Industrialism in the Twentieth Century

views updated

Industrialism in the Twentieth Century

The scale of industrial enterprises in the United States increased during the early years of the twentieth century, making the American workplace very different from that of the preceding century. During the period of the Industrial Revolution known as the Gilded Age (the era of industrialization from the early 1860s to the turn of the century in which a few wealthy individuals gained tremendous power and influence; see Chapter 5), manufacturers in the largest industries, such as steel and oil refining, were pushed aside by enormous new factory complexes sometimes employing fifteen thousand to twenty thousand workers. These new plants produced automobiles, farm machinery, electrical equipment, textiles, and many other goods.

During the twentieth century the nature of manufacturing gradually changed. American consumers had more money to spend and wanted to be able to choose from a variety of products. To remain competitive, corporations had to respond to consumers' desires. Gradually, in the last decades of the century, the heavy industries such as steel and auto manufacturing went into a slow decline, and the U.S. economy passed into a postindustrial era—a time marked by the lessened importance of manufacturing and increased importance of service industries such as food and custodial services, health, finance, recreation, engineering, and computers.

Words to Know

antitrust laws:
Laws opposing or regulating trusts or similar business monopolies.
The operation and manufacture of aircraft.
conveyor belt:
A moving belt that carries materials from one place to another.
A period of drastic decline in the economy.
A legal process in which a borrower who does not make payments on a mortgage or loan is deprived of the mortgaged property.
gross national product (GNP):
The total of all goods and services produced each year.
labor union:
An organization of workers formed to protect and further their mutual interests by bargaining as a group with their employers over wages, working conditions, and benefits.
An economic doctrine that opposes government regulation of commerce and industry beyond the minimum necessary.
machine tool:
A machine that shapes solid materials.
A worker skilled in operating machine tools.
mass production:
The manufacture of goods in quantity by using machines and standardized designs and parts.
New Deal:
A set of legislative programs and policies for economic recovery and social reform initiated in the 1930s during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A fixed sum paid regularly, usually as a retirement benefit.
postindustrial era:
A time marked by the lessened importance of manufacturing and increased importance of service industries.
The amount of work someone can do in a set amount of time.
Machines that automatically perform routine, often complex, tasks.
An element of ownership of a corporation that has been divided up into shares that can be bought and sold.
stock market:
A system for trade in companies, ventures, and other investments through the buying and selling of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, limited partnerships, and other securities.

Efficiency management

By the turn of the century, the use of advanced machines and technology dominated factories even more than it had in the nineteenth century. Machines were designed so that workers with little training and experience could operate them. Since they were hiring more unskilled labor, factories needed more management to oversee the work process. To remain competitive, they needed to keep their costs low and their productivity (the amount of work they could get done in a set amount of time) high.

In the late nineteenth century, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915), a machinist (someone skilled in operating machine tools, which are machines used to cut or shape metals) was working as the foreman, or overseer, of work crews at a large Philadelphia machine shop. Taylor studied all the steps accomplished on the work floor, and then tried to find ways cut down on the number of steps in order to increase the productivity of the workers. At first the workers resisted Taylor's efforts, but eventually he won their support. He began publishing essays about his scientific analysis of the individual steps involved in cutting metal most effectively and about incentives (something that moves someone into action) for workers. In 1903 he combined these interests in an essay presented to mechanical engineers that would stand as his most complete report on scientific management. This publication began to receive widespread attention among other industries, and by the 1910s, it had become the basis of a new movement known as scientific management, or Taylorism.

Under Taylor's scientific management principles, managers first studied a job and paid special attention to the minimum number of necessary steps needed to complete the task. Each step was then analyzed to determine the most time-saving means of performing it. Although workers who could not finish a step in the allowed time were in danger of losing their jobs, the primary reason for the laborers to perform well was money. Taylor argued that managers should determine a standard day's output from an excellent worker and then set up pay incentives to reward workers for meeting those standards.

Taylor believed that a worker should never have to think about what he or she was doing. All tasks should be repetitive and automatic, with every movement and motion having a specific purpose. Under the Taylor system, all thinking in the workplace would be done by management, which would then assign the tasks. The ideal worker would perform his task with little or no need for brainwork. New types of record keeping and inspection were developed to measure the workers' production. The tests to determine productivity were scientific. Managers would use a stopwatch rather than judging for themselves how long a task was taking. Specific movements were counted. Nothing was to be left to the individual judgment of managers.

