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The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

Author(s):Brook, Timothy
Reviewer(s):Lufrano, Richard

Published by and EH.Net (August, 1998)

Timothy Brook. The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming

China. Berkeley: University of California, 1998. xxv + 320 pp.

Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, glossary, and index. $40.00 (cloth),

ISBN 0-520-21091-3.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Richard Lufrano

, College of Staten Island

Timothy Brook’s The Confusions of Pleasure began as a chapter for the

Cambridge History of China surveying communication and commerce in Ming

China (1368-1644). As the author writes, this straight-forward task appears

to have expanded to examine the influence of economic change on social and

cultural life.

Instead of a chapter, the project became an independent book that now serves

two related purposes. It provides an eloquently written and comprehensive

account of commerce and communication in Ming China especially valuable for

scholars working on related questions in other geographical areas. For the

specialist, as well as others, the book makes a fundamental contribution by

offering a more balanced view of how money and the market economy affected

social hierarchy, elite status, and social mobility. Brook is careful to

inform the reader at the beginning that he is not writing an economic history

of the Ming, something he believes

impossible at this stage of research. (The reader will nevertheless find much

here that he/she would expect in an economic history.) Instead, he supplies an

overview of the development of communications systems and commerce (thereby

fulfilling his original assignment for the Cambridge History of China,

although the publisher here is different) and its influence over the course of

the dynasty. Many previous chapters in the Cambridge volumes emphasized facts

and statistics over style; Brook provides the kind of comprehensive coverage

that characterizes the Cambridge histories but also brings the period to life


viewing it through the eyes of contemporaries–visiting envoys from Persia,

ship-wrecked travelers from Korea, and particularly members of the

Chinese elite.

Brook, with the help of a gentry guide, divides the book into four parts–the

first century, the middle century, the last century, and the dynasty’s

fall–while tracing “a coherent arc of change from ordered rural

self-sufficiency in the

early Ming to the decadence of urban-based commerce in the late” (pp.

xvii). The account relies on an abundance of primary sources,

the author’s previous work, and the prominent work of scholars such as Craig

Clunas, Valerie Hansen, Tanaka Masatoshi, Wei Qingyuan and Wu Chengming. The

survey however is far from a cut and paste job. Brook, for example, challenges

convention by showing that despite the efforts of the founding emperor early

Ming China was not the agrarian paradise the emperor sought.

State polices themselves, by providing for stability (leading to increased

agricultural production) and ignoring commerce in the countryside, actually

stimulated and encouraged the growth of commerce. The author periodically

throughout the survey indicates

areas where the development of commerce in China, so similar in many ways to

that of Europe, also differed. His overall position is that European-style

capitalism did not develop in China by the end of the Ming and he defines what

did develop.

This is

not to say that China ‘failed’ to generate capitalism. Rather, it created

something else: an extensive market economy that used state communication

networks to open links to local economies, organized rural and urban labor into

consecutive production processes in certain regions without disrupting the

rural household as the basic unit of production,

reorganized patterns of consumption without entirely severing consumption from

production, and knit itself slowly but surely to gentry society in ways that

would erode the Confucian disdain for commerce and result in a powerful

condominium of elite interests in the Qing (p. 201).

On a more micro-level, the survey supplies the nuts and bolts of communication

and commerce—state communication networks, modes

of transport, merchant routes, mail delivery, markets,

monopolies and so on. The only surprise for the non-specialist is the lack of

any discussion of banking during the Ming. The specialist will know that

significant developments in Chinese banking came during the next dynasty but

there should be some indication here that the banking system was relatively


Beyond the survey, Brook shows how these economic, commercial,

and structural developments affected the cultural and social world. The

accepted belief is that the increasing influence of commerce facilitated

social mobility, weakened social ties based on deference and paternalism,

blurred distinctions between the elite and others, and challenged gentry

efforts to maintain social dominance. Indeed, our gentry guide, Zhang Tao,

who lived near the end of the dynasty, lamented commerce’s influence and its

effect on social hierarchy. Brook, while not necessarily rejecting this

understanding, suggests we are only looking at part of the picture; by the end

of the dynasty, elite attitudes toward commerce had changed, an accommodation

was reached between gentry and merchants, and social hierarchy and elite status

after the mid-seventeenth chaos not only survived but was actually

reconstructed and strengthened in the new dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912).

Rather than reading the history of the Ming in the way Zhang Tao did–as

commerce bringing on irreversible decline and dynastic collapse–the author

urges us to examine how the burgeoning commercial economy provided material

that was then incorporated into a more complex construction of elite status.

By telling the stories of two gentry members during the Ming/Qing transition,

he also shows that practical skills related to the commercial economy

helped individual members of the gentry survive and shore up their own

positions and as well as that of the elite itself. There is an implicit

contrast here with the Yuan/Ming transition of the fourteenth century when few

elite families were able to make

the transition.

We already knew that gentry families in the late Ming turned to commercial

activities to maintain their economic position.

Brook, relying in part on Clunas as well as his own earlier work, shows us the

range of more subtle ways gentry families used social capital related to the

commercial economy to re-configure elite status and maintain their social


In so doing he connects the two parts of the book. Commercial networks and

printing, for example, made knowledge of varieties of rare plants and

vegetables more widely available, and this knowledge was subsequently

incorporated into the social capital needed to join the ranks of the elite: “To

know which plants to appreciate was not neutral knowledge but part of what

someone needed to command in order to share in the cultural world of elite

life, where such things mattered. To discriminate between plums as better or

worse was also a way of discriminating between social betters and everyone

else” (p. 136). In another example, knowledge of commercial networks changed

attitudes toward travel, previously thought morally dubious, into another

“gentry project of cultural refinement” where a “craving for travel set the

gentry traveler apart from the laboring merchant and the common sightseer”

(pp. 181,182) In another case, Zhang Tao may have regretted the restless

changing of sartorial fashion induced by the market economy but members of the

elite used it to maintain social dominance. As soon as the lower orders

mastered one style

of dress the elite were on to the next.

Thus, at the same time most gentry were bemoaning the effects of the market

economy, the bulk of them were eagerly accommodating themselves to the new

situation, (hence the confusions of pleasure). This reconfigured elite status

was more variegated and elusive than the elite status of the early Ming.

If the market economy provided so many beneficial and pleasurable

opportunities, why did the gentry continue to decry it? Brook explains that

the mid-Ming gentry in

particular used this as a rhetorical strategy to escape from a predicament.

They were [the emperor’s] obedient servants whose conduct conformed to

Confucian principles. But with reference to the local context, they held no

formal franchise. Their social mobility gave them an informal power, but that

was hard to justify in terms of Confucian ideals of deference and obligation to

the imperial order that the magistrate represented. At the same, the social

forces that had propelled them into prominence we re throwing up more

competitors from below (p. 140).

The rhetorical strategy was to “bewail the decay of the age and portray

themselves as civilization’s last great hope”(p. 140).

These laments also signaled “a desire to identify and control anxieties a

rising from a social nexus in which they have the most to gain, if perhaps

potentially the most to lose” (p. 151).

Timothy Brook’s argument about changing elite status is convincing and provides

us with a more fine-tuned picture of late imperial culture

and society. The establishment benefited from the market economy in complex

ways; social capital and practical skills derived from the market economy

allowed for greater continuity during the Ming/Qing transition than during the

Yuan/Ming transition and

helped reconstruct elite status and strengthen social hierarchy and the

position of individual elite families. The author reinforces our long-held

view of the great continuity between the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The older view of the influence of the market economy however must not be

forgotten. Despite the greater complexity and elusiveness of elite status

during the Qing, people below the elite still used wealth to struggle mightily

to achieve that status; they did not give up hope of social mobility and

tensions did not dissolve. Brook suggests that the gentry became more

accepting of commerce from the middle century to the end of the Ming, indeed

that the social personality of the gentry had changed. In many respects this

acceptance of the realities of the commercial world is true of the Qing as


even some anti-commerce conservatives accepted the premises of a market

economy. Yet we can still hear laments on the ill effects of commerce every

bit as severe as Zhang Tao’s,

especially during

times of economic downturn in the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth

centuries, and some elite writings still show “anxiety about the moral

degeneracy of trade” throughout the dynasty. The causes that created the

rhetorical strategy in the Ming after all had not disappeared, despite the

gentry/merchant fusion and Gu Yanwu’s and Feng Guifen’s calls for

constitutional changes in the role of the elite in local government.

Furthermore, we can wonder if the reconstruction of elite status continued

under the

peace and prosperity of the “long”

eighteenth century, when commercial practices evolved, new commercial

institutions appeared, the population exploded, and respectable careers outside

the bureaucracy proliferated. In a related way, we can also ask how

representative the two gentry members who managed successfully the Ming/Qing

transition were.

The author here is suggestive albeit perceptive and persuasive.

Will broader studies show that other families survived in the same way? Or

were more traditional

strategies still central to survival?

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval

The Great Depression: An International Disaster of Perverse Economic Policies

Author(s):Hall, Thomas E.
Ferguson, David J.
Reviewer(s):Wicker, Elmus

Published by EH.NET (November 1998)

Thomas E. Hall and J. David Ferguson, The Great Depression: An International

Disaster of Perverse Economic Policies, Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan Press. 1998, Pp. xvii + 194, pp. $42.50 (cloth),

ISBN: 0-472-09667-2.

Reviewed for EH NET by Elmus Wicker, Dept. of Economics, Indiana University.

