is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

American Business, 1920-2000: How It Worked

Author(s):McCraw, Thomas K.
Reviewer(s):Schweikart, Larry

Published by EH.NET (July 1, 2000)


Thomas K, McCraw, American Business, 1920-2000: How It Worked. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 2000. 270 pp. $13.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-88295-985-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Larry Schweikart, Department of History, University of Dayton.

Writing any history of American business over a long span of time is difficult, mainly due to problems of organization. While enterprise generally lends itself to topical groupings, this format, of course, does not yield easily to discussions of trends. Thomas McCraw’s American Business takes a somewhat unique approach, melding topical analysis of specific companies as the symbols of an era with the overall economic and commercial developments. Interspersed with his more focused chapters on RCA, McDonalds, Procter & Gamble, and others are general topical treatments of the financial system, pharmaceuticals, women in business, and so on. The approach works reasonably well, and McCraw certainly stuffs each section full of (usually) relevant statistics and interesting company details, all sewn within the fabric of other developments in American history. He summarizes seven themes of the 1920-2000 period, including rising consumer power, intensified competition, the U.S. support system, deregulation, a heavy human toll, growing productivity, expanding leisure time among consumers, and a warm, general embrace of capitalism in America. While one may differ with McCraw in some specifics of each of these, he has nevertheless accurately captured several key characteristics of the U.S. economic and business system in the twentieth century.

Let me be the first to congratulate McCraw on his heresy, though: he has, without mentioning Alfred Chandler, joined me (in my textbook Entrepreneurial Adventure) in pointing out that the trends in modern business are bringing about the death of the “visible hand” (or, at least, are amputating it at the wrist). McCraw points out that the surge in information systems has brought about decentralization of the American management structure in unprecedented ways. Hallelujah! At times, I wondered if I was destined to be the lone voice crying this in the wilderness.

McCraw adds little new to the case studies of the companies, nor is that his point. Rather, he applies fresh analysis to how each fits into its competitive era. For example, he sees the “cooperative model” of Alfred P. Sloan with General Motors as a more effective management strategy than Henry Ford’s “independence” approach; he notes that the financial markets of the 1920s operated in gray areas of the law because they were breaking new ground, not because they were inherently lawless; and he wrestles with the question of how a democratic government in World War II could mobilize effectively without destroying the economic system needed to win the war. (He answers the last question, insightfully, by noting that the organizational structure of Ferdinand Eberstadt’s “Controlled Materials Plan” allowed the armed forces to prioritize their needs, then allowed the private sector to prioritize is production to fill those needs.)

McCraw, who teaches at Harvard, reveals a pro-enterprise bent that is a refreshing break from the Harvard Business School stream of historians who endlessly harp on managerial hierarchies. But every once in a while, he seems to take on the persona of one of those morphing alien creatures, changing in mid-stream into John Kenneth Galbraith. The worst examples come in his discussions of the 1980s and 1990s, where we are treated to a standard liberal/Democratic interpretation of the growing wealth gap and the tax cuts that caused the number of rich people in America to increase (as if that were bad). The wealth of Bill Gates is compared to the 60 million poorest American households . . . whoops! Too late! Microsoft’s price crash of 1999-2000 just chopped that number in half! This, of course, is the point: the wealth gap was made on investment, innovation, and most of all, the potential of technology for earning. If anything happens to that potential at any time, the “wealth gap” shrinks faster than Rick Moranis’s kids.

For an analyst who is otherwise well-reasoned and even brilliant at times, suddenly McGraw seems like George McClellan, bewildered by armies of Confederates marching through an open clearing, convinced he was seeing different troops, when in fact he was looking at the same old faces. The so-called “wealth gap” is the same gap that developed in the late 1800s as new technologies, with their vast earnings potential, made millionaires out of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and others. Lost in the focus on what they made versus what someone else made is the fact that in the case of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates, and Steve Jobs, their products improved daily lives in quantum proportions. More importantly, discussions of “wealth gaps” become meaningless when viewed in another context, namely, “Have you served your fellow man?”-which is the ultimate question of capitalism. In Gates’s case, he serves his fellow man millions of times a day-perhaps billions. If a tiny cost were affixed to each time someone turns on a Windows operating system, and multiplied to the number of users, Bill Gates is probably getting robbed!

McCraw also falters in his (again Galbraithian) analysis of Americans’ savings rates, which he bemoans as low. But the savings rate is low only because those things people save for are handled with other financial arrangements. For better or worse, currently a large chunk of retirement is “withheld” by Social Security; and VA/FHA mortgages (along with the interest deduction from income taxes for home payments) subsidize home ownership through lending rather than saving. A recent study in the Milken Institute Review concluded that Americans’ real savings rates are far higher when these “forced” savings are taken into account, and probably are on a par with anyone in the world, except for the Japanese, whose living conditions leave them fewer options. Likewise, McCraw laments the “money gap” in business CEO salaries, but offers no real analysis of why boards would pay such huge salaries. In contrast, one major trend that McCraw ignores is that of the overwhelming burden placed on American companies by the tort lawyers. Not only does the legal system extort tribute from companies on a routine basis, but it has changed the internal structure of the corporation so as to give the legal divisions far more power and prestige than the research and development divisions. Nor does McCraw delve into the recent trend of federal and state government lawsuits against “legal” products-a pure sham designed to keep funding in the public trough at a time that taxpayers have all but revolted over any further tax increases, and one which threatens the existence of the free market itself. Certainly this bears some discussion in “how American business worked.”

