Just the Factories


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Adjustable beds. Beer. RVs. Cigars. Cheescakes. If something is made in this country, chances are you can witness the process. The field’s main guidebook, Watch it Made in the U.S.A., includes more than 300 factory tours and company museums scattered across the country. Nobody ever really plans a vacation around a factory tour the way they do around, say, a national park or a battlefiled or a museum. But when you see a factory tour advertised on a highway sign, or in a brochure on a rest stop rack, you realize that you never really wondered how a guitar was made, but now that you think about it…

Factory tours’ silent presence on the touristic landscape maks a rich history that goes back more than 100 years. According to Allison Marsh, a historian at the University of South Carolina currently at work on a book on the history of factory tours, manufacturers begin opening their doors to the public late in the 19th century just as the country was undergoing radical shifts — ”from an agricultural to an industrial economy, rural to urban population centers, homemade to purchased goods, anonymous commodities to brand marketing, and local to nationwide product availability,” Marsh wrote in her dissertation on the topic. Tours were marketing tools, but not simply static advertisements. Bringing visitors into the factory was intended to convince them of the safety and quality of new, mass-produced products. A tour of the Heinz plant around that time, for example, included a stop at the Quality Control Department. Tours of the Shredded Wheat factory near Niagara Falls visited the factory’s roof; visitors were able to see that the facility was situated far from the polluting smoke of railroads and other industries. Other tours tried to reassure visitors that employees enjoyed quality working conditions — Ford touted the cleanliness of its plant and a ventilation system that pumped fresh air throughout its Highland Park factory.

Of course factory tours, then and now, tell a corporate story as sanitized as their shop floors purport to be. The tour of Heinz, according to Marsh, did not include a stop at the Bacteriological Department. Highland Park workers complained that visitors were led through controlled environments and never experienced just how how hot and dirty the factory floor actually was.

Factory tours have found many different ways to today tell their personal, boosterish story. I have been on many. I’ve toured Ford’s Rouge factory in Dearborn, Michigan, where visitors walk along the assembly line on a suspended catwalk near the factory’s ceiling; guides stationed at various points are available to answer questions, but you’re pretty much on your own to go as fast or slow as you’d like, depending on how hypnotizing you find assembly line production.

I’ve visited the QVC studios in West Chester, Pennsylvania, which includes a tour through soundproof hallways above the studio floor — one sprawling sea of faux front yards and kitchens and pastel living rooms. You can watch hosts sell rakes and sweaters and knives live. Without the phone numbers and prices and countdowns you see on the screen at home, not to mention the sounds of the hosts, these scenes look almost like a kind of performance art, artists going through the physical motions of hawking items that we visitors cannot buy.

In Bentonville, Arkansas, I toured the Walmart Visitors Center in the chain’s first store, on a quaint town square surrounded by mom-and-pop restaurants and coffee shops and galleries. There you can see Sam Walton’s wood-paneled office, just as he left it.

I’ve also been to the Crayola factory in Easton, Pennsylvania, which for some reason refers to itself as the Crayola FACTORY, maybe to sidestep the issue of its not being the actual place where crayons are made, but instead a kind of garish amusement park for kids that explains the process alongside trippy, color-related activities. The best part of the Crayola FACTORY? Your ticket price includes admission to the National Canal Museum next door.

Fans of factory tours inevitably hear or read about York County, the center of a region rich with manufacturers that sits just west of the tourist magnet of Pennsylvania’s Amish Country. Hoping to capitalize on its very un-Amish resources, in 2001 the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau went ahead and started calling itself the Factory Tour Capital of the World. Each June, it corrals its manufacturers into a four-day festival called Made in America, during which those factories with tours expand their schedules, and those without tours come up with some way to show curious summer daytrippers just how something is made or assembled or decorated.

During Made in America days, I visited Hershey’s Chocolate World. Hershey’s tour is a lot like Crayola’s. No chocolate is actually made here. The tour is instead an add-on the company’s amusement park, and actually is its own ride. On entering, visitors pass signs telling the life story of Milton Hershey, of his many failures before stumbling onto chocolate, of his philanthropic work. The hall, which is more a waiting line than an actual part of the tour, then winds its way past a mural that hints at the life of the cocoa bean before it comes to south-central Pennsylvania. The mural includes scenes from unidentified jungles and images of dark-skinned workers harvesting pods, and views of giant tankers being loaded with crates and crates of U.S.-bound beans. A quiet, bongo-rich soundtrack meant to evoke these anonymous elsewheres plays overhead.

