How Factories Made the Modern World

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World by Distinguished Professor Joshua B. Freeman, provides a sweeping history of large-scale manufacturing from its 18th-century origins in Derby, England, where a 300-worker factory produced silk thread, to contemporary manufacturing in places like China’s Foxconn City, which has been plagued by reports of sweatshop conditions and assembly-worker suicides.

The book, which won the Philip Taft Labor History Book Prize from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations,  has garnered widespread praise. Behemoth lays out “two centuries of factory production all over the world in ways that are accessible, cogent, occasionally riveting, and thoroughly new,” The New York Times Book Review said in a recent front-page review. “The history of large factories, as Freeman outlines it, is the history of the modern world and most everything we see, experience, and touch.”

Behemoth shows how just-in-time production depends on low-paid labor in developing countries, where workers are often forced to relocate to meet the needs of high-tech companies like Apple. Their fate is compared to workers in places such as Flint, Michigan, who are simply left behind when jobs disappear and must cope with the lingering environmental impact of industrialization.

Despite the contemporary nostalgia for blue-collar jobs, many workers in England and the U.S. fiercely resisted the manufacturing age, Freeman notes. “Today, in the United States, factories are associated with masculinity,” he writes in Behemoth. “But in their early days they were spaces largely occupied by women and children.”

Freeman, an expert on labor history, is a professor at Queens College, the School of Labor and Urban Studies, and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is also the author of American Empire: The Rise of a Global Power, The Democratic Revolution at Home 1945-2000; Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II; and In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933-1966.

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Book Cover: 'Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World' by Joshua B. Freeman
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Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
W. W. Norton & Company, 2018

Work By
Joshua B. Freeman (Professor, History) | Profile

Colleges and Schools
Queens College
The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
We Are What We Manufacture (The New York Times)

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