The authors assert that they wrote this book for two reasons:

disillusionment with how macroeconomics is taught at the college level and a

commitment to the Friedman and Schwartz interpretation of the Great

Depression that the Federal Reserve was an “incredible source of policy

errors.” From the first assertion, I infer that the audience for this book is

primarily college students, though I think it deserves a wider

readership among the economically literate. From the second assertion, I

infer that they believe that policymakers had the knowledge to have acted

differently. However, at no point do the authors make a serious effort to

defend that presumption. I will illustrate their neglect with several

crucial examples further on.

The book makes no pretence at being a contribution to our knowledge of the

Great Depression and can not be judged by such a narrow criterion. It must be

appraised by a different standard; that is, how well the authors pose the

major questions that must be answered and the skill and judiciousness with

which they evaluate the current state of our

knowledge of the Great Depression, given the audience to which the book

is addressed. Lester Chandler’s America’s Greatest Depression,

1929-1941 (New York: Harper and Row, 1970) is the only competitor

that immediately comes to mind, but Chandler’s purpose was not to assess the

current state of our knowledge of the Great Depression but to describe

what happened. Nevertheless, the audience is apparently the same.

Although the authors stress that the Great Depression was a global event

and not simply a U.S. debacle, the emphasis remains on what happened in the

United States. For example, output and unemployment in the

rest-of-the-world, excluding the U.S. and two European countries, is not

described. Hall and

Ferguson follow the current fad of placing the gold standard as the central

focal point. But what they and others have not done is to show specifically

how the gold standard was causally significant for the Great Depression in the

U.S.. Gold standard considerations played a very minor role, if they played

any role at all, in the decision of the New York Fed to advance the

discount rate in 1931; moreover, the bank failure rate had accelerated two

and one-half weeks before the discount rate was advanced. Only three of

the thirteen chapters address foreign country issues. France, Germany, and

Great Britain are treated in chapter 4, economic recovery in Germany in

chapter 10, and the world financial crisis in chapter 7. The

reader can easily come away with the view that what was truly significant

occurred in the U.S. and a few European countries and not in the


The Friedman and Schwartz influence is apparent in at least two important


the overarching significance accorded the behavior of the money stock and

the negative assessment of the behavior of the policymakers,

neither of which is critically evaluated. If the jury is still out on the

money-income causal nexus, the burden of the historical evidence is too

great to warrant any conclusion about the Fed’s ineptness.

What is absolutely crucial to appraising the performance of Fed officials is

to know the extent of their knowledge of the determinants

of the money stock. Whether or not they could have offset the increase in the

currency-deposit ratio turns on what they knew or did not know about the

role of the C/D and R/D ratios as determinants of the money stock. The authors

set out the modern textbook version of the determinants of M:

M = {(1 + cd)/(cd + rd)}B but they say nothing

about the origins of that equation. The currency-deposit ratio was

not fully modeled until 1933 in a pair of articles

by James Harvey Rogers (“The Absorption of Bank Credit.”

Econometrica, 1933, Vol. l, 63-70) and by James Angell and Karel


(“The Expansion of Bank Credit,” Journal of Political Economy, 1933,


41, 1-31 and 152-93). Rogers’ formal

framework had appeared in an earlier book, Stock Speculation and the

Money Market, (Lucas Brothers: Columbia,

Missouri, 1927, pp. 53-62) which was completely ignored by the economics

profession. Less formally, Benjamin Strong, Governor of

the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, introduced the currency-deposit

ratio in the Stabilization Hearings in 1926 (Benjamin Strong, Hearings

Before the Committee of Banking and Currency, House of Representatives,

1926, 69th Congress, parts 1-2, 334-5 and 422) and even earlier in The Report

of the Joint Committee of Agricultural Inquiry in 1922 (Agricultural

Inquiry: Hearings Before the Joint Commission of Agricultural Inquiry, 1922,


Congress. 1st Session). Although Strong’s testimony includes a simple

expansion process with a C/D ratio, this is by itself a mighty thin reed on

which to hold the Federal Reserve System accountable for not forestalling a

decline in the money stock between 1929 and 1933. Neither Friedman and

Schwartz nor Hall and Ferguson have demonstrated that knowledge of the

determinants of the money stock was available to Fed officials. In its

absence the case for the Fed’s ineptness collapses.

Friedman and Schwartz have made a distinguished contribution to our

understanding of the Great Depression, but Hall and Ferguson’s uncritical

acceptance of some of their historical interpretations of particular

episodes reveals a lack of acquaintance with more recent contributions

. For example, the authors repeat and apparently accept the Friedman and

Schwartz view that had Benjamin Strong lived Fed policy would have been

better. But that is no longer a defensible hypothesis. The Fed did in 1930

exactly what it had done in

1924 and 1927–that is reduce the indebtedness of the New York Fed to $50

million. It worked in 1924 and 1927; it did not work in 1930! Moreover,

there are no defensible grounds for criticizing the Fed’s behavior for

ignoring the demand for excess reserves when raising reserve requirements in

1936 and 1937. I know of no American economist who had any knowledge of a

demand for excess reserves.

In attempting to explain the slow recovery from the Great Depression, the

authors pay no attention at all to Michael Darby’s unemployment estimates

(“Three and a Half Million Employees Have Been Mislaid: An Explanation of

Unemployment, 1934-1941,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 84,


He maintained that the slow recovery from 1934 to

1941 was a fiction–there was a strong movement toward the natural rate after

1935. There are good reasons to question Darby’s estimates, but no good

reasons for completely ignoring them.

Hall and Ferguson appear to be carried away with their negative assessment of

Fed policymakers. At one point they refer to the camps of the

unemployed and destitute peoples as “Federalreservevilles” instead of

“Hoovervilles”. Neither appellation is apt. It is obvious that both go far

beyond what either the historical of statistical evidence warrants. The tone

is stridently judgmental.

The book may very well succeed in

rejuvenating moribund students who are

trying to master macroeconomics, but the authors fail to present a

convincing case that Fed policy was an “incredible sequence of policy


Elmus Wicker Department of Economics Indiana University

Elmus Wicker is Professor of Economics, Emeritus at Indiana University. He is

the author of Banking Panics of

the Great Depression, Cambridge University Press. 1996, and has

recently completed a manuscript titled

Banking Panics of the National Banking Era.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Central Europe in the Twentieth Century. An Economic History Perspective

Author(s):Teichova, Alice
Reviewer(s):Palairet, Michael


Published by EH.NET (Au gust 1998)

Alice Teichova, editor, Central Europe in the Twentieth Century. An

Economic History Perspective. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1997. 192

pp. $68.95 (cloth), ISBN: 1-85928-105-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael Palairet, Department of Economic History,

University of Edinburgh.

The contributors to this collection of essays were set the task of

critically assessing the post-Communist transitions in Central Europe

within their historical

context. Most of the authors are practicing

economists and economic historians in senior positions in east European

institutions. It is the transitions themselves which mainly preoccupy

them; their sense of economic history is in the majority of cases weakly


If there is a consistent theme running through the collection, it is

about resistance to change, both by observation and by the inclination

of the authors themselves. One of the (unintended) uses of the book is,

therefore, what it tells us of the attitudes to economic transition, and

policy inclinations of east European academic elites. None of the

contributors want to turn the clock back, but the tone of the book is

set by Teichova’s introductory essay,

an outline of the economic history

of Central Europe, which hankers for an elusive middle way, eschews the

Thatcherist “victory of enterprise culture,” and seeks to discredit

“shock therapy,” while all see the re-building of the social safety net

as prerequisite to successful transition.

The most extreme of these views emanates from Jorg Roesler who provides

no historical retrospect, and extends his sympathies for the “anger”

felt by the east Germans (despite the most generous regional aid

programme in history) and warns of the deepening gulf in attitudes

between the west and east of the country. His ideal for the east would

seem to be west German standards of prosperity linked with perpetuation

of the right to rent-gua ranteed inefficiency.

The other central European contributors are aware of the absence of a

comparably bountiful feeding hand to bite, but form a consensus around

the proposition that reform can only progress at a speed compatible with

the inclinations and comprehension of the political elites.

Pruca describes economic development in pre-war and Communist

Czechoslovakia in terms which differ little from the analyses put out by

the country’s “liberal” establishment in the 1970s and

’80s. He admits

that “discontinuity was needed in many areas,” but proceeds to condemn

the abrupt changes (under Vaclav Klaus) which would “undermine the

consensus of society.” (For “society” read entrenched opinion formers.)

Returning to ”

shock therapy:” All excoriate it, yet none bother to

explain what the term was intended to mean, by its originator (or

populariser) Jeffrey Sachs. They seem to understand “shock therapy” as

implying a regime of ruthless cut-backs, but Sachs was more concerned to

engineer reversals of inflation expectations, and to use mainly

macro-economic tools to impose business discipline on enterprise

decision making, and in the widest sense, to foster the norms of civil


This task was undoubtedly ambitious, but nevertheless urgent, if the

modest wealth of these countries was no longer to be dissipated in

supporting failure, and reallocated to meeting human needs. In Henryk

Szlajfer’s short institutional survey of Poland’s de velopment, he notes

that in 1988, 24 percent of Polish manufacturing industry subtracted

value (if its outputs were measured in world prices). Value subtraction

was probably an even greater problem for the still more ossified

Romanian economy

according to Daniel Daianu, who advocates the outright

closure of the value-subtractors, and the restructuring of unprofitable

enterprises which nevertheless add value. Fine – but this surely is the

crux of the matter – organized, entrenched opinion is in eastern Europe

closely linked with the value subtractor interest, and Daianu comes

close to explaining why. The system promoted the over-expansion of

“soft” sectors, (steel, chemicals, machine building) whose outputs were

near-unsale able, because it was easier to expand them than the “hard”

sectors (agriculture, consumers goods, energy). So these “soft”

leviathans became the leading sectors, politically, as well as

economically. Therefore they and their political allies became the

bastions of resistance to change, and continued to impose an

insupportable rent charge on the rest of the economy.

