victoria Wyderka, 75, working at Wannalancit Mills, a cotton mill in Lowell, Mass. Pictured on Oct. 7, 1980.

The consultant had bad news for the Lowell factory owner: “Your old buildings. . . are of no value now.”

This message didn’t come in the 1950s, when the city’s final mills were closing, but a half-century earlier. Yet the owner ignored it, choosing not to invest or innovate but to squeeze out every last dollar of profit.

That story is one of many in Joshua Freeman’s new book “Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World.” Freeman, a history professor at Queens College, traces the rise of factories, especially the biggest ones, and how they made our lifestyles possible. It’s a book that ends in China, with Foxconn pumping out iPhones. But some of its most important moments come in Massachusetts, a state that pioneered vital techniques in manufacturing, until one day it didn’t.


Ideas reached Freeman by phone at his apartment in Manhattan.

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Below is an edited excerpt.

One of your big points in “Behemoth” is that while we talk a lot about factory jobs, especially in election years, we don’t really understand them.

For hundreds of years, literally, there was a wide fascination and knowledge of what happened inside factories. But today we rarely see that. A car shows up. A phone shows up. People take it for granted.

Consider the Carrier factory that President Trump visited, to great fanfare. There was never a real look inside that factory. What did its workers make? How did they make it? Even with the question of their jobs moving to Mexico, you’d hear it was because of lower wages but not much more.

Why was Massachusetts so innovative in its approach American manufacturing?

Before the factories in Lowell and elsewhere, manufacturing in the United States was done in a smaller and simpler way. Massachusetts was the big bang. It started with a lot of money from Boston merchants. They drew on British technology, but went beyond it.


They also developed a remarkable model of hiring young girls from the New England countryside, avoiding the problems of child labor. Suddenly you could take a bale of cotton in one door of the factory, and it would come out another a finished roll of cloth.

That time at the forefront of the manufacturing economy were fleeting. What happened?

They stopped being innovative. As long as the Boston investors got steady returns, they were happy to leave things alone. But even in the 1840s you could see problems. There was more competition. There was industry developing in the South, with a lot of it funded by those same Boston merchants and drawing on lessons from their New England mills. In Massachusetts they responded by pressing the workers harder, and the young women started walking away.

By the end of the 19th century they were still making money, but they were antiquated. The New England mills started closing in the early 20th century, and the Great Depression killed off most of remaining ones. Basically within 100 years, the whole cycle was over.

The book examines factories from the 1930s Soviet Union to China today. Does this cycle still repeat?

There tends to be a common pattern. The big factory arrives, transforms the community, and brings in huge numbers of people. It often begins by being very exploitative, though that was less true in Massachusetts. Then you get pressure for better labor conditions; other factories start to develop. So there’s a period of milking what’s there, of letting things run down as costs rise, and in the end the company will often build another factory somewhere else.

This cycle leaves the communities a wreck. In a one-industry town like Lowell, when that core industry closes there’s nothing left. We’re seeing this all over the world — in northern France, northern England, even northern China. Rust Belt isn’t just an American term anymore.

Another key American location was Detroit. Readers know about Henry Ford and his assembly lines, but what about his reliance on the standardization of parts?


It’s hard to imagine what things were like before the standardization of parts. It was a breakthrough for humankind. Prior to the 1820s, when complicated things were made — a gun, a clock — they were essentially custom-made. There might be a standard template, but to get two gears to work together you needed skilled workers to make the parts, then assemble and adjust them, maybe file them to fit.

Only in the 1840s did you get this idea of making each part exactly the same. This approach was pushed by the military; in Massachusetts, the Springfield Armory was an early pioneer.

But then you could manufacture stuff by grabbing a part from a giant pile. You could repair stuff by slipping in a new part. It made the assembly line possible. It required a lot of highly skilled workers to develop the machinery to make the parts, but it lowered the skill of workers needed to assemble the final product.

Those new jobs came with downsides. You quote one worker from that era: “If I keep putting on Nut No. 86 for about 86 more days, I will be Nut No. 86 in the Pontiac bughouse.”

Fordism looks great if you’re the buyer of a Model T. But if you’re the person making the Model T, it’s different. The division of labor is extreme — one simplified task, over and over, paced by the assembly line. The combination of repetition and of not controlling your own bodily function means you really are an extension of a machine.

It is mentally and physically grueling. In modern plants the physical labor may be helped by automation, but the repetitiveness makes these very difficult jobs.

Why should we care about these jobs?

Because there’s a big cost to our comforts. We don’t think about the processes by which our things are made. Factory labor has historically been exploitative — harsh work, often done by young people at low pay — and that is still very much the case today. We’re also losing a sense of the ingenuity behind our comforts. There’s something really beautiful about a production system that pours out Chevrolets or laptops or sheet rock. They are testaments to our collective creativity and achievement.

Craig Fehrman is a freelance writer.