American Towns: An Interpretive History

By Thale, Christopher | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

American Towns: An Interpretive History


Thale, Christopher, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


American Towns: An Interpretive History. By David J. Russo. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee., 2001. Pp. Xv. 350. Illus., notes, bib., index. Cloth, $28.95.)

Until the early twentieth century, most Americans lived in, or in the orbit of, small towns. Yet until recently the small town was largely ignored by historians, and despite studies of Dedham, Sugar Creek, Dodge City, and other towns, few have attempted to grasp their story as a whole. Richard Lingeman's Small Town America: A Narrative History 1620-The Present, is a rare exception, weak in its treatment of government and now dated, while old standards by Lewis Atherton and Page Smith are far from comprehensive. David J. Russo has pulled together most if not all the strands in this synthetic account, describing the lives of ordinary townspeople and analyzing what made towns unique. Russo, author of (among other things) a study of nineteenth-century local history writing, has mined a wide range of sources, including studies of company towns, utopian towns, and a selection of autobiographies. Thematic chapters move from brief discussions of Native American settlements to the present, centered on the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, before the town had ceased to be the primary community for a mainly rural population. (xiii)

Smallness brought intimacy to small town politics and governance, but suffrage, social structure, and state laws make this subject complex. Political structures ranged from company-run mining and factory towns to New England's participatory, relatively democratic towns. Often, towns were part of large, rural-dominated local governments, and town and hinterland did not always see eye to eye. During the nineteenth century, local governments in towns began providing urban-like services, employing paid officials. Unfortunately, Russo neglects to discuss "local" postmasters, attacked by Robert LaFollette and other reformers as mainstays of statewide machines. The Great Depression marked a turning point, after which state and federal governments dictated more and more of the local government agenda.

Most towns have served as agricultural service centers, but an important minority were the earliest homes of water-based industries, and Russo argues that "the birthplace of modern industry was the town, not the city. " (137) Russo focuses here on factories rather than proto-industrialization, but the argument might be expanded to the putting-out system radiating to small towns from early nineteenth-century Lynn. Russo analyzes subsequent transformations both in the industrial roles of towns and in occupational structure. Aside from utopian establishments, the least hierarchical of towns were those providing services for farmers little connected to the market; commercialization brought steeper stratification. Where plantations, lumber, or mining dominated the local economy, social cleavages were much greater, and racial divisions largely cut across the town/ city boundary. Noting the geographic mobility of the unskilled, and broad land ownership in non-plantation agricultural areas, Russo argues class divisions were far less acute than in big cities.

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