Since the early 1800s railroads have served as a critical element of the transportation infrastructure in the United States and have generated profound changes in technology, finance, business-government relations, and labor policy. By the 1850s railroads, at least in the northern states, had evolved into the nation’s first big businesses, replete with managerial hierarchies that in many respects resembled the structure of the US Army. After the Civil War ended, the railroad network grew rapidly, with lines extending into the Midwest and ultimately, with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, to the Pacific Coast. The last third of the 19th century was characterized by increased militancy among railroad workers, as well as by the growing danger that railroading posed to employees and passengers. Intense competition among railroad companies led to rate wars and discriminatory pricing. The presence of rebates and long-haul/short-haul price differentials led to the federal regulation of the railroads in 1887. The Progressive Era generated additional regulation that reduced profitability and discouraged additional investment in the railroads. As a result, the carriers were often unprepared for the traffic demands associated with World War I, leading to government operation of the railroads between 1917 and 1920. Highway competition during the 1920s and the economic crises of the 1930s provided further challenges for the railroads. The nation’s railroads performed well during World War II but declined steadily in the years that followed. High labor costs, excessive regulatory oversight, and the loss of freight and passenger traffic to cars, trucks, and airplanes ensured that by the 1960s many once-profitable companies were on the verge of bankruptcy. A wave of mergers failed to halt the downward slide. The bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970 increased public awareness of the dire circumstances and led to calls for regulatory reform. The 1980 Staggers Act abolished most of the restrictions on operations and pricing, thus revitalizing the railroads.
Frederick Rowe Davis
The history of DDT and pesticides in America is overshadowed by four broad myths. The first myth suggests that DDT was the first insecticide deployed widely by American farmers. The second indicates that DDT was the most toxic pesticide to wildlife and humans alike. The third myth assumes that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was an exposé of the problems of DDT rather than a broad indictment of American dependency on chemical insecticides. The fourth and final myth reassures Americans that the ban on DDT late in 1972 resolved the pesticide paradox in America. Over the course of the 20th century, agricultural chemists have developed insecticides from plants with phytotoxic properties (“botanical” insecticides) and a range of chemicals including heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, chlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT, and organophosphates like parathion. All of the synthetic insecticides carried profound unintended consequences for landscapes and wildlife alike. More recently, chemists have returned to nature and developed chemical analogs of the botanical insecticides, first with the synthetic pyrethroids and now with the neonicotinoids. Despite recent introduction, neonics have become widely used in agriculture and there are suspicions that these chemicals contribute to declines in bees and grassland birds.
The eighty years from 1790 to 1870 were marked by dramatic economic and demographic changes in the United States. Cities in this period grew faster than the country as a whole, drawing migrants from the countryside and immigrants from overseas. This dynamism stemmed from cities’ roles as spearheads of commercial change and sites of new forms of production. Internal improvements such as canals and railroads expanded urban hinterlands in the early republic, while urban institutions such as banks facilitated market exchange. Both of these worked to the advantage of urban manufacturers. By paying low wages to workers performing repetitive tasks, manufacturers enlarged the market for their products but also engendered opposition from a workforce internally divided along lines of sex and race, and at times slavery and freedom. The Civil War affirmed the legitimacy of wage labor and enhanced the power of corporations, setting the stage for the postwar growth of large-scale, mechanized industry.
Chloe E. Taft
The process of urban deindustrialization has been long and uneven. Even the terms “deindustrial” and “postindustrial” are contested; most cities continue to host manufacturing on some scale. After World War II, however, cities that depended on manufacturing for their lifeblood increasingly diversified their economies in the face of larger global, political, and demographic transformations. Manufacturing centers in New England, the Mid Atlantic, and the Midwest United States were soon identified as belonging to “the American Rust Belt.” Steel manufacturers, automakers, and other industrial behemoths that were once mainstays of city life closed their doors as factories and workers followed economic and social incentives to leave urban cores for the suburbs, the South, or foreign countries. Remaining industrial production became increasingly automated, resulting in significant declines in the number of factory jobs. Metropolitan officials faced with declining populations and tax bases responded by adapting their assets—in terms of workforce, location, or culture—to new economies, including warehousing and distribution, finance, health care, tourism, leisure industries like casinos, and privatized enterprises such as prisons. Faced with declining federal funding for renewal, they focused on leveraging private investment for redevelopment. Deindustrializing cities marketed themselves as destinations with convention centers, stadiums, and festival marketplaces, seeking to lure visitors and a “creative class” of new residents. While some postindustrial cities became success stories of reinvention, others struggled. They entertained options to “rightsize” by shrinking their municipal footprints, adapted vacant lots for urban agriculture, or attracted voyeurs to gaze at their industrial ruins. Whether industrial cities faced a slow transformation or the shock of multiple factory closures within a few years, the impact of these economic shifts and urban planning interventions both amplified old inequalities and created new ones.
The relationship between the car and the city remains complex and involves numerous private and public forces, innovations in technology, global economic fluctuations, and shifting cultural attitudes that only rarely consider the efficiency of the automobile as a long-term solution to urban transit. The advantages of privacy, speed, ease of access, and personal enjoyment that led many to first embrace the automobile were soon shared and accentuated by transit planners as the surest means to realize the long-held ideals of urban beautification, efficiency, and accessible suburbanization. The remarkable gains in productivity provided by industrial capitalism brought these dreams within reach and individual car ownership became the norm for most American families by the middle of the 20th century. Ironically, the success in creating such a “car country” produced the conditions that again congested traffic, raised questions about the quality of urban (and now suburban) living, and further distanced the nation from alternative transit options. The “hidden costs” of postwar automotive dependency in the United States became more apparent in the late 1960s, leading to federal legislation compelling manufacturers and transit professionals to address the long-standing inefficiencies of the car. This most recent phase coincides with a broader reappraisal of life in the city and a growing recognition of the material limits to mass automobility.
