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Minding the Machine

Languages of Class in Early Industrial America

Stephen P. Rice (Author)

Available worldwide

Hardcover, 243 pages
ISBN: 9780520227811
August 2004
$85.00, £71.00
Other Formats Available:
In this innovative book, Stephen P. Rice offers a new understanding of class formation in America during the several decades before the Civil War. This was the period in the nation's early industrial development when travel by steamboat became commonplace, when the railroad altered concepts of space and time, and when Americans experienced the beginnings of factory production. These disorienting changes raised a host of questions about what machinery would accomplish. Would it promote equality or widen the distance between rich and poor? Among the most contentious questions were those focusing on the social consequences of mechanization: while machine enthusiasts touted the extent to which machines would free workers from toil, others pointed out that people needed to tend machines, and that that work was fundamentally degrading and exploitative.

Minding the Machine shows how members of a new middle class laid claim to their social authority and minimized the potential for class conflict by playing out class relations on less contested social and technical terrains. As they did so, they defined relations between shopowners—and the overseers, foremen, or managers they employed—and wage workers as analogous to relations between head and hand, between mind and body, and between human and machine.

Rice presents fascinating discussions of the mechanics' institute movement, the manual labor school movement, popular physiology reformers, and efforts to solve the seemingly intractable problem of steam boiler explosions. His eloquent narrative demonstrates that class is as much about the comprehension of social relations as it is about the making of social relations, and that class formation needs to be understood not only as a social struggle but as a conceptual struggle.
Stephen P. Rice is Associate Professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
“A highly original and creative book”—Lawrence A. Peskin American Historical Review
“Minding the Machine gives important insight into the reception of the machine and the role that it played in the development of class.”—Howard B. Rock Enterprise & Society
“Rice’s book is a welcome read that offers considerable insight . . . into the conservative thinking that celebrates the ‘middle’ in opposition to the working class. . . . inventive and convincing.”—Daniel J. Walkowitz Journal Of Social History
“A whirlwind tour of strange and wondrous sights in antebellum America. . . . Rice’s presentation is often rich, complex, subtle, and nuanced.”—David A. Zonderman Labour/Le Travail
“A provocative, stimulating, very readable new look at questions we have cared about for easily three generations. . . . No synopsis can do justice to the richness of the material in this volume.”—John Lauritz Larson Reviews In American History
“An intriguing, seminal survey. . . . an inherently fascinating, informed and informative read.”—James A. Cox The Midwest Book Review
"Minding the Machine is an illuminating contribution to our understanding of antebellum mechanization and the origins of the modern middle class. Carefully focusing on key antebellum discussions of mechanical knowledge, training, control, opportunity, bodily and mental health, Rice convincingly shows how deeply these were pervaded by conceptions of social and class authority."—John F. Kasson, author of Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

"Stephen Rice has brought provocative questions and fresh research to bear on that vexed topic-the origins of the American middle class. Using the increased mechanization of production during the antebellum decades as his focus, he has provided a fascinating picture of workplace changes and the cultural responses they elicited."—Joyce Appleby, author of Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans

"Rice's book explores the intellectual processes by which the emerging middle class in antebellum America strove to understand and control the new industrial order, mapping class relations onto less contested social and technical terrain. Within strange and unusual places and movements seemingly removed from the center of workplace change and conflict—such as health reform and the creation of chess playing automatons—crucial questions of power and authority were debated."—David Zonderman, author of Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815-1850

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