The San Francisco Bay Area and the West Coast were dramatically transformed during the Great Depression. Great new bridges spanned the bay. The New Deal brought funding for other immense public works—dams, highways, aqueducts, and electrification—throughout California, the Pacific Northwest and the desert Southwest.
Among the private projects that prospered from government spending during this era were those built by Henry Kaiser, who relocated to Oakland in 1921 and, literally, began building in all directions.
The Kaiser industries and the man who created them are the subject of a current exhibit at the Oakland Museum. “Henry J. Kaiser: Think Big” profiles Kaiser, his rise to prominence, and his numerous commercial and philanthropic activities. The show runs through Aug. 29.
A museum announcement posited the exhibit as “a long overdue survey of his life…” That it is, but unfortunately it falls short of the careful historian’s ideal. Much of the exhibit reads and shows disturbingly like publicity, not objective historical inquiry.
There is no question that Kaiser had an immense impact on Bay Area and American economic and social life. It is worth visiting the exhibit to see the array of Kaiser activities—from dam building to dishwasher production—smartly detailed in panels and display cases framed by faux steel girders.
The exhibit is rich and engaging in artifacts including cars, appliances, models, maps, and period advertisements (be sure to watch the video reel of Kaiser commercials). But visitors may come away dissatisfied. Instead of a thoughtful exploration of a man who catalyzed major changes in American life, it is primarily a panegyric. There is little introspection on the massive—and mixed—impacts of Kaiser’s accomplishments.
For example, consider these two sentences from the exhibit text. “1933: Workers are building a 242-mile aqueduct to bring needed water from the Colorado River to metropolitan Los Angeles.” And, “the dam will irrigate the deserts, generate electrical power, and tame the river’s floods.”
A different exhibit strategy might have noted the extent to which the water was primarily “needed” to make real estate speculation profitable in the Southland, or how “taming” floods changed the ecology of the Southwest. Such an approach would invite viewers to weigh benefits and costs and draw their own conclusions.
The exhibit also offers little exploration of the connection between government contracts and private prosperity in the West. Henry Kaiser was—like California’s railroad barons before him—an icon whose financial success was substantially built upon his ability to obtain and fulfill massive government contracts.
California continues to be shaped by the mythology that such men and their enterprises were entirely “self-made,” ignoring the role of public investment (and the methods sometimes used to obtain and direct it) in the state’s political and economic life.
Another frustrating characteristic of the exhibit is the lack of detail about Kaiser’s life outside business. There is not much about his upbringing in rural New York or his family. A few anecdotes are provided along with an abbreviated timeline of major events in Kaiser’s life, but the overall effect is one of tantalization, not explanation.
What precisely sparked Kaiser’s early career, work ethic, and drive to succeed in business? This subject is barely outlined, beyond quoting some of Kaiser’s favorite poems. Instead, we learn he liked pink (and painted his cement trucks and aircraft accordingly), didn’t exercise (occasionally serving volleyballs in company games but refusing to return them), and apparently drove like a demon (commuting weekly between the Bay Area and the Hoover Dam site, and piloting his own speedboats on Lake Tahoe).
He was a man in motion, manipulating eight telephones from his desk, calling his managers at all hours, driving his staff relentlessly, and apparently living what he preached. After he “retired” to Hawaii, he undertook trend-setting developments. He built the first high rise hotel in Waikiki and obliterating a “swamp” by Diamond Head to create a residential subdivision.
His principal accomplishments should not be minimized. Henry Kaiser pioneered mass pre-paid health care, was more cooperative with unions than many of his fellow industrialists, and was an early practitioner of television show sponsorship to sell the products he manufactured.
His firms constructed roads, aqueducts, dams and factories that opened up the arid West for extensive development and settlement. Kaiser concerns had a major hand in building the great public works of the age from Hoover Dam on the Colorado to the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia.
When World War II began, Kaiser landed a contract to build cargo ships for Britain. This positioned him to be a major manufacturer of both “Liberty” and “Victory” ships when the United States entered the war. His shipyards would ultimately build more than 700 vessels, one-third of the merchant marine tonnage launched by America during the war.
As a result of the Kaiser shipyards, Richmond changed from a sleepy shoreline town into a roaring industrial center. A commuter rail line shuttled thousands of workers to the yards, which operated around the clock. One ship at Richmond was completely constructed—from laying of the keel to launching, with dishtowels in the galley and pencils in the chartroom—in less than five days.
With war, the San Francisco Bay region became fortress, arsenal, manufactory, and melting pot. Shipyards, factories, and company towns proliferated along the bay and throughout the countryside, along with new and expanded military bases. For the first time, large numbers of African Americans—many arriving from the American South on Kaiser’s chartered trains—came to the Bay Area to work and settle permanently.
When the war ended, along with wartime manufacturing contracts, Kaiser smoothly shifted his factories to consumer production and his publicity machine to the promotion of consumer demand. His enterprises built automobiles (two of which are displayed in the exhibit) and household appliances. His construction companies developed some 10,000 suburban homes on the West Coast.
Throughout his life, Kaiser innovated. Construction of the Philbrook Dam on the Feather River in the 1920s was, according to the exhibit, the “first major undertaking completed solely by mechanical equipment and without draft animals.” Later, he pioneered the use of aluminum in certain types of manufacturing, speculated in plans for personal aircraft, promoted new car technology and new household appliances, and built a large geodesic dome to Buckminster Fuller’s design.
What the exhibit calls his most considerable accomplishment was the creation of modern pre-paid healthcare, beginning with small company hospitals for workers on his dam projects. Employees could pay a small sum per month for a basic health plan. This was one of the first opportunities for working class Americans to reliably obtain and affordable health care and, in particular, preventive care.
The exhibit quite rightly places great emphasis on the Kaiser innovations in health care, but once again disappoints in the presentation. Exhibit descriptions again read like press releases. “Consistent with its founding objectives 60 years ago, Kaiser Permanente is committed to physician responsibility for clinical-decision making.” That’s more appropriate for a Kaiser newsletter than a display in a public museum.
“Henry Kaiser: Think Big” is, on balance, an exhibit worth seeing, particularly if you also take in some of the permanent exhibits and other traveling shows at the finely diversified Oakland Museum. However it’s not the best that could be done on its intriguing subject. ‹