Sunday, February 25, 2018

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World

Joshua B. Freeman's Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World was more than an intellectual experience, for I was reading about the forces behind my personal family history.

My Greenwood ancestors were cotton mill workers in Lancashire, England, at least going back to my great-great-great grandfather.

My grandfather worked at Standard Steel in Burnham, PA as a teenager to money for college. During WWII, Gramps and his family lived in a 'temporary' housing project when he worked at  Chevrolet Aviation Engine Division of GMC testing airplane struts. He later relocated to Detroit to work for GM.

My dad's mother worked at Remington Rand in Tonawanda, NY, as did my mom. My brother is a Ford engineer.

While in college, my husband worked summers as a welder at Buick. His father worked for Fisher Body in Flint. And his widowed grandmother worked at GM, the only female on the factory floor. When she was wanted, the men called out for "Girl" and that became her family nickname. She brought food to strikers during the famous GM sit-down strike and was a proud union member.

When Dad was hired by Chrysler in 1963, about 24% of American workers were employed in manufacturing, but only 8% today. How did we evolve to now, with overseas mega-factories paying abysmal wages and the struggle for young adults to retain their parents' middle-class status?

What happened? Once factories were associated with progress, modernity, and social betterment. Today we think of empty ruins in the Rust Belt, or overseas cheap labor turning out Apple iPhones and expensive running shoes with logos.
Like the empty Quaker Lace and Stetson Hat and other factories in Kensington, Philadelphia where we lived in 1980.

The book left me overwhelmed, in a good way. Each chapter sent my head spinning with information and insights. Some things I knew about, like the Lancashire mills where my Greenwood ancestors worked, or the New England Mills that many quilt historians write about. And of course, Detroit's auto factories and war effort manufacturing, and the Detroit Institute of Arts famous mural by Diego Rivera of Detroit Industry.

It was satisfying to know more details about these aspects of the history of the factory. But what really caught me by surprise was how interesting the later chapters were on issues such as how America helped the Soviets build factories after WWI and how mass merchandizing's demand for cheap products led to the growth of factories in countries with cheap labor sources.

The book brought together information in a narrative that helped me to better understand the Modern world.

I thought this would be a fascinating book when I requested it from the publisher through NetGalley. It kept my interest to the end.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Joshua B. Freeman
Publication Date: February 2018
ISBN 978-0-393-24631-5

My Family and Factories

I live in my childhood home, a modest suburban ranch home, made possible because my Dad worked in the auto industry.

In 1963 he sold the gas and service station his father built in the 1940s to move to Detroit. He found work at the Chrysler road test garage and later he worked at the Highland Park plant as an experimental mechanic in the Windshield Wiper and small motor labs. Overtime pay, health benefits, and a good retirement offered my family a comfortable working-class life.
Dad at work at Chrysler

Dad's mother Emma Becker was working in the North Tonawanda, NY Remington Rand factory when she met my grandfather Al Gochenour. After graduating from high school my mother worked a comptograph at Rand.

Mom's father worked at Standard Steel in Burnham, PA before he went to college in 1923. He wrote about how as a child, nearby textile mills dumped dyes into the local creek, which ran different colors on different days. Burnham was a town built around the steel mill to house workers.

During WWII Gramps tested airplanes at the Chevrolet Aviation Engine Division of GMC in Tonawanda-Kenmore, N.Y. After the war, he was a stress engineer of frames, suspensions, brakes, etc. on Chevy trucks in Warren, Mich. His son worked on the line for GM, as did one of my cousins.
My grandfather at the Chevrolet Aviation Engine Division of GMC in Tonawanda, NY in 1952.

In fact, three generations of my family have worked for the Detroit auto companies, for my brother is a Ford engineer.

But my family roots as factory workers go back even further. At least three generations of my Greenwood ancestors worked in the cotton mills in Lancashire, England.

The 1891 Census for Newchurch, Lancashire shows my great-grandfather Cropper, age nine. (A Cropper in the textile industry was a highly skilled worker who used hand shears to cut and even the surface on woven wool.) His father William, age 48, was a warper; that meant he set up the long parallel warp yarns on the looms. The eldest son, David H. (Hartley) at age 15 was a weaver; he later ran a garden. When older, the girls had jobs as machinists in factories.
William Cropper and family
Cropper's grandfather Hartley Greenwood (b. 1803) also worked in the mills. In 1851 he was a cotton warp sizer; the census shows at age 74 he was a cotton twister living up in the Union Workhouse. The 1861 census shows his son John was also a cotton warp sizer, daughter Sarah was a cotton power loom weaver, and sons Hartley, age 12, and Cropper, age 10, were cotton mill operatives and scholars. Cropper's great-grandfather John Greenwood (b. 1762) was a cotton weaver.

My father-in-law had a white-collar, non-union job with Fisher Body in Flint; after his retirement, the factory closed and then was torn down. His widowed mother worked for GM. The family called her Girl, a nickname she picked up when she was the only female on the factory floor. The men would call "Girl" and give her orders. She was involved with the famous sit-down strike, delivering food to the strikers. She was a proud Union member.

Even my husband worked as a welder at the GM factory summers while in college. The men encouraged him in his studies. 


  1. I love that you know so much about the work part of your family's lives, and that you even have pictures of them at work!
    Since some of your ancestors were mill workers, you might be interested in the book Home-Life of the Lancashire Folk During the Cotton Famine, by Edwin Waugh. During the American Civil War, the British textile mills couldn't get cotton and the workers experienced hardship, and your family members would have all been affected. This book was written by a journalist (maybe as a series of newspaper articles) explaining to people around Great Britain why they were the "worthy" poor and what should be done to help them. It's a free book on Kindle and I bet it's available on Google books too.

    1. Thanks, Textile Ranger, for the information about the book! And for reading!