Published by EH.Net (September 2013)

Janice L. Reiff, editor, Chicago Business and Industry: From Fur Trade to E-Commerce. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xii + 377 pp. $22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-226-70936-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Laura J. Owen, Department of Economics, DePaul University.

Janice Reiff (Associate Professor of History, UCLA) draws on entries from the Encyclopedia of Chicago to weave a history of Chicago?s economy. Reiff seeks to explore the reciprocal relationship between the metropolitan area and its economy. The city represents the centralization of economic activity, but the types and locations of this economic activity in turn shape the fabric of the city. Chicago Business and Industry: From Fur Trade to E-Commerce is organized into four sections, topically arranging the encyclopedic entries.

Section 1, ?The Economic Geography,? includes three essays which explore how Chicago?s location allowed it to develop from a fur trading center to a global city. Illustrating Reiff?s idea of reciprocity, the essays also detail how the distribution of new economic activities continually shaped the local environments and neighborhoods of the city. The section includes maps (from the Newberry Library collection) providing excellent visuals on the role transportation improvements have played in linking Chicago to an ever-expanding world economy and the new shapes of local retail activity as the city has expanded.

The second section begins with two longer essays, ?The Business of Chicago? (Peter A. Coclanis) and ?Innovation, Invention and Chicago Business? (Louis P. Cain) which trace pivotal events and players in the development of Chicago?s economy. These are followed by more than fifty shorter entries on Chicago industries ranging from Accounting to Wholesaling. There is a wealth of information here and many interesting stories that could enrich the teaching of Economic History. Examples range from the origins of futures contracts during the Civil War to the role that the mail order giants (Ward and Sears) played in the distribution of musical instruments to rural America.

?Chicago?s Business? consists of seventy-five pages of short entries on specific firms ranging from Abbott Laboratories to LaSalle National Bank to Zenith Electronics. The alphabetic order of sections two and three makes it easy to search for specific industries or firms, but does not allow the reader to readily see possible connections between industries producing similar goods and services, or firms operating within the same industry. Grouping the entries on firms by industry or sector (goods producing, services) would encourage the reader to make these connections.

Section four, ?Working in Chicago,? begins with several longer entries focusing on types of work available, work culture, leisure activities of workers, and how educational institutions responded to the needs of the workplace. These are followed by shorter entries on workers in specific occupations and industries. Again, there are many fascinating details that could be incorporated into the teaching of the transformation of work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example, ?Schooling for Work? (Arthur Zilversmit) addresses several features of vocational training in the U.S that help explain why it was often less successful than its counterpart in some European countries.

The book concludes with an eight-page bibliography and detailed index.

The primary drawback of the book is that it reads as an encyclopedia.? In the Introduction (pp. 1-6) Reiff provides a brief description of the theme of each of the four sections, but leaves it to the reader to see how the selected entries support these themes. An introduction at the beginning of each section could guide the reader through the selected entries and minimize the choppy experience of reading multiple short pieces. Individual section introductions could be used to make connections between entries that are missing in the alphabetic organization.

In the introduction, Reiff encourages readers ?to explore that larger picture [created by the many particular stories] by following their own paths through the essays? (p. 3). The 30-page index should facilitate this type of exploration. However, exploration on specific topics (beyond what is included in the book) is hindered by the bibliography?s placement at the end of the volume with no linkage to the specific entries or sections. Interested readers can overcome this obstacle by consulting the online version of the Encyclopedia of Chicago in which entries are immediately followed by bibliographic references.

After finding this volume on the bookshelf, one hopes that readers will discover the complete work from which it is drawn. Reiff, along with Ann Durkin Keating and James R. Grossman, edited the Encyclopedia of Chicago, and the print version was adapted into The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago and linked to the online resources of the Chicago Historical Society. This online resource is the real treasure, allowing teachers to pull in specific Chicago examples to courses (ranging from U.S. economic history to urban economics) and providing students with a wealth of ideas for research projects.


Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman, editors, Encyclopedia of Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004.

The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, Chicago Historical Society, 2005, [].

Laura Owen (Associate Professor of Economics, DePaul University) is currently working on a project examining hours of work in the U.S. and Canada in the second half of the twentieth century.

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