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Business in the Civil War: Trade, Markets, and Industry  

Mark R. Wilson

The Civil War disrupted domestic and international trade. Union strategy included a considerable focus on economic warfare, especially in the form of a naval blockade of Southern ports. Because the war lasted four years, its outcome was affected deeply by the success or failure of Union and Confederate economic mobilizations of capital, industry, and labor. On the home fronts, many businesses, large and small, confronted new challenges to their normal operations and supply chains. Generally speaking, businesses in the South suffered more than their Northern counterparts. Forced to deal with the consequences of the blockade, high inflation, and Union advances, many Southern farmers, merchants, and manufacturers struggled to keep afloat, especially after 1862. In the North, there was more wartime prosperity, thanks to a smoother economic mobilization and the Union’s ability to continue internal and international trade. But there was no single uniform experience: at the levels of specific industries and individual firms, the impact of the war varied widely. Clearly, the single biggest economic change—and political and social change, as well—was the end of slavery. Beyond that, the Civil War’s effects on long-run economic and industrial development were more complex and uncertain. The conflict’s heavy costs in blood and treasure harmed the North as well as the South, but many industries came out of the war in a strong enough position to allow the United States to continue on its path to becoming the world’s largest and most prosperous national economy by the end of the 19th century.

Article

The Department Store  

Traci Parker

Department stores were the epicenter of American consumption and modernity in the late 19th and through the 20th century. Between 1846 and 1860 store merchants and commercial impresarios remade dry goods stores and small apparel shops into department stores—downtown emporiums that departmentalized its vast inventory and offered copious services and amenities. Their ascendance corresponded with increased urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and the mass production of machine-made wares. Urbanization and industrialization also helped to birth a new White middle class who were eager to spend their money on material comforts and leisure activities. And department stores provided them with a place where they could do so. Stores sold shoppers an astounding array of high-quality, stylish merchandise including clothing, furniture, radios, sporting equipment, musical instruments, luggage, silverware, china, and books. They also provided an array of services and amenities, including public telephones, postal services, shopping assistance, free delivery, telephone-order and mail-order departments, barber shops, hair salons, hospitals and dental offices, radio departments, shoe-shining stands, wedding gift registries and wedding secretary services, tearooms, and restaurants. Stores enthroned consumption as the route to democracy and citizenship, inviting everybody—regardless of race, gender, age, and class—to enter, browse, and purchase material goods. They were major employers of white-collar workers and functioned as a new public space for women as workers and consumers. The 20th century brought rapid and significant changes and challenges. Department stores weathered economic crises; two world wars; new and intense competition from neighborhood, chain, and discount stores; and labor and civil rights protests that threatened to damage their image and displace them as the nation’s top retailers. They experienced cutbacks, consolidated services, and declining sales during the Great Depression, played an essential role in the war effort, and contended with the Office of Price Administration’s Emergency Price Control Act during the Second World War. In the postwar era, they opened branch locations in suburban neighborhoods where their preferred clientele—the White middle class—now resided and shaped the development and proliferation of shopping centers. They hastened the decline of downtown shopping as a result. The last three decades of the 20th century witnessed a wave of department store closures, mergers, and acquisitions because of changing consumer behaviors, shifts in the retail landscape, and evolving market dynamics. Department stores would continue to suffer into the 21st century as online retailing exploded.

Article

Detroit  

Ryan S. Pettengill

From its earliest origins through the 21st century, Detroit was a capitalist venture that was tied to the global economy. Throughout the pre-Columbian period, Detroit served as a meeting point where a diverse confederation of Native Americans came together to conduct business and diplomacy. Later, the city became a contested territorial holding that the Western imperial powers of France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States fought over, as it represented a critical gateway that opened up trade to the central and western regions of North America. Between 1835 and 1929, capitalists built wharfs, railroad lines, factories, warehouses, and other forms of industrial infrastructure, attracting throngs of working-class job seekers and causing Detroit’s population to boom from approximately 1,100 in 1819 to more than one million in 1930. The population peaked at nearly two million in 1950 and, by 2020, it had declined to approximately 700,000. Detroit’s history might be thought of in three distinct periods: a pre-Columbian period where the region consisted of a preindustrial space that was occupied by Anishinaabeg peoples, later to be claimed by European colonists; a long industrial era in which businessmen, such as Henry Ford, centralized production within the city; and a slow period of economic decline as the city struggled to adapt to different trends in a global economy. As Detroit entered the 21st century, the city faced a declining population, rising budget deficits, and a crumbling infrastructure. Still, as several multinational corporations based their operations out of Detroit, the city remained a capitalist venture fundamentally tied to the global economy.