Labor union organizers did not like scientific management, arguing that it was simply an attempt to give the managers more control over the workforce. A labor union is an organization of workers formed to protect and further their mutual interests by bargaining as a group with their employers over wages, working conditions, and benefits. Craft workers, people who were skilled in producing things, tried to maintain some control over their work, but this became more and more difficult. Under the division of labor imposed by the Taylor system, each worker performed only a small part of the work needed to create a product.

Henry Ford and mass production

Automobile designer and mechanic Henry Ford (1863–1947) was using some of Taylor's efficiency principles to build a car industry beginning in 1903. From childhood, Ford had displayed a marked mechanical aptitude. Though his father wanted him to be a farmer, like himself, Ford left the farm in 1891 for an engineering job in Detroit, Michigan. In 1899, with the support of a group of investors, he established the Detroit Automobile Company, the first company organized in Detroit for the manufacture of autos. The company turned out twelve unreliable vehicles and went out of business in the fall of 1900. Ford began building successful racing cars, and after a couple of failed attempts to get an automobile manufacturing company established, the Ford Motor Company opened its doors in 1903.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, cars were new and far too expensive for the average person. Ford set out to change this, by producing a practical car for a reasonable price. He studied the principles of Taylorism to learn how to reduce the number of steps in a task and to get the most productivity out of workers. He also worked with the principles of mass production, the manufacture of goods in quantity by using machines and standardized designs and parts. This system of manufacturing uses specialized labor and machinery, as well as a smooth and logical flow of materials, to produce large volumes of the same product at the lowest possible cost. By 1908, Ford had designed the Model T, the practical car he wanted to manufacture. He went on to build a Model T factory in Highland Park, Michigan, designed to use mass production and carefully managed work systems that saved workers' steps and promoted streamlined production. By 1913 a finished Model T left the factory every forty seconds. Production went from 14,000 cars in 1909 to 189,000 in 1913, while the price of a Model T dropped from $950 to $550.

The assembly line

When Ford's factory first opened, a stationary line of car parts was set up. Groups of workers moved down the line, each worker carrying out specific assembly tasks on each of the parts. The management soon found that some workers and groups were faster or slower than others, and they often got in each other's way. Ford and his technicians decided to move the work instead of the workers. If engines in need of assembly were moved by a conveyor belt (a moving belt that carries materials from one place to the next), the speed of work would match the speed the conveyor belt moved. After months of experimenting with various lengths and rates of speed for the assembly line, Ford switched to assembly line production in 1913. By 1914 six hundred cars were completed each day on Ford's assembly line. The amount of time required to build a car was reduced to about one-third of what it had been, and production increased greatly. Soon other manufacturers were using methods like Ford's.

Working at Ford

Workers at Ford grew tired of repeating simple movements over and over again. As their boredom increased, productivity decreased and many workers quit their jobs. In 1914 Ford announced the five-dollar day for Ford workers, a very generous salary at a time when the average weekly pay was about eleven dollars. It was an effort to keep good workers productive, on the job, and perhaps buying Fords for their families, but it was also considered by some as an attempt to control their lives.

The company divided the employee's five dollar daily income in two: half was considered wages and the other half profits. Workers received their regular wages for showing up at work but only got their profits when they met specific standards of efficiency and followed guidelines set at Ford for their home lives. The Sociological Department was established to advise employees on how to live in order to receive their profits. Its advice on everything from personal finances to drinking, gambling, and how immigrant workers could adapt to American culture intruded on the privacy of the employees. Unions were against Ford policies. Spies from the department spotted union organization and fired those who joined. Thus, the Ford worker traded privacy for a job with high pay. The five-dollar day system was abandoned by the 1920s, when Ford set its pay at market rates and dropped its Sociological Department activities.

Making changes at Ford

Ford's early mass production system made one unchanging product, and each copy of that product was exactly the same. Customers had no choices about the cars they purchased from Ford. By the time fifteen million Model Ts had been built in 1927, the design was twenty years old. When Ford finally switched from the Model T to the Model A in 1927, the entire factory had to be shut down for six months to accommodate the change. Ford had become so good at producing one product that changing to a new one was very difficult.

