Category Archives: business history

(Capitalist) Numbers to Narratives

Lee kicked of a lively discussion Friday as he wondered what the history of capitalism had to say to the history of technology, (medicine?), environment, and science (HoTeES, or HoTMeS?). Lee postulated that the interactions of capitalism/political economy and science might be expected within the realms of shared problems and jointly produced tools. I wrote a dissertation about “tools for discrimination” and the “science of difference,” wherein life insurers are shown to be important sponsors of investigations into human difference—so I am on board. To help me judge Lee’s hypothesis, I would like to offer a few posts over the next week that point to intersections between these two fields (HofCapitalism, HofScience/Tech/Med/Env). Let’s get empirical, so to speak!

A different sort of account book, but an accounting nonetheless—from Samuel Blodget’s Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (1806)

Evidence 1: Caitlin Rosenthal’s exquisite essay in the most recent issue of Common-place, one of the hippest journals around. Rosenthal has one big argument, accented by a score of anecdotal gems. She argues that account books, whatever else they might be, are always narratives—they tell stories. This, she claims, was true for the early nineteenth century books that now populate her historical work and remains true for the accounting summaries published by firms like Countrywide Financial on the brink of its disastrous unraveling.

Rosenthal battles the false conception that keeping accounts implies a mechanical, objective system (or, really, that such a system precludes narratives). Her case rests in part on evidence that nineteenth century systems were anything but mechanical: indexes were just being invented and were hardly standardized, accounting procedures varied from account keeper to account keeper (to much consternation). But she closes the piece noting that today’s accounting system, although constrained by hosts of rules and standards, still produces narrative documents, which are trusted with peril.

Yet Rosenthal’s point does not appear to me to be destructive or skeptical—she has not come to bury objectivity, accounting, what-have-you. In fact, much of the essay revels in the details of early nineteenth century bookkeeping practices, asking, not judging. The question arises over and over: why did all these individuals keep books?

One answer Rosenthal provides is this:

Keeping accounts was a daily quest for useful information. Sometimes quantitative information was punctuated by a bit of prose, verbalizing the intentions of a book’s keeper. In 1870, Thaddeus Fish of Kingston, Massachusetts, contemplated the buying and selling of eggs in his account book. He described how a woman had “bought 150 eggs of a country man.” She sold all of the eggs, but at an array of different prices, some yielding a profit, but others a loss. Fish, puzzling over her business, supplemented his muddled calculations with text: “I Demand to know whether she Lost or gained by her eggs.” The urgency of his demand reflected neither profit seeking nor an opposition to it. Rather it revealed the daily necessity of understanding whether time was well spent and which risks were worth taking.

She also points to accounts kept to facilitate long distance management, to discipline laborers, to judge workers’ alcohol consumption (and morals, implicitly), to facilitate inheritance, and more generally to provide some antidote to the complexity of modern life.

So, how can we use Rosenthal’s piece as evidence in our general investigation? First, we might decide to conclude something not-that-surprising: that historical or sociological approaches to knowledge (like Ted Porter, who looms here, next to Michel Foucault, among others) have provided useful tools for historians of capitalism like Rosenthal (although I’m not sure if that’s a label she would embrace).

Second, we might say something more significant: that nineteenth century Americans (and lots of other people too) were interested in making sense of an increasingly complex, interconnected world. They encountered overlapping and interrelated problems of trust (how do I decide who to invest in, or who to believe?), problems of risk (how do I decide whether its worthwhile to invest or believe?), and problems of knowledge (what is true? what will work?). To solve these problems, they (whether businessmen, farmers, or scientists) turned to new tools and techniques, and especially to quantification.

Finally, we might learn a lesson from the attention to materiality in Rosenthal’s essay and apply that to our investigations of new shared knowledge practices. Rosenthal shows us account keepers writing over every corner of a book, desperate to save expensive paper, for instance. How did those account books compare to the ledgers and notebooks that scientists increasingly relied upon? Did astronomers and actuaries go to the same shops in New York (the Mutual of New York, I happen to know, bought all its accounting materials from a printer on Nassau Street in the 1850s)? My guess is: yes. In so far as the actuaries were often also astronomers, the answer was surely yes. So I will add a category to Lee’s speculations: shared problems, shared tools, and shared materials.

[Three different people sent me a link to Caitlin Rosenthal’s piece in the space of two days—it might have taken me a while longer to find it otherwise. Thanks to GH, HR, and MK.]

