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Article

“Corporate social responsibility” is a term that first began to circulate widely in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though it may seem to be a straightforward concept, the phrase can imply a range of activities, from minority hiring initiatives and environmentally sound operations, to funding local nonprofits and cultural institutions. The idea appeared to have developed amid increasing demands made of corporations by a number of different groups, such as the consumer movement. However, American business managers engaged in many of these practices well before that phrase was coined. As far back as the early 19th century, merchants and business owners envisioned a larger societal role. However, broader political, social, and economic developments, from the rise of Gilded Age corporations to the onset of the Cold War, significantly influenced understandings of business social responsibility. Likewise, different managers and corporations have had different motives for embracing social responsibility initiatives. Some embraced social responsibility rhetoric as a public relations tool. Others saw the concept as a way to prevent government regulation. Still others undertook social responsibility efforts because they fit well with their own socially progressive ethos. Though the terms and understandings of a business’s social responsibilities have shifted over time, the basic idea has been a perennial feature of commercial life in the United States.

Article

Michael K. Rosenow

In the broader field of thanatology, scholars investigate rituals of dying, attitudes toward death, evolving trajectories of life expectancy, and more. Applying a lens of social class means studying similar themes but focusing on the men, women, and children who worked for wages in the United States. Working people were more likely to die from workplace accidents, occupational diseases, or episodes of work-related violence. In most periods of American history, it was more dangerous to be a wage worker than it was to be a soldier. Battlegrounds were not just the shop floor but also the terrain of labor relations. American labor history has been filled with violent encounters between workers asserting their views of economic justice and employers defending their private property rights. These clashes frequently turned deadly. Labor unions and working-class communities extended an ethos of mutualism and solidarity from the union halls and picket lines to memorial services and gravesites. They lauded martyrs to movements for human dignity and erected monuments to honor the fallen. Aspects of ethnicity, race, and gender added layers of meaning that intersected with and refracted through individuals’ economic positions. Workers’ encounters with death and the way they made sense of loss and sacrifice in some ways overlapped with Americans from other social classes in terms of religious custom, ritual practice, and material consumption. Their experiences were not entirely unique but diverged in significant ways.

Article

Christoph Nitschke and Mark Rose

U.S. history is full of frequent and often devastating financial crises. They have coincided with business cycle downturns, but they have been rooted in the political design of markets. Financial crises have also drawn from changes in the underpinning cultures, knowledge systems, and ideologies of marketplace transactions. The United States’ political and economic development spawned, guided, and modified general factors in crisis causation. Broadly viewed, the reasons for financial crises have been recurrent in their form but historically specific in their configuration: causation has always revolved around relatively sudden reversals of investor perceptions of commercial growth, stock market gains, monetary availability, currency stability, and political predictability. The United States’ 19th-century financial crises, which happened in rapid succession, are best described as disturbances tied to market making, nation building, and empire creation. Ongoing changes in America’s financial system aided rapid national growth through the efficient distribution of credit to a spatially and organizationally changing economy. But complex political processes—whether Western expansion, the development of incorporation laws, or the nation’s foreign relations—also underlay the easy availability of credit. The relationship between systemic instability and ideas and ideals of economic growth, politically enacted, was then mirrored in the 19th century. Following the “Golden Age” of crash-free capitalism in the two decades after the Second World War, the recurrence of financial crises in American history coincided with the dominance of the market in statecraft. Banking and other crises were a product of political economy. The Global Financial Crisis of 2007–2008 not only once again changed the regulatory environment in an attempt to correct past mistakes, but also considerably broadened the discursive situation of financial crises as academic topics.

