The Color Line and the Assembly Line: Managing Race in the Ford Empire

The Color Line and the Assembly Line: Managing Race in the Ford Empire

by Elizabeth Esch

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The Color Line and the Assembly Line tells a new story of the impact of mass production on society. Global corporations based originally in the United States have played a part in making gender and race everywhere. Focusing on Ford Motor Company’s rise to become the largest, richest, and most influential corporation in the world, The Color Line and the Assembly Line takes on the traditional story of Fordism. Contrary to popular thought, the assembly line was perfectly compatible with all manner of racial practice in the United States, Brazil, and South Africa. Each country’s distinct racial hierarchies in the 1920s and 1930s informed Ford’s often divisive labor processes. Confirming racism as an essential component in the creation of global capitalism, Elizabeth Esch also adds an important new lesson showing how local patterns gave capitalism its distinctive features. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285385
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/04/2018
Series: American Crossroads , #50
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 888,857
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth D. Esch is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas. She is the coauthor, with David Roediger, of The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in US History.

Read an Excerpt


Ford Goes to the World; the World Comes to Ford

The worker who works for Ford is an individual who produces the means for a multiplication of the points of contact between individuals, but paradoxically he produces it precisely thanks to his own imprisonment for hours on end at the point of production, where he is deprived of the right of movement to an extent hitherto unheard of.


All this was beginning there at Highland Park. He was building his own power-plant, his own steel plant, his own forges. Presently he would have his own iron-mines, coal-mines, ships, and railroads. It would be a gigantic empire, spreading over the whole earth.


NEAR THE NADIR OF THE Great Depression's misery, and at almost the same moment that Aldous Huxley and Antonio Gramsci published their classic accounts of life after Ford, the acerbic U.S. historian Charles Beard edited an anthology titled America Faces the Future. The collection featured an optimistic essay by William Trufant Foster and Waddill Catchings, which answered in the negative its title question, "Must We Reduce Our Standard of Living?" Foster and Catchings, whose prior collaborative work occupied the extensive gray area between economics and self-help, insisted that asking whether Americans could "maintain our standard of living against the rest of the world" was the wrong question. The United States did not prosper "against" the rest of the world but as a model for it. As they argued, "Every prolonged rise in our own standard of living has brought higher living standards in every other part of the world." The evidence that clinched the argument in support of this assertion was simple: "Nearly every nation has sent a commission to us to find out the secret of our prosperity; and we have sent abroad one of our citizens, by the name of Ford, to expose that secret in terms of scientific management, mass production, and high wages." From their point of view it was because of Ford that the United States had "rendered other nations the conspicuous service of a conspicuous example."

The possibility that Ford's success would make the United States a world-conquering empire of good example also suffused the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's work on Ford. However, Gramsci reckoned that national differences would shape the rejection of Fordism as well as its reception, leading to different patterns of partial transformation in Europe, which was the object of his concern during the rise of fascism. It was, ironically enough, the novelist Aldous Huxley who through his imagined, dystopian account of a "brave new world" expressed fuller confidence in the idea that the Fordist model would remake everything, everywhere. Despite differences, each of these intellectuals treated the Ford system as a model, a good or bad set of compelling ideas and practices being emulated, sought after by managers, and sometimes resisted outside of the United States. Concerns about how Ford's ideas were diffused and how the company was received locally are at the core of this book. Since Fordism was not only an idea to be discovered by the rest of the world, but also a kind of commodity aggressively marketed and relocated to every inhabited continent, Ford's own efforts to become a global power deserve the full accounting that they receive in the first half of this chapter.

Moreover, the Ford system was so appealing to foreign governments not only because of its technical improvements and promises of high wages. As the balance of the chapter shows, Ford became a world corporation in the United States as the workers of the world came to it and were forged into Americans. The Fordism of the pre-union period reached into homes to promote social innovations designed to reshape the habits, families, consumption, language, and values of racially suspect European immigrants. These practices — and the workplace discipline that attended them — contributed to Ford's cachet among the international elites it worked with in expanding its empire beyond U.S. borders. From the early twentieth century, this chapter shows, Ford defined the inside and the outside of the United States. Likewise the uneven, unequal larger world defined it.


