Who made capitalism in nineteenth-century America, and how was it made?

Today we have a guest post from authors Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson, about their book, Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America.

Luskey & Woloson_largeThe cover art of our book, Capitalism by Gaslight, portrays one of New York’s most important commercial thoroughfares, the Bowery, in 1871. In this nighttime scene, crowds of shoppers mill about a busy street market. Hawkers cry out for customers’ attention and offer them edibles for sale from their carts and baskets, while a showman dazzles his audience with sleight-of-hand tricks. Harper’s Weekly, the journal that commissioned and published the image, thought that “the spectacle,” bathed in the light of gas lamps, was “one of great animation and interest.” (See the full image below.)

We think so, too. Capitalism by Gaslight illuminates the commercial activities of ordinary people like these peddlers and consumers for the purpose of historical revision. By paying more careful attention to the nature and significance of ordinary people’s transactions in various marketplaces—from the bottom up rather than the top down—the contributors to this volume have changed our understanding of how capitalism worked, both economically and culturally. Some of these transactions occurred in dark corners of the economy and have thus been dimly understood, while others, made in the full light of day, have been ignored. In exciting ways, the scholars contributing to this volume introduce us to forgotten Americans whose economic experiences and strategies shaped the economic market and capitalism’s culture.

Cover high res

“Saturday Night in the Bowery,” Harper’s Weekly, Supplement, May 20, 1871, p. 469

How did a family of horse thieves, pilfering slaves, and enterprising brothel madams—to take three groups explored in this book—clarify how capitalism worked in the nineteenth century? While the businesses in which they were engaged were often considered illegal and immoral, their enterprises were inseparable from the commercial mainstream: horse thieves dealt equines to the Union Army, slaves sold cotton to white dealers who in turn sent it to be manufactured into cloth in England, and brothel madams transacted with merchants to supply the furniture, paintings, and fine chinaware that offered an aura of respectability (and copious amounts of liquor) to the clerks who patronized their establishments.

Capitalism offered untold opportunities for exploitation, blurring the lines between respectable and underground economies. “Mock auctioneers” who sold gilded trash to unsuspecting consumers were uncomfortably like their more legitimate counterparts, who similarly encouraged people to pay more for goods than they were actually worth. Likewise, the circulation of people, goods, paper money, and information offered economic opportunities to a considerable number of hard-working, crafty, and knowledgeable people. Secondhand clothing dealers, pornographic book peddlers, illegal slave traders, and emigrant “runners” were clearly entrepreneurs, and capitalism, especially during its transformative years in the nineteenth century, offered myriad opportunities to those with gumption and guile.

The ingenuity these people displayed will never obscure the vital roles the Vanderbilts and Carnegies—and their famous hard work and perseverance—played in shaping American capitalism. Indeed, the commercial experiences, strategies, and worldviews of these petty entrepreneurs reveal that capitalism was as much a cultural as an economic process. Successful, wealthy, and powerful entrepreneurs—the merchant princes, industrial barons, and slaveholders—tried to marginalize ordinary people’s transactions, networks, and ambitions for their own benefit. This cultural sleight-of-hand—denigrating the contribution of others while justifying their own—was a crucial part of legitimizing capitalism and a corollary to elites’ successful accumulation of wealth. The triumphant story that people told themselves then has obscured the significant ways petty entrepreneurs made capitalism as much as it made them.

The eleven contributors to Capitalism by Gaslight delve deep into the inner workings of the nineteenth-century economy to show that capitalism was an active economic and cultural process defined by the ambitions and creativity of a variety of people striving and surviving in the chaotic, competitive, and contentious economy of nineteenth-century America. Their rich essays have unearthed these otherwise obscure stories, bringing them back into the light.

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Brian P. Luskey teaches history at West Virginia University. He is author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America.

Wendy A. Woloson teaches history at Rutgers University-Camden. She is the author of In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence Through the Great Depression and Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century American Culture.


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