One of Ford's rivals, General Motors (GM), designed and expanded a more flexible mass production system during the 1920s. GM used general purpose machine tools that could be adapted quickly to design changes. It also built the parts that went into its cars at a variety of locations, rather than all in the same factory as at Ford. In the 1920s GM began creating a new version of its cars each year, partly to give customers more choices, and partly to give those who already owned a car a reason to buy another. In the 1930s Ford, too, adopted this practice. Most consumers were happy to have more choice in what they bought. The Model T had been designed purely to function well, and many people found it ugly. The Model A was considered far more visually appealing. Industrial design became increasingly important in attracting customers.

Industry after World War I

During World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) the relationship between industry and government changed. In order to meet its own military needs, the U.S. government spent vast sums for the development of technology in American factories. The wartime government helped big business in many ways, one of which was to suspend antitrust laws (laws opposing or regulating trusts or similar business monopolies) for American firms operating overseas. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) called the government's assistance of big business "the American System." In his opinion the government should step aside to allow corporations to grow and succeed, which he believed would benefit all. Indeed, industries did grow at a great pace during the war and by its end they had reshaped the economy. Advanced new factories were in place, thousands of rural workers had moved to the industrial centers, and there was a large new class of executives in corporate America.

In 1925 pro-business president Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) voiced the theme for the decade when, according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Age of Roosevelt: Crisis of the Old Order, he declared: "The business of America is business. The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there worships there." Businessmen often expressed the belief that their material success confirmed their innate ability to lead the rest of society. Conversely, they believed that poor people were responsible for their poverty because they had not taken advantage of available opportunities. They argued that the government should not burden the honorable rich to help the undeserving poor.

Throughout the 1920s the American economy remained strong. Technological advances and mass production brought financial stability and a sense of well-being to the average American family. With new lending policies offering consumers the chance to pay for their purchases in installment payments, more people were able to buy such luxury items as automobiles, radios, vacuum cleaners, and electric iceboxes, all of which were just coming into widespread use.

The Great Depression

In the fall of 1929 the United States entered the worst economic depression (period of drastic decline in the economy) it had ever experienced. On October 29, 1929, American stock prices fell sharply. Stocks are an element of ownership of a corporation that has been divided up into shares that can be bought and sold. The life savings of many small investors were depleted and many businesses and banks failed. The Great Depression of the 1930s followed, and the American economy struggled. The gross national product (GNP), the total of all goods and services produced each year, fell from $104.4 billion in 1929 to $74.2 billion in 1933. Industrial production declined 51 percent before rising slightly in 1932. Before 1929 there had been nearly 1.5 million people without jobs in the country. After 1929 the unemployment figure dramatically increased; at its peak in 1933, more than 12.6 million people were unemployed, although some estimates placed the number as high as 16 million. By 1933 farmers, perhaps the hardest hit economic group, saw their total combined income drop from $11.9 billion to $5.3 billion.

Changing to consumer industries

Even without the stock market crash of 1929, the 1930s would have been difficult. Many heavy industries had reached the limits of their production. Domestic railway construction had long since peaked, and in 1931 more railroad cars were scrapped, replaced, or stored by owners than were manufactured. Oil production far exceeded the demands of consumers. Agricultural prices dropped due to overproduction. While heavy industries, such as rail, steel, and textiles, were declining, other industries were just beginning to grow. These included the new mass-based consumer industries, or service industries, such as trade; health and social services; business services; accommodation and food services; amusement, recreation, and personal services; education; finance, insurance, and real estate; government services; transportation; and communications. In time, jobs in the service industries would outnumber those in heavy industry. When these new industries were forming in the 1930s, however, most people could not afford their services. The gap between the establishment of these newer industries and the collapse of older industries led to a temporarily inactive economy that made life difficult for millions.

One of the changes being introduced to the U.S. economy was a large proportion of women in the workforce. In 1920 women composed 23.6 percent of the labor force, and 8.3 million women older than the age of fifteen worked outside the home. By 1930 the percentage of women in the work force rose to 27, and their numbers increased to 11 million. World War I had expanded women's employment in new sectors of the economy, and by 1920, 25.6 percent of employed women worked in white-collar office-staff jobs, 23.8 percent in manufacturing, 18.2 percent in domestic service, and 12.9 percent in agriculture. While the first generation of college-educated women entered professions in the 1920s, they found opportunities only in nurturing professions, such as nursing, teaching, social work, and pediatrics. In factories, while male factory workers on federal contracts in 1920 started at forty cents an hour, women started at twenty-five cents.

