A personal note about manufacturing

The title of my latest article in the Atlantic is “China Makes, the World Takes.” The title wasn’t my idea– I believe it came from Corby Kummer, who edited this article as he has nearly everything I’ve written for the magazine in the last 25 years. But the instant I heard it I thought: yes, that’s right. It exactly suits the argument of the article. And as a bonus, it has great family and emotional resonance for me.

The title of course is a play on the famous slogan spelled out in neon lights over the Delaware River bridge in Trenton, New Jersey: “Trenton Makes, The World Takes.”

(That is from a rendering in 1935. The modern version is below:)

Not every Atlantic reader will recognize the phrase, but anyone who has taken the train between Washington and New York will have seen the bridge and probably stared at it at least briefly during the train’s stop at Trenton station.

The slogan was adopted by the Trenton Chamber of Commerce nearly 100 years ago in honor of the countless small manufacturing firms in the area during America’s manufacturing boom of the early 20th century. One of these companies was for a while run by my grandfather, Joseph Wilkes Mackenzie. Through the 1920s, the Mackenzie ceramics works thrived by producing the small ceramic insulators seen everywhere on power lines and telephone poles.

The company’s story has an unhappy ending. My grandfather died in a car crash in 1930, when my mother was three. Soon afterwards the company failed in the Depression, and my mother and her two older brothers had a rough upbringing (though she had a very happy later life). The larger saga of mid-Atlantic manufacturing took a similar downward course a few decades later. That sad story — what we’d now call a de-industrialization — is told by the derelict factories of New Jersey and Pennsylvania now visible along the same railroad line.

Other parts of the world are now in the booming, confident, “Makes - Takes” stage of development, most notably the Pearl River Delta region of southern China, which is the subject of my current article. The slogan on Trenton’s bridge can now be seen as campy, defiant, charming, retro, wistful — or as just about anything except “realistic” any more. Trenton, while not the richest city in America, is vastly richer than any place in China. Still, the slogan shows how important manufacturing is to an area’s, a nation’s, or a family’s sense of pride and purpose. Because the motto is so powerful, within my family, in evoking one industrial moment, I thought it particularly fitting for this new moment in China.

(Appreciation to a site honoring another lost New Jersey small manufacturing site, Stangl Pottery, for these illustrations.)