Article

New York City  

Matthew Vaz

The contemporary city of New York, comprising the five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, covers three hundred square miles and contains almost nine million people. Often described as the center of the world, the city is home to the headquarters of the United Nations and is a hub of global media and finance. Yet New York is also a city of neighborhoods, animated by remarkably local concerns. The dense population, the complex government, the vast wealth, the archetypal urban poverty, and the intricate and impressive built environment have all taken form through a layered series of encounters among groups over the course of four centuries. The Lenape Indians, the original settlers of the area, encountered Dutch colonizers in 1624. The English seized control from the Dutch in 1664. Both the Dutch and the English imported enslaved Africans in large numbers. The natural advantages of the harbor propelled the area’s growth, attracting settlers from elsewhere in North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Human-created infrastructures like the Erie Canal spurred economic growth after 1825 that attracted European immigrants from western and northern Europe in the mid-19th century and Europeans from southern and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1898, five counties were consolidated and created the five boroughs of New York City with a population surpassing three million. African Americans from the US South and Latinos from the Caribbean migrated to New York throughout the 20th century; by 1950, the city’s population was 7.8 million. After 1980, the population began to climb again with new waves of immigration from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For more than four hundred years, the processes of conflict and cooperation have been animated by schisms and tensions of religion, ethnicity, race, and class. As groups and individuals competed for resources and power in the city, politics and governance confronted conceptual issues such as calibrating the extent of public services, the role of religion in public life, the rights of workers, and the value of living in a multiethnic and multiracial society.

Article

Smuggling and Illicit Trade in British America  

Andrew Rutledge

Illicit trade was an endemic feature of life in 17th- and 18th-century British America, shaping economies and societies from the Caribbean to Newfoundland. Owing to the illegal nature of smuggling in British America, its scale is impossible to estimate, but surviving records from traders and imperial officials testify to the determination of merchants to exchange goods and enslaved peoples across imperial borders and their success in doing so. The same was true for British Americans’ trading partners in the French, Spanish, and Dutch empires. Contraband trade was carried out in a variety of ways, ranging from open commerce in colonial ports to clandestine landings of cargoes on barren shorelines. The lives of both free and enslaved colonists were affected by it, either directly as sailors or laborers on smuggling voyages or indirectly as consumers of illegally imported goods such as tea, molasses, rum, or cloth. Most interimperial trade was labeled illegal under a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts passed between 1661 and 1696 that sought to exclude foreigners from the trade of the British Empire and ensure its products flowed to the mother country. But hampered by insufficient resources and intransigent colonial attitudes, customs agents could do little to curtail smuggling. Yet despite the arguments of some historians seeking to tie illicit trade to the coming of the American Revolution, smugglers engaged in it, seeking profits, not political or economic independence. In British North America, merchants smuggled to French and Dutch territories because the returns outweighed the risks, and because smuggling offered a means of earning the funds needed to repay their creditors in the British Isles. While in the Caribbean, island merchants enjoyed imperial support for their trade with Spanish America even as they condemned the illicit commerce of their northern cousins.

Article

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania  

Chloe E. Taft

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a city of seventy-five thousand people in the Lehigh Valley, was settled on the traditional homelands of the Lenape in 1741 as a Moravian religious settlement. The Moravian community on the North Side of the Lehigh River was closed to outsiders and was characterized by orderly stone buildings and a communitarian economy. The settlement opened and expanded on the South Side of the river as an industrial epicenter beginning in the mid-19th century and was ultimately home to the headquarters of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. By the late 1930s, the city’s 1,800-acre steel plant was ramping up to peak production with employment of more than thirty thousand. When Bethlehem Steel began a long, slow decline after 1950 until the plant’s closure in 1998, Bethlehem evolved into an archetype of a postindustrial city drawing on its long history of heritage tourism and an increasingly diversified economy in healthcare, education, and distribution, among other sectors. The city’s population has roots in multiple waves of migration—the Germanic Moravians in the 18th century, throngs of European immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a Latino/a population that grew after World War II to represent an increasingly large share of residents. The city’s landscape, culture, and economy are imbued with a multifaceted history that is both deeply local and reflective of the city’s position since its founding as an important node in regional and global networks.

