Charles K. Hyde. Copper for America: The United States Copper Industry from Colonial Times to the 1990s. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998. xvii + 267 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8165-1817-3.
Reviewed by Roger Burt (School of Historical, Political and Sociological Studies, University of Exeter.)
Published on EH.Net (August, 1999)
Much Needed and Overdue
For too long, mining has been the lost relation of American economic history--rarely featured in its principal journals and hardly noticed in most textbooks. This is largely because there have been few general/national histories of the industry to set the parameters of the subject. In this volume, Hyde begins to fill that vacuum. It is not a research monograph, but rather a synthesis of the wide-ranging secondary material that has accumulated on this subject during recent years. That material has been produced largely on a regional basis, principally by western historians, and Hyde adopts a similar regional structure for the book. It starts with a much-needed review of the early foundations of the industry in the northern east coast states and Tennessee, and goes on to follow the western progression of the industry through Michigan, to Montana, Arizona and elsewhere in the West. The story is at first one of rapid expansion and growth, projecting America into world leadership in the industry by the last decades of the nineteenth century, but then of gradual and continuous contraction and decline in the face of increasing overseas competition. The last two chapters of the book deal with these twentieth century developments in the industry and also provide an overview of the role of U.S. multinational mining companies in developing new mines in Africa, South America and elsewhere. Throughout the book, the author's approach is very much that of the entrepreneurial or business historian, looking at the processes of expansion and contraction in terms of the promoters, investors and corporate enterprises that managed them. This is not its only context--the notorious labor problems that beset many of the mining districts in the years around the turn of the century also receive careful attention as do many other aspects of the industry's economic and social development - but is a central theme and will particularly recommend the book to a business history audience.
At a general level, the book makes an extremely important and strategic contribution. Although there is now an extensive literature on the history of the non-ferrous metals industries, it is all rather specialized and localized and there have been very few attempts at this kind of national overview. Hyde has given the subject exactly what it needs to project it onto a wider stage and it is to be hoped that others will attempt similar studies of other sectors of the industry. Since they all share so much that is common in terms of technology, labor, managerial expertise, finance, etc. this might also result in a much-needed single study of the sector as a whole.
However, at a more detailed level, there are several slightly puzzling and troubling problems with the book. Firstly, on working through it, there is really relatively little attention given to the declared aims, set out in the introduction, to compare and contrast the character and development of the three principal copper mining districts, and to integrate changes at the regional level with changes in the national and global copper industries. Similarly, the suggestion in the introduction that the book might consider the interesting question of whether managerial short-sightedness and incompetence contributed to the industry's decline, never really materializes, notwithstanding the presentation of a range of evidence to support such a discussion. It remains very closely focused throughout on the narrative of regional business history. Secondly, for a book that is essentially a synthesis of existing work, the sources are sometimes limited, closely drawn and perhaps a little dated. For example, having referred in the Preface to Larry Langton's Cradle to Grave (Oxford, 1991)--undoubtedly the most important general work on the Michigan industry to appear in recent years--no reference is made to it in the footnotes to the chapters dealing with that region. It is almost as though what we have here was conceived and constructed in separate parts at a considerably earlier date and only recently assembled into the current whole. But all of these are minor quibbles on what, overall, is really a very excellent and worthwhile piece of work. In particular, it will fulfill the strategic function of bringing more closely together the historians of mining and smelting with the mainstream of business history, to the considerable advantage of both disciplines.
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Roger Burt. Review of Hyde, Charles K., Copper for America: The United States Copper Industry from Colonial Times to the 1990s.
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