“A Sudden Awakening”

June 22, 1901

William A. Rogers

“A Sudden Awakening”

Business, International Trade; Business, Steel; Business, Trusts/Monopolies;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

France; Germany; Great Britain; Italy; Russia;

No caption

This Harper's Weekly cover illustrates the shock that the artist believes Europe experienced when learning of the creation of the mega-corporation, the United States Steel Corporation, in early 1901.  John Bull and other personifications of European nations are rudely awakened in their shared bed by a fire-breathing, dragon-like monster with a "Made in America" train-engine head, an "American Steel" bridge torso, and appendages comprised of various products, such as guns and watches.  

It is interesting to compare this cartoon with some of W. A. Rogers's other work on big business.  In the past, he treated business consolidation as a pirate ship and a train barreling into the skeletal maw of the Statue of Liberty, images conveying the alleged dangers average Americans faced from the economic power of large business corporations.  Here, he uses a similar malevolent figure--a mechanized steel dragon--to depict big business; yet, the forceful caricature is explicitly identified with America's economic strength and only threatens Europe (or, more broadly, non-Americans).

Iron-making dates back to ancient times, and began in America as early as 1643.  There is evidence that the ancient Chinese and possibly the Egyptians were producing rudimentary steel for use in implements.  In 1740, Englishman Benjamin Huntsman invented crucible cast steel in which iron ore in a clay crucible was heated in a furnace to make the steel.  Iron-makers continued to experiment and innovate with steel production over the ensuing decades, but the small quantities and high expense severely limited its market.  It was Henry Bessemer's development of the tilting Bessemer converter in 1860 that was the turning point for steel production.  The contraption allowed liquid steel to be poured off of molten iron, and in massive amounts at a relatively fast rate.  Chemists and metallurgists then contributed to the improvement of steel's quality so that it was harder and longer lasting.  

With the Bessemer converter greatly increasing the amount of steel produced, its cost to manufacturers and price to customers dropped dramatically.  Between 1860 and 1880, annual steel production in the United States rose from 13,000 tons to 1.4 million tons.  After meeting Henry Bessemer in 1872, millionaire entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie decided to enter the steel market, and later that year, founded a steel works near Pittsburgh.  He then began buying other steel companies, consolidating them in 1889 into the Carnegie Steel Company, which dominated the industry.  Thanks largely to Carnegie, the United States passed Great Britain in 1890 to become the world's leading producer of steel, a position it held until the 1970s.

In the winter of 1900, Charles Schwab, the young president of Carnegie Steel, proposed to J. P. Morgan, the elderly financier, that all of America's major steel companies consolidate into one huge corporation.  After a long night of discussion and debate, Morgan finally agreed to the plan, starting with the purchase of Carnegie Steel for almost $500 million.  In early 1901, the United States Steel Corporation was established with control of 60 percent of American steel production, along with holdings in iron, coal, railroads, and other businesses.  U.S. Steel was the first billion-dollar corporation in the world, owned hundreds of factories, employed 168,000 workers, and soon grossed more income than the U.S. government.  It is no wonder that the Europeans in this cartoon are trembling.

The creation of U.S. Steel was the most prominent example of the great merger movement in American business from 1897 (the end of an economic depression) until about 1904.  The period saw the establishment of hundreds of mega-corporations from thousands of smaller, yet often still large, companies.  The new industrial giants included American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), Eastman Kodak, General Electric, National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), U.S. Rubber (later, Uniroyal), and many more.  Each dominated an industry, so that by 1904, the 300 largest industrial corporations owed over 40 percent of the industrial wealth in America.

Robert C. Kennedy

“A Sudden Awakening”
June 17, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to