The History of Capitalism

in the United States

Graduate Student Conference

November 6 – 8, 2008

Harvard University
CGIS South, 1730 Cambridge Street,
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Papers are available to registered attendees for download on our papers page.


Private Enterprise and Public Designs: The Intersections of Public Interest and Private Action

Christine Desan
Harvard Law School

Louis Hyman
American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Jessica Hennessey Department of Economics, University of Maryland

Endogenous Institutional Change: Transforming Local Governments

Between 1875 and 1912, twelve states adopted constitutional home rule for municipalities. Home rule privileges gave municipalities the option of self-chartering and the ability to independently determine their desired structure and function. The adoption of home rule legislation at the state level was endogenously determined by the current legislative environment and the underlying social, economic and political forces in each state. Fiscal federalism theory predicts that decentralization of power at the state level is more likely to happen when there exists greater heterogeneity across governments, and adoption at the local level may happen when the municipal government is more homogeneous.
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara

From Regulator to Advocate: Phoenix Industrialists, the Modern Right, and the Transformation of the State

Phoenix’s, and the greater Southwest’s, industrialization offers new insight into the trajectory of and geographic contours of American capitalism. The business elites who orchestrated Phoenix’s postwar growth set the standard for industrialization in the postwar period through pro-business tax policies, anti-union labor regulations, and aggressive corporate relocation campaigns. In the postwar period, many Southern and Western boosters had hoped to industrialize but few articulated a modernization schema so violently hostile to modern liberalism or so intent on attracting industries unconnected to their region’s long-standing economic base. Phoenix’s success, much praised by CEOs, created competition between cities eager to replicate the Phoenix miracle, which further decreased support for liberal regulatory policies. Hence, industrialism did not inaugurate a liberal age as New Dealers had hoped but had put the West, and the rest of the nation, on the path to a high-tech, neo-liberal future.
Joanna Cohen Department of History, University of Pennsylvania

"Secession has produced a wonderful change in the Price of Goods": Consumption and Civic Obligations in the Civil War North

As the Civil War became a reality for communities throughout the north, a number of retailers and manufacturers fashioned secession into a commercial opportunity: suddenly patriotism became more than a virtue, it became a commodity. Investigating this transformation of patriotism from conviction to consumption, this paper will explore one set of connections that Americans made between their identity as consumers and their obligations as patriotic citizens between 1861 and 1865. Addressing itself to the general imbalance in the scholarship, that has tended to favor investigations into the power of the producer’s identity during America’s long market revolution, the paper will use this case study to explore how scholars might re-consider the place of consumption when analyzing the ways in which capitalism reconfigured the meanings of civic belonging in America over the course of the nineteenth century.
Katherine Unterman Department of History, Yale University

The Boodler and the Border: Embezzlement and the Evolution of U.S. International Boundaries, 1880-1890

In the 1880s, hundreds of white-collar bank employees in cities like New York and Chicago embezzled large sums, hopped on a train, and were safely across the Canadian border before the funds were even missed the next morning. Through the figure of the "boodler," as newspapers dubbed these fugitives, this paper examines the links between the growth of finance capitalism and the evolution of the United States’ international borders, both in the popular imagination and in actual surveillance and law enforcement. Efforts to stem unauthorized flows of capital across the border set precedents for later attempts to regulate and control the transnational movement of people.


Making and Unmaking Markets: Systems of Exchange and the Transformation of Ideational and Economic Spaces

Julia Ott
Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts, The New School

Seth Rockman
Department of History, Brown University


Sasha Nichols-Geerdes Department of History, UCLA

"Ancient Customs" of Trade: Organizing Commerce in Colonial Boston

While New York City, Philadelphia, and the towns from whence Puritans emigrated all had marketplaces, colonial Boston did not. Not until 1733 was there a serious attempt to concentrate trade in a marketplace, but even then the plan encountered such serious resistance than an angry mob tore down two of the marketplaces. This paper analyzes the decentralized system of trade that developed in Boston beginning with first settlement and examines why it developed that way. It then examines the efforts by merchants to centralize trade in marketplaces beginning in 1733 and argues that such efforts were merely attempts to root out competition and secure a stronger grip on the struggling agricultural trade.
Susan Gaunt Department of History, The University of Chicago