The economic history of Yugoslavia is described from a Slovenian

viewpoint by Franjo Stiblar, but in rather wooden terms. Retaining a

nostalgic affection for workers self management, despite its admitted

inefficiency, he tells us how many theatres, doctors, and convicted

criminals operated in 1938 and 1989 (why?) but little about the causes

of Yugoslavia’s precipitate economic decline in the 1980s. His essay

contains the usual criticism of Markovic’s “shock-therapy” reform of

December 1989.

The only contribution to address the problem thematically rather than in

a national context is Michael Kaser’s study of property rights and

international indebtedness. He points out that most of these countries

have been structural debtors throughout the century. If borrowing had

been channelled into useful capital formation, this would not have been

unjustified. Czechoslovakia, for example, could have benefited from more

borrowing, not less, but unhappily investment under Communism was apt to

create net negative property, because of the environmental damage

associated with it.

Probably the most interesting study in this book is Fritz Weber’s essay

on the Austrian economy after World War II. Its experience of

reconstruction differed from Germany’s, with state control,

egalitarianism and employment maximization given priority above price

stability (which is why today’s schilling is worth only about a seventh

of a deutschmark). Planning was used as a tool (says Weber) for the

restoration of the market economy.

The analogy held out for transitional central Europe seems clear. All

had elaborate total planning systems. As enterprises consequently had no

experience of marketing, and were accustomed to orienting production and

the allocation of supplies and deliveries around plan directives, these

systems could have provided a transitional tool for re-pricing and

reallocating resources, to simulate to some degree the behaviour of a

market, yet they do not seem to have been accorded this role.

(Alice Teichova (editor) is Emeritus Professor of Econo mic History at

the University of East Anglia, and Honorary Fellow of Girton College,

Cambridge University.)

Michael Palairet is author of The Balkan Economies c.1800-1914

(Cambridge University Press, 1997), and specialist in the micro-e conomic

history of former Yugoslavia.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Politics and Property Rights: The Closing of the Open Range in the Postbellum South

Author(s):Kantor, Shawn Everett
Reviewer(s):Halcoussis, Dennis


Published by EH.NET (August 1998)

Shawn Everett Kantor, Politics and Property Rights: The Closing of the Open Range in the Postbellum South. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998. x + 187 pp. $18.00 (paper), ISBN 0-226-42377-8

Reviewed for EH.NET by Dennis Halcoussis, Department of Economics, California State University, Northridge.

Shawn Kantor, an economist at the University of Arizona, provides us with an in-depth look at the closure of the open range in postbellum Georgia. At first glance, one might think this detailed study of two Georgia counties would only be of interest to those studying the history of Southern agriculture, but Kantor covers a lot of interesting territory in less than 200 pages. Kantor considers the closing of the range as a means to study changes in institutions, and unlike some journal articles addressing the subject, the book format allows Kantor to study the transition from all possible angles, rather than just testing one particular hypothesis. This makes it easier for the reader to focus on the “big picture.” Kantor looks at the transition by discussing institutions, the economics and ideology of property rights, the politics of postbellum Georgia, and the effect of closing the range on the development of Southern agriculture.

Some economic historians have felt that after the civil war, institutions in the South were stagnant. Kantor puts forth a different point of view, studying the transition in Georgia from a fence law to a stock law regime. A fence law regime means there are open ranges, those who own animals can let them run freely, and those growing crops must build fences to keep the animals out. A stock law regime means a closed range, those with animals must fence them in to keep them off of others’ land. Previous writers thought the choice between these two regimes was a class issue. The stock law would minimize fencing costs, but it could hurt those who might end up paying more wealthy farmers for the right to let their cattle graze. However, the fence law (open range) caused an overinvestment in animals, since one didn’t have to pay the cost of feeding them, and those growing crops had to bear the cost of building fences. Kantor uses regression analysis to estimate the discounted value of net expected profitability from enacting stock laws (closed range) in Georgia, and finds that although some counties would suffer, overall the state would gain. From 1880 to 1900, farm property values increased by an estimated 30.6% in counties that enacted the stock laws compared to those that did not.

The most efficient institutions may not prevail because of politics. In Chapter 3, Kantor looks at Jackson and Carroll counties. Both voted down stock laws in the 1880s, even though each county’s income would have increased by passing the law. Using regression analysis, Kantor provides evidence that stock laws were defeated in these two counties because they were not in the financial interest of a majority of voters, although each county would have benefited in the aggregate. The minority who would gain could not “buy out” enough of the majority who would lose, because any such contract would have been poorly enforced. Thus, the stock law was defeated in these two counties even though aggregate income would have increased.

The regressions in this chapter also provide strong evidence to support Kantor’s contention that the voting was not divided along simple class lines. Other scholars have assumed that wealthy farmers favored closing the range, and the poor wanted to keep open ranges. However, wealthy farmers might want to keep the range open if they owned a lot of livestock, and poorer farmers without much livestock would favor a closed range. Kantor’s point is that voting behavior can not be predicted by the size of the farm alone.

In Chapter 4, Kantor discusses how the contract problem discussed in Chapter 3 was resolved. A new provision was added to proposed stock laws, whereby tenants would be guaranteed rights to pasture their animals on their landlord’s property. This “bribe” was often sufficient to win over enough votes to pass the stock law. In some cases, the stock law was forced on a region by the state legislature, rather than by county (or even militia dis trict) election. Kantor found that in these cases, yeoman farmers who did not benefit from the new pasture clause were able to block the stock law, and owners of larger farms would appeal to the state legislature to get the stock law through.

In discussing the politics of property rights, Kantor looks at three hypothesis of voting behavior as applied to Georgia legislators: capture theory (legislators voted to further the interests of the most wealthy landholders), political self-interest (they voted to maximize the probability of re-election) and economic self-interest (they voted for laws that would maximize their wealth from their “regular” profession; many of the legislators were farmers themselves). Using logit regressions with the vote for or against a stock law as a dependent variable, Kantor finds the empirical evidence most strongly supports the political self-interest hypothesis, with the economic self-interest hypothesis “coming in second.”

Next, an interesting but tangential question is addressed: Were game laws restricting hunting and fishing on unfenced property established for the purpose of conservation or for “social control”–to force blacks to work on farms, instead of “living off the land?” Laws restricting hunting on the unenclosed land of one’s neighbors were in effect for 22 counties, so it seems like the laws were for conservation. Labor was mobile, so the law would have to apply to the whole state if landowners wanted to make it more effective for controlling black labor. Kantor runs regressions concerning the characteristics of counties that passed such laws, and finds evidence to support the hypothesis that the laws were passed for conservation purposes, and to strengthen private property rights, not to control black labor. In fact, counties with more tenant-farmers were less likely to pass laws restricting access to hunting and fishing areas because these laws might cause the tenants to leave the area.

In the last chapter, Kantor explores the possibility of a connection between the stock law controversy and support for Southern Populism, and does not find a clear conclusion. Kantor realizes that expanding the sample to include more than two counties would lead to more definitive results.

By following a multi-faceted approach, Kantor has given us an insightful look at how institutions change, and how the closed range affected the development of southern agriculture. I look forward to incorporating the lessons of this book into my lectures.

Dennis Halcoussis Depart ment of Economics California State University- Northridge


Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Socializing Capital: The Rise of the Large Industrial Corporation in America

Author(s):Roy, William G.
Reviewer(s):Levenstein, Margaret

H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by (August, 1998)

William G. Roy. Socializing Capital: The Rise of the Large Industrial Corporation in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. xv + 338 pp. Figures, tables, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-69-104353- 1.

Reviewed for H-Business by Margaret Levenstein , University of Michigan

This book is extraordinarily ambitious and wide-ranging in its treatment of a very significant topic. At times Roy focuses specifically on the merger wave of the 1890s during which many large firms turned to public capital markets to facilitate mergers. But much of the book, and, from my perspective, the most interesting parts, take a much longer term view, examining changes in property rights and the use of those rights by railroads and then manufacturing firms over the course of the century. Most of the central points of the book I think are correct and many of Roy’s methodological points provide useful correctives to tendencies in business and economic hi story. There were sections of the book that I found insightful bordering on brilliant. There were also sections of the book that I thought were unconvincing, and others that were simply wrong.

The central points of the book can be summarized as follows :

1. The large, widely-held manufacturing corporation is a social creation, not a natural entity.

2. The corporation as it exists today is historically contingent and developed from pre-existing forms. In particular, it evolved from the public corporation, used by the state to accomplish public purposes and was given special privileges (monopoly, eminent domain, limited liability) in order to do so. The happenstance convergence of the economic crisis of 1837, the emergence of the railroad, and the po wer of the “anti-monopoly, anti-state” version of Jacksonian anti-corporatism privatized and democratized the corporation. Thus the corporate form retained many of its privileges (limited liability, alienability of ownership) but made those privileges available to all through general incorporation laws. In doing so, the corporation lost its public purpose and its public accountability (as well as its claim to monopoly).

3. There existed historical alternatives. Manufacturing could have continued to be conducted in firms that were not corporations. The corporate form could have retained its public purpose and its public accountability. The state could have remained a more active economic player in its own right — owning railroads or banks or manufacturing as today the state owns highways. It could have developed a stronger regulatory apparatus, developing the capability to administer public enterprises and assure that those who received the privilege of incorporation fulfilled a public responsibility. In other words, the boundaries between public and private could have been drawn quite differently in many dimensions.

4. Manufacturing firms followed the incorporation practices of railroads because that was required by investment banking firms to get access to large pools of capital, not because the corporate form was demanded by manufacturers to coordinate increasingly complex, large-scale, high-throughput technology.

