- Motive Powers: Transportation and Culture in the United States
Anyone glancing at the titles above might be forgiven for thinking that these books are “about cars” and turning the page. (Oh, yes, one of them is “about horses.”) Who needs another hagiography of the automobile industry or, worse, the object fetishism found in the sizeable number of books aimed at nostalgia buffs? Yet a closer look reveals a significantly more complicated set of texts. The authors have used automobiles as a starting point to examine questions as diverse as individual identity, public policy, labor and business history, even the connections between humans and the nonhuman world. McShane and Tarr trace changing human-animal relationships and the configurations of the U.S. city in the nineteenth century by looking at the [End Page 1113]horse as an urban power source. Clarke explores the boundaries of corporate influence, government regulation, and consumer demand. Borg analyzes the workings of social power and class. Blanke examines the limits of risk tolerance in modern life. Finally, McCarthy highlights the human capability to modify the world and the possibly disastrous environmental consequences of consumerism. These subjects all point to larger issues concerning the importance of material culture and technology, areas that hold particular promise for American studies scholars.
Although in one sense these books are not “about cars,” in another sense, they are. Judging by our national spending and geopolitical priorities, cars continue to fascinate people in the United States, and, increasingly, those in developing countries such as India and China. Scholars of this topic have even come up with their own name for the system of car-based transportation that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century: automobility. 1Just what accounts for a societal obsession with cars and transportation, anyway? Here again, the methodologies of American studies suggest useful and innovative ways to analyze this question, both for the U.S. scene and transnationally.
As Clay McShane and Joel Tarr make clear in The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, the interconnectedness of technology, mobility, and social power has a long history in the United States. McShane and Tarr examine the importance of the urban horse in the pre-automobile era. Even though horses were living creatures, they were also a vital technology—the “living machines” of the title—that provided literal power in a system that developed over thousands of years. In McShane and Tarr’s account, the use of horses reached its productive peak in the second half of the nineteenth century, then declined rapidly in the twentieth. Along the way, however, the effects on U.S. cities and the U.S. economy were immense and far reaching, as would be the case with cars later. McShane and Tarr take a different approach from a number of historians who have recently emphasized the evolving sensitivity to animal suffering, particularly that of horses, in the nineteenth century. 2In contrast, McShane and Tarr argue that even though some saw horses as aestheticized objects, most people treated them in a purely economic and functional way.
The book’s initial chapters address the economics and regulation of horse use and users in U.S. cities. Even those well versed in U.S. urban history will find unexpected information and case studies here...