Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century
Cornell University Press 2009
When I was in college I had a summer job once working in an aircraft factory. My task was to count screws. Nope, I’m not kidding. I put together parts-kits that were then taken to another station “down the line” for assembly. It wasn’t much fun, and it taught me that I did not want to pursue a career as a screw-counter.
But it’s important to remember that the benefits of mechanical production are largely due to making work mechanical. To get all that cheap stuff we know and love, we have to turn what were once complex jobs into simple jobs. In his excellent book Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century (Cornell UP, 2009), Daniel Sidorick tells how the Campbell company made the cooking of soup–a magical art to many–into a mechanical process. The results were contradictory. On the one hand, soup became homogenous (though pretty tasty), portable, and very cheap. On the other, the soup-makers were made, as Marx might have put it, into appendages of soup-making machines. Management tried to make production lean and keep profits high; labor tried to keep work safe and wages high. But in the end, the two couldn’t make ends meet, at least in Camden: Campbell moved its production out of NJ in the 1980s. Not an unfamiliar story, I think, but still a very important one to tell and re-tell.