5. Manufacturing firms (the “trusts”) turned to New Jersey’s incorporation law in order to legalize collusive activities, not to coordinate increasingly complex, large- scale, high-throughput technology.

6. The corporation was privatized – lost its public use and public accountability – and the corporation was socialized – its securities widely owned but no longer controlled by owners – not because this organizational form was the most “efficient” way to organize manufacturing production. Rather, manufacturing firms embrace and continuing use of the corporate form was the result of a “logic of power.”

Roy uses several methods to make his case. He first presents a theoretical argument that a “social logic based on institutional arrangements, including power” (p. 6) is more useful for understanding the dimensions and dynamics of the economy than is an analysis based on “the logic of efficiency.” The latter position he identifies with Chandler, and much of the book is cast as a polemic against Chandler. While I am very sympathetic to his historicizing and “de-naturalizing” of the corporation, I thought this framing of the issue was largely counter- productive. His presentation of Chandler sometimes bordered on caricature. Chandler’s point is not that managers are concerned only with efficiency or that clever managers always pi ck the most efficient organizational design. His point is that it was only in firms where managers made choices that gave the firm a competitive advantage that the firm survived. But Roy ignores the role of competition. He argues that “efficiency theorists” are functionalists, simply providing an ex post rationalization of whatever happened to emerge. While he is certainly correct that some business history is functionalist, and neo-classical economic historians are apt to fall back on “best of all possible worlds” descriptions of whatever institutions exist, the competitive model does provide a story of why it is that we should think that those that survive are different from those that didn’t; their survival is taken as an indication that they are better at competing. Thus it would have been useful to explain how power influenced who survived the competitive process and how power determined the rules of the competitive process. That is, it would have been useful to explain why the firms that survive the competitive process are not necessarily the most efficient. Instead, for the most part, Roy simply ignores competition as a significant force in capitalist economies, arguing that “the social arrangement that governed American industry could only vaguely be described as a market. American businessmen have always been aware that they share common interests at least as much as they compete over conflicting interests” (pp. 176-7). Roy is absolutely correct that American businessmen have often cooperated. But that does not mean that there is no market; it means that those who have been able to cooperate, and better yet, dominate cooperative agreements, are the firms that have survived and prospered. I would dispense with the word “efficiency” altogether. A more useful question is whether firms survived because they were good at inventing new, lower cost technology, good at getting workers to work harder, good at getting tax breaks from local governments, good at increasing demand for their product, good at getting access to others’ property through eminent domain, good at getting cheap capital because of connections to investment bankers. Whether or not any of these particular attributes improves efficiency or is a Good Thing for society as a whole (as if there is such a thing) is an altogether separate question.

Roy then turns to an econometric test of the “power” and “efficiency” explanations. He asks which industries were more likely to adopt the corporate form during the 1890s merger wave (which he measures by their use of publicly-traded securities, thus excluding incorporated firms that were not traded on public exchanges). He finds that average size of the firm and capital intensity are significantly and positively related to an industry’s use of publicly-traded securities. He also finds that labor productivity was negatively related to the use of such securities and that industry growth rates were insignificant. He concludes from this that Chandler and “the efficiency theorists” are wrong. Size matters even when controlling for other things. Labor productivity is lower in “incorporated” industries, so it must not be that incorporation makes firms more efficient. There are several problems with this analysis: he looks only at the 1890s and therefore conflates where the merger wave took place with where the corporate form endured. He groups “Chandlerian” causes of incorporation (growth and capital intensity) with effects (i.e. labor productivity); perhaps the negative relations hip between productivity and incorporation reflects the need for organizational change in low-productivity industries? His unit of analysis is the industry, which groups together large and small firms, and he treats large industries and small industries equivalently. Are we surprised that there are no large firms in the hammock or lapidary works industries despite a faster rate of growth than electrical machinery (p. 30)? Chapter two, which presents this econometric analysis, should be skipped entirely by anyone who has read Naomi Lamoreaux’s The Great Merger Movement (and if you haven’t read it you should). Lamoreaux presents a much more convincing and complete econometric rejection of the Chandlerian contention that the merger wave of the 1890s was motivated by the need for vertical coordination of inherently high-throughput technology. Save your time for the more edifying chapters to come.

In Chapters 3 and 6, Roy compares the history of public enterprise, the legal rights of corporations, and the emerging dominance of “socialized capital” in three states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He examines the evolution of the corporation from a tool used by states to encourage economic development and raise revenues to its emergence as a private agent, available to all through general incorporation statutes with no public responsibility or accountability. Roy argues that the differences in the experience of public investment during the canal and early railroad period, as well as the political interpretations placed on that experience, determined the rules under which corporations operated in each state at the end of the century. New Jersey had the most limited experience with public corporations, both quantitatively and qualitatively. It participated as an investor in the Camden and Amboy, and was able to keeps its taxes low as a result, but the railroad controlled the state rather than the other way around. Pennsylvania had both mixed corporations in which it invested and public corporations. Ohio had the most activist policy, both the most successful- the Ohio canal system developed the region and integrated it into the national economy – and the most spectacular failure when logrolling resulted in the expansion of public subsidization of canals and railroads and nearly bankrupted the state. Roy examines the implications of these different experiences for three aspects of corporate law: the permissibility of corporations owning other corporations, the powers of boards of directors (relative to shareholders), and the extent of limited liability. Roy finds that in all three aspects of corporate law, the experience with public and mixed corporations during the canal era shaped state attitudes such that New Jersey’s corporate law was the most “privatized,” allowing corporations broad flexibility in owning other corporations, giving power to corporate boards, and extending unlimited liability through both a general incorporation statute and special charters. Ohioans were at the other end of the spectrum, suspicious of the corporate form, retaining double liability and strictly limiting the activities of corporations to those for which they were chartered. Roy finds that these differences in corporate law led to differences in the importance of corporate capital in the three states. While some of this difference in corporate capital obviously reflects capital mobility – corporations with operations elsewhere chartered in New Jersey to take advantage of its lax laws – Roy’s fundamental point is that business in Ohio was simply less likely to be organized within a corporation. Thus, he suggests, economic activity need not have taken place within the socialized corporation, or at least not within a corporation with no social responsibility . Where the state legislature was unwilling to confer such generous benefits on the corporation, businesses made do with other forms of organization.

This empirical conclusion supports Roy’s argument that there were actually two distinct political responses to the canal crisis within the Jacksonian anti-corporate movement. One demanded more accountability on the part of the quasi-public corporation (i.e. more government) while the other demanded privatization (less government). Roy makes the interesting argument that the privatization ideology won out because it was self-fulfilling. Suspicion of the state led to weak oversight. With no oversight, projects were corrupt or failed; that failure was then interpreted as the failure of public investment (p. 74). But it is not clear from his comparison of the three states that strong state oversight was ever really in consideration. As he shows elsewhere in the book, the choices considered were either democratization of access to corporate privileges through general incorporation statutes or limitation of those privileges by statutes such as Ohio’s requiring double liability and strictly limiting the activities of corporations to those for which they were chartered.

Here and elsewhere, Roy compares the choices made in the United States to those made in France where a strong and competent state apparatus was created. This comparative perspective, though presented more casually than those between the U.S. states, is often very helpful. Unlike the U. S. case where states competed with one another and were, therefore, forced into a prisoner’s dilemma race to the bottom in terms of the social responsibilities of private actors, France was able to chart a very different course. Whether the “strong state ” approach was one that could ever have emerged in the United States will, of course, be debated by many. But that is not Roy’s point. The point is that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the present configuration of rights and responsibilities that constitute the corporation.

Chapters 4 and 5 examine the way that the railroad and investment banking influenced the construction of the corporation. Many of the generalizations he makes in his history of the railroads will not sit well with most economic and business historians. One could read these chapters and think that the railroads were a failure, both privately and publicly. For the most part, neither was the case. And the reader might understandably be confused when he presents Rockefeller’s demand for railroad rebates as an example of how the railroads exercised power. But try to ignore that and focus on the his fundamental point. The financing of railroads was not simply corrupt, or political, or determined by power games among the major players (though all that was certainly the case). The development of institutions to finance railroads determined the set of institutions that industrial corporations could choose from when they needed to finance growth and short term operations. The structure of those inherited institutions favored concentrated over unconcentrated industries, favored incorporation and management-owner separation, perhaps favored some technologies, organizations of work, and regions over others. This point is important and profound. The evidence he gives in its support is not always well organized to make his point. But the challenge that he lays out is clear. The observed choices of corporations are not necessarily the optimal ones in a global sense. They are the choices corporations made given the incentives created by institutions created for a different purpose and as part of deeply politicized process.

Chapters 7 and 8 return to the merger movement of the 1890s. He correctly argues that it is wrong to see this period as one of a shift from a competitive market to an administered or monopolized one. U.S. firms had been cooperating to control prices in many industries throughout the nineteenth century. In fact, he argues, it is only with the emerging dominance of a “free market” ideology that the state makes the strong distinction, now taken for granted in anti-trust law, between contracts promoting trade and those in restraint of trade. Others will argue that there was a long-standing tradition in common law not to enforce contracts in restraint of trade. But there is also a long-standing tradition of allowing quasi- public organizations, such as guilds and corporations, to engage in behavior that we would today think of as monopolistic. Roy perhaps takes this argument too far when he says, “If governments did not enforce contracts between buyers and sellers, markets would collapse by the same sort of opportunism that wrecked the pools” (p. 190). While the current state of the economy in Russia reflects the underlying truth of this statement, we should also recognize that there is not the same inherent incentive to deviate from a mutually beneficial contract to exchange that there is with a contract to restrict output or fix prices. It is true that the state creates and enforces markets, but there is a difference between a self-enforcing contract and one that is inherently a prisoners’ dilemma.

