2021 Workshop

Fine Printing

Blank copy of the Uniform Contract adopted by the American Institute of Architects, Western Association of Architects, and National Association of Builders (detail), 1888. [Courtesy the American Institute of Architects Archives]

It is almost a tautology to say that a building contract awarded is the definition of success for a building contractor. Yet when the first national convention of American builders met in Chicago in 1887, “the absolute absurdity of the system of contracts now prevailing” was foremost on their minds.1Peter B. Wight, “Building Contracts,” in Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of the National Association of Builders of the United States of America (Boston: Rockwell & Church, 1887), 43. As many attendees had come to understand, the substance of any one contract could make it a losing bargain. Over the course of the 19th century, architects had inserted themselves between property owners and building contractors, as both the authors and final interpreters of the contracts, specifications, and drawings that regulated the construction of their designs. Architects were, of course, hired by the clients, but they were nevertheless expected to serve as impartial mediators of contractual disputes between those clients and their contractors. Even so, the immediate problem for builders in the late 1880s was not necessarily that the contracts imposed on them by architects were on the whole unfair; rather, it was that they were all different. As the prominent fireproofing contractor Peter B. Wight explained in a speech to the 1887 convention, a builder performing more-or-less identical work for ten projects under ten different architects would be called to the office of each and asked to sign a different form at every one. “One contract may have three pages of fine print, which can hardly be read without glasses, and another may have one page of coarse print,” Wight said. “In each case, it is not expected that he will demur to anything; but he is expected to sit down and affix his name. … And while the contractor may hesitate at first, he may be forgiven if he signs quickly thereafter,” even if this acquiescence violates his “business-sense.”2Wight, 43–44.

The problem for builders in the 1880s was not that the contracts imposed on them were unfair; it was that they were all different.

In the end, for Wight and other builders, solving the problem of rigidly dictated contractual terms involved not less legal formality, but more. In 1888, a joint Committee on the Uniform Contract — comprising members from the National Association of Builders, the American Institute of Architects, and the Western Association of Architects — assembled to draft and publish the first nationally standardized building agreement form in the United States.3The WAA was a short-lived organization founded in 1884 of mostly Chicago-based architects. In 1889 it merged with the AIA. For more on the AIA’s ongoing role in the standardization of construction contracts, see The American Institute of Architects Official Guide to the 2007 AIA Contract Documents (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009). See also George Barnett Johnston, Assembling the Architect: The History and Theory of Professional Practice (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020), 14–20. This document, the product of months of correspondence, deliberation, and revision, laid out sixteen articles codifying obligations among a generic owner, contractor, and architect, with blanks provided for specific names, dates, quantities, descriptions, and, of course, signatures. A mass-produced legal instrument, the three-page Uniform Contract conformed to the conventions of law stationery designed for pigeonhole filing: printed on legal-size paper to be folded into quarters, with an “abstract” panel on the outside for inscribing identifying details.

Advertisement for “AIA Uniform Contracts” and other items sold by E. G. Soltmann, a drawing-materials and blueprinting shop in New York, from Catalogue of the Seventh Architectural Exhibition of the Brooklyn Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, 1907. [Courtesy Pratt Institute Libraries, Special Collections]

When the builders’ association met the following year to formally accept the contract as a recommended standard for all its members, their president admitted that the document did not yet constitute a “perfect contract,” a fact that did not go unnoticed by several attendees.4John S. Stevens, president’s address to the convention, in Proceedings of the Third Annual Convention of the National Association of Builders of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Brailey, Guilbert & Haas, Stenographers, 1889), 6. (These critics were “cordially invited” to submit their suggestions for perfecting the text in writing, but were emphatically reminded that “affiliated bodies cannot make changes!!” unless those changes were approved by the joint committee.5“Report of Committee on Uniform Contracts,” in Third Annual Convention, 37. ) In the months and years following its official adoption by the national associations of builders and architects, proponents of the Uniform Contract argued that the principle on which it was based was not the fairness of its terms per se, but rather the institutional mechanism that it established for codifying such terms as they might evolve in the future. Ultimately, wrote the editor of one trade journal, this contract’s value was premised “upon the fact that it is always the same, whether found in Chicago or New York City.”6“The Uniform Contract,” Carpentry and Building 13, no. 5 (May 1891): 128.

In codifying their mutual contractual obligations, architects and contractors also codified themselves as fungible legal abstractions.