If there’s no wait, you can speed through this part until you come to a spinning platform, where you load into a chocolate-brown pod and slide away into a dark hole. Three animatronic cows singing out a barn window then welcome visitors. If a tour is meant to explain the production of a product from start to finish, then Hershey’s products seem to begin right here in the farmlands of Hershey. Along the way, vats of glossy brown liquid and conveyor belts lined with plastic Hershey Kisses demonstrate what happens to beans once they’re brought here: They’re sorted, then roasted, then mixed with milk, and then made into delicious Hershey products such as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and and Kit Kats and Whoopers. The tour ends with a free sample; the day I was there, we received classic Hershey bars. They are “fun”-size bars, of course, but the tour lets out into a giant store where you can buy bulk Hershey candies and stuffed Hershey toys and T-shirts to let the world know that you like chocolate.

Cash-strapped museums could learn a thing or two from Susquehanna Glass in Columbia, Pennsylvania, whose tour both begins and ends in its retail store. Susquehanna, which turns 100 this year, is a self-described “decorator of glassware.” The company etches glass bowls and mugs and ice buckets and wine goblets with all kinds of initials and animals and corporate logos and sports mascots. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., visitors can meet in the company’s small store to begin a tour of Susquehanna and see exactly how glassware is decorated.

During Made in America, the company’s four-tour weekly schedule grew to 10. My tour group watched wedding glasses etched by hand on a spinning stone wheel. We saw glass cut by lasers, blasted by sand, and silkscreened. A late group of day-camp children eventually joined us, but by then we were almost finished. A factory tour waits for no one.

Prior to visiting Susquehanna Glass, I had no interest in decorated glass. The glasses in my kitchen are just plain, unadorned vessels that celebrate nothing. After visiting Susquehanna Glass, I still have no interest in decorated glass. But I do have an interest in factory tours. Which is why at the tour’s end I bought a glass ice bucket etched with the scene of a sailboat sailing along on pointy waves. Some loopy letter-M seabirds, the kind children draw, fly overhead. As she was ringing me up, the sales woman (who was also our tour guide) offered me a free gift. It was a glass etched with “Susquehanna Glass Co. 100 Years. 1910-2010. Your Decorating Specialist.” I found it nice that they’d throw in something extra with my purchase, and then I saw that everyone else on the tour had received a glass, too. Many factory tours like you to buy something as part of your visit, I remembered, but they almost all like give away something for free. A little corporate goodwill never hurts.

Most people, of course, like chocolate. Not many feel anything for decorated glass. But few people have deep connections to the majority of objects produced on factory tours. Modular homes? Books in Braille? Whistles? Passion for a product or company doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for interest in a tour. I myself drive a Toyota, not a Ford; I never use crayons; and I never shop at Walmart or through QVC.

This disconnect is probably most evident not on factory tours themselves, but in the proliferation of television shows dedicated to how things are made, and, more important, in the variety of subjects these shows tackle. The History Channel has Modern Marvels, which has a kind of machismo air to itself and has explored everything from soil and chrome to less manufactured and more “how does it work?” subjects such as truck stops. On the Food Network there’s Unwrapped and its emphasis on mass-produced, industrial foods and food-related products including Cheez-Its, wax fangs, and Sterno burners. The Discovery Channel’s How It’s Made seems to almost dare us to be interested in its incredibly prosaic focus: retractable cords, soy sauce, traffic cone dispensers, vegetable peelers, ski goggles.

A non-profit cable station in my state of Pennsylvania, PCN, runs a real gem of a show called PCN Tours. Sometimes the focus of the show is a Pennsylvania museum or a small family-owned amusement park, but many episodes explore the state’s factories. These tours are often led by a representative of the company who clearly has not spent much time in front of a camera and hasn’t had much preparation for leading a host-less camera crew around a factory floor not designed for camera crews. The confetti dropped at Times Square on New Year’s? You can see how that’s made on PCN. Those open-mouthed caroling dolls that people put out at Christmas? Those too. Tire racks? Yup. I love this episode description from a visit to Ehmke Manufacturing:

This acoustic blanket is mounted on the inside wall of a helicopter that is used by American troops. It’s one of many products that Ehmke of Philadelphia makes for the military. From a canvas cover for a canteen, to ammo packs and first aid kits, they make just about everything a soldier carries … except for weapons.

Weapons are probably the most interesting things a soldier carries. But PCN doesn’t care. It’s almost as if a factory tour does such a good job selling itself, why bother getting in the way?

I assumed the appeal of factory tours, of seeing how things are made in person or on television, stems from nothing more than an innate desire to understand something better. You never knew how lead gets inside a wood pencil, then you see an episode of How it’s Made, and now you know. That feels satisfying, as if you just found another piece in the giant puzzle that is an understanding of how the world works.