This chapter includes a very interesting section examining the interaction between the first use of the New Jersey incorporation statute and the terms of the statute. He not only shows that the writing of the statute was the result of a complex political process. He also shows that the way that it was used differed substantially even from the purposes of the first corporations for which it was written.

In these chapters he presents the histories of particular industries, arguing that their use of the corporate form cannot be explained by changes in their technology (i.e. by managerial demand). The histories of the sugar and tobacco industries, familiar to business historians, are re-told in a new light. Rather, he argues, the desire for monopoly control and the expectation of financiers that the corporate form would be used, led firms to incorporate. He also makes the interesting argument that the merger wave of the 1890s changed the expectations of investors so that “when a group of entrepreneurs wanted to establish a large-scale industrial enterprise, henceforth the standard procedure would be to mobilize the resources of the corporate institutions by recruiting investment bankers, brokerage houses, and the investment press in order to attract sufficient capital” p. 254. Prior to the 1890s it was deemed acceptable for Andrew Carnegie to operate his steel business as a limited partnership; after the merger wave of the 1890s investors perceived non- corporate firms as higher risk. Trying to operate outside the corporate sphere was now a more costly choice, but only because the prior history had changed investors’ (and investment bankers’ in particular) ideas about how business had to be organized.

The comparison of the three states is intended to suggest that there were various paths that the development of the corporation could have taken. But sin ce the corporation is now firmly ensconced in all three a more overarching point is that competition between the three states limited the power of any individual state to determine the structure of the corporation. The three states are also relatively similar in terms of their level of economic development, industrialization, and integration into the national economy. A slightly different story might have been told, and Roy’s argument made stronger, if he had looked at states that were less developed and continued to have more active state economic development policies throughout the century, including state investment in banks, railroads, and corporations. Did those states making post bellum public investments in corporations demand public accountability? Or had the prevailing ideology of the private corporation so come to dominate by the second half of the century that even where there was substantial and direct state investment the corporation was seen as an autonomous and privately responsible agent?

Roy makes several important methodological points that economic and business historians should heed. First, he emphasizes that actors can exercise power without power being the motivation for their actions. Individuals and groups exercise power when their actions determine the choice set or the constraints faced by others. I think this broad definition of power is very useful and would help economic and business historians to understand and analyze political movements, from late 19th century populism to late 20th century resistance to free trade. But defined this broadly we also have to recognize that the exercise of power is not inherently a bad thing. For example, in a capitalist economy with strong patent protection technological innovation gives the innovator power. Users of older technologies cannot simply continue to operate as they have in the past. This is the creative destruction that Schumpeter celebrated- and it is really does destroy something that someone values. That’s why the technocratic distinction between efficiency and distribution that economists cling to is silly. Any policy choice that has a significant impact on the “efficiency” of the economy will also have distributional consequences. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want technological change. Much of the time we probably do. But this perspective forces us to acknowledge that there are social decisions to be made, not simply private actors doing whatever they please, and that those social decisions require tradeoffs. Second, this book will serve as an enormously useful corrective to the tendency among economists studying the firm, property rights, and institutions generally (a growing trend that is very healthy in and of itself) to follow Oliver Williamson’s “In the beginning, there were markets” approach. Roy argues forcefully, and correctly, that both the market and the firm are social constructions. That does not mean that they are arbitrary or unreal. It means that their structure and their existence are the result of past political decisions and the outcome of social and political conflict. This is also a useful corrective to an approach that conflates the notion of the existence of a market with “rational” behavior by individuals. The existence of a market changes how rational individuals behave. Competitive pressure forces rational individuals to calculate more, and it increases the weight of monetary factors in those calculations relative to very real concerns for community and the quality of human inter action. Economic historians recognize this effect of the market on individual behavior when they can cast it in a positive light (see Sokoloff’s 1992 work on the spread of markets and the rate of patenting, for example), but tend to downplay it otherwise (see Rothenberg 1992, for example).

Third, Roy makes an interesting case for an interplay between contingency and determinacy in the book. He argues for contingency in order to make the case that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the current institution of the corporation. The current configuration of rights and responsibilities that constitute the corporation is the result of highly contingent events in the past. But he does not accept the standard version of path dependence and raises questions that I have long thought were problematic with that approach. He makes clear that while the current construction of the corporation is contingent and path dependent in the sense that it would and could have been different if different events had occurred at key turning points (particularly during the 1830s canal crises), he does not see this as simply the result of chance. The key events were themselves the result of who had power at the time. This approach opens up a whole line of fruitful research in this area. Why was it that the response to the canal crisis was privatization rather than increased regulation? Why was it that some state constitutions were modified to limit direct involvement in economic activity and others weren’t? These were explicitly political decisions that had long term economic ramifications. Understanding the political forces behind these decisions would be very useful. Roy also makes the point, applicable quite generally to the path dependence approach, that what matters is not simply the cost of shifting from one path to another (e.g. from one keyboard to another) but who bears that cost. If those who have the power to make the decisions about whether to switch paths do not bear the costs, then the switch will appear “costless” (see McGuire, Granovetter, and Schwartz, forthcoming).

In making the argument for the contingency of the corporation Roy plays down some forces – powerful forces I am sure he would agree – that led to its current incarnation. On a mundane level he downplays competition among states allowed by the federal structure that led to a spiraling down of public responsibilities for private actors. But on a more basic level, the transformation of assets from things that natural individuals own, use, and are responsible for, to capital personified in the corporation, responsible no longer to the state and barely to its nominal owners, seems to me not a happenstance, contingent event. The corporation gives agency to capital. It’s not for nothing that we call it a capitalist economy.

Finally, Roy’s “de-naturalizing” of the corporation is a giant step forward for business history. So is his problematizing of the boundaries between private and public, the economy and the state, and the rejection of the dichotomy of an “interventionist state” and a “natural market.” As Roy makes clear, the state creates the market, so it is meaningless to talk of it intervening in it. That language simply serves to de-legitimize some actions of the state relative to others. Finally, acknowledging that there are social choices to be made that influence how the economy will function in the future is important, and not simply for academics. Post-cold war ideology presents the corporation not only as natural but all- powerful. It is good to remind people that they can, through social and political action, make choices about how such social creations operate.


Lamoreaux, Naomi R. The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1904. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

McGuire, Patrick, Mark Granovetter, and Michael Schwartz. Forthcoming. The Social Construction of Industry: Human Agency in the Development, Diffusion, and Institutionalization of the Electric Utility Industry. New York, N.Y. and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Rothenberg, Winifred (1992). From Market Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts . Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Sokoloff, Kenneth (1992). “Invention, Innovation, and Manufacturing Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Northeast” in Robert Gallman and John Wallis American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press), pp. 345-378 .

Williamson, Oliver E. (1985). The Economic Institutions of Capitalism. New York, N.Y.: The Free Press.


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914

Author(s):Guinnane, Timothy W.
Reviewer(s):Gemery, Henry A.

Published by EH.NET (August 1998)

Timothy W. Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997. ix + 335 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-691-04307-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by H.A. Gemery, Department of Economics, Colby College.

Over the post-Famine years from 1841 to the eve of World War I, the Irish population fell from 8.2 million to 4.1 million–a complete reversal of the rapid population growth of the pre-Famine era. By 1881 nearly 40% of the Irish-born were living elsewhere. As late as 1911, with slowing emigration, 33% resided elsewhere (p. 104). In studying the why and how of this de-population, Timothy Guinnane (Yale University) examines, at the rural, household level, the decision-making giving rise to major features of that demographic experience: “the rarity of marriage, large families, …. extensive emigration” (p. 7). None of these features alone, Guinnane argues, were unique to Ireland, but the three in combination were.

Before examining why young Irish people made the decisions about marriage, childbearing, and emigration they did, Guinnane undertakes a survey of the Irish rural economy, the role of the state as well as the “several church,” and the demographic patterns of the post-Famine era. After that survey, there follows a detailed examination of household decision-making and it is here that the full range, subtlety, and depth of analysis come into play. The empirical data available are limited and imperfect. As Guinnane ruefully admits, the empirical circumstance is somewhat similar to the drunk-under-the-lamppost anecdote–searching where the light is best. The specific example of this is the “somewhat unusual procedure of going backward in historical time,” i.e. using manuscript census samples from 1901 and 1911 together with tax valuation data to infer individual behavior and decision-making for much earlier, empirically darker, decades (p. 133). However, such data in combination with less detailed, published census material and demographic work done by O Grada, Connell, and others, provide the basis for Guinnane’s attempt to “visualize the [economic and demographic] decisions as people of the day saw them” (p. 17). Thus, Guinnane aims for what he notes (quoting Hammel) as “culturally smart microeconomics” (ibid).

The first step in analysis is with “Households and the Generations,” an examination of the household structures characterizing rural Ireland, the patterns of impartible and partible inheritance, farm size, and the evidence against primogeniture. Guinnane finds a large number of extended family households (“the real Irish departure from the nuclear-family model” p. 142) where an efficiency logic militated against primogeniture, and where increasing emigrant opportunities changed notions of intra-family equality to one of “giving one son a solid farm and the others a chance at good life elsewhere” (p.164). In support of that logic, Guinnane finds that few farms were subdivided in the post-Famine period and the average holding increased, suggesting that amalgamation of holdings became more common.

