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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 582-583

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Book Review

Iron-Making Societies: Early Industrial Development in Sweden and Russia, 1600-1900

Iron-Making Societies: Early Industrial Development in Sweden and Russia, 1600-1900. Edited by Maria Ågren. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books, 1998. Pp. xii+356; illustrations, maps, notes/references, bibliography, index. $49.95.

From 1991 to 1994 a group of Swedish and Russian historians convened annual meetings to present papers on early iron making in the two countries. Their presentations and discussions ultimately became the nine chapters of this book. Two chapters list individual Swedish authors; the other seven seem to indicate that the Swedish contributors served as primary authors, but with the assistance of one or more Russian scholars. Altogether, this collaborative work resulted from the efforts of fifteen people.

The tone of the book is very social-scientific, and its approach is informed and in large measure guided by the concept of "proto-industry," as put forth and debated by Franklin Mendels, Peter Kriedte, Hans Medick, and Jurgen Schlumbohm. In her nicely constructed introduction, Maria Ågren discusses proto-industry, defining it as "the small scale production of commodities in rural households." These commodities were produced for sale in distant markets, and such production and sale has been considered as having prepared "the ground for industrialisation proper" (p. 13). The authors in Iron-Making Societies use the proto-industry model as a starting point for their comparative study of Sweden's Bergslagen iron region and the Russian Urals in the early modern period. Their main theme is the social organization of work, which they see as the outcome of "a precarious balance of power between ironmasters on the one hand and households on the other" (p. 16).

These regions had some important things in common. By the mid-eighteenth century, both competed for the British iron trade. The state helped foster production, and the ironmasters in both locales were dependent upon the local peasantry for their laborers. But the two iron districts were dissimilar, too. The Ural region was much larger than Bergslagen in terms of land, population, output, and workforce. And its social structure was very different, "with a high degree of legal force and compulsion in relation to the Russian peasantry" (p. 28). The authors explain how, in these two places, iron industries fitted into the agrarian economy; how the interests of ironmasters and rural households were often contradictory; and how social conflicts arose "in and around mines, furnaces and forges" (p. 18).

Iron-Making Societies is impressively comprehensive. Iron production is cast as an assemblage of four related technologies--mining, charcoal burning, melting, and forging--and the authors look at such issues as technology transfer and the influence of markets and trade on technological change. Industrialization in this work is not seen primarily as a process governed or driven by technological factors, such as the substitution of coal for charcoal. Iron making is treated as a process intimately connected to and influenced [End Page 582] by its social and political settings. Then, as it proceeded, iron making in turn influenced the host societies or made them different and "formed the everyday lives of people living in Bergslagen and the Urals" (p. 307).

Given its approach, methodology, and language, this book will more likely be of interest to economic historians than to historians of technology, labor, or work--or to those who study industrial communities or everyday life. In one key and very lengthy chapter on "The Social Organisation of Work at Mines, Furnaces and Forges," credited to Anders Florén and Göran Rydén, with Ludmila Dashkevich, D. V. Gavrilov, and Sergei Ustiantsev, the authors write that "Quite literally, our ambition is to go down the mines and to lift the roofs off the furnaces and forges to get glimpses of the everyday life of work and production there" (p. 61). That ambition is unfortunately never realized. The subject matter always seems to be kept at arm's length. While the socioeconomic overview is captured, a close, detailed...


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