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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

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

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

Indian Gaming  

Laurie Arnold

Indian gaming, also called Native American casino gaming or tribal gaming, is tribal government gaming. It is government gaming built on sovereignty and consequently is a corollary to state gambling such as lotteries rather than a corollary to corporate gaming. While the types of games offered in casinos might differ in format from ancestral indigenous games, gaming itself is a cultural tradition in many tribes, including those who operate casino gambling. Native American casino gaming is a $33.7 billion industry operated by nearly 250 distinct tribes in twenty-nine states in the United States. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988 provides the framework for tribal gaming and the most important case law in Indian gaming remains Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Butterworth, in the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court decision over California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

Article

The Rise of the Sunbelt South  

Katherine R. Jewell

The term “Sunbelt” connotes a region defined by its environment. “Belt” suggests the broad swath of states from the Atlantic coast, stretching across Texas and Oklahoma, the Southwest, to southern California. “Sun” suggests its temperate—even hot—climate. Yet in contrast to the industrial northeastern and midwestern Rust Belt, or perhaps, “Frost” Belt, the term’s emergence at the end of the 1960s evoked an optimistic, opportunistic brand. Free from snowy winters, with spaces cooled by air conditioners, and Florida’s sandy beaches or California’s surfing beckoning, it is true that more Americans moved to the Sunbelt states in the 1950s and 1960s than to the deindustrializing centers of the North and East. But the term “Sunbelt” also captures an emerging political culture that defies regional boundaries. The term originates more from the diagnosis of this political climate, rather than an environmental one, associated with the new patterns of migration in the mid-20th century. The term defined a new regional identity: politically, economically, in policy, demographically, and socially, as well as environmentally. The Sunbelt received federal money in an unprecedented manner, particularly because of rising Cold War defense spending in research and military bases, and its urban centers grew in patterns unlike those in the old Northeast and Midwest, thanks to the policy innovations wrought by local boosters, business leaders, and politicians, which defined politics associated with the region after the 1970s. Yet from its origin, scholars debate whether the Sunbelt’s emergence reflects a new regional identity, or something else.