A (Very) Brief History of the Construction Industry

May 24, 2018

The Home Insurance Building courtesy of History.com

The history of construction consists of one innovation after another, and brick by brick we have arrived at the industry we know today.

Obviously, the history of construction is far too expansive to do justice in one blog. Instead, let’s cover a few turning points to better understand how modern life is built on the storied history of building. Without further ado, here is a ridiculously brief, unbelievably condensed, history of the construction industry.  

 

Ancient construction around the world

Exactly what constitutes as “construction” throughout history can be murky. Can we consider pit-houses construction? What about grass shelters?

One thing is for certain: building activities are as old as humans themselves.

Construction during primitive times consisted of mud huts and stone monoliths such as Stonehenge. The tools of the trade included animal bones, copper plates, and axes.This activity eventually lead to proto-cities — putting an end to pastoral life and paving the way to society as we know it.

Over time, humans refined their construction practices and started building more permanent structures. Historians believe what we know as traditional construction began to take shape in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. As humans abandoned nomadic life, these societies built permanent shelters. The Egyptian Pyramids are some of the first examples of large-scale, permanent structures.

As the population grew and urbanization took over, construction quickly became a staple of civilization. Although this type of construction is a far cry from buildings we see today, this type of activity laid the foundation for contemporary construction.

 

Industrial Revolution and American prosperity

Fast forward a mere five thousand plus years to 19th century America.

Newly emboldened by the First Industrial Revolution, America underwent a significant period of advancement from 1870 until WWI during what is known as the Technological Revolution or the Second Industrial Revolution. During this time, inventors improved manufacturing processes and, thanks to the Bessemer Process, America began to mass-produce steel.

The availability of cheap steel ushered in construction projects we still depend on, such as large bridges, railroads and skyscrapers. The first skyscraper — the Home Insurance building in Chicago — was built in 1885 and stood at a mere 138 feet. By today’s standards, this building wouldn’t even be tall enough to be classified as a skyscraper.

Steel is a low-cost material still used in the construction industry today. Steel is a non-combustible, recyclable, cheap material that is impervious to termites. Thanks to the versatility and affordability of steel, the construction industry achieved a new level of productivity in the 20th century.

 

The importance of immigrant workers

Of course, you can’t talk about the history of construction in America without talking about its most important worker demographic: immigrants.

Construction was a means of survival for many immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Asia, and other countries around the world. Immigrants moved to America to start a family in a newly prosperous country — or even to escape oppressive living conditions back home — and construction was a means of realizing the American Dream.

Unfortunately, some people sought to prevent this dream from coming true for many immigrant Americans. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act — the first significant law to restrict immigration to America. This was a prejudiced response to the major influx of Chinese immigrants who moved here for construction jobs.

Herein lies a major blemish acutely prevalent within the history of the construction industry: racial discrimination. Historically, immigrants have had to contend with disparate wages, hostile working environments, unsafe conditions (as was the case with Chinese railroad workers), and many other forms of racial discrimination.

In spite of this adversity, the population of immigrant workers in the US continues to grow. Since it welcomes immigrants of all education and skill levels, construction is an appealing employment prospect. Today, nearly a quarter of construction workers are born outside of the US.

The story of the construction industry is one of human advancement. Innovation compounds over time, and anyone who has been inside of a building owes a debt of gratitude to the industry pioneers of yesteryear. The construction industry is only able to progress into the future thanks to the breakthroughs of the past.

 

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