Article

Jamie L. Pietruska

The term “information economy” first came into widespread usage during the 1960s and 1970s to identify a major transformation in the postwar American economy in which manufacturing had been eclipsed by the production and management of information. However, the information economy first identified in the mid-20th century was one of many information economies that have been central to American industrialization, business, and capitalism for over two centuries. The emergence of information economies can be understood in two ways: as a continuous process in which information itself became a commodity, as well as an uneven and contested—not inevitable—process in which economic life became dependent on various forms of information. The production, circulation, and commodification of information has historically been essential to the growth of American capitalism and to creating and perpetuating—and at times resisting—structural racial, gender, and class inequities in American economy and society. Yet information economies, while uneven and contested, also became more bureaucratized, quantified, and commodified from the 18th century to the 21st century. The history of information economies in the United States is also characterized by the importance of systems, networks, and infrastructures that link people, information, capital, commodities, markets, bureaucracies, technologies, ideas, expertise, laws, and ideologies. The materiality of information economies is historically inextricable from production of knowledge about the economy, and the concepts of “information” and “economy” are themselves historical constructs that change over time. The history of information economies is not a teleological story of progress in which increasing bureaucratic rationality, efficiency, predictability, and profit inevitably led to the 21st-century age of Big Data. Nor is it a singular story of a single, coherent, uniform information economy. The creation of multiple information economies—at different scales in different regions—was a contingent, contested, often inequitable process that did not automatically democratize access to objective information.

Article

The United States underwent massive economic change in the four decades following the end of the American Civil War in 1865. A vibrant industrial economy catapulted the nation to a world leader in mining and manufacturing; the agricultural sector overcame organizational and technological challenges to increase productivity; and the innovations in financial, accounting, and marketing methods laid the foundation for a powerful economy that would dominate the globe in the 20th century. The emergence of this economy, however, did not come without challenges. Workers in both the industrial and agricultural sectors offered an alternative path for the American economy in the form of labor strikes and populist reforms; their attempts to disrupt the growing concentration of wealth and power played out in both the polls and the factory floor. Movements that sought to regulate the growth of large industrial firms and railroads failed to produce much meaningful policy, even as they raised major critiques of the emerging economic order. In the end, a form of industrial capitalism emerged that used large corporate structures, relatively weak unions, and limited government interventions to build a dynamic, but unbalanced, economic order in the United States.

Article

Benjamin C. Waterhouse

Political lobbying has always played a key role in American governance, but the concept of paid influence peddling has been marked by a persistent tension throughout the country’s history. On the one hand, lobbying represents a democratic process by which citizens maintain open access to government. On the other, the outsized clout of certain groups engenders corruption and perpetuates inequality. The practice of lobbying itself has reflected broader social, political, and economic changes, particularly in the scope of state power and the scale of business organization. During the Gilded Age, associational activity flourished and lobbying became increasingly the province of organized trade associations. By the early 20th century, a wide range at political reforms worked to counter the political influence of corporations. Even after the Great Depression and New Deal recast the administrative and regulatory role of the federal government, business associations remained the primary vehicle through which corporations and their designated lobbyists influenced government policy. By the 1970s, corporate lobbyists had become more effective and better organized, and trade associations spurred a broad-based political mobilization of business. Business lobbying expanded in the latter decades of the 20th century; while the number of companies with a lobbying presence leveled off in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of lobbyists per company increased steadily and corporate lobbyists grew increasingly professionalized. A series of high-profile political scandals involving lobbyists in 2005 and 2006 sparked another effort at regulation. Yet despite popular disapproval of lobbying and distaste for politicians, efforts to substantially curtail the activities of lobbyists and trade associations did not achieve significant success.

Article

Robert Wright

Between passage of the National Banking Acts near the end of the US Civil War and the outbreak of the Great War and implementation of the Federal Reserve System in 1914, a large, vibrant financial system based on the gold standard and composed of markets and intermediaries supported the rapid growth and development of the American economy. Markets included over-the-counter markets and formal exchanges for financial securities, including bills of exchange (foreign currencies), cash (short-term debt), debt (corporate and government bonds), and equities (ownership shares in corporations), initial issuance of which increasingly fell to investment banks. Intermediaries included various types of insurers (marine, fire, and life, plus myriad specialists like accident and wind insurers) and true depository institutions, which included trust companies, mutual and stock savings banks, and state- and federally-chartered commercial banks. Nominal depository institutions also operated, and included building and loan associations and, eventually, credit unions and Morris Plan and other industrial banks. Non-depository lenders included finance and mortgage companies, provident loan societies, pawn brokers, and sundry other small loan brokers. Each type of “bank,” broadly construed, catered to customers differentiated by their credit characteristics, gender, race/ethnicity, country of birth, religion, and/or socioeconomic class, had distinctive balance sheets and loan application and other operating procedures, and reacted differently to the three major postbellum financial crises in 1873, 1892, and 1907.

