Date of Award

August 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Andrew W. Cohen


Environmental History, Gender History, Labor History, Lumber, Northern Forest, World Ecology

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation describes the historical processes that made farmers and rural laborers into a coherent class of wage working lumberjacks and it tracks how this class became an iconic symbol of masculinity in twentieth-century America. "Forging Titans" argues that, as rural America industrialized, the built environment and bodies of workers became parts of nature and these natural forces were mobilized to increase the scale and efficiency of production to reach industrial levels. Because lumberjacks were seen as part of nature, they became masculine icons for self-diagnosed, overcivilized, urban, corporate elites who were looking outside the city for examples of natural masculinity. This argument provides insight into a famous question in American historiography, succinctly posed by German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart in 1906: "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" Industrial capitalism left forest workers destitute and dependent, but American culture’s celebration of both their manly strength, and position in the industrial economy satisfied workers and stemmed their resistance.

This dissertation is split into two sections. The first is on Work and is a social and economic history of the process of class formation in the Northern Forest. The second is on Culture and is about the ramifications of lumberjack class formation in American culture. The first chapter of the first section argues that methods of organizing labor and capital for natural resource extraction in the forests of the Northeast preceded the rise of the corporate business form. Consequently, small producers and farmers maintained control of production even as most of the nation’s other industries became concentrated and corporate. This gave loggers an independent, masculine allure but also led to technological stagnation in the depleted resource base of the pineries of the Northeast.

The second, third, and fourth chapters moves the analysis into the logging camps and discusses the different factors that led to the development of the lumberjack class. High capital technological innovation was not cost-effective in this remote, rugged, over-exploited environment, so loggers used simple machines, winter weather, and muscle power to produce and transport saw logs. The work required so much muscle power that workers insisted that large amounts of high quality food be provided by operators for free. The vast quantity of food that workers ate allowed them to build bodies which could keep pace with industrial production quotas. The bodies of workers and animals became cheap, natural sources of power which could be appropriated to make profit from this overexploited resource base. During annual summer work breaks, workers spent built-up wages in hedonistic spending sprees which left them destitute by the fall season and in need of more work which they found in the woods. Those workers who repeated this cycle of work and leisure many times in their lives became a class of specialized wage working lumberjacks, distinguished from the non-specialist farming-logging class who had done much of the work in the woods before 1870. By concentrating on how workers' bodies adapted to the organizational structures, labor processes, and seasonal cycles of forest product production, the first section shows that nature was not an obstacle to be overcome during the transition to industrialization but instead industrialization made humans and their built environments into natural sources of power that could be appropriated to increase production.

The second section of "Forging Titans" demonstrates the cultural results of the development of industrial capitalism in the Northern Forest. The lumberjack class, which was a product of rural industrial capitalism, became a masculine icon for middle-class American men who were critical of the degrading effects of urban, corporate capitalism. The first chapter in this section, chapter five, shows that French-Canadian immigrant loggers were one of the many immigrant groups in America who were arranged into categories based on the type of work they were deemed racially fit to perform. Exploring these racial and industrial hierarchies show how the lumberjack became a symbol of white men's affinity for valorous, civilizing work on wild land. It also shows how the processes and institutions of American industrial capitalism constructed racial categories that labeled some groups of workers closer to nature, and thus justifiably exploitable.

Chapter six and seven show how, through staged outdoor adventures and physical culture routines, middle-class "antimodernists" attempted to make their bodies more like the supposedly naturally masculine bodies of lumberjacks and other rural workers. Urban elites' mimicry of rural workers represents a type of cultural power that flowed from the "bottom" ranks of society up to the "top" ranks, a process I call working-class hegemony. The epilogue covers the forest products industry from 1950 to the present from the perspective of one Adirondack village. It argues that locals valued the memory of the heroic, manly lumberjack and a healthy forest above a prosperous forest products industry. This dissertation shows that the result of the development of industrial capitalism in America was not the creation of a revolutionary proletarian, as Sombart and others expected, but new types of worker identities and new hegemonic gender performances which had even broader social and cultural reverberations through time.


Open Access