An example of the change to a more consumer-focused economy that took place in the 1930s could be seen in the processed foods industry. Lower food prices and an increasing number of women working outside the home resulted in more Americans eating canned and processed foods, which were quicker and easier to prepare than cooking meals from scratch. Retailers responded by greatly expanding the grocery business. The first true supermarket was opened in 1930, and by 1939 nearly five thousand existed around the country. Concerns about the cleanliness of products that were loosely wrapped in paper led to an increase in glass products used for packaging. Demand for canned and frozen foods rose sharply. Many large new industries arose as a response to changing consumer needs.

Roosevelt and the New Deal

In 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) won the presidential election, taking office during the Great Depression. An estimated thirteen million people were out of work, many large industries—like steel—were barely operating, and banks were failing. Roosevelt won the election on the strength of his promises for a "New Deal," a set of legislative programs and policies for economic recovery and social reform. To accomplish his social and economic goals, Roosevelt tried to overcome the intense public prejudices against a strong federal government. Roosevelt created federal jobs for the unemployed, assisted farmers ruined by the Great Depression, and protected citizens against the loss of their homes by mortgage foreclosures (legal process in which a borrower who does not make payments on a mortgage or loan is deprived of the mortgaged property). He also passed the Social Security Act, which created an old-age pension system (a fixed sum paid regularly, usually as a retirement benefit) and paid benefits to the disabled and widows with children.

Roosevelt and supporters of the New Deal believed that one primary cause of the Great Depression was the low wages of workers. Therefore, in addition to limiting work hours and improving workplace conditions, the New Dealer sought to raise pay, believing that the higher wages would be used to purchase consumer goods, thus increasing production and helping the economy. The Roosevelt administration attempted to distribute wealth in America more evenly, but the New Deal alone did not solve the economic crisis. In 1941 around 40 percent of all American families lived below the poverty level. Nearly eight million workers earned less than the legal minimum wage of thirty cents an hour, while another eight million Americans were unemployed.

World War II

World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) changed the economic forces at work in the United States. Soon after the nation entered the war in 1941, the armed forces drafted (selected for service in the armed forces) ten million men to fight. The war effort demanded increased production at home to supply the military and maintain civilian needs. American industry limited or suspended the production of consumer goods to focus its efforts on making weapons and war materiel. No civilian automobiles and trucks were manufactured from 1942 until after the war. Other steel, rubber, or electrical consumer goods were hard to get or completely unavailable. The government abandoned its laissez-faire policy, an economic doctrine that opposes government regulation of commerce and industry beyond the minimum necessary. The government was involved in people's daily lives, raising taxes, rationing (distributing equally) some commodities, controlling prices, assigning people to work for military and civilian production, and even restricting where individuals lived or worked.

In the expanded industrial production during the war the gross national product and manufacturing output doubled. The labor force expanded from around 56 million workers in 1940 to over 65 million in 1945. Average yearly earnings rose. While more than half of all Americans lived in poverty during the Great Depression, by the end of the war just over one-third were classified as poor. Another third earned wages that gave them significant disposable income for the first time.

Women's roles changed drastically during the war. Once women's employment became vital to the war effort it was applauded as patriotic. Government posters featured women rolling up their sleeves and affirming "We Can Do It." The number of workingwomen rose about 50 percent, from 11.9 million in 1940 to 18.6 million in 1945. By the end of the war women comprised 36.1 percent of the civilian workforce and they were enjoying increases in income created by the wartime economy.

The Airline Industry Partners with the Government

On May 20 and 21, 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh (1902–1974) captured the imagination of the American people when he made his famous 2,610-mile transatlantic (spanning the Atlantic Ocean) solo flight from Long Island, New York, to Paris, France. Afterwards, there was a frenzy to get into the aviation industry, the flying and manufacture of aircraft. Early airplane manufacturers such as William Boeing (1881–1956) and Donald Douglas (1892–1981) began making airplanes designed specifically for passenger travel. By 1930 there were forty-three scheduled airlines (airlines that fly scheduled flights for passenger service) in the United States, necessitating some form of regulation or organization amidst the increasingly crowded skies.

Regulation of the airlines posed new problems. Allowing competing airlines to fly in the same airways (routes along which airplanes fly) without central control was wasteful and extremely dangerous. While the Interstate Commerce Commission had long regulated railroads and motor carriers, airlines were judged to be a substantially different industry requiring different rules.

