The first credit reporting organizations emerged in the United States during the 19th century to address problems of risk and uncertainty in an expanding market economy. Early credit reporting agencies assisted merchant lenders by collecting and centralizing information about the business activities and reputations of unknown borrowers throughout the country. These agencies quickly evolved into commercial surveillance networks, amassing huge archives of personal information about American citizens and developing credit rating systems to rank them. Shortly after the Civil War, separate credit reporting organizations devoted to monitoring consumers, rather than businesspeople, also began to emerge to assist credit-granting retailers. By the early 20th century, hundreds of local credit bureaus dissected the personal affairs of American consumers, forming the genesis of a national consumer credit surveillance infrastructure. The history of American credit reporting reveals fundamental links between the development of modern capitalism and contemporary surveillance society. These connections became increasingly apparent during the late 20th century as technological advances in computing and networked communication fueled the growth of new information industries, raising concerns about privacy and discrimination. These connections and concerns, however, are not new. They can be traced to 19th-century credit reporting organizations, which turned personal information into a commodity and converted individual biographies into impersonal financial profiles and risk metrics. As these disembodied identities and metrics became authoritative representations of one’s reputation and worth, they exerted real effects on one’s economic life chances and social legitimacy. While drawing attention to capitalism’s historical twin, surveillance, the history of credit reporting illuminates the origins of surveillance-based business models that became ascendant during the 21st century.
Cindy R. Lobel
Over the course of the 19th century, American cities developed from small seaports and trading posts to large metropolises. Not surprisingly, foodways and other areas of daily life changed accordingly. In 1800, the dietary habits of urban Americans were similar to those of the colonial period. Food provisioning was very local. Farmers, hunters, fishermen, and dairymen from a few miles away brought food by rowboats and ferryboats and by horse carts to centralized public markets within established cities. Dietary options were seasonal as well as regional. Few public dining options existed outside of taverns, which offered lodging as well as food. Most Americans, even in urban areas, ate their meals at home, which in many cases were attached to their workshops, countinghouses, and offices. These patterns changed significantly over the course of the19th century, thanks largely to demographic changes and technological developments. By the turn of the 20th century, urban Americans relied on a food-supply system that was highly centralized and in the throes of industrialization. Cities developed complex restaurant sectors, and majority immigrant populations dramatically shaped and reshaped cosmopolitan food cultures. Furthermore, with growing populations, lax regulation, and corrupt political practices in many cities, issues arose periodically concerning the safety of the food supply. In sum, the roots of today’s urban food systems were laid down over the course of the 19th century.
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.
Michael E. Donoghue
The United States’ construction and operation of the Panama Canal began as an idea and developed into a reality after prolonged diplomatic machinations to acquire the rights to build the waterway. Once the canal was excavated, a century-long struggle ensued to hold it in the face of Panamanian nationalism. Washington used considerable negotiation and finally gunboat diplomacy to achieve its acquisition of the Canal. The construction of the channel proved a titanic effort with large regional, global, and cultural ramifications. The importance of the Canal as a geostrategic and economic asset was magnified during the two world wars. But rising Panamanian frustration over the U.S. creation of a state-within-a-state via the Canal Zone, one with a discriminatory racial structure, fomented a local movement to wrest control of the Canal from the Americans. The explosion of the 1964 anti-American uprising drove this process forward toward the 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties that established a blueprint for eventual U.S. retreat and transfer of the channel to Panama at the century’s end. But before that historic handover, the Noriega crisis and the 1989 U.S. invasion nearly upended the projected transition of U.S. retreat from the management and control of the Canal. Early historians emphasized high politics, economics, and military considerations in the U.S. acquisition of the Canal. They concentrated on high-status actors, economic indices, and major political contingencies in establishing the U.S. colonial order on the isthmus. Panamanian scholars brought a legalistic and nationalist critique, stressing that Washington did not create Panama and that local voices in the historical debate have largely been ignored in the grand narrative of the Canal as a great act of progressive civilization. More recent U.S. scholarship has focused on American imperialism in Panama, on the role of race, culture, labor, and gender as major factors that shaped the U.S. presence, the structure of the Canal Zone, as well as Panamanian resistance to its occupation. The role of historical memory, of globalization, representation, and how the Canal fits into notions of U.S. empire have also figured more prominently in recent scholarly examination of this relationship. Contemporary research on the Panama Canal has been supported by numerous archives in the United States and Panama, as well as a variety of newspapers, magazines, novels, and films.