One-Minute Essays
The Industrial World Arts & Humanities Science/Technology Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening
While the later nineteenth century saw profound changes in technologies, economic organization, and class structures in both Europe and America, for the first two centuries of American existence as a colony and later as an independent sovereign entity, the industrial experience differed little here from that in Europe. More importantly, however much we may believe in "American Exceptionalism," American technology was merely a transplantation of Old World ways of doing and making to a new continent. The variables that slowly transmogrified American technology were social, geographical, and environmental. Studying the industrial world before the onset of the Industrial Revolution's sweeping nineteenth-century changes provides a glimpse of cultural continuity between the European Middle Ages and the Great American Experiment.
Although the American colonies before independence were nominally offshoots of British ventures, the multi-national nature of many of the early colonies should not be forgotten. Similarly, as the majority of colonists were workers and artisans, they did not renounce their toolkits even if they may have renounced their political allegiances.
  • Dutch skills with water-moving and management spread through the Hudson valley.
  • German woodworking and iron manufacturing knowledge spread from the Delaware valleys westward.
  • English, Scottish and later Irish styles took root throughout New England and then spread quickly into the Ohio Valley after the French and Indian Wars.
  • French technique was established further north in the St. Lawrence watershed.
And as the American Colonies spread south and westward a century later, they encountered strong survival of medieval Iberian techniques originally planted in Mexico in the 16th century. Of course, these groups all had access to similar ranges of technologies, but their stylistic implementation differed from region to region. Further, the environmental differences of the vast American continent imposed differing demands upon these technologies, and consequently, on the settlers' ingenuity. Iron-working for example — to the extent it was permitted by the British — developed differently in New England than in the Mid-Atlantic states.
The essential industries of milling, shipbuilding, charcoaling, and domestic foodstuffs also had differential development across America. The planter in South Carolina in the seventeenth century had a very different experience than his brethren in Maine at the same time, and even if their technological toolkits were the same upon leaving England, they later diverged if conditions warranted.
The importance of understanding the built environment is important for every citizen. We do not live in a solely political world, but rather a politically and culturally mediated material world. And it would be foolish to think that while in the last third of the 18th century the colonists profoundly rethought their socio-polical relationships, they also completely reordered their material world. In fact, much evidence points to the contrary conclusion for their technologies. Speaking for the built environment, the American experience is not about revolution, but rather about diffusion, evolution, and ingenuity.