This week, CapX will be publishing a series of excerpts from America Inc: The 400-year history of American capitalism by Bhu Srinivasan. Here he discuss how, during the post-Civil War era, then-modern machinery disrupted industries and gender norms.
The best-known brands of the early Gilded Age were machine makers themselves. And for companies and their machines, adaptability seemed to be as vital to survival as it was for natural beings. For one company in the midst of an especially large revenue drop-off, salvation was found in a machine designed for the English language.
In the years after the Civil War, even as the economy boomed, E Remington & Sons saw its fortunes decline. The company made guns. Soldiers needed them and then, at war’s end, they didn’t. Based in the small town of Ilion, New York, Remington was one of many well-known gunmakers in the North. Following in the footsteps of Eli Whitney — who after his endless frustration in monetising his cotton gin turned his mechanical genius to gun making — manufacturers in New England, including Samuel Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Remington gave the Union Army a decided advantage in arms. To meet the demands of war, the gunmakers became especially skilled machinists, using the latest in tooling techniques to make precision weapons. Seeing some synergy, an inventor approached E Remington & Sons with a functional prototype of a new kind of machine for the written word.
Rather than propelling bullets through the air, the typewriter fired letters at paper. Developing the machine had been a long process. As with many inventions, a fortunate series of events needed to converge to create momentum for the final breakthrough. In this case, three men became inspired by an article about a theoretical writing machine in 1867. After repeated trial and error, they found an investor by demonstrating a functional prototype. After some frustration, two of the initial founders left, leaving the third, C Latham Sholes, to develop the successful permutation: Each key, when pressed, caused a corresponding inked hammer to imprint the character on a piece of paper.
Up to that point, unlike printed works like newspapers, for which a typesetter set the individual letters by hand for the printing press, business correspondence had remained handwritten, prone to error, misinterpretation, and inefficiency. Seeing an opportunity to completely alter business communication, Remington took the prototype and, with its machinists and toolmakers, perfected the typewriter for market. Introduced in 1875, followed by a much bigger launch at the Centennial Celebrations in 1876, the Remington typewriter soon set the standard in offices across America, and Remington became a brand rather than a family manufacturer’s name.
It was to “the pen what the sewing machine is to the needle,” held a contemporary magazine. In the mid-1870s American sewing machine manufacturers, led by the Singer Manufacturing Company, were selling over 500,000 machines per year — a remarkable number considering that the overwhelming majority were for commercial use. While the sewing machine’s ease of use and contributions to efficiency were immediately obvious, the typewriter presented an obstacle: Few knew how to use it — making it inefficient compared with the pen due to its learning curve — and it wasn’t clear if typing was a skill that just anyone could develop.
By 1880 specialised typing schools had begun to offer training. Remarkably, even though the typewriter was destined for the office environment, a place where very few women had roles, the position of typist was open to both men and women from the very beginning. The profession drew in hundreds of women in major cities. With good typists in New York City making as much as $15 to $20 per week — nearly $1,000 per year — the pay was higher than that of many blue-collar men and that of women schoolteachers with years of education. “The excellent feature of this new profession for women,” read an account in a literary journal in the 1880s, was that “any bright girl in from three to six months may obtain sufficient facility with the typewriter to make herself valuable in an office.” As the telegraph office once had done in more limited form, the Remington became the machine that brought thousands of women into the modern office setting.
While women’s entry into the office coincided with, and was perhaps stimulated by, the era’s push for universal suffrage, the neighbourhood saloon also became an unlikely, and indirect, catalyst for women’s right to vote. The saloon became the target of temperance forces — prohibitionists who detested the presence of hundreds of thousands of saloons, local bars, across America where all manner of vice originated and thrived. For decades, advocates of local temperance laws had enlisted the voice of women. While they lacked voting rights, this was one political issue where the woman’s perspective had credibility in the public arena. As alcoholism was associated with violence, misspending on liquor, hungry children, and other household consequences — all detracting from the woman’s ability to maintain Christian values in her home — expression of domestic concerns led to a political voice for women.
Before the Civil War, there was some effort by the most strident evangelical reformers to combine the issue of temperance with what they felt were three other American ailments, no matter how tenuously linked: slavery, immigrants, and Catholicism. The newly formed Republican Party, however, focused on slavery. The overwhelming majority of American voters — men, that is — liked to drink, and alienation was no way to build a party. After the war, temperance forces found a new, potent voice in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Founded in 1874, the WCTU soon boasted hundreds of thousands of members, some undoubtedly riveted by the prospect of political participation. Soon its leader, Frances Willard, was openly declaring that alcohol prohibition, critical for the betterment of society, was not possible without the votes of women. Just like that, temperance forces and the women’s suffrage movement converged.
The WCTU’s members may have been legion, but the major American brewers had hundreds of thousands of saloons, found in every nook and cranny of the Republic’s geography. The German brewers had changed the economics of the saloon. It was no longer a mere neighbourhood business started and owned by a proprietor. The beer makers, in addition to their vast industrial scale, co-opted the saloons as the final outpost in the machinery of distribution. By pledging affiliation with brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, or Schlitz, local saloon keepers could finance fixtures, get supplies of free goods like beer mugs, and borrow start-up costs. In places like New York City, the tightness of space in living quarters made the saloon an extension of the workingman’s living room. While this social element would remain a fundamental appeal, the saloons of the nineteenth century also provided practical services, such as cashing paychecks and serving as a mailing address for new arrivals. Employers and politicians soon took notice of the saloon keeper as a central organising figure in working-class culture, a broker of jobs and votes.
As important, a saloon next to a factory served as the midday cafeteria as well. Most saloons offered a spread of meat, bread, and soup — the free lunch provided to workingmen along with purchases of beer. Propelled by the saloon, the two million barrels of beer produced in the second year of the Civil War grew to over 24 million barrels twenty-five years later — beer became the new “national beverage.”
But there was an element of political power for beer makers that went far beyond voters. With each passing year, beer increasingly became one of the most important pillars of revenue for the federal government. Without a personal or corporate income tax at the federal level, the tax on beer sales, as well as tobacco and distilled spirits, had grown to nearly one half of the federal government’s tax revenues, rivalling the revenue from duties and the tariff on imported goods. And with every dollar of growth for Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, or Schlitz, the industry’s lobbying group, the United States Brewers’ Association, grew in political power.
Yet for jaded observers of American democracy, who tend to equate political power with money, the fate of alcohol would eventually present an effective counterexample. Just as the economic importance of slavery and the cotton trade did not save either from disruption, the millions of beer-chugging male voters, along with a vast distribution network of local entrepreneurs, coordinated machine politics, and a dependent federal government, would eventually run into the temperance forces. Following the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League would look to fight one of America’s most powerful industries with an army that couldn’t vote. It wouldn’t be a fair fight. Decades later, two constitutional amendments, one prohibiting the sale of alcohol and the other giving women the right to vote, would pass within months of each other.
For men of industry, the concept of survival of the fittest once had a certain congratulatory ring to it — any survivor in the market, by definition, was fit — giving philosophical and scientific purpose to those who otherwise were content with making money. Yet survival increasingly required business to adapt to changing political condition — to abide by the sentiments of society in addition to responding to the simple signals of the marketplace. Much like the complexities of temperance politics, the unfettered growth of industrial power in the late nineteenth century would spark counter-movements in labour, consumer safety, banking, and social relations. At stake was nothing less than the answer to a beguiling question: How would American capitalism absorb the myriad competing interests and still reap the dividends of its economic engine?