In the late 1930s airline officials approached the federal government, asking it to formulate a basic set of guiding principles for all airlines to follow. It was one of the first times in history that an industry had requested to be regulated by the government. After several months of study by industry leaders and government officials, the Civil Aeronautics Act was introduced into Congress in 1938. It established three agencies: the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), which established policies for regulation of safety and economics; an administrator of aviation appointed to carry out the safety policies of the CAA; and an air safety board, formed as an independent group of three persons responsible for the investigation of aircraft accidents.

In the decades that followed, there was a tremendous increase in the flying speed of aircraft and rapid growth in the number of daily flights. Air accidents became more frequent and more deadly, leading to the demand for a single aviation agency to oversee the operation of airports and airways and all services related to air traffic control. The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) was established in 1958 to regulate the use of air space, to establish and operate air navigation facilities, to set air traffic rules for all aircraft, to conduct research and development, and to suspend or take away safety certificates.

Government regulation led to better radio communications, safety improvements at airports, and more accurate weather services, all of which contributed to an increase in air traffic and profits. The American economy flourished as passenger sales rose dramatically from $17.3 million in 1950 to $38 million in 1955. The airliner was well on its way to replacing the train and the ocean liner as the top transportation choice for long distance travel.

When the war came to an end in 1945, many Americans feared that there would not be enough jobs in the United States to support the millions of soldiers reentering the civilian workforce. No new crisis occurred. During the war Americans had saved billions of dollars, which they spent afterwards on new homes, cars, and appliances. Wartime profits allowed businesses money to invest in plants and equipment for civilian production. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 gave veterans one year of unemployment pay, financial assistance for job training and education, and low-interest loans to buy homes, farms, and businesses. This aid to veterans and their families, known as the GI Bill of Rights, was granted to nearly one-fourth of the population and further stimulated the economy. Postwar wealth paired with continuing New Deal policies became the basis of long term prosperity, insuring a quality of life from 1945 to 1972 never before seen in American history.

It is worth noting, however, that after World War II ended, a woman's average weekly pay fell from $50 to $37, a decline of 26 percent that contrasts sharply to an overall postwar decrease of four percent. Although three-quarters of women employed in war industries were still employed in 1946, 90 percent of them were earning less than they had earned during the war. Faced with a postwar decrease in the already inadequate number of childcare facilities many working mothers withdrew from the workforce. Nevertheless, after World War II women entered the U.S. workforce in steadily increasing numbers.

The computer age

Americans of the 1950s witnessed the dawn of the information age, although many were probably not aware of it. During the decade the computer developed from its earliest models—hundreds of square feet of flashing neon bulbs, dials, cables, and clicking switches—to relatively small units that were affordable to academic and business communities. The first real computer was called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). It had been developed by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania for the government during World War II. The ENIAC, which weighed thirty tons and occupied eighteen hundred square feet, was first demonstrated to the public in 1946. By 1950 there were twenty computers in the United States, worth a total of one million dollars.

As the first electronic machine that could solve mathematical problems quickly, ENIAC was a marvel of the time. The scientists who created the computer were aware of its problems, however, and immediately began work on a better machine. What the ENIAC lacked was stored memory, or the ability to save and retrieve previous instructions or calculations. In the late 1940s several different groups of researchers built new computers, each one a slight improvement over ENIAC. In these years the development of computers split into two branches: business machines, which processed great volumes of data; and scientific machines, which completed long, complex calculations with only small amounts of data. The business machines came to dominate the computer market while scientific computers evolved into pocket calculators. Early customers for the business machines included the U.S. Census Bureau, several large insurance companies, and Northrop Aircraft. The early machines were built on commission, at a cost to the customer of between $100,000 and $150,000.

In 1951 ENIAC's original designers, who were then working for Remington-Rand (now called Sperry Rand), introduced the Universal Automatic Computer, or UNIVAC I. UNIVAC was one-tenth the size of ENIAC, much easier to program, and capable of storing information on magnetic tape. It became the first computer to capture widespread public attention when the CBS television network used it to predict the outcome of the 1952 presidential election. The success of UNIVAC prompted International Business Machines (IBM), the leader in the office equipment field, to enter the computer market. Throughout 1953 and 1954 IBM introduced the 700 series computers. They were technologically less advanced than UNIVAC, but IBM's sales force stole the consumer market from Remington-Rand. Within five years of its entrance into the market IBM was selling more than half of the computers in America.