Sustaining the uniformity of the Uniform Contract across the vast and economically fragmented American landscape was not without complications. Syndicating the document through jobbing printers scattered across the country would have made the text vulnerable to corruption, whether accidental or not. Thus “to secure absolute … control” over “the integrity of the text,” the joint committee turned to another legal technology: copyright.7“Report of Committee on Uniform Contracts,” 37; O. P. Hatfield, Alfred Stone, and J. H. Windrim, “Report of Special Committee on a Uniform Building Contract,” in Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Annual Convention of the American Institute of Architects, ed. A. J. Bloor (New York: Oberhauser & Co., 1889), 63. In their view, the best way “to prevent alteration (except in writing)” was to grant to a single publisher an exclusive license that would carry “a penalty of forfeiture for any unauthorized alteration of any of its clauses.”8Hatfield, Stone, and Windrim, 63. The contract’s initial release in the fall of 1888 was entrusted to the Inland Publishing Company, a printing house in Chicago known for its popular trade journal; having won the contract to publish the contract, Inland devoted its own resources to an energetic campaign “to introduce the blanks” to architects and builders across the country —“by liberal advertising, and by its traveling representatives.”9 Inland Architect and News Record 12, no. 3 (October 1888): 22. By 1907, following several revisions to the text as well as typographical updates, the exclusive license was in the hands of E. G. Soltmann, purveyors of drawing materials and specialists in blueprinting techniques, who operated out of the “Tee-Square” Building in New York. Sold alongside pen knives and slide rules, the Uniform Contract was marketed as one among many new technologies essential to the modern architectural office.

A product of both deep mistrust and tenuous cooperation, the Uniform Contract promised to thread standardized commercial relations through the private law of America’s disparate “building interests,” binding them together as a nationwide industry. But in codifying their mutual contractual obligations, architects and contractors also codified themselves — not as individual collaborators but as fungible legal abstractions in a market society.10Historians of capitalism have argued that while markets may be found throughout history, it is only in the 19th century that “societies with markets become market societies; that is, only then did exchange transcend the temporal and spatial boundaries to which it had long been confined, either by law or circumstance, and come to characterize all spheres of life.” Michael Zakim and Gary J. Kornblith, “An American Revolutionary Tradition,” in Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Michael Zakim and Gary J. Kornblith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 4. See also Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). In so doing, they laid the social foundations of the modern American construction industry.

Notes

  1. Peter B. Wight, “Building Contracts,” in Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of the National Association of Builders of the United States of America (Boston: Rockwell & Church, 1887), 43.
  2. Wight, 43-44.
  3. The WAA was a short-lived organization founded in 1884 of mostly Chicago-based architects. In 1889 it merged with the AIA. For more on the AIA’s ongoing role in the standardization of construction contracts, see The American Institute of Architects Official Guide to the 2007 AIA Contract Documents (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009). See also George Barnett Johnston, Assembling the Architect: The History and Theory of Professional Practice (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020), 14-20.
  4. John S. Stevens, president’s address to the convention, in Proceedings of the Third Annual Convention of the National Association of Builders of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Brailey, Guilbert & Haas, Stenographers, 1889), 6.
  5. “Report of Committee on Uniform Contracts,” in Third Annual Convention, 37.
  6. “The Uniform Contract,” Carpentry and Building 13, no. 5 (May 1891): 128.
  7. “Report of Committee on Uniform Contracts,” 37; O. P. Hatfield, Alfred Stone, and J. H. Windrim, “Report of Special Committee on a Uniform Building Contract,” in Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Annual Convention of the American Institute of Architects, ed. A. J. Bloor (New York: Oberhauser & Co., 1889), 63.
  8. Hatfield, Stone, and Windrim, 63.
  9. Inland Architect and News Record 12, no. 3 (October 1888): 22.
  10. Historians of capitalism have argued that while markets may be found throughout history, it is only in the 19th century that “societies with markets become market societies; that is, only then did exchange transcend the temporal and spatial boundaries to which it had long been confined, either by law or circumstance, and come to characterize all spheres of life.” Michael Zakim and Gary J. Kornblith, “An American Revolutionary Tradition,” in Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Michael Zakim and Gary J. Kornblith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 4. See also Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

About the Author

Chelsea Spencer

Chelsea Spencer is a Ph.D. candidate in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her dissertation examines the rise of general contracting in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More generally, her research concerns the histories of information, capitalism, and the built environment. Chelsea received an MDes in History and Philosophy of Design from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she cofounded the biweekly zine Open Letters, and a B.A. in art and architectural history from Emory University. Before beginning her studies at MIT, Spencer was Managing Editor of Log.