Progress & Invention:
Representations of the Industrial Revolution in America as Reflected in Bookbindings

pba00804: The Outline of Man's KnowledgeMedia often reflect the society in which they are created, and books are no different. Bookbindings produced during the American industrial revolution symbolize and reflect the incredible changes that took place during this era.

What is the Industrial Revolution?
Historians note that the period from the Civil War’s end until roughly 1920 was marked by a movement toward production of goods by machine rather than by hand, usually in large, intricately-organized factories. Other characteristics of the era include accelerated technological innovation; growth of a nationwide transportation network based on the railroad; the establishment of a communications network based on the telegraph and telephone; and the steady increase in the size and predominance of cities. Images reflecting this progression appeared often on the bookbindings of the day.pbw01060: Facts for Farmers (1867), detail

From Working the Land to Building Our Cities
Pre-industrial book covers often depicted agricultural themes. Farm equipment, crops, and symbols of agricultural abundance are plentiful on bindings from the earlier part of the publishers' bindings era.

Urban development exploded as workers flocked to cities from farms and villages, and decorations on bookbindings likewise transitioned from rural to urban scenes. Urban population grew from six million in 1860 to fifty-four million in 1920, increasing twice as fast as the general population. In 1860, about twenty percent of the American population lived in urban areas. By 1920, urban dwellers accounted for half of the population. The largest urban areas were the most industrialized.

pba00725: Our New West (1869), detailSteaming to the West
Demographic changes as well as new technology contributed to the reshaping of the modern city. The pre-industrial city was largely pedestrian, with businesses clustered on the waterfront. By the end of the 19th century, mass transit was born. The cable car came along in the 1870s, followed by electric streetcars, or trolleys, in the 1880s. Mass transit dramatically changed the distribution of the population, as people moved further from the city center. By then, the steam engine already had begun to revolutionize railroad and ship travel, allowing for the spread of people and industry to the "frontier." The railroad thus became a symbol of progress and westward expansion.

pba02481: Forty Modern Fables (1902), detailBuilding Skyward
The late 19th century also saw a building boom, as banks, hotels, department stores, and office buildings went up at a record pace. New building technology allowed for the first skyscrapers to be built the in the 1880s--and crowded urban areas saw housing and industry move skyward. Previously, buildings had been limited to five stories, but new architectural material, and the invention of the electric elevator, allowed for buildings to grow taller.

Skyscrapers first appeared in Chicago, where the business district exploded with modern architecture in the 1880s and 1890s. New York’s Woolworth Building surpassed them all in 1913. At fifty-five stories, it was the world’s tallest building for two decades. The skyscraper had become a symbol of the modern and technological character of the urban landscape.

pba01846: Peculiarities of American Cities (1885)  (detail)Bridges to Progress
Another architectural wonder of the late 19th century was the suspension bridge, which pulled new territory into the urban area. A German immigrant developed new construction techniques that made bridges stronger and allowed them to span longer distances. Among the bridges he designed was the Brooklyn Bridge, which was intended to link rural Brooklyn with urban Manhattan by allowing for easy travel across the East River. At 1,595 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge was the world's longest suspension bridge when it was completed in 1883, and it sparked an 80-year period of large-scale bridge building. The suspension bridge became typical of the American cityscape, and a symbol for the expansive spirit of the industrial era.pbw01124: The Red Telephone (1905)

Spreading the Word
Other innovations of the industrial period changed the way people lived and worked on a daily basis, such as the sewing machine, the typewriter, and the cash register. Among the most revolutionary inventions of the time were those that allowed people to communicate over great distances: the telegraph at mid-century and the telephone in 1876. The telephone grew out of attempts to improve the telegraph. Both were wire-based electrical systems. Whereas the telegraph could send or receive only one message at a time, and only in Morse code, the telephone enabled the transmission of multiple messages over the same line, in the form of sounds such as voices. These advancements in communication characterized the innovative spirit of the industrial age, as well as its ability to connect people in different locales and expand the urban area.

pba00123: Afloat on the Ohio (1897) (full cover)Smokestacks
The symbol that became most synonymous with the industrial revolution was the factory, which represented both progress and the new difficulties facing industrial America. Factories became the characteristic industrial institution, dominating the lives of urban workers and casting the shadow of pollution over the urban landscape. Writers–and bookbinders–often used factories and the machines contained in them to represent the complex nature of industry as both a positive and negative part of modern American life.

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Industrial Revolution Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Industrial Revolution lesson plan: Word document or PDF file


Mohl, Raymond A. The New City: Urban America in the Industrial Age, 1860-1920. Arlington Hts., Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1985.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Related Online Resources:

America at Work, America at Leisure (American Memory)

America On the Move (Smithsonian)

Chicago: City of the Century

The Great Buildings Collection

The History of the First Locomotives in America

Inside an American Factory, The Westinghouse Works, 1904 (LC/American Memory)

The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906. (LC/American Memory)

Making of America Project

Nineteenth Century America in Art and Literature (National Gallery of Art)

Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900 (LC/American Memory)

Turn of the Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 (LC/American Memory)

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