"Labour and Mud Make all Men Equal:" The Boonesborough Corn Compact of 1779

This paper explores the process by which economic relations were transformed as revolutionary-era Euro-American settlers crossed the Appalachians and settled in Kentucky. Frontier conditions eroded traditions of individual family farms and neighborhood-based reciprocal exchange, and new forms of trade relations emerged. Intense mutuality, including collective labor agreements, emerged as people banded together to obtain subsistence. At the same time, settlers sold foodstuffs to newly arriving settlers at substantially inflated prices. While the frontier demanded cohesive behavior, the availability of land and the necessity of cash to pay for it led to exploitative economic practices and a transformed ethos governing exchange.
Rebecca Tinio McKenna Department of History, Yale University

A "Commercial Awakening": Marketplace Construction in the U.S. Colonial Philippines

Through the early period of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines, the colonial Bureau of Public Works prioritized the erection of marketplaces. These sites were among the more popular subjects for U.S. photographers and writers looking to relate noteworthy and representative colonial scenes to U.S. and Philippine audiences. This paper analyzes the significance of these sites to the colonial regime and to broader U.S. imperial ambitions. How were these marketplaces and representations of them deployed in providing a capitalist education to Philippine peoples? How did the construction and use of these sites make the Philippines a workshop of early twentieth-century U.S. capitalism? What does their construction suggest about the formal and material work of building "informal" empire?
Kelly Patterson Department of Sociology, Cornell University

Vetting the Entrepreneur: A Multi-Dimensional Study of Information, Trust, and New Ventures in the Post-Bellum South

Patterson proposes a study of the relative importance of new firm status and identity as the basis for trust. Here, she will investigate how and under what conditions these informational cues are used to make inferences about the reliability of new firms, testing three related hypotheses: (a) status and identity serve as the basis for both positive and negative trust-based inferences by 19th-century credit agents evaluating new firms, (b) the relative importance of status and identity varies according to the status of a proprietor, and (c) the relative importance of status and identity varies according to the experience of agents.


Representations: Identities and the Political Economy of Capitalism in the United States

Michael Denning
American Studies Program, Yale University

Richard John
Departments of History and Communication, University of Illinois at Chicago


Benjamin Soskis Department of History, Columbia University

"Millionaires Who Laugh Are Rare": Sacrifice and Stewardship in the Gilded Age

This paper examines one of the dominant tropes within the Gilded Age Gospel of Wealth: the difficulty of responsible giving. Soskis situates the figure of the beleaguered philanthropist within a broader cultural context, especially with reference to an emerging consumerist ethic. He argues that the figure’s popularity stemmed from its ability to serve divergent purposes for the giver and his public, both validating large-scale private benevolence and challenging its legitimacy. Finally, he demonstrates the ways in which the difficulty of giving trope, which ultimately facilitated the acceptance of institutional philanthropy, strained against the individualistic stewardship tradition that had inspired it.
Luke Stacks Department of American Studies, The University of Iowa

Consumption and the 1930s Comics Page

In A Consumer’s Republic, Lizabeth Cohen argues that the U.S. shifted from a producer-oriented economy to a consumer-oriented economy during the 1930s. We weathered a crisis in capitalism not by abandoning it, but by changing our focus. Cohen demonstrates that this ideology of mass consumption came from above (corporations and bureaucracy) and below (consumer advocates). Stacks argues that the media forms taught that ideology just as much as the content.
Consider the comics pages in 1930s newspapers. As others have observed, syndicates added advertising to these pages when they realized that comics were better-read than even the front page news stories. But since cartoonists worked in advertising and graphic design, the comics pages communicated consumerism not just through narrative, but also through composition. Stacks’s work draws on media theorists Crary and Kittler to discuss these links between print and their readers. facilitated the acceptance of institutional philanthropy, strained against the individualistic stewardship tradition that had inspired it.
Ishan Cader Department of International Relations, University of Sussex

