Industrialization & Deindustrialization in Michigan

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Michigan is more deeply associated with industrial production than nearly any other state. So what happened? In this lesson, we'll examine the rise and fall of industrial cities in Michigan and consider what the future may hold.

Boom and Bust in Michigan

You don't earn the nickname the ''Motor City'' without a history defined by the impacts of industrialization. While there are many centers for industrial production throughout the United States, few have embodied the successes, dreams, struggles, and failures of industrial America as dramatically as Michigan. Home to many industries (perhaps most famously the automobile industry that earned Detroit its famous nickname), Michigan has long been synonymous with American manufacturing and the benefits that come with it.

So, what happened? In 2013, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. Many of its major industries had fallen, and other once-proud cities across Michigan were in ruin. The history of Michigan is one of both growth and decline, an emblematic model of America's tumultuous relationship with labor, economic change, and migration. From the loudest booms to the most jarring busts, Michigan's history is the history of American industry.


The rise of Michigan begins after the American Civil War. The country was recovering, and people were looking for work. For many Americans, Michigan seemed a good place to start anew. It had lots of natural resources, and the shipping industry based in the Great Lakes was lucrative. For newly freed African Americans, Michigan also had a reputation as a destination on the underground railroads.

People started moving to Michigan, and the state grew. It's important for us to remember that industrial and agricultural growth went hand-in-hand at this time. The money from farming and resource extraction, most significantly logging, provided the wealth to build up the state's cities. Between 1860 and 1870, Detroit's population nearly doubled to 80,000. By 1900, the city had about 285,000 residents, many of who were immigrants, attracted by the state's rapidly growing economy.

Michigan cities grew quickly in the early 20th century

After 1900, Michigan truly shifted its focus from an agricultural to industrial economy. While the cities contained factories for a number of industries, one stood above the rest: automobiles. The automobile industry skyrocketed Michigan to the ranks of a global industrial center, and car manufacturing became the largest industry in the state by 1920.

So, who benefited from the wealth? The government of Michigan enjoyed lucrative tax revenue, and the titans of industry were some of the most powerful people in the country. However, Michigan's industrialization also brought with it some of the most powerful labor movements in American history. One of the unions, the United Automobile Workers, became so powerful that it was able to make substantial demands. Michigan workers were strongly protected by unions, giving them higher wages, better benefits, and a higher quality of life than most factory workers ever hoped to receive.

Even with this growth, industrial Michigan still hadn't reached the pinnacle of its wealth. As Europe plunged towards World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to use American industries as an ''Arsenal of Democracy''. In short, the country would produce everything the Allies needed to fight, and Michigan was key. When the United States joined the war in 1941, Michigan's industries were subsidized by the government to produce even more wartime supplies.

Woman working in a Detroit factory during WWII

After WWII ended, GI's returned to a find that Michigan's industries had exploded thanks to wartime production and government subsidies. The state reached the peak of its wealth in the 1950s as Americans celebrated peacetime by purchasing American-made products in massive quantities.


Unfortunately, the glory of the 1950s was not to last, and eventually Michigan would fall into a period of deindustrialization, defined by a decline in the industrial economy, transition away from manufacturing, and urban deterioration.

The troubling signs for this trend emerged in the 1970s. An oil embargo placed against the United States by Middle Eastern countries drastically hurt the automobile industry. A major economic recession of the 1970s and 1980s led to high rates of unemployment as many factories shut down. At the same time, German and Japanese manufacturers started exporting new cars to the USA in large numbers. Newly industrialized nations like South Korea worked vigorously to assert a place in the global economy. Michigan cities became part of the Rust Belt, a swath of American industrial centers that fell into decay throughout the 1980s.

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