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  • Swansea Copper: A Global History by Chris Evans and Louise Miskell
  • Gianenrico Bernasconi (bio)
Swansea Copper: A Global History By Chris Evans and Louise Miskell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. Pp. 229.

In recent years, historians have devoted much attention to the global trade of consumer goods, casting light on the emergence of a new category of semi-luxury goods, of a new practice of domestic comfort, of strategies of social promotion in the context of a "culture of appearance," and of the taste for exotic objects. This approach—which has undoubtedly contributed to a better understanding of the economic, social, and cultural dynamics of early industrialization—has however neglected certain categories of goods, like "producer goods" such as metals, that are employed in the fabrication of other goods. The importance of a producer [End Page 255] good in the history of the globalization of British industry is a central concern in Chris Evans and Louise Miskell's new book: Swansea Copper. This work retraces the global history of copper in the Swansea district, a region in the South of Wales. The origins of Swansea district's success are manifold. They include the introduction of a reverberatory smelting furnace employing mineral coal as fuel, which considerably increased the production of copper, but also changed its modes of transformation. In Swansea, smelting did not take place near the mines of metallic ore, but instead took place close to the fuel deposits to avoid the high costs of coal transportation.

Evans and Miskell's book is divided into seven chapters, organized chronologically. After a general overview of copper in Baroque Europe, the following chapters focus on copper production in the Swansea district from the end of the seventeenth century, through the great success of the mid-nineteenth century, until its decline in the early twentieth century. The book's approach is inspired by global history. "Copper travelled," as the authors observe, and the study of its mobility allows historians to trace the topography of the extraction sites, the networks of materials circulation, and the emergence of new markets for this producer good. As of the 1820s, relaxed British customs regulations opened the supply chain of the Swansea district from Cornish, Irish, and Welsh mines to a global market: ships coming from Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Chili, Australia, and New Zealand brought ore into the Welsh port. The demand for producer goods was likewise part of global dynamics. Swansea copper was used for producing stills and sugar boilers, necessary tools for the sugar industry in slave plantations of the Caribbean. Copper plates were also used to protect the ships' hulls, as well as for the fabrication of locomotive fireboxes and telegraphic cables. In later years, however, the migration of Welsh workers and the increasing number of ore extraction and transformation sites created a large diffusion of the modes of metal production, once exclusive of the Swansea district. This implied in turn the necessity for Swansea companies to reorganize their structure and rethink their commercial strategies. The delocalization of production in the late nineteenth century marked the decline of Swansea hegemony within the copper industry. Swansea's dominance definitively fell apart in the early twentieth century, when American copper from the Rocky Mountains transformed the market of raw materials, and new procedures for extracting ore by electrolysis were widespread.

The research in Swansea Copper is grounded in the archives of companies active in the Swansea district. This research is far from easy; these companies underwent frequent reorganizations, and the study of their local activities in Wales is provided within the context of global networks of material supplies and commercial routes. Overall, Evans and Miskell successfully achieve their ambitious goals. They manage to write a global history of copper, clarifying the evolution of economic practices and commercial strategies through modernity. [End Page 256]

Evans and Miskell's volume is a rich and fascinating one. In particular, the authors' plea to include the history of producer goods such as copper in the history of industrialization seems of special relevance for future research. The discussion of metals circulation, the question of energy, the history of production modes, and the organisation of companies and their global...


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