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  • Minding the Machine: Languages of Class in Early Industrial America
  • Paul A. Gilje (bio)
Minding the Machine: Languages of Class in Early Industrial America. By Stephen P. Rice. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 230. Illustrations. Cloth, $49.95.)

One of the most important developments in the early republic was the emergence of a middle class. Historians have devoted a great deal of energy delineating how a group of professionals—lawyers, doctors, businessmen, managers, and merchants—coalesced around values of hard work, industry, temperance, and delayed gratification to form a class identity as the United States embraced capitalism, industrialization, and democracy. The term "middle class" is a misnomer; there was no real upper class or aristocracy in nineteenth-century America. Instead, the middle class became the nation's ruling class, and eventually middle-class values became dominant in American society. Stephen P. Rice's Minding the Machine is one of the many studies that contributes to our understanding of the development of the American middle class and its emerging hegemony.

The key to Rice's analysis is what he calls the "discourse on mechanization." Rice introduces this term on page 4, devotes Chapter 1 to "mapping" the "discourse," and then reiterates the "language" of "discourse" throughout his book. Putting the jargon aside, Rice's "discourse on mechanization" really means examining how the middle class used a discussion of machinery to mute class antagonism. Rice pursues this analysis in four areas. First he looks at the mechanics' institute movement. Beginning in the 1820s, mechanic institutes were organized in city after city as platforms for the spread of scientific and engineering knowledge to artisans. The idea was to bring the "head to hand" (this nice phrase is the title of the chapter on mechanics' institutes) or bridge the gap between the master artisans (who through the use of their heads were becoming entrepreneurs and managers) and the journeymen (who labored with their hands) by having both attend educational lectures on the arts and the latest technology. By the 1840s, however, the institutes were in decline, in part because of souring economic conditions and in part because of the growing chasm between head and hand.

The second area of "discourse on mechanization" is an examination of the manual labor school movement, or as Rice puts it in the chapter title, "hand to head." The manual labor schools like Oberlin College in Ohio and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania hoped to teach the future managers and members of the middle class the value of work by making [End Page 491] labor part of the educational experience. Again, the distance between the middle and the working classes would be narrowed by this experience, and the individual student would not only learn to appreciate work and machinery but also be morally uplifted by the effort. The problem was that students were more concerned with using their work as a means to pay for their education than they were with gaining an understanding of the value of the work. Moreover, in some instances, the work was not particularly enlightening since it often consisted of manual labor. And when the work actually produced something for the market, it was of inferior quality and drew complaints from local artisans who resented the competition. The result was that by the 1830s the manual labor movement had begun to lose its attractiveness.

Rice then turns to "popular physiology" and the health movement of reformers like Sylvester Graham, in a chapter called, to keep the anatomical connection, "Mind and Body." Rice admits that this area is less directly connected to the "discourse on mechanization," but asserts that interest in health was a response to "the social transformations accompanying the market and manufacturing transformations of the period" (97). He also claims that the machine became an important metaphor for the body and therefore "helped to naturalize the work of machine-tending, since all bodies were, by design, like machines that required operatives to work well" (99). Popular physiology blunted class antagonism, in this analysis, since all people who took care of their bodies were performing a managerial function "using their heads" even if laboring in a factory.

The final chapter...


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