Technological Revolution: Road Paving

Road Paving in the 1890s

Road Paving in the 1890s

Which type of road do you consider “normal”: graded and hard-surfaced or “ungraded, unsurfaced, rutted, and muddy”? An article by Christopher Wells looks at how changing use and views of agricultural roads in the late 19th and early 20th centuries paved the way for the modern highway system.

Abstract: The period from the end of the Civil War to about 1905 saw some key changes in American country roads, including the passage of the first state-aid road laws, the creation of the first federal road agency, and the growth of a strong urban-rural coalition promoting rural road improvements. Although these have been well discussed, two significant but unrecognized changes lay at their heart. First, the effect of the good-roads campaigns of the 1890s in convincing farmers to embrace a major intellectual shift: trading the belief that roads were “natural” — local resources to be husbanded — for the idea that they were “technological” — publicly owned tools to be engineered in the service of social ends. Second, how the shifting uses of rural roads, from groups of urban cyclists touring the countryside to mail carriers delivering letters to farmhouses, not only strengthened the growing ties between rural and urban areas but also helped transform the basic political relationships between isolated communities and county, state, and national governments. Together these turn-of-the-century changes paved the way, literally and figuratively, for the growth of the extensive highway system that today is such a dominating characteristic of the American landscape.

Citation: Wells, Christopher W. 2006. The Changing Nature of Country Roads: Farmers, Reformers, and the Shifting Uses of Rural Space, 1880-1905. Agricultural History 80(2): 143-166.

If your library does not have access to the journal “Agricultural History,” you can try requesting a copy through an interlibrary loan program.

~Thanks to Asha W. Agrawal for this post

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