Although the computer might appear to "think," it could not. It was a machine that had to be instructed to undertake its every action. The method of writing these instructions was immediately seen as an important key to increasing the possible operations and uses of the computer. As a result, the profession of computer programming arose. Programmers created software, detailed programs that translated the instructions of human operators to the basic level needed to make all programmable computers work.

Dramatic advances in design and major changes in the materials and techniques used for construction made the computer smaller and much more efficient. The speed with which a computer could complete a calculation rose from thousandths of a second to millionths of a second during the 1950s and 1960s and to billionths of a second by the 1970s. As they improved, the cost of computers steadily decreased. The result was a rapid spread of computer use. While at the start only institutions and corporations could afford to lease and use computers, within thirty years private personal use became common.

Mass production in the computer age

In the computer age, mass production became far more intricate. To increase productivity managers focused on planning and scheduling. Production became a carefully managed flow of parts, materials, and employees. Sales and marketing developed into a scientific process that helped management to determine how many copies of a product to make.

By the early twenty-first century, mass production had become so sophisticated that it was no longer true mass production. Many products came with a variety of options for the customer. When buying a computer from some manufacturers, for example, a customer could choose the size and make of the hard drive, how much memory the computer had, what kind of screen and printer they wanted, and many other details. Choosing the different parts was called customizing one's product; in effect, the customer was having a product built for him or her.

In the 1980s Japanese and Italian automobile manufacturers so successfully automated, or operated with automatic machinery, their assembly lines that some of their factories consisted almost entirely of robots (machines that automatically perform routine, often complex, tasks) doing the jobs. Starting with the bare frame of the vehicle, major parts (which themselves had been automatically assembled elsewhere) were attached by robots, and a computer kept track of exactly what was to be added to each step of the process. The central computer assured total assembly of each car. Though this worked in foreign plants, American auto makers were more resistant to the use of robots and were not as quick to adapt to the new technology. In the early 2000s, though, U.S. carmakers are once again trying to use robots in their manufacturing products, often successfully.

The postindustrial era

During the rise of industrialism, manufacturing on a large scale was the key to success in industry, but after the 1980s, in what is now called the postindustrial era, scaling back was the main industrial goal. Many companies analyzed their productivity and then laid off, or eliminated, a certain percentage of their workers. This procedure was frequently repeated over the years, as companies sought to employ only minimal workforces. Downsizing (reducing the workforce through lay offs) became the dreaded word among laborers of all types who feared for their jobs. Laid-off workers with few skills were often forced to seek jobs in lower paying service industries. There were many inter-related reasons for the loss of industrial work in the United States.

After World War II, the United States became involved in an increasingly global, or worldwide, market. Easy air travel made distances between countries less of a barrier. The Internet provided instant communication among computer users and made it possible to move money anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, multinational corporations accounted for some 20 percent of the world's production. These companies, many funded by American investors, were often able to avoid national laws regulating corporations. American capital, or the wealth that is put into building industries, was spent on factories worldwide, and much less investment went into industries in the United States.

During the 1980s the availability of low-cost import items such as cars created strongly competitive conditions for U.S. industries. As imports cut into their profits, many industries could no longer support their large workforces. Some U.S. corporations began to shut down their plants and move them to newly industrialized nations such as South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, where workers accepted much lower wages. As steel and auto factories in the United States deteriorated, industrialists frequently decided against spending the money to make the needed improvements to them.

Nevertheless the United States remained the leading industrial nation in the first years of the twenty-first century, maintaining its position as the richest, most powerful and technologically advanced economy in the world. Though it is correct to call the United States an industrial nation, many historians and economists also call it a postindustrial economy, noting the decline of heavy industries in the 1980s, and the nation's decreased focus on mass production and manufacturing, and increased focus on service industries.

For More Information


Brody, David. Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the 20th-Century Struggle. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Lacey, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. New York: Little, Brown, 1986.

Porter, Glen. The Rise of Big Business, 1860–1920. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1992.

Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919–1933, The Age of Roosevelt. Vol. 1. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Web Sites

Fingleton, Eamonn. "In Praise of Hard Industries." Industry Week, October 18, 1999. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

"Great Depression and World War II, 1929–1945." The Learning Page. (accessed on June 30, 2005.)

Robot Hall of Fame; Carnegie Mellon. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

About this article

Industrialism in the Twentieth Century

Updated About content Print Article