“The Biggest City of Its Size in this Country”

At the beginning of the semester, I finished my dissertation prospectus. My committee told me to drastically cut the number of case studies with which I had begun (among many other good suggestions), lightening the workload while keeping the core idea. With the semester over, I’m going to try to recommit to discussing my research as it is in progress, particularly because I’m embarking on a new digital project, but I’ll blog more about that in the near future. The following is a rather long-winded personal account of how I got to my dissertation topic, if you want my succinct pitch, see the tl;dr version at the bottom of the page.

As an academic topic, the core idea of my dissertation comes out of my MA thesis, but it also has much earlier, more personal roots. Growing up in Grand Rapids, I enjoyed going to the city’s public museum. The museum is quite nice, with many awe-inspiring exhibits, including a blue whale skeleton hanging over the main lobby, a planetarium, and replication of an old city street. Walking through the fake brick street was a favorite activity of mine, if you were lucky there would be a reenactor staffing one of the businesses. Watching the giant printing press was fun—and resulted in free handouts! The pharmacy with the soda fountain was the business to catch, even if it didn’t actually serve ice cream floats. Most of the time we ended up pressing our noses up on the glass doors hoping an employee was hiding somewhere inside. At the end of the road, there was a small train depot with time tables. I always sat down and wondered if there would ever be anyone appearing behind the ticket counter, though this was about as likely as a train actually pull up as there was no door to get behind the window.

To cut to the chase, even as a child, I was a bit of a history nerd. You would think, then, that the permanent exhibit on the city’s furniture history would be more of a highlight to me. A rather impressive space, complete with motion detecting animatronic people. Though we mostly just enjoyed triggering the censors and collecting, not necessarily reading, the baseball card style descriptions of different city characters. A well designed exhibit, but no match for the rowdiness of young boys. Regardless of my disinterest in why my home touted itself as the “Furniture City,” the city’s past industrial importance was always present.

Faced with the opportunity to choose my first major research project as an undergraduate history major writing an honor’s thesis, I gravitated towards my hometown once again. A typographical strike in the 1950s caught my eye, though very little sources survived. In researching the topic, though, I stumbled upon a fascinating strike in St. Louis at about the same time, which soon became my topic.

When faced with a MA thesis topic, I tried to stay away from looking at Grand Rapids, but eventually, with no promising topics and the pressing need to start working on something, a bit reluctantly I returned to hometown history. The topic, a political scandal emerging out of bids to build a find a new urban water supply, first caught the eye of my dad, a lawyer in Grand Rapids. Years before he had stumbled upon lawsuits relating to a citywide scandal. He had tucked these cases away, but never did anything until he passed them on to me when I was an undergraduate. I figured there was enough materials for a thesis, and I was certainly correct. As I dug into the story it became increasingly interesting and complex. My MA thesis explored the way in which social, economic, political, and even spatial relationships affected Progressive-style reform and it lead me to perhaps the defining focus of my dissertation: cities outside the metropolis function differently because of their size. Small cities are caught between small town and big city lifestyles and this betweenness is something of which the residents are quiet aware. Grand Rapids boosters often touted a quote credited to James Blaine, describing he city as “the biggest city of its size in this country” (This phrase may ring a bell as Reno, Nevada’s status as “the biggest little city in the world” draws on the same idea). While historians have told the story of industrialization and urbanization in the metropolis and the small town rather extensively, the way in which these processes developed in small cities needs more scholarly investigation. Small cities became my scholarly focus moving forward.

I didn’t want to just expand on my MA thesis. While Progressive reform plays a part in the larger story my dissertation will tell, it alone was not enough to capture my interest. Instead, I returned to my hometown’s ever present identity as the “Furniture City.” I quickly found many cities in the Midwest and Northeast claimed similar titles, whether they were rightfully earned or not. I unearthed “furniture cities,” “silver cities,” and even East Liverpool, OH and Trenton, NJ which both laid claimed to the title of the “Staffordshire of America” (which among other things, tips off the domestic industry’s inferiority complex). These strong urban identities, not as metropolis, but king of one industry, began driving my research.

In my working title, “The Rise and Fall of the American Small City: Industrialization and Urbanization in Cities Outside the Metropolis, 1870-1930,” I invoke a rise and fall narrative. In general these cities have similar narratives resembling this framework. Founded earlier in the Nineteenth century (or even earlier), they do not experience rapid growth until after the Civil War. Their importance on the national stage piques during this time as they become significant players within niche industries. These niche industries end up shaping the urban experiences in many significant ways, including building specialized immigration networks, retaining a focus on craftsmanship, and creating a powerful city elite (though one still very much tied to the old middle class). The Great Depression, continued industrialization in other regions, and other factors diminish the importance of these small cities within even their niche industries as the new century progressed. Grand Rapids shifted from finely crafted parlor and bedroom furniture to office furniture, auto parts, and even Amway. However, in many ways, the city’s leaders have revived the niche industry strategy, lately pushing Grand Rapids to become a major player in the craft beer industry. Once again suggesting that small cities navigate larger economic structures differently from other urban regions.

tl;dr version:
My dissertation examines a group of small cities during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that specialized in a niche industry, gaining wider recognition and market share (Furniture: Grand Rapids, MI; Rockford, IL; Pottery: East Liverpool, OH; Silverware: Taunton, MA). With these cities, I argue that smaller cities, caught between rural town and metropolis, experienced the changes brought by industrialization and urbanization in a significantly different way. I hope that this alternative model of urban and economic change may provide insight for smaller cities as they grapple with current changes such as globalization.

2 Replies to ““The Biggest City of Its Size in this Country””

  1. I’m currently well into my dissertation and am still really struggling to articulate what’s at stake. I like the way you do this in your tl;dr.

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