Manifest Destiny and Abundance: The Aesthetic Transformation of the US Political Economy

Interrogating two key ideational trends in the United States during the turn of the twentieth century, this paper critically traces the influence of ideas of manifest destiny and discourses of abundance on the transformation of US capitalism by the onset of the Great Depression. These intertwining and sometimes contradictory political-economic concepts are used as a departure point to analyse an intra-class conflict between a ‘Custodian’ elite class, culturally anchored in Victorian era moralism, and an emergent group of social actors in two ‘industries’ that were to play an often brash and energising role in the expansion of the mass consumption market—advertising and public relations. As both of these classes were to an extent entrenched within dominant political-economic elites, their disputes—over the ideas and meanings generated in free market democracy—manifested themselves in an aesthetic contestation. This conflict, which can be found in literature, architecture, film and contemporary polemic reflection, did much to shape the contours of how capitalism started to be represented and articulated; as a series of images and cultural articfices that idealised and confirmed both a broader social system underpinned by a culture of aspirational materialism as well as a socio-political power structure premised on the technical ability to create and manipulate a social consensus via emergent media formats.


The Exportation of American Capitalism: American Capitalism in an International Context

Andrew Gordon
Department of History, Harvard University

Colleen Dunlavy
Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Ben Sawyer Department of History, Michigan State University

An American Company?: Singer Manufacturing Company and American Capitalism in the Russian Imagination during World War I

In this paper Sawyer examines Singer Manufacturing Company’s experience in Russia during World War I, at a time when a series of intersecting forces led many in Russia to believe that Singer was a German company. He argues that in order to understand why so many Russians were convinced of Singer’s German ties, we must examine the ways that Russian citizens perceived the company itself. Using company records and correspondence, Sawyer shows that Russians’ willingness to believe that Singer was a German company was largely a result of popular interpretations of the operations of a modern capitalist enterprise.
Todd Scarth Department of International Relations, University of Sussex

American State Formation and Internationalism’s "Capitalist Turn"

For generations internationalism had been one of the Left’s central motivating ideas and most treasured inheritances, while nationalism was largely an expression of the propertied classes. Beginning around the time of the US Civil War, and part of the process of US state formation, the relationships between capital and labour, and the national and the international were reversed. This paper explores this ‘capitalist turn’ in internationalism, when the liberal internationalist ideas of the French and American revolutions were reconstituted. The US (and the Anglo-American west more broadly) was the centre of gravity for this emerging internationalist perspective, which was shaped by prevailing political-economic forces in the international context.eve that Singer was a German company was largely a result of popular interpretations of the operations of a modern capitalist enterprise.
Stefan Link Department of History, Harvard University

Henry Ford, National Socialism, and Illiberal Visions of a Just Economy in the USA and Germany, 1920-39

This paper examines the place of Henry Ford’s social and economic ideology in a larger transnational current of illiberal modernist thought between the world wars. Despite his contributions to the Roaring Twenties, Ford’s economic and social ideology was deeply at odds with the tenets of liberal capitalism. In particular, German National Socialists shared and admired Ford’s vision, as is evident from multiple transatlantic exchanges between Detroit and Germany. The intriguing elective affinity between the American tycoon and National Socialism, this paper argues, suggests a re-examination of the position that Henry Ford holds in the master narrative of American capitalism.
Jason Stanley Department of Sociology, New York University

Confrontation and Concessions in an Integrated Commodity Chain: The Collapse of Cross-Border Unionism in the North American Auto Sector, 1978-84

In 1984, after close to fifty years of unity with their American counterparts, Canadian autoworkers severed ties with the American-based international United Auto Workers (UAW). Despite historically-high levels of cross-border integration in the North American auto industry, Canadian and American workers became convinced that their strategic orientations were irreconcilable. American autoworkers pursued a policy of cooperativist unionism, while Canadian workers increasingly turned to militant strategies. What drove this divergence? In this paper Stanley points to the need to understand the interaction between seemingly distant macro-economic and political forces, on the one hand, and worker mobilization, on the other.


