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The Rise of Big Business Previous Next
Digital History ID 3165

 

Between 1869 and 1910, the value of American manufacturing rose from $3 billion to $13 billion. The steel industry produced just 68,000 tons in 1870, but 4.2 million tons in 1890. The central vehicle of this surge in economic productivity was the modern corporation.

In recent years, Americans have often been told that we have entered a "new economy." The older industrial economy, it is said, is giving way to a new global economy based on computers, the Internet, telecommunications, and entertainment. This is not the first new economy in American history. Following the Civil War, a new economy emerged in the United States resting on steam-powered manufacturing, the railroad, the electric motor, the internal combustion engine, and the practical application of chemistry. Unlike the pre-Civil War economy, this new one was dependent on raw materials from around the world and it sold goods in global markets.

The transformations that took place in American business following the Civil War involved far more than a change in industrial techniques or productivity. Business organization expanded in size and scale. There was an unparalleled increase in factory production and mechanization. By the beginning of the 20th century, the major sectors of the nation's economy--banking, manufacturing, meat packing, oil refining, railroads, and steel--were dominated by a small number of giant corporations.

The rise of big business was accompanied by the emergence of a new class of millionaires. At the beginning of the Civil War, there were only 400 millionaires in the United States. By 1892, the number had risen to 4,047.

The emergence of the modern corporation was accompanied by many positive developments. Through mechanization, standardization, and economies of scale, economic productivity soared. Between 1890 and 1929, the average urban worker put in one less day of work a week and brought home three times as much in pay. The proportion of families confined to the drudgery of farm life declined by half. Families enjoyed comforts and conveniences that were unimaginable before 1890. By 1929, nine out of ten Americans had electricity and indoor plumbing; four-fifths had automobiles; two-thirds had radios; and nearly half refrigerators and phonographs. At the same time, infant mortality fell by two-thirds, and life expectancy increased by 20 years. In 1888, Charles E. Perkins, the president of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad asked:

Have not the great merchants, great manufacturers, great inventors, done more for the world than preachers and philanthropists? Can there be any doubt that cheapening the cost of necessaries and conveniences of life is the most powerful agent of civilization and progress?

Yet the rise of big business also produced many anxieties. Corporations were accused of abusing workers, corrupting the political process, and producing shoddy, unsafe products. Many feared that corporate power allowed companies to fix prices and influence government decision-making.

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