Made in America: Professor studying history of factory tours


Ever wondered where holiday chocolates and toys on your holiday shopping list come from? University of South Carolina history professor Dr. Allison Marsh has.

In fact, Marsh has spent a decade studying the history of factory tours, exploring why companies open their doors to the curious public and what visitors learn when they see how things are made. Marsh says learning about the manufacturing process makes people more engaged and informed consumers.

Plus, she says, touring a chocolate or a potato chip factory is fun.

An expert on 20th-century technology and tourism, Marsh has visited hundreds of American industrial sites, from the oil fields of Alaska and coffee plantations in Hawaii to coal mines in Wyoming.

She is the first historian to focus in detail on factory tours and the role they’ve played in American culture.

Marsh will share this historic slice of American industrialization and daily life through a book and a companion museum exhibit, titled “The Ultimate Vacation: Watching Other People Work.” Both trace the history of factory tours from 1890 to 1940. The exhibit is scheduled to open at USC’s McKissick Museum in spring 2012.

“Factory tours have been around for centuries, with breweries, mines and textiles being among the oldest,” Marsh said. “The heyday, though, was in the early 20th century, a time of great change for middle-class America: the weekend had been born; transportation and hotel networks were developing; foods and other goods were no longer being produced locally. And America was proud to show its manufacturing might.”

Marsh said Americans, with a strong work ethic, were slow to adopt the idea of a vacation. But beginning in the mid-19th century, they began to take time off, first for religious and educational retreats, later for health and recreation. By the 1890s, these respites often included a trip to a nearby factory.

“People were fascinated by the assembly line and mechanized production,” Marsh said. “They were curious to see how products were being made, a far cry from making the products themselves or buying them from a local craftsman, as they had done previously.”

Marsh said companies also saw factory tours as a way to educate the public about their products, show pride and foster brand loyalty. She singles out the food industry as an example.

Up to the early 1900s, food was produced in the home or bought locally. People knew how it was made and who made it. Marsh said that changed when mass-marketed food came into existence in the early 20th century.

“Companies were selling a new food concept, and their factory tours helped answer consumer questions about why they should buy a Heinz pickle and not can their own and how Franco American’s products lived up to its slogan, ‘As good as homemade,’” said Marsh. “People were able to see the food made and taste it. Not only did they accept these food products, but Americans came to see buying mass-produced food as status, part of a new middle-American ideal.”

Even when a quarter of Americans were out of work during the Depression, Americans toured factories and traveled to out-of-the-way sites where monuments and other engineering feats were being built, she said.

“One of the most popular tours during the Depression was the building of Boulder/Hoover Dam. More than 100,000 people went annually to the site, which was very isolated at the time,” Marsh said. “Seeing the dam – a true marvel– reassured them that America was still a great engine of innovation. It gave them hope.”

For her book and exhibit, Marsh is concentrating on factory tours for food, cars and automotive supplies, as well as mail-order and construction. She is highlighting examples of each, including Heinz, Shredded Wheat, Pabst-Schlitz Brewing, Hershey, Ford, Firestone, Sears and Larkin mail-order businesses, Hoover Dam and Tennessee Valley Authority.

To answer the question of what these tours meant for companies and to visitors and how complex engineering feats reflected a changing society, Marsh has studied extensive materials that range from company records and brochures to guidebooks for visitors and scripts used by tour guides. She said memorabilia, including product giveaways, cookbooks, stereoviews (popular 3D photographs) and factory postcards for visitors, provide valuable information.

“Postcards were given free at the time, and people liked sharing what they saw with friends and family,” Marsh said. “I’ve literally read more than a thousand postcards, many from the Smithsonian’s archives and many that I’ve purchased on eBay.”

Marsh also has interviewed people who have sold factory tour memorabilia items on eBay. She said their memories of the factories are often vivid because tour experiences involve the spectrum of senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch.

This spring, graduate students in Marsh’s museum-management class will become curators for the McKissick Museum exhibit, writing text panels and object cards and procuring objects and images for the exhibit.

Marsh said the exhibit and book stop at 1940 because that year represented the peak of factory tours. American attendance began to wane by the 1950s as questions about safety of visitors on factory floors were raised. To continue to keep consumer interest, many companies created attractions with recreated factory-tour elements. Among the most well known are The Crayola Factory, Hershey’s Chocolate World and Coca Cola’s World of Coke.

While World of Coke in Atlanta offers visitors a museum and retail experience, Coca Cola still offers factory tours through its network of local bottling plants, where people can learn about the product and bottling process.

To a purist like Marsh, corporate attractions aren’t the same as factory tours, which she defines as a site of production that is opened regularly to the public.

“I don’t like recreated tours. The companies are too intent on selling the product rather than educating the visitor on the engineering process of how it’s made,” Marsh said. “Auto-industry tours are very good at showing the automation and engineering that goes into making a car. South Carolina may have a good tour experience on the horizon with Boeing in Charleston.”

