HGIS Bibliography

Knowles, Anne Kelly.  Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800-1868 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Iron in America

1. Mapping the Iron Industry

2. The Worlds of Ironworkers

3. High Hopes and Failure

4. The Elements of Success

5. Iron for the Civil War

Conclusion: American Iron


Appendix: A Note on Historical GIS




Map Sources



  1. Anne Kelly Knowles’ Mastering Iron aims to fill a lacuna in the historiography of American industry. Noting that much of our attention has focused on the corporate steel magnates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Knowles takes the lessons of the British Industrial Revolution to suggest the importance of iron. But, while the model is British historiography, the story is very different. The United States lacked the close proximity of coal, iron ore and transport links that marked British industrialization. As a result, the problem of American industrialization was geographic. This insight is the stepping off point for a wonderful book that makes extensive use of HGIS to explain the difficulties of modernizing American iron production.

    In a book that is heavily focused on technology and expertise, Knowles attention to geographical context is exceptional. American industrialists understood that Britain’s advantage derived from improvements in technology and they attempted to develop these technologies in the United States. But it is how these technologies spread, and who spread them, that matters to Knowles. As the author asserts, the book is about “the crucial significance of place, in all its geographical dimensions, to the efficacy of networks in the service of industrial production” (p. 7). Indeed, it is a mark of Knowles’ skill as a historian that she is able to appreciate the geographical elements of a range of historical sub-disciplines. Chapter 1 focuses on the production of Lesley’s great directory and how information was collected. It is in this chapter that HGIS methods and mapping are most in evidence. Chapter 2 explores the social and cultural aspects of iron-making, how these industries were imagined in spatial terms and how social conflict and labor discipline were enacted within these spaces. Here, the spatial turn, rather than HGIS per se, takes over. Chapters 3 and 4 offer cases studies of the success and failure to import British technologies and methods into Maryland and Pennsylvania. The final chapter, on the role of iron in the Civil War, explores most explicitly a central theme that runs throughout the book: labor. Knowles builds on the existing insights of labor history by inserting the importance of geography into the culture of industrial labor. Where and how people lived mattered a great deal to how easy it was to establish and expand industries, as the Confederacy found to its cost. The importation of skilled labor from overseas, particularly England but also Wales, also introduced new ethnic cultures into the American workplace. As someone who is particularly interested in labor history, this was a wonderful insight. But it is also a somewhat depressing one. In Knowes’ reading, as the United States became a centre of global production in the aftermath of the Civil War, these geographical shifts would give steel magnates and industrial managers increased power over their workforce and would help establish a more exploitative labor system in the so-called Gilded Age.

    Knowles seems to find a perfect balance between traditional archival research and HGIS methods. Knowles uses HGIS to map J. Peter Lesley’s directory of American iron works from 1859 and explores how geography provides a coherent explanation for many of the failures of early American iron production. But Knowles does not swamp the reader with HGIS methods and technologies, relegating these to an (admittedly very short) appendix for scholars who have a particular interest in it. The result is a model of how HGIS can bring interpretive originality to traditional scholarship without seeking to replace it.

    Any comment on this excellent book could not fail to end by mentioning the high production value of the book. Maps and images predominate and, when combined with an engaging writing style, this is an extremely accessible book for specialists and non-specialists alike.

  2. Mastering Iron is a comprehensive study of the Iron Age in the United States from 1800-1868. Iron and iron manufacturing, as historical geographer Anne Knowles demonstrates, have been understudied in the historiography of American industry. However, as the book also showcases — the story of iron is about more than just metal. Using an HGIS of J. Peter Lesley’s The Iron Manufacturer’s Guide a detailed survey of ironworks completed in 1859, Knowles is able to map the extent of the iron industry in Antebellum America. Her exploration of Lesley’s survey, supplemented by extensive correspondence between Lesley and his fellow surveyors also shows gaps in the survey and explores the prejudices of Northern manufacturers about the ‘backwardness’ of Southern industry and Southerners. Knowles also investigates the worker societies that surrounded ironworks, particularly the influence of Welsh iron masters in American industry. While chapters 3 and 4 use a case study approach of to juxtapose how British iron making methods were successfully or disastrous implemented in the United States. The role played by iron in the American Civil War is studied in chapter 5, particularly how the regionalism of the iron industry put the South in a “perilous position” (p. 9). Mastering Iron is written in a pleasant narrative style, focusing as much on the stories of people as it does on industry.

  3. Anne Kelly Knowles’ “Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry 1800-1868” is a well written, engaging, interdisciplinary study of the U.S. Iron industry. Knowles expertly utilizes her major primary source, J. Peter Lesley’s “The Iron Manufacturer’s Guide”, to provide a thorough overview of the iron industry in the United States as well as their struggle to adopt the British style system in a very different landscape. Supplemented with effective and attractive maps, graphs, and art, this book clearly demonstrates the struggle to modernize the industry due to their geographic limitations, which included distance to markets, labour, transportation channels, and raw materials. Using four case studies, Knowles provides effective evidence to support her claims while providing the reader with engaging anecdotes. Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is Knowles’ ability to use HGIS as a historical method without allowing a discussion of the methodology to overtake her subject matter.

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