Abstract: Virtue via Association: The National Bureau of Standards, Automobiles, and Political Economy, 1919-1940

Lee Vinsel


In his classic article on Herbert Hoover, Ellis Hawley argued that Hoover's ''associative state'' would ''function through promotional conferences, expert inquiries, and cooperating committees, not through public enterprise, legal coercion, or arbitrary controls.'' Hawley focused on private industry and trade association in his narrative. While more recent work has broadened the scope of associationalism to include voluntary associations and other non-government organizations, this paper argues that historians have still not accounted for many varieties of this form of governance. I use the National Bureau of Standards' work on automobiles to explore this topic. Soon after the First World War, the bureau's activities exploded, at a time when Herbert Hoover was heading its home agency, the Department of Commerce. The bureau developed a wide variety of organizational routines that produced, disseminated, and internalized knowledge. Many of its activities were aimed at shaping markets and technologies, and at least some of the bureau's efforts were aimed at making markets and their products more virtuous—for instance, by making products safer. Moreover, some of the bureau's activities were slyly coercive in ways that bureau staff members themselves called ''clever,'' conflicting with Hawley's original intuition about the Hooverians and suggesting