Jacob Myron Price passed away, after a long illness, on Wednesday, May 6th, at Glacier Hills retirement and nursing facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Born November 8th, 1925, the son of Oscar and Agnes (Pike) Price in Worcester, Massachusetts, Jack, as he was known to family and friends, became a distinguished historian of the early modern Atlantic economy. His father’s employer, the Kelvinator Corporation, moved the family to Boston, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh where Jack attended public schools. He entered Harvard College in 1942 just before his 17th birthday, and was drafted into the Army after completing his sophomore year. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a cryptographic technician, mostly in India servicing the famous “Hump” flights over the Himalaya Mountains to supply Chinese forces fighting the Japanese invasion. He rose from the rank of Private to Staff Sergeant before his honorable discharge in 1946. He completed his Harvard bachelor’s degree in 1947, with High Honors and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa; earned a master’s degree in 1948; and completed his Ph.D. in 1954.
He taught at Harvard and Smith College, in 1956 joining the History Department at the University of Michigan, where he spent the rest of his career, retiring in 1991. He won numerous honors and awards, among them Fulbright scholarships for graduate study in England, and Guggenheim Fellowships (twice). He was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the British Academy, served as president of the Economic History Association 1987-88, and was a Visiting Fellow at All Soul’s College, Oxford.
His research began with a study of the Anglo-American development of the market for tobacco in Russia, 1676-1722. His work throughout his career was characterized by a fusion of microscopic analysis of individual merchants and their firms with a broad contextual sweep, encompassing social, political, and diplomatic history. His study of the global tobacco trade culminated in 1973 with the magisterial two-volume France and the Chesapeake, in which he used his micro-macro approach to focus on the effects of the French royal monopoly of tobacco purchases and sales on American producers and British distributors, ending with the destruction of the monopoly by the French Revolution.
Jack Price had a remarkable command of the archival sources for economic history, and an equally remarkable ability to find and follow the many threads of the complex story of early modern entrepreneurship. Along the way, he published numerous articles and reviews that illuminate aspects of the 18th century far beyond his early studies of the tobacco trade. Most of the best of this work has been collected and published in three volumes of his essays 1995-6. It is worth noting that Jack Price himself was not a user of tobacco.
Beyond his own research, Jack took time to support younger scholars, through his active involvement with the Institute for Historical Research of London University, and his generous support of the Price Fellowships for young researchers working in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. Michigan undergraduates who experienced his lectures in British history found them to be models of both clarity and seriousness. Twice (1971-72 and 1979-84) he chaired the Michigan History Department.
Personally, Jack might impress those who did not know him well as dour, even brusque. Basically he was a shy person without family who was wedded to his work. He depended on a small circle of close friends in Ann Arbor, and a wider circle in the American and English academic world. These friends knew that he was a passionate, deeply knowledgeable lover of classical music, especially opera, and that he could be exceptionally kind and generous to any of them who needed his help. They also saw the evident pleasure he took in being with their families, and especially watching the children grow.
Those who would sample the mature best of his scholarship may turn to his short book, Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade (1980), which touches in important ways on the controversial issue of the origin of the Industrial Revolution, and the even shorter Perry of London (1992), in which he traces the all-too human rise and fall of an important trading family and its firm, both books published by Harvard University Press.
Before age and illness overtook and slowly incapacitated him, Jack had begun work on the origins of modern British banking. He never married. His parents and a younger brother, Malcolm, predeceased him. His only survivors are his devoted friends.