- Goods for Sale: Products and Advertising in the Massachusetts Industrial Age
In Goods for Sale, Chaim Rosenberg describes the products made in Massachusetts and marketed across the nation and around the world between 1820 and 1920, from the state’s nascent industrialization to the waning of its great age of manufacturing. Rosenberg also renders a personal portrait of its industrial past—a place where water- and steam power, inventiveness, and marketing savvy came together to create a range of products that found markets for a hundred years.
This is a book inspired by ghostly archaeological remains. Rosenberg, an associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University, spent much of his career in the blighted factory towns that are testaments to Massachusetts’s past industrial grandeur. Intrigued by the abandoned mills and shabby workers’ housing he saw around him, he began to research the stories represented in the state’s industrial landscape. But not all of his inspiration derived from brick-and-mortar reminders of the past. He was also inspired by the colorful trade cards used by entrepreneurs to advertise their goods to eager consumers, and these trade cards figure prominently in Goods for Sale.
Rosenberg’s introduction provides a useful overview of the economic development of Massachusetts from colonization to the turn of the twentieth century, and he concludes with a brief summary of the reasons for the decline of manufacturing. In between, there are chapters on the textile mills of Lowell and New Bedford; the sewing machine manufacturers of Boston, Orange, and Springfield; the shoe factories of Boston, Brockton, and Lynn; the piano and reed-organ industry in Boston and Worcester; and the state’s fledgling automobile industry. Rosenberg offers a detailed look at the patent medicine industry centered in Lowell and Lynn. He also touches on clocks, watches, silverware, pottery, stoves, and bicycles and takes a geographically based look at industrial development in Worcester County and the Connecticut River Valley.
Goods for Sale tells the stories of people as well as products: entrepreneurs such as Isaac M. Singer, who became the largest sewing-machine [End Page 225] manufacturer in the world; Lydia Pinkham and her highly successful patent medicine company; James Cook Ayer and his famous sarsaparilla; Jonas Chickering, America’s first renowned piano maker; and automobile pioneers F. O. and F. E. Stanley. Rosenberg also addresses the working and living conditions of the anonymous men and women who labored in the factories to produce the goods.
Though the book is rich in stories about people, products, and advertising, the writing is at times disjointed. For example, Rosenberg begins a chapter on the patent medicine industry of Lowell with a description of the deteriorating work conditions in the textile industry, jumps to a brief mention of the growth of commercial and professional enterprises (including physicians and apothecaries) in Lowell’s downtown, then moves on to a quick discussion of wages and working conditions in the textile mills—all without making a clear and smooth connection to the chapter’s topic. He sometimes gets trapped in delivering a swirl of extraneous detail on the way to making his point, or fails to put his facts into a larger context.
This is a broad survey aimed at a general readership. There is no deep analysis or new theory. Rosenberg simply—and enthusiastically—does what he sets out to do: provide a portrait of the people and products that made Massachusetts a center of manufacturing during the nineteenth century. Anyone who has gazed on the state’s aged mills, seen the shadows of signs painted on the sides of old buildings, or looked through colorful trade cards for pianos or patent medicines will find this book filled with delightful detail on Massachusetts’s golden age of manufacturing.
Jeanine Head Miller is curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.