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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

Death and Dying in the Working Class  

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

Railroad Workers and Organized Labor  

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

The History of Route 66  

Stephen Mandrgoc and David Dunaway

During its existence from 1926 to its formal decommissioning in 1985, US Highway 66, or Route 66, came to occupy a special place in the American imagination. For a half-century and more, it symbolized American individualism, travel, and the freedom of the open road with the transformative rise of America’s automobile culture. Route 66 was an essential connection between the Midwest and the West for American commercial, military, and civilian transportation. It chained together small towns and cities across the nation as America’s “Main Street.” Following the path of older trails and railroads, Route 66 hosted travelers in many different eras: the adventurous motorist in his Ford Model A in the 1920s, the Arkies and Okies desperate for a new start in California in the 1930s, trucks carrying wartime soldiers and supplies in the 1940s, and postwar tourists and travelers from the 1950s onward. By its nature, it brought together diverse cultures of different regions, introducing Americans to the “others” that were their regional neighbors, and exposing travelers to new arts, music, foods, and traditions. It became firmly embedded in pop culture through songs, books, television, and advertisements for its attractions as America’s most famous road. Travel on Highway 66 steadily declined with the development of controlled-access interstate highways in the 1960s and 1970s. The towns and cities it connected and the many businesses and attractions dependent on its traffic and tourism protested the removal of the highway designation by the US Transportation Department in 1985, but their efforts failed. Nonetheless, revivalists who treasured the old road worked to preserve the road sections and attractions that remained, as well as founding a wide variety of organizations and donating to museums and libraries to preserve Route 66 ephemera. In the early 21st century, Route 66 is an international icon of America, traveled by fans from all over the world.

Article

Financial Crises in American History  

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

The Information Economy  

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

Business Social Responsibility  

Gavin Benke

“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

Postbellum Banking  

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

US Antitrust Law and Policy in Historical Perspective  

Laura Phillips Sawyer

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.

Article

The United States Department of Agriculture, 1900–1945  

Anne Effland

President Abraham Lincoln signed the law that established the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and in 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed the law that raised the Department to Cabinet status. Thus, by 1900 the US Department of Agriculture had been established for nearly four decades, had been a Cabinet-level department for one, and was recognized as a rising star among agricultural science institutions. Over the first half of the next century, the USDA would grow beyond its scientific research roots to assume a role in supporting rural and farm life more broadly, with a presence that reached across the nation. The Department acquired regulatory responsibilities in plant and animal health and food safety and quality, added research in farm management and agricultural economics, provided extension services to reach farms and rural communities in all regions, and created conservation and forestry programs to protect natural resources and prevent soil erosion and flooding across the geographical diversity of rural America. The Department gained additional responsibility for delivering credit, price supports, supply management, and rural rehabilitation programs during the severe economic depression that disrupted the agricultural economy and rural life from 1920 to 1940, while building efficient systems for encouraging production and facilitating distribution of food during the crises of World War I and World War II that bounded those decades. In the process, the Department became a pioneer in developing the regulatory state as well as in piloting programs and bureaucratic systems that empowered cooperative leadership at the federal, state, and local levels and democratic participation in implementing programs in local communities.