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Negotiating Safety in American Society

Arwen P. Mohun

Publication Year: 2012

“Risk” is a capacious term used to describe the uncertainties that arise from physical, financial, political, and social activities. Practically everything we do carries some level of risk—threats to our bodies, property, and animals. How do we determine when the risk is too high? In considering this question, Arwen P. Mohun offers a thought-provoking study of danger and how people have managed it from pre-industrial and industrial America up until today. Mohun outlines a vernacular risk culture in early America, one based on ordinary experience and common sense. The rise of factories and machinery eventually led to shocking accidents, which, she explains, risk-management experts and the “gospel of safety” sought to counter. Finally, she examines the simultaneous blossoming of risk-taking as fun and the aggressive regulations that follow from the consumer-products-safety movement. Risk and society, a rapidly growing area of historical research, interests sociologists, psychologists, and other social scientists. Americans have learned to tame risk in both the workplace and the home. Yet many of us still like amusement park rides that scare the devil out of us; they dare us to take risks.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Writing a book is, in its own way, a distinctly risky endeavor—particularly a book about a huge and amorphous topic such as this one. I owe a debt of gratitude to many people who have helped and encouraged me along the way. ...

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pp. 1-8

The camera caught them arrayed like spiders across a vast, man-made web: workmen posing against the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge for a city-employed photographer on a foggy October morning.1 More than a hundred feet above the water, they recline casually, as if leaning on the polished counter of a saloon. ...

Part I: Risks from Nature

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Chapter 1. Fire Is Everybody’s Problem

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pp. 11-32

Fire existed long before human beings. Our species turned this chemical process into the most useful, ubiquitous, and dangerous technology of preindustrial societies. Domesticating fire exacerbated its risks. Brought inside to provide heat and light, uncontrolled fires could indiscriminately destroy flesh, bone, paper, and wood. ...

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Chapter 2. The Uncertainties of Disease

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pp. 33-51

Nearly everyone who reached middle age in colonial America had survived multiple, potentially fatal infections. Rich and poor alike bore the scars of smallpox, measles, and any number of other afflictions. All had witnessed the sufferings of siblings, parents, children, and friends racked by fever, tortured by nameless intestinal maladies, ...

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Chapter 3. Doing Something about the Weather

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pp. 52-68

The news from Philadelphia for November 23, 1732, was brief: “It has been very cold this Week past, that our River is full of frining Ice, and no vessell can go up or down, a Thing rarely happening so early in the year. Many People are ill with violent Colds, and Wood is risen to an excessive price.”1 ...

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Chapter 4. Animal Risk for a Modern Age

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pp. 69-88

Animals think for themselves. Like us, they have their own individual emotions, drives, and interpretations of the world. Domestication captured this quality for human use.1 In choosing to live and work side by side with animals, human beings not only turned animals into technology but also created an important source of risk in everyday life.2 ...

Part II: Industrializing Risk

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Chapter 5. Railroads, or Why Risk in a System Is Different

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pp. 91-115

The scene was startlingly new: two locomotives moments after impact, still belching smoke; bodies tumbling down an embankment; distressed passengers frozen in panicked disbelief. Reputedly America’s first head-on railroad collision, the violent meeting of two Portsmouth and Roanoke locomotives offered a slow-motion portent of lethal wrecks yet to come.1 ...

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Chapter 6. The Professionalization of Safety

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pp. 116-140

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, a small group of men and women created a new profession: the safety expert. This was the era of professionalization, a time when practitioners of older occupations, such as medicine and law, first created professional organizations, and new occupations, such as social work, ...

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Chapter 7. The Safety-First Movement

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pp. 141-160

“Will you please tell me when and how the ‘safety first’ movement originated?” a puzzled New York Times reader wrote to the newspaper’s “Queries and Answers” column in 1915.1 That year, the slogan suddenly seemed everywhere. “Think safety first,” declared posters in factories, children’s books, and public places. ...

Part III: Risk in a Consumer Society

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Chapter 8. Negotiating Automobile Risk

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pp. 163-190

The automobile hurtled into American life nearly simultaneously with the gospel of safety first. Introduced as a toy for the wealthy in the last hours of the gilded age and as an alternative to the fast horses preoccupying the time and wallets of the wealthy, its transformation into transportation for the masses ...

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Chapter 9. What’s a Gun Good For?

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pp. 191-213

“One of the reasons that firearms are of use is that they are dangerous,” Bellmore H. Browne informed readers of his 1908 hunting manual, Guns and Gunning.1 Most of Browne’s contemporaries would have agreed but might have gone on to ask: Dangerous to whom or to what? Clay pigeons? Whitetail deer? Rabid dogs? ...

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Chapter 10. Risk as Entertainment: Amusement Parks

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pp. 214-235

Just outside Pittsburgh, Kennywood amusement park sits on a bluff across the Monongahela River from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Works. From the top of the park’s Racer coaster, generations of riders could glimpse a vast gray expanse of rolling sheds, smoke-belching smelters, and, on some days, carloads of molten metal ...

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Chapter 11. Consumer Product Safety

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pp. 236-256

The story was both tragic and familiar. Eleven-year-old Carole Hackes accidently set fire to her blouse while playing with matches. She sustained serious burns on her neck and chest before her mother managed to put out the flames.1 Both Benjamin Franklin and Elizabeth Drinker would have recognized the nature of the accident, ...

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pp. 257-260

Here we are in the twenty-first century, living with a long history of thinking, negotiating, and managing risk. Vestiges of the past are most apparent in the material things we still use: lightning rods poking up along rooflines, a little more subtle in design now that they no longer signal the enlightened attitudes of building owners; ...


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pp. 261-312

Essay on Sources

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pp. 313-320


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pp. 321-329

E-ISBN-13: 9781421408255
E-ISBN-10: 1421408252
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421407906
Print-ISBN-10: 1421407906

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 21 halftones
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 824353595
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Risk

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Public safety -- United States.
  • Risk assessment -- United States -- Public opinion.
  • Emergency management -- United States.
  • Accidents -- Social aspects -- United States.
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