How Factories Made the Modern World

March 16, 2018

Professor Joshua Freeman's Behemoth "should be required reading for all Americans" said The New York Times Book Review.

Distinguished Professor Joshua B. Freeman’s (GC/Queens, History) new book, Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, “should be required reading for all Americans,” The New York Times Book Review said in a recent front-page review.
The book gives a sweeping history of large-scale manufacturing around the world: from its 18th-century origins in Derby, England, where a 300-worker factory produced silk thread; through the Henry Ford era in the United States; to contemporary manufacturing in places like China’s Foxconn City, which has been plagued by reports of sweatshop conditions and assembly-worker suicides.
Behemoth lays out “two centuries of factory production all over the world in ways that are accessible, cogent, occasionally riveting and thoroughly new,” the Times wrote in its review. “The history of large factories, as Freeman outlines it, is the history of the modern world and most everything we see, experience, and touch.”
Freeman launched the book last month at The Graduate Center at an event sponsored by the Ph.D. Program in History and the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC). He spoke with Steven Greenhouse, a labor columnist who frequently writes for the Times, about how early factory owners favored unskilled workers who could be easily controlled.
These factories overwhelmingly employed children, some as young as seven years old. “Assembling a workforce of this size was a new problem,” Freeman said. “Factory owners liked kids because they’re extraordinarily cheap, they’re extraordinarily [easy to intimidate], and in many cases they’re coerced to be there ¾ sometimes by their parents, who are desperate for their income.”
In early 19th century England, working-class men who opposed the onset of industrialization would engage in “machine wrecking” protests ¾ one of the only forms of resistance available during a time when workers lacked the right of free assembly and to vote. These protests were met with forceful counterattacks by the British government: some protesters were deported to Australia, and others were executed.
In the United States, Alexander Hamilton was an early proponent of manufacturing, yet not everyone was eager to emulate England. “He had a lot of critics who felt that what distinguished us from the Old World is precisely the kind of independence and autonomy that would be undermined by the factory system,” Freeman said.
Freeman chronicles “the pros and cons of factory work with a scholar’s even gaze,” the Times wrote. He shows that developing countries have long turned to manufacturing, despite its dangers and deplorable conditions, as a way to escape the poverty inherent in an agrarian economy. Foxconn is not an anomaly but a continuation of this trend. And the cycle continues in countries like Ethiopia, where the manufacturers of Ivanka Trump’s shoes recently relocated from China, seeking an even cheaper workforce.
Freeman’s previous books include American Empire, 1945-2000: The Rise of a Global Power, The Democratic Revolution at HomeWorking-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II, and In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933-1966.