Warehouses on wheels

A typical depiction of a logistics corporation is a study in bright lights and blurred lines against a static landscape of territorial sovereignty. It celebrates—as in the slogan touted by the freight-carrier DHL—“logistics without borders.” This article demystifies that promise of borderlessness by explaining how the nation-state has played a lead role in facilitating the circulation of capital and in making the world safe for logistics. Specifically, I revisit two underappreciated milestones in the history of the United States: first, how Congress followed in the path of the British Empire and, in 1846, authorized the spatial form of the bonded warehouse; and second, how it went further and, in 1870, supplemented the bonded warehouse with a bonded railcar, or “warehouse on wheels.” The latter step in particular, I argue, laid a foundation for the networked geography of supply-chain capitalism. Congress permitted the bonded railcar to bypass customs clearance at ports on the seacoast and to move “directly” to ports in the interior. This protocol helped merchants expedite deliveries and generate liquidity via duty deferral, and, equally if not more importantly, it helped boosters on the urban frontiers of the Great West lure investment and spur development via the world market. What was “radical” about this innovation, as commentators noted at the time, was that it mobilized not only commodity capital but also, in effect, the national border.

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Volume 36 Issue 4

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