Article

Milwaukee  

Amanda I. Seligman

Milwaukee means “the good land” in Anishinaabemowin, the language group of the Indigenous people who have lived in the region since the 17th century. Milwaukee is nestled between a subcontinental divide and the western shoreline of Lake Michigan. Some 10,000 years ago, the retreating Wisconsin glacier shaped the region’s topography: at sea level and relatively flat near Lake Michigan and rolling hills in the Kettle Moraine area north and west of the city’s site. The Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic, and Menomonee rivers converge in the city. The water made the land fertile and defined its promise as a transportation hub. Milwaukee grew from this rich potential into the largest and most diverse city in Wisconsin. During the 19th century, it transformed from a collection of Indigenous villages with a Metis trading post into an industrial powerhouse specialized in heavy manufacturing and brewing. European immigrants (especially from Germany and Poland) and migrants from the eastern United States staffed Milwaukee’s businesses and settled the region with farming hamlets and suburban municipalities. By the early 20th century, Milwaukee consistently ranked among the top twenty US cities by population. But because the city’s area was so compact, it was also one of the most densely populated. For half of the 20th century, Socialists governed Milwaukee. Unusually among Midwestern cities, Milwaukee’s Socialists waged a campaign to annex surrounding areas, leading to a wave of defensive suburban incorporations after World War II. In the second half of the 20th century, the third wave of the Great Migration brought large numbers of African Americans to Milwaukee’s North Side, and Mexican Americans settled permanently on the South Side. At the same time, the city and its industrial suburbs began to shed manufacturing jobs and decreased the white population. Although the suburbs maintained separate governance, Milwaukee and its surrounding counties (Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha) grew into an interconnected metropolitan whole. In the 21st century, the city’s population stabilized at a bit under 600,000 residents, and local government spearheaded downtown revitalization efforts. Approximately one million people lived in the surrounding counties.

Article

Racial Inequality and Its Remedies in the US Labor Market  

Randall L. Patton

Active social movements and the changes they wrought both through direct action and indirectly through pressure campaigns dismantled racial exclusion and diminished racial discrimination in employment, like racial apartheid in public accommodations and other aspects of American life. Social movement pressure fostered voluntary actions from the business community, government action on equal employment, and a changing climate of public opinion. Voluntary, quasi-voluntary, and regulatory (compulsory) approaches combined to improve labor market outcomes for African Americans. The term segregation as used here denotes the system of formal and informal exclusion from and discrimination in employment aimed at persons of African descent. The dismantling of exclusionary barriers and the diminishing of discriminatory practices combined with general economic growth to improve living standards for African Americans through the late 20th century. Regional variation was significant, with Black workers in the Northern states benefiting somewhat less than might have been expected. The effects of neoliberal reform, deindustrialization, and lingering discrimination, however, revealed the limits of reform and left significant economic challenges in the early 21st century.

Article

Baltimore  

David Schley

Baltimore, Maryland, rose to prominence in the late 18th century as a hub for the Atlantic wheat trade. A slave city in a slave state, Baltimore was home to the largest free Black community in antebellum America. Nineteenth-century Baltimore saw trend-setting experiments in railroading as well as frequent episodes of collective violence that left the city with the nickname, “mobtown”; one such riot, in 1861, led to the first bloodshed of the Civil War. After the war, Baltimore’s African American community waged organized campaigns to realize civil rights. Residential segregation—both de jure and de facto—posed a particular challenge. Initiatives in Baltimore such as a short-lived segregation ordinance and racial covenants in property deeds helped establish associations between race and property values that shaped federal housing policy during the New Deal. The African American population grew during World War II and strained against the limited housing available to them, prompting protests, often effective, against segregation. Nonetheless, suburbanization, deindustrialization, and redlining have left the city with challenging legacies to confront.

Article

The Populist Movement in the 19th Century  

Charles Postel

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.