The analysis then turns to “Coming of Age” and “The Decline of Marriage” where Guinnane finds a Malthusian model of nuptiality (a trade-off between personal consumption and marriage/family) largely a failure. Three grounds are cited: many of the never-married were heads of prosperous households, many remaining in Ireland and remaining unmarried could have emigrated to “a decent life overseas,” and rising rural incomes in the 1851-1911 period were directly at odds with the Malthusian preventative check of increasing poverty (p. 227). Other causal hypotheses, demographic, cultural, and religious are also rejected. Neither a sex imbalance argument nor the role of Catholicism in serving as a brake on marriage are perceived as plausible. Post-Famine emigrant flows were surprisingly evenly balanced across the sexes; thus leaving the remaining home population with a balanced sex ratio as well. A “marriage squeeze” was then, in Guinnane’s judgement, an unlikely occurrence. The Catholicism argument encounters “a simple empirical weakness,” i.e. marital status differences between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland were minor, and overwhelmingly Catholic areas abroad, like the Quebec Province of Canada, did not exhibit high celibacy. Rather, the causes of the rise in permanent celibacy in Ireland are found in economic circumstance: land tenancies made more secure and valuable by the Land Acts, and in the development of a poor relief system with, late in the period, an old age pension system as well. The former meant a rise in the value of an eventual succession to an Irish tenancy relative to the value of emigration. The latter provided a security that substituted, to a degree, for the necessity of family and children. Thus, Guinnane develops “a perspective on marriage” that is quite “Becker-like” in pointing to the altered costs and benefits of marriage and the rise of “marriage substitutes” (p. 238). The outcome, in the Irish case, was a weakened incentive to marry coupled with a rising attractiveness of emigration. By 1911 then, cohort celibacy rates (for ages 45-54) of 25% appeared (Table 4.1).

While celibacy rose, marital fertility remained comparatively high, though Guinnane notes that “recent studies … produce stronger evidence for the beginnings of a fertility transition in Ireland by 1911” (p. 255). An index of marital fertility (referenced to 1000 for a population with uncontrolled fertility) falls from 868 in 1840 to 769 in 1911 (p. 249). More refined measures of fertility such as cohort parity analysis indicate a beginning adoption of fertility control measures, though fertility remained high by European standards of a fertility transition. Guinnane observes: “The Irish fertility transition consisted, it seems, of couples reducing their families from seven to nine children down to four to six, a number very high by contemporary European standards but demonstrating fertility control nonetheless” (p. 259).

If there is an understated dimension to this nicely-detailed demographic history, it lies with the primacy of emigration in determining the magnitude of the Irish population decline. That point is more evident in Cormac O Grada’s chapter on the same period, “Population and Emigration, 1850-1939” in his Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780-1939 (1994). In all decades from 1861 to 1926, the net external migration rate dominates the population change rate with its negative impact being nearly double the positive contribution of natural increase (O Grada, Table 9.6). In Guinnane’s analysis, emigration and the emigration decision are never absent–its empirical dimensions (though aggregate population ion change is never decomposed into its components), the coming of age and leaving home, the impact of emigration decisions on nuptiality and fertility. Indeed, a fair portion of the chapter defining the demographic setting is given over to emigration with discussions of migrants’ characteristics and chain migration. Yet, for all that, the decision to leave seems less well defined than are others. That is, perhaps inevitably, a result of the inability to bring empirical evidence to bear directly on mig ration decisions. Unlike the case with two of the major contributions of the work–the empirical base given to discussions of nuptiality and marital fertility–the micro-evidence on migration may be beyond reach.

In this work, as in Guinnane’s earlier a articles on economic-demographic interrelations in Ireland, the case is made for “a more careful integration of microeconomic analysis and institutional detail” (p. 276). It is that sort of careful integration that makes The Vanishing Irish a major contribution to both economic and demographic history.

H.A. Gemery Department of Economics Colby College

Hank Gemery has written articles and monographs on trans-Atlantic migration in periods from the colonial era through the twentieth century.


Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Time Period(s):16th Century

And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920 to the 1990s

Author(s):Barkan, Elliott
Reviewer(s):Suzuki, Masao


Published by EH.NET (August 1998)

Elliott Robert Barkan, And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920 to the 1990s. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1996. xi + 262 pp. Illustrations, bibliographical essay, index. $12.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-88295-928-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Masao Suzuki, Department of Economics, Mills College. . Immigration to the United States has boomed over the last 30 years, as increasing movements of goods, capital, and people across borders have coincided with more liberal U.S. immigration laws. Record numbers of immigrants (although still below levels of 100 years ago as a percentage of the population) combined with a new economic landscape have also raised popular misgivings about immigration. Elliot Robert Barkan, professor of history and ethnic studies at California State University, San Bernardino, wrote And Still They Come as a history of immigrants and their children in the context of social and economic changes such as the Great Depression, post-World War II suburbanization, and recent globalization. The book extends from the 1920s, which saw the enactment of legislation restricting immigration, through piecemeal liberalization in the post-World War II period, to the recent period of mass immigration and rising nativism.

Barkan begins with the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 and how immigrants faced hostility, both in the economic boom of the 1920s, as well as the Depression of the 1930s–the most severe being the deportation and repatriation of more than a half a million Mexicans and their American-born children during the 1930s. World War II and the ensuing cold war began the erosion of the discriminatory immigration and naturalization laws as our country began to open its doors to war brides and refugees, and as the laws excluding Asians and barring them from citizenship were repealed.

The second half of And Still They Come continues with the legislative changes in U.S. immigration law from 1965 to 1990, and discusses the characteristics of recent immigrants, their lives in the United States, and the recent debates about the costs and benefits of immigration. The book ends with a large appendix of tables with data on immigration from the 1920s to the present, and a bibliographic essay covering scholarly works on immigration and immigrants.

And Still They Come exhibits both strengths and weaknesses from its effort to survey the sweep of 20th-century U.S. immigration history. One of its strong points is its emphasis on the diversity of the immigrant experience (including diversity and differences among immigrants from the same country) and its sympathetic presentation of their lives in the United States. Reading the chapter on ethnic adaptation brought back my own memories of hearing Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog (Filipino) as often as English in a crowded California mall, and seeing a Sikh teenager with his unshorn hair bound in a topknot dressed in an urban style with oversized high-tops, baggy pants and a wool shirt.

Histories of late 19th and early 20th century immigration often stress the largely male composition of the last wave of mass migration, but rarely does one see comments on the fact that most immigrants today are women. And Still They Come does not neglect this aspect of twentieth century immigration, pointing out that this trend can be seen as early as 1926. Barkan’s book also makes a strong effort to integrate the experiences of Asians, Latinos, and other immigrants of color within an overall appraisal of the immigrant experience.

These strengths notwithstanding, there are also a number of shortcomings to the book. One major problem with Barkan’s book is that it begins with the restrictive immigration legislation of the 1920s, skipping over the mass immigration of the turn of the century and the growing nativism. In particular, the lack of an overview of earlier immigration and restriction makes it hard to answer the excellent question of his last chapter entitled “The 1990s: New Directions or Full Circle?” While Barkan’s book is a sequel to Alan Kraut’s The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880-1921 (1982), an introductory chapter would be very helpful and make And Still They Come much more useful as an introduction to 20th-century immigration to the United States.

The broad sweep of the book leads to uneven coverage. For example, even though Asian immigrants are prominent throughout the book, the bibliographic essay fails to mention Yuji Ichioka’s The Issei (The Free Press, 1988), which is not only a definitive text on early Japanese immigrants to the U.S., but also is one of the few histories that draws extensively on Japanese-language records. While the bibliographic essay is informative, it is organized by topic and not explicitly connected to the text. The statistical data is contained in the appendix whereas integrating the data tables into the main text would give them more impact.

Another shortcoming is that And Still They Come at times goes too far in the direction of an ethnic history. For example there is a discussion of the ethnic revival among Americans in the 1970s and 1980s which, while interesting, mainly involved the grandchildren of immigrants. This leads the book to try to cover even more ground than it can reasonably do.

Last, but certainly not least, I felt that And Still They Come could have drawn more on studies of immigration by economists. While issues of immigrant entrepreneurship and current debates about the impact of immigrants on government finance and the labor market are addressed, other questions are not. One important issue is the concern of George Borjas and others that the skills composition of immigrants has declined relative to native-born Americans. This issue would fit well into the Barkan’s historical concerns, since this was also an issue that led to a literacy requirement for immigrants in 1917. (Coincidentally, the literacy requirement was promoted by the Immigration Restriction League, founded by recent graduates of Harvard University, where Borjas now teaches.) This shortcoming also shows up in Barkan’s bibliographical essay section on Immigration and Economic Issues, which mentions relatively few works by economists.

Masao Suzuki Department of Economics Mills College

Masao Suzuki is author of “Success Story? Japanese Immigrant Economic Achievement and Return Migration, 1920-1930,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Dec. 1995): 889-901.


Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains: A Multidisciplinary Study

Author(s):Kennedy, Margaret A.
Reviewer(s):Swearingin, Steven D.

Published by and EH.Net (July, 1998)

Margaret A. Kennedy. The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains: A Multidisciplinary Study. American University Studies, Series IX; History, 0740-0462, vol. 171. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. x + 181 pp. Illustrations, maps, bibliographical references, and index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8204-2596-6.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Steven D. Swearingin, Southern Illinois University (Carbondale)

Historical archaeologist Margaret A. Kennedy’s The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains is a short multidisciplinary study which explores the final boom phase of the Indian trade economy on North America’s northwestern plains. It focuses on the buffalo robe sector of the fur trade industry, with special emphasis upon “whiskey trade” activities in the Upper Saskatchewan River region of Western Canada–just over the Montana border–from 1865 to 1875. Her narrative highlights social aspects and material culture by interrogating archaeological, documentary and oral history records from Euramerican and Amerindian cultures. Kennedy proclaims her study to be an attempt, “among other things, to portray the different attitudes and perceptions held by the numerous and distinct parties who were directly involved or affected by the trade” (p. xviii). The resulting study provides an interesting historical overview of an ephemeral frontier economy precariously balanced between Euramerican settlement and Amerindian independence.

