The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914. Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier, and Joshua Brown, American Social History Productions. New York, NY: Learning Technologies Interactive/Voyager, 1995. CD-ROM. PC and Macintosh. [For more detailed technical information go to:]  

Box cover of Who Built America?
After completing textbook and video versions of Who Built America? The American Social History Project teamed historians Roy Rosenzwieg, Steve Brier, and Joshua Brown with Bob Stein of Voyager Company to produce a CD-ROM narrative of labor in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century United States. Written and developed by a team of scholars whose goal was to "integrate the history of community, family, gender roles, race, and ethnicity into a more familiar history of the nation's political and economic development," the CD-ROM version of Who Built America? is a massive tour-de-force, setting the standard for historians who aim to make their work accessible to broad audiences via multimedia. Who Built America? is a powerful teaching tool that combines the engaging narrative, scholarly synthesis, and lively writing of its earlier text and video versions with the flexibility and memory of a CD-ROM.

The interactive Who Built America? offers the user a wealth of resources that allow one to literally view and hear, as well as read, about history. In addition to the traditional 450 pages of text, the user has access to a plethora of primary documents, including films, oral histories, songs, poems, speeches, diaries, letters, and press accounts. These documents are linked to the text, allowing the user to follow temporary "excursions" to explore and interpret the building blocks of history. For example, while reading about women and work, one could take an excursion to view a film of women suffragettes marching in New York City, or listen to the oral history of a Lithuanian immigrant woman recalling conditions at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. In addition to the document driven excursions, this thoughtful software allows one to take "historiographical excursions" to learn more about the historian who has crafted a particular argument, as well as alternative interpretations. The historiographical excursions are especially useful because they remind the user that history is constructed rather than simply learned and memorized.

A single frame from G.W. Bitzer's 1904 motion picture film of the Westinghouse Air Brakes and Electric Motor Company plant.
A single frame from G.W. Bitzer's 1904 motion picture
film of the Westinghouse Air Brakes and Electric
Motor Company plant. From Who Built America?
Who Built America? also comes with a handy two-dimensional time line, allowing one to compare events and people in politics, economy, society, culture, and diplomacy. Given that the rest of the narrative is divided by issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, one may wonder why the authors chose to arrange their time line in this manner. While academic historians may find these categories somewhat crude, they provide a sound chronology for the beginning high school or undergraduate student. Another feature of the software is the ease with which one may move between documents. A tool palette allows one to jump to particular pages or chapters, review one's search history, conduct key word searches, take notes, and cut and paste text.

A single frame from an 1897 Admiral Cigarette moving pictures commercial.
A single frame from an 1897 Admiral Cigarette
moving pictures commercial. From
Who Built America?
While the Who Built America? CD-ROM provides users with access to a greater number of primary and secondary documents, one might speculate as to how they will process that information. For example, archival documents like correspondence and diaries rarely appear in their original form, but as neatly typed, edited text. Users are neither asked to struggle with, nor are they made aware of, the difficulties of deciphering poor handwriting, older grammatical styles, or weathered documents. In addition, although users see the ways in which historians use primary documents to construct their arguments, they are not made aware of document selection. Many of them may leave Who Built America? believing that they have been exposed to the totality of sources on American labor history, failing to appreciate the politics behind which documents get included as "real history."

Who Built America? retains much of the defining spirit of Herbert Gutman, a towering figure in American labor history who urged historians to examine workers' lives beyond their places of employment. The authors of the interactive Who Built America provide rich accounts of traditional shop floor conflicts and unionization, as well as the everyday experiences of domestic labor, Jim Crow, southern black labor, and western migration and conquest. Bearing that diversity in mind, Who Built America begins in 1876 with the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This starting point allows the authors to contrast the grandiosity and splendor of the Exposition with the bitter realities of everyday life in America. While the Exposition imagined a prosperous America and displayed the "wonders of industrialization, "common laborers," African Americans, farmers, Native Americans, women, and Asian Americans contemplated their uneasy place in an economy wracked by depression. Industrial capitalism as a tension between blissful progress and painful struggle frames the entire narrative from 1876 through World War I.

One shortcoming of Who Built America?, implicit in its earlier versions, is that the scholarship could have done more to integrate race into the history of America's political and economic development. For example, although the works of David Roediger and Alexander Saxton are included in the bibliography, Who Built America? does not maintain a sustained narrative which incorporates race as a major ideological construction accompanying the development of American capitalism. In particular, the authors could have provided a tighter analysis on the ways in which whiteness and the labor market are intertwined. Likewise, a new synthesis would have to include a more coherent explication of the gendering of the workplace, the working class, unions, and the state.
Symbol of the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876: the Corliss engine.
Symbol of the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876: the Corliss engine.
From Who Built America?"
For example, in describing the Women's Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition, the authors point to the power loom, charitable organizations, and model kindergartens as examples of women's separate spheres. While this account gives one a sense of how the Exposition's organizers understood women's roles, it tells us little about how different women themselves comprehended their place in the nation's economy. Thus, Who Built America?, at times, unintentionally reinscribes women's homogeneity and subsequent marginality. One wonders how a closer reading of Jacqueline Jones' Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow would have informed this text. Furthermore, like whiteness, masculinity is largely left out of the textual analysis. These authors have provided only part of the narrative by writing about "raced" and "gendered" groups, instead of treating race and gender as categories of analyses. At the core of those absences is a need to elaborate on how power is intertwined in race, class, and gender. As Ava Baron has suggested in her edited book of essays, Work Engendered, "the point is not so much that men and women are different, but who has the power to define those differences."

In fairness to the authors, many of the analytical approaches to the history of race and gender noted above post-date this version of Who Built America? These are primarily suggestions for the next version, CD-ROM or otherwise. Who Built America? is an invaluable teaching tool for undergraduates and high school students. It illustrates that high level scholarship and sophisticated technology are not mutually exclusive.

Andrew Darien
New York University

~ End ~

CD-ROM Review Who Built America
Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History

Comments to: [email protected]

Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998