Article

Paul Michel Taillon

Railroad workers occupy a singular place in United States history. Working in the nation’s first “big businesses,” they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, came from a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, included both men and women, and performed a wide range of often esoteric tasks. As workers in an industry that shaped the nation’s financial, technological, and political-economic development, railroaders drove the leading edge of industrialization in the 19th century and played a central role in the nation’s economy for much of the 20th. With the legends of “steel-driving” John Henry and “Cannonball” Casey Jones, railroad workers entered the national folklore as Americans pondered the benefits and costs of progress in an industrial age. Those tales highlighted the glamor and rewards, the risks and disparities, and the gender-exclusive and racially hierarchical nature of railroad work. They also offer insight into the character of railroad unionism, which, from its beginnings in the 1860s, oriented toward craft-based, male-only, white-supremacist forms of organization. Those unions remained fragmented, but they also became among the most powerful in the US labor movement, leveraging their members’ strategic location in a central infrastructural industry, especially those who operated the trains. That strategic location also ensured that any form of collective organization—and therefore potential disruption of the national economy—would lead to significant state intervention. Thus, the epic railroad labor conflict of the late 19th century generated the first federal labor relations laws in US history, which in turn set important precedents for 20th-century national labor relations policy. At the same time, the industry nurtured the first national all-Black, civil-rights-oriented unions, which played crucial roles in the 20th-century African American freedom struggle. By the mid-20th century, however, with technological change and the railroads entering a period of decline, the numbers of railroad workers diminished and with them, too, their once-powerful unions.

Article

American Populism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the political high-water mark of the social movements of farmers, wage earners, women, and other sectors of society in the years after the Civil War. These movements forged the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, which campaigned against corporate power and economic inequality and was one of the most successful third parties in US history. Populist candidates won gubernatorial elections in nine states and gained some forty-five seats in the US Congress, including six seats in the Senate, and in 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver of Iowa, received over a million votes, more than 8 percent of the total. The Populist Party was not a conventional political party but a coalition of organizations, including the Farmers’ Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and other reform movements, in what the Populists described as a “congress of industrial orders.” These organizations gave the People’s Party its strength and shaped its character as a party of working people with a vision of egalitarian cooperation and solidarity comparable to the labor, farmer-labor, and social-democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere that took shape in the same decades. Despite their egalitarian claims, however, the Populists had at best a mixed attitude towards the struggles for racial equality, and at worst accommodated Indian dispossession, Chinese exclusion, and Jim Crow segregation. In terms of its legacy, veterans of the Populist movement and many of its policy proposals would shape progressive and labor-farmer politics deep into the 20th century, partly by way of the Socialist Party, but mainly by way of the progressive or liberal wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, the adjective “populist” has come to describe a wide variety of political phenomena, including right-wing and nationalist movements, that have no particular connection to the late 19th-century Populism.

Article

The key pieces of antitrust legislation in the United States—the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Clayton Act of 1914—contain broad language that has afforded the courts wide latitude in interpreting and enforcing the law. This article chronicles the judiciary’s shifting interpretations of antitrust law and policy over the past 125 years. It argues that jurists, law enforcement agencies, and private litigants have revised their approaches to antitrust to accommodate economic shocks, technological developments, and predominant economic wisdom. Over time an economic logic that prioritizes lowest consumer prices as a signal of allocative efficiency—known as the consumer welfare standard—has replaced the older political objectives of antitrust, such as protecting independent proprietors or small businesses, or reducing wealth transfers from consumers to producers. However, a new group of progressive activists has again called for revamping antitrust so as to revive enforcement against dominant firms, especially in digital markets, and to refocus attention on the political effects of antitrust law and policy. This shift suggests that antitrust may remain a contested field for scholarly and popular debate.