Kennedy divides her study into five primary chapters: four with discipline-dominated foci (history, ethnology or archaeology); one, a comparative methodology assessment. Each of the first four chapters represents a historical overview covering the entire period via the perspective of a particular disciplinary approach. As one might expect, this choice of organization results in a repetitive, somewhat disjointed collection of narratives. Professor Kennedy’s “hope that by presenting and comparing the different perspectives…a more richly textured mosaic…will emerge” (p. xviii) appears to override any interest in encouraging multidisciplinary readability. A better narrative flow could have been achieved by integrating all of the pertinent data into one comprehensive narrative (as partially evinced in her adept treatment of the chapter on material culture) and concluding with a comparative methodological analysis. What this work successfully provides is a fact-filled historical sketch of the Indian trade on the northwestern plains from the mid-1820’s through the extermination of the last great buffalo herd in 1882. It is an informative regional overview of a cross-cultural socioeconomic system in which Amerindian (mixed-blood) participants produce furs, robes, hides and meat to exchange for weapons, blankets, clothing, tools, accouterments and whiskey peddled by Euramerican frontier merchants who offer access to the world market. Additionally, Kennedy explains the special role of the “commercial-capitalist” economy in providing independent trader, commercial meat hunter and industrial robe processing services. In the process she touches on virtually all major events impacting this world.

An emphasis on factual presentation at the expense of historical analysis does, however, detract from the historiographic value of this work. There is no apparent concern with investigating, or at least attempting to explain, many of the relationships between significant presented facts. For example, Kennedy identifies the U.S. financial panic of 1873, fur market sales slump of 1874, spiraling inflation in trading post robe prices from 1874 through 1875, and auction house price crash in the summer of 1874 (p. 42). No explanation is offered for the divergence between market demand for buffalo robes and prices paid in the field. Extermination of various buffalo herds, including the last great northern herd in 1882, is also delineated at some length (p. 43-44), as is the failure of buffalo robe prices to recover between 1875 and 1882 (p. 42). No causal interpretation is attempted to account for the permanent depression in field purchase prices through the end of this trade: did the industry’s change from field (native) to industrial (urban) tanning play any part?

Equally troubling is Professor Kennedy’s underlying inference that chronic alcohol abuse amongst northwestern plains tribes of this era serves as the cause for their social and political degeneration. Historical records present consistently clear indications that alcoholism amongst independent Amerindian peoples initially stems from internal causes; both individual and group desires to escape cultural restrictions and responsibilities.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is its ability to juxtapose highly dissimilar economic systems (i.e., nomadic hunting, mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism), demonstrate their fleeting state of mutualism, and outline the eventual usurpation of each as our present economic system develops. Particularly enlightening is Kennedy’s portrayal of the role played by the U.S. Civil War in stimulating American industrialization, facilitating the eventual undermining of Great Britain’s economic dominance on–and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s profits from–the North American frontier, and fueling an accelerated frontier settlement and urbanization pattern. Although poor editing and a superficial index detract from overall presentation, The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains is a useful historical overview of the Indian trade among the northwestern plains Indians. Extensive use of primary sources and archaeological studies make this book notable; its bibliography and footnotes form a valuable tool for those interested in more in-depth study. Margaret A. Kennedy’s archaeological illumination on trading post sites during the boom period in alcohol trafficking helps to clarify our understanding of this volatile business environment and represents a meaningful contribution to the historiography on the Indian trade.


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Sick, Not Dead: The Health of British Workingmen During the Mortality Decline

Author(s):Riley, James C.
Reviewer(s):Emery, J. C. Herbert


Published by EH.NET (July 1998)

James C. Riley, Sick, Not Dead: The Health of British Workingmen during the Mortality Decline. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. xvii +342 pp. $58.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-5411-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Herb Emery, Department of Economics, University of Calgary.

With Sick, Not Dead, James Riley has written an ambitious book on the important subject of trends in the health status of nineteenth-century British workingmen. The first part of Riley’s book provides an extensive description of friendly societies in England, the primary sources of sickness and health insurance for British Workingmen in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Riley also examines the extent to which friendly society members had access to medical services at a relatively low cost due to the control friendly societies had over the medical marketplace. The more important contribution of this book, however, is that suggested by its title and the subject of the second part of the book. Riley challenges the belief of many scholars that the documented decline in British mortality in the nineteenth century reflected that British workingmen were also healthier. Living longer and healthier clearly indicates a rising standard of living. In contrast, Riley’s examinations of sickness benefit claim statistics compiled by the Ancient Order of Foresters (AOF) demonstrate that the decline in mortality was not necessarily an indicator of improved health. Foresters it seems, lived longer, were sick less often, but were sicker for longer periods of time. Riley also uses the Forester claims statistics to show clear regional patterns of sickness in Britain which were stable over the period 1870 to 1910. Thus, Riley shows that it is difficult to make conclusions about health status of workingmen on a national level. If the AOF sick benefit claims statistics are representative of the health status of the British working class, then Riley has contributed an important insight into the health and standard of living of nineteenth century British workingmen.

Riley’s primary finding of a surviving but sicker British population after 1870 requires that the observed increase in sickness time in AOF Courts was due to changing health conditions of workingmen, all else equal, and was not merely an artifact of compositional changes in AOF Court memberships. Observed sickness time in AOF Courts could have increased over time because the health of workingmen was changing, or because more of the membership was older with higher sickness risk, or because members with higher sickness and injury risk occupations represented more of the membership. Other potential explanations for changing observed sickness patterns could be changes in the AOF’s rules for claiming benefits, or changing attitudes of members towards claiming sick benefits. Riley addresses, and dismisses, each of these possibilities for the observed increase in AOF sickness time claimed with the exception of changes in workingmen’s health. Essentially, the conclusion that patterns of health were changing is the explanation attached to an otherwise unexplained increase in sick time claimed over time. The reader must decide if Riley has adequately explained away (or, in his regressions, controlled for) alternative explanations for the increase in the length of time per year that Foresters claimed sick benefits.

Riley is extremely careful in letting the reader know the importance of purging the sickness benefit claim statistics of effects due to aging members to identify the underlying trend in health status of British workingmen. Riley shows that as an individual aged, his length of sickness spell increased exponentially. He does not observe each individual member’s age, but he does observe the average age of the members who are generating the claim statistics. As Riley points out, while the average age of the members is a good measure of central tendency in the claims statistics, he still needs to control for the dispersion of ages in a given membership. To see why this is the case, consider two Courts each with memberships with an average age of 30 years. All members of both Courts face identical age-specific sickness risks. In membership A, all members are 30 years old. In membership B, one-third of the members are age 20, one-third of the members are age 30 and one-third are age 40. Even with the same average age, membership B with more “older” members will generate higher observed sick claims since the increase in claims from a 40-year-old member compared to a 30-year-old member is larger than reduction in claims from a 20-year-old member compared to a 30-year-old member. Riley identifies the rate of initiations into court membership and the number of years a court had been operating as key factors influencing age clustering (or conversely, age dispersion) in the membership. Initiations brought younger members into AOF Courts and tended to slow down the aging of the membership. He includes the initiation rate (new members to existing members) and the years since the AOF Court was formed in his regressions. Riley regresses the sickness time variable on these controls and still finds an increase in sickness time claimed over time.

The question remains whether the increase in sickness time that Riley identifies is a true trend in unobserved health status or just a biased residual effect resulting from the imperfect proxy variables for controlling for the increases in sickness due to an aging membership. There is good reason to suspect it is the latter since Riley is silent on quits/secessions from Court memberships in his discussions on controlling for age in his sickness time regressions. Riley points out that when quits/secessions occurred, they “typically occurred within a few years of joining” when members were in their 20s or 30s. Thus, where initiations reduced the average age of the membership by bringing in younger members, quits or secessions accelerated the aging of the Court membership. In other words, the net of initiations and secessions is the relevant factor for controlling for the aging of Court memberships since both influence the number of members at younger ages in the membership. In the absence of controls for secessions, Riley’s maintained assumption for interpreting the trend increase in AOF sickness time claimed is that membership was a lifetime status for joiners. Unfortunately, Riley does not convey much information about the extent to which membership in a friendly society was a lifetime status for initiates. The reader will learn that Forester secession rates were higher than those of the Oddfellows in Britain but Riley does not tell the reader what Oddfellow secession rates were. Readers will not get a sense from this book how big an omission from the analysis this potentially is. While not directly comparable to the British orders, in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in North America, the average length of membership was only around 5 years and only one quarter of members remained in the membership for 25 years. Only a minority of members did not secede from membership. Thus, one explanation for Riley’s measured trend in sickness time after 1870 is that as the number of initiations into AOF Courts slowed, the aging effect of secessions became important. Riley’s controls for aging, which only account for the rate of initiation, understate the true extent of aging in the membership. This bias arising from the exclusion of secession rates would appear as an otherwise unexplained, or residual, trend increase in sickness time claimed over time.

