Countdown, Deborah Wiles’ 2010 young adult novel about the Cuban missile crisis, drew raves for alternating narrative and realia. Fans of a scrapbook feel will find the ephemera included within the pages of Inventors and Entrepreneurs, the eleventh volume in Grey House’s Working Americans, enough to keep them flipping. This eleventh volume in the series offers a look at paradigm-shifting patents and inventions like refrigeration, the microwave oven, and consumer insurance, alongside items of cult popularity like Sweet-n-Low and G.I.Joe. Other brands treated, like Hershey’s Chocolate and technicolor, have gained relative ubiquity.
The body of each article is presented in a bulleted format, which will be more accessible than unrelieved blocks of texts of equivalent length. Each article is divided into three sections: life at home, life at work, and life in the community, all richly peppered with relevant archival images.
Each decade is treated to a two-page introduction, but the bulk of the volume focuses on the period realities experienced by individuals. The situation of those men and women within local communities emphasizes the reciprocal nature of industry, activism, and progress that underscored American idealism and philanthropy. The survey includes geographic areas, such as Waltham, Mass., and Corning, NY, long associated with specific industries, as well other diverse communities ranging from Pawtucket, R.I., to Cowden Plantation in Jackson, South Carolina. One article contrasts the experiences of an immigrant from the Dutch colony of Surinam to that in his destination, nineteenth-century Philadelphia. The sections on life in the city focus with such geographic specificity that those passages can be pulled together to support a range of historical inquiry projects independent of the larger articles.
One particularly compelling article focuses on how the publication of the memoirs of president Ulysses S. Grant led to an entire industry of door-to-door sales. Rivaling the dominant mail order methods of marketing, traveling book salesmen presented the president’s deathbed autobiography to isolated farm households at a time when the desire to own books did not always correlate with literacy. Each article offers a precise historical snapshot with dollar figures for incomes and typical household expenditures, ranging from staples and commodities to consumer goods.
The ingenuity of women is well represented, not only through Madam C.J. Walker, but also through the nineteenth century designer of a streetcar fender and a current-day electrical engineer. The volume feels up-to-date, with coverage reflecting increasing environmental activism and awareness, including passages on hydrogen fuel cells and sustainable surfboards. Another contemporary touch is the inclusion of 21st century artisanal products, represented through the craft brewing movement. Each article offers a melange of primary source documents drawn from advertising, oratory, and period publications.
Timelines reflect the evolution of particular technologies and industries. The ones for film production, cell phones and wireless communications, and fast food and chain restaurants reflect topics of perennial interest to students. Articles on chocolate, the Campbell’s Soup kids, and Wheaties also suggest areas ripe for social studies fair projects.
In the discussion of invention and innovation, relevant concepts are often designated in boldface. There are photo credits and a fourteen-page keyword index is detailed, spanning three columns per page. Additional indexes by industry and minority group would expand the usefulness of the volume. A supplemental selection for school and public libraries.