Then I toured the Harley-Davidson factory in York. Harley has a slick factory tour set-up with an employee whose sole responsibility is to schedule tour times. You have to fill out a registration card that asks for your name, address, and race or ethnicity. The lobby features motorcycles you can sit on and a gift shop with a lot of black clothing. Most of the people who tour the Harley-Davidson factory are Harley owners. In fact, after a short film on the company’s history, the tour guide (one of many whose only job is to giving tours) asks visitors if they own a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and, if they do, what model.

The factory is loud, so visitors are given headpieces through which they can hear the tour guide as they follow a single yellow line across the floor. Building a motorcycle requires a lot of pieces of flat metal to be pressed into shapes. It also requires the application of chrome and paint. The pressing seems to involve too many people putting their hands into giant, intimidating presses. The chrome and paint work is done largely by machine. At one point our tour guide stopped at a display with several fenders at various stages of painting. He held up a finished fender and asked, “How long do you think it takes to paint this fender a single color?”

“About 30 seconds?” someone in our tour group guessed.

“About seven hours,” the tour guide answered. We were all impressed, since seven hours is 840 times as long as 30 seconds and reflects a great deal of care taken with this fender and, by extension, every part of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. But what did that mean? What if the visitor had guessed 14 hours? Would we have been less impressed? Or would we have been impressed with the efficiency of the factory and, by extension, the quality and efficiency of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle? Either way, the factory tour wins.

The Harley-Davidson factory tour ends with a free postcard, so I was very excited to get to the Utz snack food factory.

Utz produces potato chips and pretzels and cheese curls and pork rinds and all other kinds of junk foods. The company has a regional market, but is proud to still tout the fact that in 1981, Food and Wine magazine named its potato chip the best in the country. Utz offers an unguided tour through a windowed hallway looking down on the chip processing line. It is the most linear tour and manufacturing process I have ever seen. Potatoes come in, they are washed, and they are peeled in a centrifuge-like machine. They are rinsed, they are fried, and they are salted. Cooked chips piled about two-feet deep progress down a conveyor belt, are shaken into a single layer, and then divided up and sent down chutes to meet their fates as either BBQ chips or crab chips or salt and vinegar chips. Women load filled and sealed bags into giant cardboard boxes for shipping. At the end of the hall, a live video feed shows the loading dock where trucks are filled with Utz products and sent out into the world.

I have never seen a more straightforward factory tour. It offered as constrained a storyline as a half-hour episode of Modern Marvels (which, incidentally, has featured Utz). Potatoes come in, chips go out. Roll the credits.

It’s true that, as Marsh wrote, factory tours are doing the work of telling an official company story. But tour enough factories and you start to realize that they’re doing more. At Utz, we were told that four pounds of potatoes are needed to make one pounds of chips. As with fender painting at Harley, this initially seemed surprising. Spend a moment thinking about it, though, and you wonder why. What are four pounds of potatoes anyway? How many man hours does that represent? How much square footage of farmland does it take to grow four pounds of potatoes? How much does one earn growing four pounds of potatoes? How much does Utz make off one pound of potato chips?

On the Utz tour, we also learned that the process of making a chip takes 30 minutes. The factory processes one million pounds of potatoes each week. These are facts, but they represent no real knowledge, which is what we think we’re getting when we take a factory tour and what makes them so satisfying. You leave Chocolate World feeling as if you now how a Hershey bar is made, but you actually have no idea what goes into growing a cocoa bean. You hand in your headset at the Harley-Davidson factory pleased that you’ve seen what goes into making such a complicated piece of machinery, but you really have no point of reference to suggest just how complicated or uncomplicated a machine it is. Factory tours, you start to realize, are the Chinese food of the tourism world. You’re full of awe, but just wait five minutes and try to explain to a friend exactly what was so awesome. You’ll likely come up empty.

Of course such reflection is possible only after the factory tour fact. In the moment, you’re too busy wondering what friends will think of your glass sailboat ice bucket, or eating a fun-size Hershey bar, or sending a postcard from the Harley-Davidson factory, or trying to get a second free bag of Utz original chips. It’s admittedly hard to feel unsatisfied by a factory tour — it’s summer, you feel like you learned something, and, besides, you’ve got a $1 coupon for the Utz factory story burning a hole in your pocket. • 30 July 2010

SOURCE: Allison Marsh, “The Ultimate Vacation: Watching Other People Work, A History of Factory Tours in America, 1880-1950” (Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins College, 2008).