The Other Shop Floor: Automobile Maintenance and New Perspectives on Twentieth-Century American History

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 2:30 PM
Santa Rosa Room (Marriott)
Kevin L. Borg , James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA
Over the last century, scholars have published thousands of very fine studies of the American automobile industry, its workers and unions, and its influence on the nation’s economy and politics.  Many others have examined the social and cultural changes wrought by the adoption of mass automobility.  This paper will highlight some of the unique insights into American history that can be obtained by examining our car culture from a different perspective, from the auto repair shop.  Automobile repair shops existed in virtually every city, suburb and rural crossroad of America from the first decade of the 20th century down to the present.  Yet until recently scholars knew almost nothing about this dynamic socio-economic space. 
            Studying the repair shop expands our view of auto workers and reveals how, contrary to the factory assembly line, the small, geographically diffuse shops and the irregular tasks and skills of diagnosis and repair frustrated unionization, rationalization, and professionalization of auto repair for the duration of the 20th century.  In addition examining the repair shop reveals how, in this case, social hierarchies of class, race, and gender became intertwined with particular ways of knowing and interacting with automotive technology.  That relationship then became institutionalized in occupational and educational structures that persisted from the early 20th into the 21st century.  Finally, increasing automobile dependency in the post-war decades brought intense public scrutiny to the auto repair shop.  The resulting range of government responses—from failed consumer protection schemes to mandated warranties on emissions systems—complicates our view of consumerism and challenges conventional wisdom about the ill-effects of regulation on the automobile industry.  Finally, this paper points out other scholars’ recent work to suggest questions we might ask from the repair shop in other national cultures.
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