When the handful of Ford shareholders met in 1903, just four months after the company's incorporation, acting secretary James Couzens reported the return of a clear profit. The small group agreed to reinvest their earnings toward the already-planned expansion of the firm from its Detroit-based Piquette Avenue workshop to the new Highland Park assembly plant that Albert Kahn had been designing with Henry Ford. Simultaneously, the board ratified a decision to "take all necessary steps to obtain foreign business." These two early and simultaneous decisions — to transform the scale of its U.S. production and to seek out foreign markets for Ford cars and Fordson tractors — are critical to understanding the breadth and depth of Ford's dramatic growth.

The imagined scope of the foreign business was expressed by an early Ford lieutenant, William S. Knudsen, in terms as grandiose as they were specific. On the one hand, the reach of the company anticipated by its early plans revealed an almost absurd belief in U.S. diplomatic and political capacity. On the other hand, more than a decade before the United States entered World War I Ford was initiating a foreign-investment strategy that prefigured the massive postwar expansion of U.S. firms into world markets in material but also profoundly political ways. In 1919–20 Knudsen traveled across Europe. The map he followed both on his trip and in his description of Ford's emerging and future world-presence reveals the imperial structure the company relied on to further its own ambitions:

The British Division would embrace the United Kingdom, Egypt and Malta, with headquarters in Manchester ... The Northern Division would comprehend Scandinavia, Finland, the Baltic States, Poland and at first Germany and Holland ... Obviously, Germany and Holland would in time demand separate facilities ... The Central Division, with headquarters in Paris, would include France, Belgium, Switzerland and Algeria and would set up assembly plants as they were needed ... The Southern Division would cover Italy, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Tunis and Tripoli, with an assembly plant in a convenient Spanish city ... The Adriatic Division would embrace Central Europe south of Germany, the Balkan lands, and Asia Minor, and would have headquarters and an assembly plant at Fiume [in present-day Croatia] ... Finally the Black Sea Division would include the Ukraine, Central Russia, Turkey, Armenia and the Caucasus, a difficult region for which planning was shadowy.

This strangely American sensibility — both confident and clueless — reflected in words such as "obviously," "convenient," and "shadowy" would continue to be echoed in Ford's private and public discourse about the world. Yet as its managers both imagined and encountered that world the company's convictions, however provincial or naïve sounding at first articulation, continued to find purchase in a wide range of political-economic contexts.

That Ford's leaders were so eager to reinvest their new wealth into global accumulation, production, and sales is not surprising — by 1903 dozens of other U.S. manufacturers were located on the European continent with still more in Canada and South America. U.S. corporations who sought raw materials like oil, diamonds, or copper had investments all over the globe. What is surprising is how little the international arena in which Ford operated from its very beginning is understood as having anything to do with the company's success, strategy, and self-image. Though historians tend to treat "domestic" and "foreign" policies and developments in isolation from one another, it is vital to bear in mind Sidney Lens's admonition that "modern imperialism is not a single act ... It is a complex process that responds to the internal requirements of an industrial society." Ford was a pivotal material and ideological agent of U.S. imperialism. As such the company was part of massive investment of corporate capital outside the United States. These investments and the export of machinery — not just consumer goods — played a central part in bringing the United States to the world in the first half of the twentieth century.

The company's plan for its global expansion reveals how thoroughly Ford relied upon, and thus maintained, long-standing colonial arrangements established by its political allies, who were also its industrial rivals, to gain access to markets, labor, and raw materials. Nowhere was Ford's political and economic intervention into a national economy more important than in its early decision to incorporate in Canada. In 1904 Ford Motor Company of Canada opened as a fully independent firm, not a branch plant of Ford Detroit, outside Windsor, Ontario. The location was fewer than eight miles from Detroit and contributed to the growth of what came to be known as the Border Cities region, an area that included the newly minted town of Ford City.