A frustrating element of this book is that the reader does not really know who belonged to the AOF. Riley asserts that the members were drawn from the working class, and that the AOF membership was similar to the Oddfellows membership which he shows was representative of the British population in terms of occupational distribution. Riley provides no direct evidence in support of this assertion. This shortcoming of the book is important for understanding whose health patterns we are learning about. It is critical for interpreting Riley’s analysis of regional sickness patterns since the analysis requires that the Foresters shared the circumstances and characteristics of the communities in which they lived. Riley operationalizes this point in Chapter 9 asserting that “earlier parts of this book show that AOF members as a whole closely resembled the central ranks of the working population in Britain, which implies that they did so also in most local communities” (p. 243). On the next page, however, Riley notes that for Britain as a whole, the Foresters represented 7.3 percent the male population in 1891 but for individual counties, this proportion varied from a low of 0.7 percent of the male population to a high of 20 percent. This variation seems hard to reconcile with the assumption that AOF memberships were everywhere equally representative of the local population. That AOF memberships were not always representative of the county population may explain Riley’s finding that coal mining and mining trades, occupations known to have high sickness and accident risks, were not statistically significant factors for explaining AOF sickness time or mortality. Riley’s does not entertain the possibility that the AOF dealt with high-risk occupations like coal mining by discouraging the participation of miners in the organization. If that was the case, miners were not in the AOF Courts, hence the claims statistics are not affected by the amount of mining employment in the county in which the AOF Court is located. The presence of miners would have affected the ratio of AOF members to the county population. Riley could have examined this possibility with his data by examining the correlations between the ratio of AOF members to county population and the importance of mining employment in the county.

Finally, a large focus of the early chapters of the book concerns the relationship between friendly societies and doctors. Riley documents the extent of access to doctors enjoyed by friendly society members and the extent of control over the medical market place enjoyed by the consumers. Riley has done an excellent job synthesizing various sources on this issue and providing original evidence from Forester Court minute books. Readers should be cautious however, in how they interpret sickness risks faced by workingmen from this discussion and in how they interpret what friendly societies were doing. Riley’s focus on access to direct medical care through friendly society membership obscures the more important cost of sickness and injury in the nineteenth century, lost earnings. Friendly societies like the AOF may have provided access to physicians for members and have discussed the nature of care, but the income replacement benefit was clearly more important in terms Court finances. The nineteenth-century actuarial investigations of sickness were motivated by concerns about the sustainability of the income replacement sick benefit, not concerns over revenues to finance medical care. While it is interesting to know how the fraternal medical economy worked in the nineteenth century, it is a puzzling focus for an analysis of friendly societies that were more concerned with insuring men against the loss of income due to illness or accident.

In the end, Riley has provided a book that is a substantial improvement over many of the books written on British friendly societies. He provides fresh information and updates a literature that has not seen a great deal of activity for some time. Even though I have my doubts about the usefulness of friendly society sickness claim statistics for studying the health of workingmen, it is interesting to see the patterns that emerge from the data. For any scholars considering a project similar to this one, Riley’s book should be considered the point of departure.

Herb Emery Department of Economics University of Calgary

Herb Emery has co-authored (with George Emery) the forthcoming book (1999) A Young Man’s Benefit: The Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Sickness Insurance in the United States and Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press ).


Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930

Author(s):Gamber, Wendy
Reviewer(s):Nickless, Pamela


Published by EH.NET (July 1998)

Wendy Gamber, The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 320 pp. $39.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-252-02298-X (cloth); 0-252-06601-4 (paper).

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pamela Nickless, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina- Asheville.

This is an important work about a portion of the nineteenth century economy that was dominated by skilled, relatively well-paid women workers and entrepreneurs. If this description doesn’t fit your image of the work world for women a hundred years ago, may I suggest this book? Professor Gamber in this careful and subtly nuanced study makes a strong case for the importance of the millinery and dressmaking trades in the work world of nineteenth-century women. She also clearly describes the impact of the mass-production of hats and women’s clothing on women’s employment and business opportunities.

The Female Economy is divided into two sections: Part One describes the “female economy” of proprietors, workers and consumers from 1860 to 1910 while Part Two analyzes the transformation in production from 1860 to 1930. In 1860, women of almost all social classes purchased clothing from milliners and dressmakers: goods were made to order usually in a small shop with a female entrepreneur. By 1930, women of almost all social classes purchased factory-made clothing from a department store; both factory and store usually owned and operated by men. The 1930s garment workers were largely unskilled while the milliners and dressmakers of the 1860s were semi-skilled and highly skilled workers. While historians have explored the impact of this “democratization” of fashion on American culture, little work has been done on the women who made the custom goods that were replaced by the off-the-rack garment.

Although the dress-making and millinery trades have been richly represented in American and English literature, the non-fiction voices of these workers are hard to find. In Part One, Professor Gamber presents the results of her painstaking gathering of data from business directories, city directories, the manuscript census, the R.G. Dun and Co. records and a myriad of other sources including the letters and diaries of middle and upper class customers, Progressive Era consumer and workers-aid organizations and the few extant memoirs of milliners and dressmakers. Most of the data are from Boston and the study never ventures far from the Northeast. The intensive study of Boston and the rich data set that Gamber has collected is one of the finest aspects of this work. She is able to flesh out the portraits of some female entrepreneurs by locating them in more than one source. The Dun and Co. records are a particularly rich source of personal information (closely resembling gossip) on the business women and their families. One of the most fascinating portions of the book uses the records of Boston’s Protective Committee; this committee intervened on behalf of women workers in the larger dress-making establishments. Here in one fell swoop, we have workers, female employers and their customers (members of the committee) all involved. Gamber relates the ironic plight of the woman entrepreneur with a poor Dun and Co. credit rating whose customers conspire to “trustee” their own orders until she pays her workers with money she doesn’t have because her customers won’t pay their bills in a timely manner.

It is difficult to summarize Gamber’s portrait of this female economy. A few tidbits may surprise the reader: millinery and dressmaking were “…the fourth most important occupational category for women in 1870; only domestic servants, agricultural laborers, and seamstresses were more numerous.” In 1900, dressmaking still ranked third while millinery was fourteenth (p. 7). Most proprietors of retail establishments were single women (“man milliner” was an epithet) and in Boston, a quarter were over thirty years old. Gamber also finds strong evidence of the working class origins of many of the “Madams” and, she argues, dressmaking and millinery was one of the few paths to independence for the working class daughter. Although this seems a very female world, men controlled access to credit and in the case of customers, husbands often decided when and which bills would be honored. Millinery and dressmaking was a risky business and few women became wealthy but many did manage to maintain a “precarious independence.”

In Part Two, Gamber explains in more detail the millinery and dressmaking shop; how work was done, how skills were acquired and how a worker might rise from apprentice to shop owner. She describes the transmission of skills and how a young woman, with hard work and luck, might learn a craft and own her own small shop. In the late nineteenth century, the development of systems of drafting and eventually pre-printed patterns sought to eliminate the importance of training and trade secrets and “..challenge the dressmaker’s most precious skill: her monopoly over cutting” (p. 138). This development would not only convince many would-be dressmakers that they had no need for training, it also paved the way for standardized sizes. (Fashion would, of course, also play a role as fitted bodices fell out of favor in the early twentieth century.) The proponents of “scientific” dress-cutting techniques were scathing in their denigration of the standard practices of dressmakers which usually involved numerous fittings. Now a simple machine (usually the work of a masculine mind) could eliminate the need for tiresome fittings and the work could be done, it was claimed, by any housewife with some skill at sewing. While these machines and drafting methods no doubt did not deliver all they promised, they mark the beginning of the erosion of the necessity of a dressmaker for the well-dressed woman. The development of the department store and the availability of factory-made dresses (altered in the store for the up-scale customer) in the early twentieth century completed the transformation of dressmaking. The product had, of course, been subtly altered: no one today would expect their clothing to fit as well as clothing made by a dressmaker or tailor.

A similar process takes place in the early twentieth century in the millinery trade. Milliners had, unlike dressmakers, generally kept stock on hand and thus had to deal with wholesalers. The largely male world of wholesaling had accommodated women entrepreneurs of “small means,” but beginning around 1900, wholesalers began to “rationalize” their business. Business practices which had emphasized a personal relationship between retailer and wholesaler now gave way to more business-like behavior. This emphasis on what we would probably call the bottom line made the wholesalers generally impatient with small shops that were often late to pay or returned unsold goods–most of these small shops were of course run by women. These women were now seen as “unbusiness-like,” undesirable customers. This combined with the development of factory-made hat forms (also sold by the wholesalers) spelled the end to the custom-made hat.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the final consumer’s role in this process: all of this ready-made stuff was cheaper. Instead of having one or two good dresses and one new hat a year, a woman of modest means could afford more if the dresses and hats were either entirely or mostly factory-made. Gamber is careful to note the complex interaction among consumers, retailers, wholesalers and producers in this process of transforming an industry.

In this portion of the work Gamber does a superb job using millinery trade journals and the publications of the proponents of “scientific” dress-cutting techniques to substantiate her story of de-skilling and de-feminizing millinery and dressmaking. Indeed her use of multiple sources makes her story a rich and complex one. This book is must reading for any student of nineteenth and early twentieth century labor history. The only minor criticism I would make is that Professor Gamber has a tendency to push her sources a little too far. Can we really know that the dressmakers and milliners took pride in their work, that they considered themselves artisans? I want to believe that the impoverished milliner with one employee and a business that lasted only two or three years had hopes and aspirations of grander things and that for a brief time she was able to create and live an independent life that she valued but I’m not convinced. This is a minor quibble about a truly outstanding piece of scholarship. We should be grateful to Professor Gamber for uncovering this female economy and suggesting so many other tantalizing avenues for future research.

Pamela J. Nickless Department of Economics University of North Carolina at Asheville

Professor Nickless is Professor of Economics and Director of Women’s Studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She is currently involved in a study of nineteenth-century Southern business women, many of whom were dressmakers and milliners. She has recently published on the role of women in the Shaker communities and on pedagogy, including an article published on EH.NET with Akira Motomura.


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century