Psychology of Color

A fascinating CFP for a conference on “Color, Commerce, and Consumption in Global Historical Perspective” went up a while back. The due date has passed, so that is old news. But I finally got around to looking over this 2007 Chemical Heritage Foundation piece by the conference’s convener — on the history of DuPont’s work with car colors. I expected it to be all about chemical dye production, so I was surprised and fascinated by this:

In January 1925 two DuPont managers discussed the company’s need for practical advice on the psychology of colors as a means to anticipate major color fads. DuPont took a chromatic leap in October 1925 when it hired Towle and created the Duco Color Advisory Service to design the latest and most desirable color combinations for the auto industry. Born in Brooklyn, Towle had studied painting at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League. During World War I he put his art training to good use as a member of the U.S. Army’s celebrated Camouflage Corps. Afterward he adapted to the burgeoning world of advertising, working sequentially as art director for three New York agencies: H. K. McCann, Frank Seaman, and Campbell-Ewald. At Seaman he also served as the executive in charge of the DuPont account and as copy executive for Cadillac, Oldsmobile, La Salle, and Pontiac—all GM divisions.

The entire article is worth a read if you’re interested in role of corporate scientists at the intersection of advertising, manufacturing, and business statistics.

Historians and their Index Numbers

John Steele Gordon argues—over on Bloomberg’s recently revamped “echoes” blog—that historians of the US stock market in the mid-twentieth century has been misled by that market’s most prominent index. The handiwork of a publisher (Dow) and a statistician (Jones), the Dow-Jones Industrials evolved from a series of focused indexes into a single number meant to represent the entire NY exchange, and by proxy the American economy.

But for all the power and influence this number has had, Gordon shows how dependent it is on basic assumptions. Swap out AT&T for IBM in the Depression years and the market recovery comes years before we have generally thought.

For our purposes, the Dow, its development, and public understandings of stock indexes strike me as topics awaiting a historian of science’s analysis. I would read that book.


If you haven’t seen the new “echoes” blog—edited by Stephen Mihm, the UGA historian of capitalism in the US, it’s worth a peek.

Also, as long as we’re talking about American science and index numbers, here’s a shout-out to Tom Stapleford’s recent history of the Consumer Price Index, which also happens to be a fascinating history of American statistics generally.

Is Business Our Business Too?

Of course. That’s my answer.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of giving a paper at the annual Business History Conference. The program is online, as are some of the papers and most of the abstracts. My abstracts are here. The conference organizers chose the theme “knowledge” and did a remarkable job of holding the papers and sessions to the theme. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a conference of this size that remained so coherent.

As you might expect, historians of science, medicine, and technology jumped at a “knowledge”-based conference. I saw a handful of terrific papers. For instance, my co-panelist—Rutgers’ Jamie Pietruska— detailed the massive statistical appartus that supported the USDA’s attempt at “objective” cotton forecasting in the late nineteenth century, but showed how competing statistical claims had the unintended consequence of producing increased price volatility. Another risk-centered paper—this one by Nate Holdren, a grad student at the University of Minnesota, demonstrated the dominance of a medical discourse in the practices of the Pullman company as it faced such disparate problems as food-handling regulations, employee turnover, and workplace liability insurance. On the same panel with Holdren came a fascinating paper by Sarah Rose and Joshua Salzmann on “Bionic Ballplayers.” Rose and Salzmann took our current fascination with steroid use and put it in the context of recent developments in baseball contracts, which have changed the incentives for players and owners, and the invention of “Tommy John surgeries,” which repair the worn-out tendons of over-muscled ballplayers. Rose and Salzmann’s picture seemed to me the perfect example of a technological system, ala Thomas Hughes.

I had to miss just as many great HOS/M/T offerings. Consider, Michael Pettit’s paper on marketing hormones, Hyungsub Choi’s paper on semiconductor research and manufacturing, and Dominque Tobbell’s paper on the reformation of research in the pharmaceutical industry. And I haven’t even mentioned David Hounshell’s opening plenary talk.

While the historians of science and technology clearly took advantage of this BHC venue, it seems that the business history community was happy to oblige. Indeed, of the four recent dissertations presented as finalists for the BHC’s annual dissertation prize, three were in the history of science, technology, and medicine. My work on the construction of statistical infrastructure and ideas of human difference in the American life insurance industry got a nod. So did excellent work by Eric Hintz, from the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, and Kara Swanson, from the Northeastern University law school. In his dissertation, Hintz challenges our sense that big corporate research labs killed off independent inventors. I was struck in his presentation not only by his conclusion that the death of the independent inventor had been greatly exaggerated, but by the many ways in which such inventors found ways to work with and around large corporate science and technology labs. Swanson reveals in her dissertation the complex history behind the collection and storage of bodily materials — milk, blood, and sperm — in “banks” devoted to each such material. I’m used to reading about frozen bodily materials, thanks to Joanna when she isn’t writing about cats. But I had not given much thought before this to the way in which the biomedical narrative of materials collecting intersected with real and metaphorical “banks.” Human materials are their own sort of capital, but with their own sort of rules.

Unless pressed, I won’t bother to make a sustained defense of the need to study the history of science in America within the context of business. Recent work like Paul Lucier’s Scientists and Swindlers makes that case well enough already, even for the nineteenth century. Still, I am heartened to see so many great scholars thinking about thinking in places apart from the traditional settings of universities, museums, laboratories, and field stations. I hope we’ll continue to see more scholarship focused on thinking in back offices, behind counters, and next to the cash register.