Although it is an ancient art, American ironmaking underwent a rather dramatic transformation during a few short decades of the nineteenth century. The process of smelting iron ore and then fabricating it into various shapes and sizes was no great mystery, and yet the iron industry of the United States during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century was incredibly diverse, with a number of distinct regions manufacturing products of varying quality and market value. What accounts for the various degrees of productivity across the American iron industry? Were innovations developed in Great Britain easily adopted in the United States? Anne Kelly Knowles answers these questions with a first-rate assessment of the impact of geography and technology transfer during this critical period of American iron production in Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800–1868. Through an innovative use of historical geographical information systems (HGIS) methods coupled with archival research in business and labor sources, Knowles convincingly demonstrates why some individual firms succeeded or failed in an increasingly competitive trade. She also engages in an extensive dialogue with the voluminous historical literature on industrial development and, in the end, the key to her unique contribution to this field is establishing the significance of geographical context.
Mastering Iron begins by establishing J. P. Lesley’s 1859 survey of the iron industry as its historical template. Lesley’s Iron Manufacturer’s Guide offered a detailed snapshot of forges, furnaces, and foundries—both [End Page 520] active and dormant—which makes it a perfect candidate for HGIS analysis. Using detailed maps and augmenting Lesley’s brief encyclopedic entries with archival research, Knowles breaks the trade down into five types of communities: iron plantations, iron hamlets, iron villages, rural company towns, and urban iron communities. After establishing these basic characteristics, Mastering Iron examines the varying degrees of success in transferring British methods of ironmaking to an American setting. These transplants were always subject to regional varieties in fuel and ore types, but their successful adoption plays a large role in determining success or failure in the trade.
Knowles argues that the distinct path of iron regions in New England, the mid-Atlantic, Ohio Valley, interior South, and Great Lakes “was influenced by its resource endowments and topography, potential for transportation improvements, proximity to centers of population, and access to skilled labor” (p. 181). In the end, the mid-Atlantic seemed to fare the best in these factor endowments, and a final chapter on the Civil War years demonstrates how iron producers in the South struggled mightily to match the productivity of the North. Overall, she demonstrates how a blend of social, economic, and geological variables made the specific location of an iron industry critical to its extended success or failure. Only after the Civil War, Knowles suggests, did national trends replace regional versions of iron production. “The US iron industry,” she concludes, “had grown mainly by making do with whatever resources were available in a given region, though in many places American entrepreneurs and the immigrant workers they hired pushed to implement technologies for larger-scale production” (p. 233).
Mastering Iron is essential reading for historians of America’s industrial development. The maps and illustrations in this volume are absolutely gorgeous; they are also essential in understanding the spatial arrangement of the iron industry as well as its character. That factor alone should merit a wide readership, but Knowles’s narrative also blends transatlantic technology transfer and local circumstances. In the end, this very creative and soundly researched book makes [End Page 521] a convincing case that this particular phase of the history of iron production needs to be regarded as a critical aspect of American industrialization.
SEAN PATRICK ADAMS is an associate professor of history at the University of Florida. He is the author of Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century (2014).