By incorporating within the British Empire Ford was able to avoid tariffs as it was now privy to "empire rights" in the Commonwealth countries. The company used extant colonial routes to establish its own worldwide presence. Without having to rely on its own nation-state to provide the military and economic intervention necessary to keep colonial relations intact, Ford benefited from the worldwide "dominion" created by Britain. More than a decade before the United States would enter World War I on the side of the British Empire, the company mapped its global investments by relying on Anglo-American goodwill. A report on sources of supply and territory outlined Ford of Canada's responsibilities for relations between markets and production in Rhodesia, British East Africa, Nyasaland, Tanganyika, Uganda, British Somaliland, Zanzibar, Mauritius, Madagascar, the Seychelles, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, British Togoland, Nigeria, British Cameroon, as well as the South Pacific, including Samoa and Fiji. Ford moved quickly to set up dealerships that could take delivery of "knocked-down" car kits for local assembly, or in some cases would simply sell cars imported from regional assembly shops.

In 1904 Ford made the decision to establish what would become a century-long partnership with Firestone Tires. Owned by Henry Ford's good friend Harvey Firestone, whose company would provide first rubber and later tires used by Ford's cars, Firestone Tires introduced Ford to the world of direct American overseas investment beyond the Western Hemisphere, the "sphere of influence" already claimed by the United States. The development for which Firestone would become notorious, its Liberian plantations, was funded by profits made in its massive Akron, Ohio operations. There Firestone functioned with vicious anti-unionism, joining with its industrial competitors, especially Goodyear, to defeat unionism in their workplaces and at every political level in the state of Ohio. In 1913 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) supported striking rubber workers ("gummers") seeking affiliation with the United Rubber Workers of America (URWA). Goodyear's president Paul Lichfield said that his company would never sign an agreement with the URWA even if a majority of Goodyear workers voted to do so. Linking local struggles to the barbaric practices on rubber estates in the Belgian Congo, IWW leader Bill Haywood came to Akron that year and in a speech said, "The rubber manufacturers do not cut off the hands and feet of your children but they take the food from their mouths."

In defeating the strike Goodyear and Firestone began to offer a modest form of the profit-sharing program and social "leadership" that Ford would get credit for inventing in 1914. Both companies built company housing, though rather than providing it to workers they sold them their own homes, and Firestone provided "a country club and golf course for employees, a savings bank, barber shop and a four-story clubhouse ... Harvey Firestone declared that his aim was to make 'every employee a stockholder'." In his lifelong friendship with Firestone, characterized by frequent camping trips with their friend Thomas Edison, Henry Ford built a political and ideological comradeship that reflected interests that went beyond the material production of rubber and tires and beyond U.S. borders.

The unprecedented domestic achievements of Ford would set the stage for spiraling overseas expansion. In 1908 Ford introduced the Model T, produced in Detroit and designed to be a "universal" car. In 1909 the company announced the establishment of Ford Motor Company Limited, which would become Ford of Britain. Two years later, in 1911, the first Ford factory built outside of the United States was opened in Manchester, England, though a dealership had been in place previously there. In 1913, as Ford started its first auto assembly line in the Highland Park plant, thus revolutionizing production, the company also launched Ford Motor Argentina.

World War I, ironically for a time vigorously opposed by Henry Ford, accelerated such developments. The conflict proved good for corporate America in general and especially for Ford. The historian Daniel Rodgers wrote that the war "brought American capital, manufacturing techniques and consumer goods to Europe in unprecedented quantities." Allied reliance on Ford cars, trucks, tractors, and ambulances brought the company staggering profits. From the time the United States entered the war until December 1918, the Ford Corporation's after-tax profits were $78 million. Henry Ford's personal share was close to $45 million in 1917 and 1918. These enormous profits were made almost entirely at Ford's Highland Park plant and, increasingly, at the Rouge plant that would soon replace Highland Park as the main site of Ford production. In the 1920s, the Rouge became the center of Ford's empire, both literally and representationally. As early as 1920 Ford manufactured most of the nearly 200,000 vehicles exported annually from the United States; by 1923 the company was making a yearly profit of $50 million from international sales.

