Out of Stock charts the history of the warehouse as a “spatial form” in the United States from the colonial era to 1989 (20). Although not quite the book that its title promises, it is full of interesting insights that will reward the patient reader: Perth Amboy, New Jersey, was a major slave mart in the eighteenth century; the New York Crystal Palace of 1852 was a bonded warehouse for foreign importers; Chicago is, by some estimates, the third-largest container port on the planet, after Hong Kong and Singapore. Skeptical of the oft-voiced warehousemen’s boast that warehousing is one of the “oldest businesses in the world,” Orenstein contends that not until the 1850s would the warehouse emerge as a “stand-alone business,” and not until after the Civil War would it become a “destination” on the “cognitive maps of city denizens” (31). Originally depositories for goods, warehouses are today depots for their transportation and processing. Use gave way to exchange and storage to circulation. Landmarks in this transformation included the Warehouse Act of 1846, which permitted importers to delay the payment of tariff duties, and the legislation establishing the first foreign trade zones in 1934. Among the sources that Orenstein mined are the trade press, government documents, and the papers of Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Celler.
Although Out of Stock has the word “warehouse” in its title, it is primarily a history of the foreign trade zone, a spatially delimited territory that in recent decades has become increasingly central to the manufacture of foreign goods destined for the U. S. market. The international dimension of the warehouse is important to Orenstein, since it enables her to align her project with the globalizing impulse of historians of capitalism, and to disparage as parochial the bottom-up regionalism of business historians such as Philip Scranton. For Orenstein, as for historians of capitalism, capitalism is a monster abstraction that no individual, group, or institution can check. Question-begging, attention-getting pronouncements abound: “Only by showing the mismatch between fantasy and reality can we expose the counterfeit freedom that sustains the tyranny of capitalism” (25); “customs territory…constituted the very foundation of modern nation states” (107); “the foreign-trade zone repackaged warehousing into a dreamscape of frictionless transactionality” (181).
Orenstein is right to observe that foreign trade zones challenge conventional assumptions about national sovereignty, labor standards, and supply chains. Yet, even though their establishment is the “epitome of politics” (10), she never offers more than a glimpse at how the sausage is made. Her principal protagonists are “warehousemen” and “zone operators,” one-dimensional stick figures, almost none of whom is identified by name. Some subjects are undoubtedly harder to cover than others. Yet in contrast to books on related themes—for example, Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton, 2016); Shane Hamilton’s Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy (Princeton, 2008); and Pietra Rivola’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade (Hoboken, 2005)—Out of Stock is not written in a style that is likely to lead to widespread classroom adoption. Pitched at colleagues in American studies and related fields, it offers relatively little to business, economic, or political historians. Even so, it is sufficiently suggestive in its assemblage of relevant detail that it might just become a cult classic among those academics who conflate cultural critique with interdisciplinarity.
Certain issues receive attention; others do not. Populist enthusiasm for government-backed storage facilities is duly noted, but the book has no index entry for Munn v. Illinois, even though the Supreme Court’s affirmation of state warehouse regulation may well be the single best-known warehouse-related event in American history. The rise of the self-storage business since the 1960s also falls outside the author’s ambit, as does cold storage, public granaries, and the off-site repositories maintained by libraries and art museums. Warehouse aesthetics is another neglected topic worth exploring. The warehouse, in short, has yet to find its historian. Even so, it is a tribute to Orenstein’s patient and imaginative sleuthing that these and other subjects can now come more clearly into view.