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This IS your father's Oldsmobile: A poster from a bygone era.
This IS your father's Oldsmobile: A poster from a bygone era.

Professor studies the history of factory tours

By Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-5400

Allison Marsh
Allison Marsh

Ever wondered where the door or tires on your car come from and how they were made? University of South Carolina history professor Dr. Allison Marsh has.

In fact, Dr. Allison 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 said, 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.

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