Christopher J. Castañeda
The modern oil industry began in 1859 with Edwin Drake’s discovery of oil at Titusville, Pennsylvania. Since then, this dynamic industry has experienced dramatic episodes of growth, aggressive competition for market share, various forms of corporate organization and cartel-like agreements, and governmental efforts at regulation and control, as well as monopoly, mergers, and consolidation. The history of the oil industry reflects its capital-intensive nature. Immense sums of money are spent on oil discovery, production, and refining projects. Marketing, transportation, and distribution systems likewise require enormous amounts of financing and logistical planning. Although oil is often produced in conjunction with, or in wells pressurized by, natural gas, the oil industry is distinct from the related natural gas industry. Since its origins in the mid-19th century, the oil industry has developed an industrial structure that emphasizes scale and scope to maximize profits. Profits can be huge, which attracts entrepreneurial efforts on individual, corporate, and national scales. By the late 20th through early 21st century, the oil industry had begun confronting questions about long-term viability, combined with an increasingly influential environmental movement that seeks to reduce fossil fuel consumption and prevent its toxic waste and by-products from polluting human, animal habitats, and natural habitats.
Joshua L. Rosenbloom
The United States economy underwent major transformations between American independence and the Civil War through rapid population growth, the development of manufacturing, the onset of modern economic growth, increasing urbanization, the rapid spread of settlement into the trans-Appalachian west, and the rise of European immigration. These decades were also characterized by an increasing sectional conflict between free and slave states that culminated in 1861 in Southern secession from the Union and a bloody and destructive Civil War. Labor markets were central to each of these developments, directing the reallocation of labor between sectors and regions, channeling a growing population into productive employment, and shaping the growing North–South division within the country. Put differently, labor markets influenced the pace and character of economic development in the antebellum United States. On the one hand, the responsiveness of labor markets to economic shocks helped promote economic growth; on the other, imperfections in labor market responses to these shocks significantly affected the character and development of the national economy.
Paul V. Murphy
Americans grappled with the implications of industrialization, technological progress, urbanization, and mass immigration with startling vigor and creativity in the 1920s even as wide numbers kept their eyes as much on the past as on the future. American industrial engineers and managers were global leaders in mass production, and millions of citizens consumed factory-made products, including electric refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, technological marvels like radios and phonographs, and that most revolutionary of mass-produced durables, the automobile. They flocked to commercial amusements (movies, sporting events, amusement parks) and absorbed mass culture in their homes, through the radio and commercial recordings. In the major cities, skyscrapers drew Americans upward while thousands of new miles of roads scattered them across the country. Even while embracing the dynamism of modernity, Americans repudiated many of the progressive impulses of the preceding era. The transition from war to peace in 1919 and 1920 was tumultuous, marked by class conflict, a massive strike wave, economic crisis, and political repression. Exhausted by reform, war, and social experimentation, millions of Americans recoiled from central planning and federal power and sought determinedly to bypass traditional politics in the 1920s. This did not mean a retreat from active and engaged citizenship; Americans fought bitterly over racial equality, immigration, religion, morals, Prohibition, economic justice, and politics. In a greatly divided nation, citizens experimented with new forms of nationalism, cultural identity, and social order that could be alternatively exclusive and pluralistic. Whether repressive or tolerant, such efforts held the promise of unity amid diversity; even those in the throes of reaction sought new ways of integration. The result was a nation at odds with itself, embracing modernity, sometimes heedlessly, while seeking desperately to retain a grip on the past.
From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Antimonopoly, meaning opposition to the exclusive or near-exclusive control of an industry or business by one or a very few businesses, played a relatively muted role in the history of the post-1945 era, certainly compared to some earlier periods in American history. However, the subject of antimonopoly is important because it sheds light on changing attitudes toward concentrated power, corporations, and the federal government in the United States after World War II.
Paradoxically, as antimonopoly declined as a grass-roots force in American politics, the technical, expert-driven field of antitrust enjoyed a golden age. From the 1940s to the 1960s, antitrust operated on principles that were broadly in line with those that inspired its creation in the late 19th and early 20th century, acknowledging the special contribution small-business owners made to US democratic culture. In these years, antimonopoly remained sufficiently potent as a political force to sustain the careers of national-level politicians such as congressmen Wright Patman and Estes Kefauver and to inform the opinions of Supreme Court justices such as Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. Antimonopoly and consumer politics overlapped in this period. From the mid-1960s onward, Ralph Nader repeatedly tapped antimonopoly ideas in his writings and consumer activism, skillfully exploiting popular anxieties about concentrated economic power. At the same time, as part of the United States’ rise to global hegemony, officials in the federal government’s Antitrust Division exported antitrust overseas, building it into the political, economic, and legal architecture of the postwar world.
Beginning in the 1940s, conservative lawyers and economists launched a counterattack against the conception of antitrust elaborated in the progressive era. By making consumer welfare—understood in terms of low prices and market efficiency—the determining factor in antitrust cases, they made a major intellectual and political contribution to the rightward thrust of US politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox, published in 1978, popularized and signaled the ascendency of this new approach.
In the 1980s and 1990s antimonopoly drifted to the margin of political debate. Fear of big government now loomed larger in US politics than the specter of monopoly or of corporate domination. In the late 20th century, Americans, more often than not, directed their antipathy toward concentrated power in its public, rather than its private, forms. This fundamental shift in the political landscape accounts in large part for the overall decline of antimonopoly—a venerable American political tradition—in the period 1945 to 2000.