The Science of Capitalism: Explorations of the Employment of Science in the Capitalist Enterprise

Andrew Jewett
Department of History, Harvard University

Charles E. Rosenberg
Department of the History of Science, Harvard University


David Singerman Program in Science, Technology, & Society, MIT
David Singerman studies topics across the history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century sciences: measurement and metrology; eugenics; the role of science in economic and political empires (especially the sugar trade); the intertwined developments of the physical and social sciences; and Tour de France cyclists as medical and scientific test subjects. A second-year doctoral student in MIT's STS program, he received an MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

"Any Ass Can Manage a Sugar Factory": Labor, Efficiency, and Chemical Control

By 1875 cane sugar islands were reeling. Pure, industrial beet sugar had seized half the global market. The engines of colonial revival would be huge new "central factories" for making competitively pure sucrose. These "centrals" demanded laboratory perfection at industrial scales. Chemistry thus became crucial to these grand sugar "machines" where constant testing enforced efficiency. Yet mechanization occulted rather than obviated sugar-making’s need for skilled labor. The chemists’ tests disciplined the workforce, but they needed those same workers’ cooperation to maintain "chemical control" So chemists learned to manage labor, their laboratories grew to resemble factories, and metropolitan chemical schools modeled whole factories in miniature.
Cheryl Lemus Department of History, Northern Illinois University

Save Your Baby, Save Ten Percent: National Baby Week and the Shaping of the "Normal" Pregnancy as a Consumer Phenomenon, 1916-1940

This paper will examine how consumer culture shaped, used, and disseminated medical ideas, while also addressing physicians as proprietors of consumer capitalism, by examining the establishment of Baby Week in 1916. Although it was intended to educated women about their babies, unborn and born, it quickly shifted into a consumer event by 1918. This partnership between medicine and consumer culture designed the normal pregnancy as not only a medical advancement, but a consumer one.
Dan Bouk Department of History, Princeton University
Dan Bouk studies American history and the history of science at Princeton University. His dissertation, "Science and the Culture of Capitalism: Life Insurance in the United States, 1850-1950," explains the development of a distinct economic culture shaped and directed by succeeding generations of scientific and medical experts employed within some of America’s most important capitalist institutions—its life insurance companies.

Scientific Capitalism/Capitalist Science: "The Science of Life Insurance" in the Early Republic

Those who explore the common ground between science and commerce in the United States throughout the early nineteenth century will find it to be a land full of record keepers, from those who noted down the positions of stars to those who counted a nation’s citizens to those who kept their shop’s accounts—all of whom shared values of precision and diligence, and a belief in the primacy of mercantile life. This paper focuses on the life insurance industry as a key site for the development of this common ground and hybrid culture. It begins with the industry’s origins in England and tracks its American development, showing how offices recruited more men of science into the industry to help overcome the challenges of managing continent-spanning enterprises and to resolve tendentious questions of fairness and security that were central to the idea that insurance could share equitably the risks of modern life.
Jenna Feltey Alden Department of History, Columbia University

Behind the Executive Mask: Humanistic Management Theory and the Rise of Postwar Corporate Sensitivity Training

In the years following World War II, American middle managers started talking about their feelings -- thanks to the innovation of a fashionable technique called the T-group (or "training group") which assembled small groups of so-called Organization Men for sessions of candid self-exploration and mutual critique. This paper will explore the connections between this technique and a cadre of humanistic management theorists who, in the same period, promoted "self-actualization" as key to managerial competence and contentment. Alden is interested in the ways in which the management training techniques of the 1950s and 1960s, along with developments in behavioral science and organizational psychology, addressed perceived dilemmas of postwar capitalism and promoted a new ideal of the fused personality and organization in the "post-bureaucratic" age.