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  • Goods for Sale: Products and Advertising in the Massachusetts Industrial Age
  • Howard Stanger
Chaim M. Rosenberg. Goods for Sale: Products and Advertising in the Massachusetts Industrial Age. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. xii + 242 pp. ISBN 1-55849-580-0, $24.95 (paper).

This nicely illustrated book of product advertisements from Massachusetts’s industrial age, roughly 1820–1920, has its genesis in Chaim Rosenberg’s personal experiences as a South Africa-trained physician who arrived in the United States in 1968 and spent much of his career in the Commonwealth’s old factory and mill towns. Intrigued by its former manufacturing glory, but saddened by their decrepit downtowns and abandoned mill structures, he began researching Massachusetts’s industrial heritage and collecting trade cards—over ninety color reproductions are displayed here. This book [End Page 870] is the author’s personal paean and “nostalgic tribute to Massachusetts during its industrial Gilded Age” (224).

Goods for Sale’s introductory chapter highlights the Commonwealth’s colonial trading relationships, nascent craft-based cottage industries, and the textile-mill-based economy. By the 1850s, steam power enabled mills to move away from water sources of power to sites more conducive to greater productive capacity. “By the 1870, nearly two of out of every three textile mills were located in New England. Massachusetts alone accounted for over one-third of the nation’s textile production” (10). Around 1900, about one hundred thousand people labored in these mills.

Subsequent chapters highlight key industries such as footwear; sewing machines; pianos and organs; silverware, clocks and watches, and other decorative arts; household consumer products; bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles; patent medicines; and a few key regions such as Boston, Worcester, and Springfield. A concluding chapter discusses Massachusetts’s industrial decline. Here, again, textiles figure prominently. At first, there was a slow trickle to the South—only 5 percent of the nation’s mills operated in the South in 1880—but over time mill owners moved more capital out of the North such that by 1910, 40 percent of the nation’s mills operated in the South. By 1937, 70 percent did (214). A number of other important industries—for example, shoes, patent medicine, clocks and watches, automobiles, and machine tools—died out between the 1930s and the decades after World War Two.

The book is highly descriptive and reads more like an encyclopedia or city directory than a historical narrative. Each chapter is written independently of the others, with little connecting threads and limited analysis. One does not get a sense of how Massachusetts’s industrial experiences compared with economic development in other states and regions. Explanations for industries’ growth and decline are spotty and need further substantiation. The primary and secondary sources are not well documented and appear selectively throughout the book. There are, however, many interesting sections on key industries and entrepreneurs that readers will find appealing. For example, between 1850 and 1900, roughly 20 percent of the nation’s sewing machine producers operated in Massachusetts. More impressive was the Commonwealth’s high share (between half and two-thirds) in boot and shoe manufacturing in the United States between 1860 and 1915. Lynn, Brockton, and Haverhill were the main centers of production, while Beverly’s United Shoe Machinery Corporation—“The Shoe”—was the world’s premier shoe machinery company.

Some of the most interesting chapters discuss patent medicine entrepreneurs from Lowell, Lynn, and Boston. Rosenberg notes that, [End Page 871] contrary to the industry’s reputation of snake oil salespersons, these entrepreneurs also were well-established pharmacists and physicians who claimed to have the antidotes to many of life’s ills. Their companies advertised extensively. Lowell’s Dr. James Cook Ayer’s tremendously profitable sarsaparilla offered “rapid and complete” cures for at least twenty-five conditions. Lynn’s Lydia Pinkham’s vegetable compound also was wildly popular, but failed to save her family members from illness and death. Laced with herbs, alcohol, and sometimes cocaine, these products were both popular and dangerous. In a new role, the Boston Red Sox’s all-star Ted Williams, “The Splendid Splinter,” pitched Ayer’s popular Moxie drink until it lost its appeal during the Depression. None of these...


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