Confronting Decline: The Political Economy of Deindustrialization in Twentieth-Century New England

By Barnhill, John | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Confronting Decline: The Political Economy of Deindustrialization in Twentieth-Century New England


Barnhill, John, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Confronting Decline: The Political Economy of Deindustrialization in Twentieth-Century New England. By David Koistinen. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. 346 pages. $74.95 (paperback).

Deindustrialization is the process whereby an industry becomes noncompetitive with the same industry from another region and thus declines, leading to a dramatic loss of jobs and income for all affected. Deindustrialization became noticeable in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century as mines and factories closed because they were uncompetitive with newer and more modern factories and mines in the rest of the world. The region most affected, from the Northeast to the upper Midwest, became known as the rust belt.

In this work, economic historian David Koistinen documents a far earlier but still continuing deindustrialization, that of the New England textile industry, with an emphasis on Massachusetts. He argues that responses to textile decline mirrored those in other, later industries, both in New England and in the rest of the United States. Consistently, the first response was an attempt to cut costs. When retrenchment failed, industry looked to government for bail out assistance. When all else failed, economic leaders in and out of government began seeking alternative means of economic development.

The first chapter deals with the historical development. It begins in the late eighteenth century with Samuel Slater and the early nineteenth century Lowell experiment that made New England a leading textile manufacturing region. Koistinen shows that textiles drove development of other industries in the region, from textile machines to unrelated industries such as firearms, woolen goods, and footwear.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the New England standard of living was highest in the country. Textile mills began the first American industrial revolution, and they enabled New England to weather declines in agriculture and fishing. New England was the nation's economic leader for a century. And New England laborers had the highest standard of living in the United States thanks in part to their robust unionism. But inevitably competition arose, first in the American South and later in other areas of the world. Weak or non-existent unions and surplus unskilled workers resulted in a low-wage work force; textile work did not require particularly high skills. Old factories with obsolete or decaying equipment were more expensive to operate than new ones with modern equipment and lower maintenance costs.

Chapter 2 deals with the first response, retrenchment. The post World War I economic crisis provided New England mill owners with an opportunity to achieve anti-labor changes they had failed to get during more prosperous times. When Southern textile owners began competing, some New England owners resisted, seeking to cut costs by reducing the workforce, expanding the work week, cutting workers compensation, and fighting the unions and legal safeguards of workers. Mill owners had some success in getting tax reductions at the local level. When anti-union efforts failed due to government opposition, some owners relocated their mills to take advantage of the non-union low cost Southern economic climate. …

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