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Entrepreneurial Families: Business, Marriage and Life in the Early Nineteenth Century

Author(s):Popp, Andrew
Reviewer(s):Lubinski, Christina

Published by EH.Net (March 2013)

Andrew Popp, Entrepreneurial Families: Business, Marriage and Life in the Early Nineteenth Century. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012. viii + 188 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84893-236-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Christina Lubinski, German Historical Institute, Washington, DC.

Entrepreneurial Families is an example of micro-history at its best. Andrew Popp, professor at the University of Liverpool Management School, describes his agenda as one of ?writing outwards, towards wider concerns? (p. 5) through a case study ? in this case the history of John and Elizabeth Shaw who founded their wholesale hardware business around 1800.? He was able to rely on the extensive, if sometimes fragmentary, correspondence between John and Elizabeth Shaw, as well as with other family members and business partners.

Extensively utilizing over 200 private letters, a type of source he reflects on in Chapter 1, Popp manages to paint an unusual picture of the entrepreneurial couple that focuses on the individuals’ personal, even interior, life by asking how they made a life for themselves and how they decided what was valuable and worthwhile to them. To this end, Popp offers the guiding concept of an ?unlimited partnership? (p. 4) wherein love and marriage are viewed as intrinsically intertwined with entrepreneurship, organization building, and economic decision-making. While the firm’s shift from unlimited to limited liability may give the impression that it was professionalizing and reducing the influence of individual actors and emotions, Popp argues that even today modern firms remain built on a foundation of personal ownership and management. He, thus, advocates greater reintegration of family and religious spheres, on the one hand, and business strategy and organization, on the other.

John Shaw of Wolverhampton was born in Penn in 1782. Around 1800 he founded a regional wholesale hardware, or factoring, business. He married Elizabeth Wilkinson, daughter of a shopkeeper in Colne who became heavily involved in the business. In 1815, John formed a partnership with Henry Crane, cooperating with him until 1848. During the partnership, Shaw and Crane established the Calcutta House of T. E. Thomson & Co., transforming the local factoring business into a multinational enterprise.

The book is structured thematically rather than chronologically, and the themes Popp offers to his readers are well chosen. Chapter 2 first places the firm and the couple in their historical context with glimpses of the economic, social, and cultural history of the early nineteenth century. Chapter 3 focuses on the emotional and business relationship between John and Elizabeth, the years of courtship, and the beginnings of the lasting union. As a commercial traveler, John was away for long periods so that the marital relationship relied on their frequent correspondence. This enabled both partners to reflect on business and family issues, life perspectives, love, and relationships. These two chapters lay the foundation for the analyses that follow. The availability of sources and the existing research debates in business, gender, and social history seem to have guided their selection.

Chapter 4 deals with one particularly exciting episode in the history of the firm and the family: the expansion of the business to Calcutta, India. The Calcutta adventure resulted from social networks and involved numerous challenges. The geographical distance between England and India engendered a number of principal-agent problems and made the writing of letters more essential, not only for sustaining private relationships but also for managing the everyday business. Chapter 5 addresses a prominent gender studies issue, the separation of the public and private spheres, revealing the couple’s methods for cooperating on both their business and family. By showing that the Shaws constantly moved between the spheres, Popp questions the supposed divide, arguing instead that his subjects were flexible, moving with ease between different roles and identities. Chapter 6 broadens the understanding of the family business by bringing other family members into the analysis. It demonstrates that family and a small circle of close friends made up John and Elizabeth Shaw’s life and explains how they maintained those relationships. Finally, Chapter 7 describes material objects, the most important being home and wealth, understood primarily not as a means to personal betterment but as a legacy for future generations. An epilogue outlines the subsequent history of the firm, which continued to exist after John Shaw?s death in 1858 when his sons Thomas Wilkinson Shaw and Edward Dethick Shaw became proprietors.

Popp?s examination of the Shaw family business is a rich case study of kinship and gender relations. Thanks to his thorough and respectful analysis of the intimate relationships, Popp succeeds in illuminating cultural processes through which emotions and desires shape economic behaviors and capitalist family firms. Based on the case study, every chapter and, in particular, the conclusion relate the specific analytical points to wider concepts and theories, such as regional industrialization, family business issues, entrepreneurial couples, and gender debates.

Entrepreneurial Families is certainly a successful addition to the literature on family business, the shaping of middle-class culture, and women’s roles, much in the tradition of Davidoff and Hall (1987). Popp is also refreshingly candid in arguing that business practices are not utilitarian actions aimed at material ends alone. Popp’s interdisciplinary approach allows us to understand capitalist motivations, the influence of kinship and gender, and last but not least, love, desire, sadness, and despair. Popp’s aim ? ?to de-centre or, instead, re-humanize the economic? (p. 2) ? may not be entirely new, yet here it is no empty promise but is clearly presented and grounded in empirical research. Popp manages to acknowledge the historical actors, foremost John and Elizabeth Shaw, as complex human beings with a greater set of priorities than economic gains. While contributions by cultural anthropologists, such as Sylvia Yanagisako?s Producing Culture and Capital (2002), are not explicitly mentioned in the book, Popp?s approach is very anthropological in nature and will certainly be of great interest to business historians, economists, and scholars in family business and gender studies.

References:

Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall (1987), Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sylvia J. Yanagisako (2002), Producing Culture and Capital: Family Firms in Italy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Christina Lubinski is Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Her publications include ?Path Dependency and Governance in German Family Firms,? Business History Review (2011) and the edited volume Family Multinationals (forthcoming, Routledge).

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century