For the vast majority of Americans who lived in rural settings from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, the small town provided the most important context for their lives. The town was a focal point and trade center chiefly for farmers but also for fishermen, loggers, miners, and even industrial workers as long as industrial production depended upon waterpower. Rural Americans needed community, and towns filled their economic, political, social, and cultural needs. David Russo's history of these communities is a unique and engaging work of history, an overview of the founding, development, and varieties of life of American towns from earliest colonial times to the present. His chronicle is wide-ranging in its description but specific in its illustrations of how towns came into existence, grew or declined, gave way to larger urban areas, and finally have reappeared in idealized forms that provide Americans with nostalgia for a past that most of them did not even experience. The most important aspects of real towns, Mr. Russo observes, is their past, their history. With a vast knowledge of the field and a deft use of illustrative facts, he re-creates the universal experience of the small town—its intimacy, its neighborliness, and human scale as well as intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and tendency to exclusivity. American Towns is a richly informed book that fills a large gap in the history of the United States. With 50 black-and-white photographs and drawings.
David J. Russo is professor of history at McMaster University. His other books include American History from a Global Perspective, Clio Confused, and Keepers of Our Past, which Choice named an outstanding book in 1988-1989. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.