It’s that engineering process that has captivated Marsh since she was a child, when her family would stray from the less-traveled road to visit plants and industrial sites.

“If you can, think back to long car trips before portable DVD players,” Marsh said. “Imagine three kids in the back seat of a station wagon stuck in traffic on the Pennslyvania Turnpike. No wonder my dad would pull over and make us all get out and explore the headquarters for the tunnel through the Allegheny Mountains.”

Those detours led her on an educational path that earned her bachelor’s degrees in engineering and history from Swarthmore College and a doctorate in science, medicine and technology from Johns Hopkins University.

“Factory tours are still a family affair,” Marsh said. “My father and I drove across the country in 2008 to drive the oil pipeline in Alaska. We stopped at the oil-pumping stations on the way to the oil fields in upper Alaska. We learned a lot and gained a great appreciation for how and where we get gasoline that our society currently depends on.”

For families hitting the road this holiday season, Marsh suggests taking a break and a factory tour to see how things are made.

U.S. Factory Tours (a sampling of public tours available by state)
Alabama – Blue Bell Creameries, Golden Flake, Hyundai
Alaska -- Alaska Brewing, Ulu Factory
Arizona -- Stuffington Bear, The Peanut Patch
Arkansas – Mountain Valley Spring Water, Waco Manufacturing
California – Beringer Vineyards, Cuban Cigar Factory, Hilmar Cheese Factory, Levi Straus, Jelly Belly, Intel
Colorado – Coors Brewing Company, Phoenix Gold Mine, Celestial Seasonings
Connecticut – Cornwall Bridge Pottery, Frito Lay
Delaware – Dougfish Head Brewery
Florida – Peterbrooke Chocalatiere, Walt Disney World’s “Keys to the Kingdom”
Georgia – Mayfield Dairy, World of Coca Cola
Hawaii – Big Wind Kite Factory, Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation, Mauna Loa (Macadamia Nuts)
Idaho – Buck Knives, Potlatch
Illinois – John Deere, Oberweis Dairy, Eli’s Cheesecake World
Indiana – Jayco, Sechler’s, Walter Piano
Iowa – John Deere, The Kaleidescope Factory, Winnebago
Kansas – Kansas Underground Salt Mine Museum, Reuter Organ Company
Kentucky – Bowling Green Corvette Plant, Louisville Slugger, Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Toyota
Louisana – Conrad Rice Mill, McIlhenny (Tabasco)
Maine – Tom’s of Maine, MeadWestvaco, Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers
Maryland – Moore’s Candy, Pompeian Olive Oil, Salisbury Pewter
Massachusettes – National Braille Press, Cape Cod Potato Chip Company,
Michigan – Ford, Jiffy Mix
Minnesota –UPM-Kymmene (paper), Arctic Cat, Christian Brothers (hockey sticks)
Mississippi – Viking Range, Peavey Electronics
Missouri – Hallmark, Harley Davidson, Purina
Montana – Gibson Guitar
Nebraska – Kool Aid, Weavers
Nevada – Hoover Dam, National Vitamin, Ethel M Chocolates
New Hampshire – Hampshire Pewter, Parkers Sugar House
New Jersey – Sterling Hill Mine, Ford
New Mexico – Eagle Ranch (pistachio nuts)
New York – Harden Furniture, Original American Kazoo Company, Steinway & Sons, Shredded Wheat
North Carolina – NC Candle Factory, Pillowtex
North Dakota – Pipestem Creek
Ohio – American Whistle Company, BratWorks Tour, Kitchenaid, Spangler Candy, Honda
Oklahoma – Willis Granite Products, Blue Bell Creameries
Oregon – Country Coach, Harry and David’s, Pendleton Woolen Mills, Rodger Instruments
Pennslyvania – Harley Davidson, Hershey’s Chocolate, Mack Truck, Snyder’s of Hanover, Crayola Factory
Rhode Island – Vanguard Racing Sailboats
South Carolina – BMW, Charleston Tea Plantation
South Dakota – Mt. Rushmore Gold
Tennessee – Gibson Guitar Company, Jack Daniel Distillery, Nissan, Moonpie
Texas – Mary Kay, Bluebell Creamery, Dr. Pepper Bottling
Utah – Motosat, Sweet Candy Company
Vermont – Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Crowley Cheese, Sugarbush Farm (Maple syrup), Cabot Creamery
Virginia – Rowena’s, Williamsburg Doll Factory
Washington – Boeing, Theo Chocolate
Washington DC – Bureau of Engraving
West Virginia – Fenton Art Glass
Wisconsin – Cedar Grove Cheese, Kohler, SC Johnson Wax, Miller Brewing
Wyoming – Aviat Aircraft

Subscribe to Reliable Plant