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  • Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800–1868 by Anne Kelly Knowles
  • Stephen H. Cutcliffe (bio)
Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800–1868. By Anne Kelly Knowles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 334. $45.

Anne Kelly Knowles’s geographically based analysis of the antebellum American iron industry is not a detailed technological history nor an economic or labor history of the iron industry, but rather a richly nuanced relational understanding of iron manufacturing in terms of resources, markets, transportation, and workers. So, not only does manufactory type and size matter, but so too do ore quality and availability, topography and geographic distance, and skilled workforce makeup, all nicely charted through a series of GIS (geographic information systems)–based maps and further illustrated with a number of more traditional historical case studies.

Knowles seeks to explain the American “struggle” to move from a colonial age of wood and water to a nineteenth-century economy based on iron (and later steel). She draws heavily on J. Peter Lesley’s The Iron Manufacturer’s Guide (1859). Lesley, the first secretary of the American Iron Association, sought on behalf of the association’s iron masters to better understand, through a survey of production facilities, why America seemed to be lagging behind Britain, its chief competitor, in developing what were then modern mass-production techniques. From late 1856 through the spring of 1858, Lesley and two associates conducted a series of ten investigative trips, ranging from New England through the upper Midwest to the South, with the more well-developed Mid-Atlantic states receiving the most detailed attention. Lesley’s comprehensive summation included information on ironwork locations and technology types, including dates of construction, modification, and abandonment, managers, production figures, and resources—ore, limestone, fuel. Using Lesley’s detailed findings, Knowles created an attribute database, which was then correlated with a digital map locating each of the ironworks, allowing for spatial analysis of the data accumulated by Lesley.

The resulting historic GIS maps, contained primarily in the first chapter, reveal many interesting geographical patterns. Perhaps not surprisingly, ore chemistry and fuel type influenced furnace design, while topography tended to promote a regional segmentation of markets, with transportation availability being a key variable in an operation’s long-term success or failure. [End Page 975] Overall, Knowles finds that the industry was far more technically diverse than most historians have heretofore appreciated. In her nicely illustrated chapter on labor, Knowles similarly finds more diversity within iron-making communities—which she divides into iron plantations, hamlets, villages, rural company towns, and urban communities—than past historians have assumed. She also examines the incentives and the punishments that management utilized to exhort workers to their full capacities.

Americans often looked to the Welsh experience (for example, the Cyfartha and Dowlais ironworks) for models, but despite known technologies and the frequent importation of skilled British furnace managers and workers, successful transfer of this knowledge was not easy. To illustrate the failures and successes of such attempts, Knowles offers up four brief case studies. Failures included Farrandsville in central Pennsylvania and Lonaconing in western Maryland, while the two better-known successes were the Lehigh Crane Iron Works in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, and the Trenton Iron Works of New Jersey. Success depended heavily on how well a given venture dealt with such key factors as differences in the chemical makeup of the raw materials, distance between resource deposits as well as to markets (which, depending on transportation availability, could affect costs dramatically), and the cost and productivity of labor. In the end, skilled managers like David Thomas at Catasauqua and Abraham Hewitt at Trenton, although not necessarily better funded, were better able than many others to understand and manipulate the chemistry of their material resources, design and erect their furnaces and mills, and effectively direct their skilled workforces to a profitable end.

On the eve of the Civil War, iron manufacturing in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions was more extensive and better established than in the South, thereby providing the Union with a significant advantage, which Knowles describes and analyzes in some detail in a final substantive chapter. One interesting...


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