The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry

War and Politics, 1910-1930

By Kathryn Steen

418 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 2 drawings, 10 halftones, 20 tables, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1290-4
    Published: August 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-1291-1
    Published: August 2014
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8177-9
    Published: August 2014

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit

Awards & distinctions

2015 Ralph Gomory Prize, Business History Conference

Prior to 1914, Germany dominated the worldwide production of synthetic organic dyes and pharmaceuticals like aspirin. When World War I disrupted the supply of German chemicals to the United States, American entrepreneurs responded to the shortages and high prices by trying to manufacture chemicals domestically. Learning the complex science and industry, however, posed a serious challenge. This book explains how the United States built a synthetic organic chemicals industry in World War I and the 1920s. Kathryn Steen argues that Americans' intense anti-German sentiment in World War I helped to forge a concentrated effort among firms, the federal government, and universities to make the United States independent of "foreign chemicals."

Besides mobilization efforts to make high explosives and war gases, federal policies included protective tariffs, gathering and publishing market information, and, most dramatically, confiscation of German-owned chemical subsidiaries and patents. Meanwhile, firms and universities worked hard to develop scientific and manufacturing expertise. Against a backdrop of hostilities and intrigue, Steen shows how chemicals were deeply entwined with national and international politics and policy during the war and subsequent isolationism of the turbulent early twentieth century.

About the Author

Kathryn Steen is associate professor of history at Drexel University.
For more information about Kathryn Steen, visit the Author Page.


“An important book. Its narratives and arguments are rich and intricate.”--Bulletin for the History of Chemistry

"[A] well-contextualized study of an important segment of the chemical industry."--H-Net

“Offers a fascinating look at the political economy of the American chemical industry in its formative years.”--The Journal of American History

“A brief review can scarcely do justice to the complexity and nuances of this story, which is critical to the history of American industry in the twentieth century.”--American Historical Review

“A thoughtful analysis of the development of the organic chemicals industry.”--Ambix

"The importance of this story lies in the conflict between private property rights (German assets in the United States) and economic development (the establishment of an American organic chemicals industry). Steen does a great job of sorting through and explaining a very complicated story."--John K. Smith, Lehigh University