Ford's fears of disruptions of labor supplies and the flow of raw materials shaped his behavior at home and abroad in the postwar years. With the strong backing of a State Department eager to control the post-Versailles scramble for markets and armed with the confidence that came with expanded American political and economic dominance, Ford scoured the nation and the globe for strategic sites of production and distribution. A commitment to controlling not just resources but also access to them meant that Ford's empire would need to include both sources of raw materials and the means of transporting them. In the early 1920s the company bought coal mines, sawmills, iron mines, farms, timber camps, sand quarries, forests, ports, railroads, land, shipping lines, docks, airplanes, and barges across the United States and around the world. The idea of "vertical integration" was a direct outgrowth of Henry Ford's insistence on mastering as many aspects of production as possible. Following a particularly potent coal strike in 1922, Henry Ford wrote to James J. Davis, secretary of labor:

We bought the mines not because we wanted to go into the coal mining business but because we had to be assured of an uninterrupted supply of coal at a fair price. That assurance we could not have without ownership. A large business cannot permit itself to be at the mercy of an industry with frequent strikes.

The company's coal mines soon employed thousands of people. Henry Ford boasted that there was no industry that he could not make more efficient and productive, and he went to great lengths to sell this idea to the world. Though Ford never controlled even half of the resources his company required, the social and political impact of the idea of vertical integration and the efficiency it promised to bring nonetheless seems to have mesmerized progressives who fifteen years earlier had been fighting the juggernaut of industry. Ford came to be seen as a modernizer by foreign heads of state as well as domestic progressives. Since vertical integration meant that huge numbers of workers in and outside of the United States came under Ford's fiercely anti-union management, the restiveness of workers necessarily became part of the calculus about where the company would invest internationally.

Relying on its increasingly powerful place in the global marketplace, the United States in the 1920s sent trade commissioners to practically every country, especially intent on securing access to raw materials and creating markets in Africa and Latin America. Ford was never far behind. The company committed itself to developing markets for its products long before local production would begin. In the first half of the decade this meant that the company established dealerships in more than two thousand locations worldwide, where delivery of Ford products would be taken from across an ocean if necessary. Global production and sales, which had intensified during the war, were now clearly essential to the company's future. Ford's exports went from 152,000 units in 1923 to 303,000 in 1925 and the assembly of cars, trucks, and tractors was expanding in South Africa, Brazil, Ireland, Japan, England, and Mexico. Following the opening of the British and Irish plants, which had been producing for Ford during the war, the company opened shop in Port Elizabeth, Copenhagen, Cadiz, Stockholm, Antwerp, Asnieres, and Berlin. Of 4,163,000 automotive vehicles manufactured in the world in 1927, the United States supplied more than 3,400,000. By this time, more than half of the cars on the planet were Model Ts.


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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Introduction The Color Line and the Assembly Line 1

1 Ford Goes to the World; the World Comes to Lord 23

2 From the Melting Pot to the Boiling Pot: Fascism and the Factory-State at the River Rouge Plant in the 1920s 51

3 Out of the Melting Pot and into the Fire: African Americans and the Uneven Ford Empire at Home 83

4 Breeding Rubber, Breeding Workers: From Fordlandia to Belterra 119

5 "Work in the Factory Itself": Fordism, South Africanism, and Poor White Reform 149

Conclusion From the One Best Way to The Way Forward to One Ford-Still Uneven, Still Unequal 183

Notes 195

Selected Bibliography 237

Index 251

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