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American Management and British Labor: A Comparative Study of the Cotton Spinning Industry.

This monograph undertakes a comparative study of technology in relation to business management and industrial relations in the United Kingdom and the United States. The central theme is the dualism between manufacture by machine and production by craftsworkers. Isaac Cohen persuasively brings out the fundamental contrast between the triumph of the machine in America and the survival in Lancashire of craft control of the production process. In particular, Cohen seeks to dissipate the mystery surrounding the self-acting mule and to explain the different receptions accorded to that technology in the two countries.

The self-actor was developed between 1825 and 1832 and spread even before the expiration of the patent monopoly in 1846, but it failed to produce the anticipated effects. Andrew Ure as well as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx thought that its introduction would inaugurate "a new epoch of the automatic system." The "iron man" failed, however, to revolutionize the pattern of industrial relations in the mule rooms. In that sphere, craft control had been entrenched so securely by the early and strong combinations of the mule spinners that no technical change could undermine it. Such an outcome remained almost unique in the history of the British cotton industry, where the exploitative monopoly of one group of workers after another was to be effectively destroyed through mechanical innovation. The advent of the self-actor certainly precipitated a degree of change, and it is Cohen's achievement to explain the exact nature of that change. In effect, the spread of the new machine transformed the mule spinner from an operative into a minder or supervisor of machinery, serving as the quasi-overseer of his dependent piecers. "Deskilling, in fact, did not result in the loss of control but rather in its consolidation." It also created a pattern of close cooperation between spinners and mill owners, which inhibited technical change in spinning until the 1950s.

In the United States, on the other hand, the rapid adoption of the self-actor in the 1840s and 1850s was accompanied by the destruction of craft control over the spinning process. There trade unions were either weak or nonexistent, and overseers, spurred on by managers, became the effective supervisors of the spinners, driving their underlings as British spinners drove their own piecers. That transformation reduced American spinners in British eyes almost to the level of superior piecers.

Cohen further shows how the emigration of strike leaders from Lancashire to the United States helped to lower the temperature in industrial relations in England but to raise it in America. In the 1870s a series of disputes erupted in Fall River, the main center of mule spinning in America. In those strikes the mule spinners sought to reintroduce Lancashire practice to the industrial scene of Massachusetts. Their failure to achieve those aims undermined their own position within the industry. Mill owners were encouraged to replace mules by ring frames and to replace recalcitrant men by less expensive and more docile girls and women. In Lancashire militant spinners had destroyed their own livelihood; in the United States they destroyed that of their fellows. Thus the rapid adoption of the self-actor was followed by the equally rapid adoption of the ring frame.

In effect, Cohen has written the pre-history of the great debate over the adoption of ring spinning. His use of the comparative method is usefully extended by the inclusion of a chapter on the coal and the iron and steel industries. His book illuminates every topic on which it touches. He also corrects the errors of eminent scholars, doing so without fear or favor but always with tact.

To date, only three books have dealt with the recondite history of mule spinning. None of these three, not even the most recent and best, edited by Alan Fowler and Terry Wyke, The Barefoot Aristocrats (1987), has succeeded in unraveling the mystery surrounding the self-actor. The facts have long been known but have remained devoid of explanation. Now Cohen has supplied a full and convincing explanation, placing future generations forever in his debt. His sources are extensive and impressive, documented in the sixty pages of endnotes and in the twenty-page bibliography of printed works. He may perhaps have underestimated the aggregate spindleage of the U.S. cotton industry in 1850 and thus may have exaggerated the speed at which the self-actor spread. He might have also said more about the growth in Lancashire of the joiner-minder system, a system that has been studied by Per Bolin-Hort in Work, Family and the State ... The British Cotton Industry, 1780-1920 (1989). Nor does he satisfy my own curiosity about the precise chronology of mule spinning in America and the exact year of its climacteric in comparison to that of 1913 for Lancashire. These considerations do not, however, affect the main thrust of the argument. Cohen has written a work of major importance in a field where first-class works remain relatively few in number.

D. A. Farnie was reader in economic history at the University of Manchester until his retirement in 1991. He has published a book on The English Cotton Industry and the World Market, 1815-1896 (1979) and articles on textile technology, the business history of the cotton industry, and the business history of textile machine making.
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Author:Farnie, D.A.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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