All in all, McCraw has written a good book, and a provocative book. Its small size makes it a natural for the classroom, if one enjoys the topical approach, and his insights generally seem well grounded.

Larry Schweikart, published The Entrepreneurial Adventure: A History of Business in the United States (Harcourt) earlier this year. He is the author of numerous books on American banking and finance, and the military/defense industry. He also published a history of the National Aerospace Plane for the United States Air Force entitled The National Aerospace Plane and the Quest for the Orbital Jets (USAF History Division, 1999).

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Titles, Conflict and Land Use: The Development of Property Rights and Land Reform on the Brazilian Frontier

Author(s):Alston, Lee J.
Libecap, Gary D.
Mueller, Bernardo
Reviewer(s):Johnsen, D. Bruce

Published by EH.NET (July 1, 2000)

Lee J. Alston, Gary D. Libecap and Bernardo Mueller, Titles, Conflict and

Land Use: The Development of Property Rights and Land Reform on the Brazilian

Frontier. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. xiv + 227 pp.

$49.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11006-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by D. Bruce Johnsen, George Mason University School of Law.

Titles, Conflict, and Land Use comes very close to being a tour de

force. The authors provide a careful and largely convincing theoretical and

empirical analysis of both the evolution of property rights to land and the

determinants of violent conflict on the Brazilian frontier. Although the book

has important policy implications — most notably that a failure of private

property rights, and not corporate capitalism, is probably the main threat to

the Amazon rain forest — the authors downplay policy analysis in favor of

hypothesis testing. This book is essential reading for development economists,

economic historians, public choice economists, serious environmental scholars,

and followers of New Institutional Economics. I also recommend it to those

interested in the evolution of property rights in cyberspace or any other new


Several of the book’s early chapters address the history and current structure

of Brazilian land policy, describing in detail the relevant legal, regulatory,

constitutional, and political institutions that have influenced frontier

settlement. Brazil’s land holdings have always been highly concentrated owing

to a system of large land grants the Portuguese Crown made to promote early

settlement. The Crown issued these grants under the condition that recipients

put the lands into beneficial use, but due to low land values over the long

course of time this condition has rarely been met or enforced on the frontier.

Beginning in the 1930s, the modernization of Brazilian agriculture led to

widespread agrarian unemployment, a large and growing class of poor landless

peasants, and corresponding social unrest. Given the large tracts of idle and

unproductive frontier land, public sentiment and political favor eventually

turned to land reform to achieve social justice (and quite possibly social

efficiency) by reducing the inequitable distribution of land holdings. Despite

organized and often successful resistance to land reform by large landholders,

the current Brazilian constitution allows the federal government to expropriate

private lands that have not been put into beneficial use.

Land reform policy is now carried out primarily by INCRA, a federal agency

created in 1970 to administer frontier settlement. INCRA performs its mission

largely by organizing settlement on public lands, expropriating unproductive

private lands for settlement by squatters, and securing title for settlers. As

it turns out, organized squatter groups have become increasingly adept at

controlling the land reform agenda by planning effective invasions of likely

parcels and using violence strategically to induce INCRA to press for

expropriation. Although Brazilian statutory law requires that owners of

expropriated land receive just compensation, in practice landowners are

unlikely to receive fair market value. This prospect often leads them to resist

squatter invasions through various legal or extra-legal means, such as eviction

or armed intimidation, all of which are costly and likely to lead to violent


To explain the evolution of frontier property rights, the authors develop an

analytical framework in which land values decline with distance from the

central market and the differential value between titled and untitled land

rises with land values and declines with distance. The data clearly support

these underlying relationships. Further empirical analysis reveals that the

length of a settler’s tenure on a plot substantially increases the likelihood

the plot will be titled, that title clearly has a positive effect on

land-specific investment, and that land-specific investment dramatically

increases land value. In cases involving a squatter invasion, the participation

of a squatter organization significantly increases the likelihood of

expropriation, and the percentage of a landholding that has been cleared (a

proxy for beneficial use) significantly reduces the likelihood of successful

expropriation. This naturally leads landowners to clear their lands to

strengthen property rights.

The authors infer from the evidence that INCRA tends to undertitle high-valued

land claims near market centers, possibly because INCRA’s performance is judged

on the number of families initially settled rather than on the quality of the

final settlement project. Although this is surely plausible, the inference

seems premature because we have no measure of the value of INCRA’s scarce

resources in alternative activities and because we know very little about the

costs and benefits of establishing title relative to alternative institutions.

To explain the determinants of violent conflict, the authors develop a

game-theoretic model with three possible outcomes from squatter invasions: the

landowner may evict the squatters, INCRA may expropriate the parcel for the

squatters’ benefit, or the squatters may remain on the land indefinitely with

no expropriation. The probability the landowner evicts the squatters increases

with what the authors characterize as “landowner violence,” and the probability

the squatters either remain on the land indefinitely or mobilize a successful

INCRA expropriation increases with “squatter violence.” The authors use this

model to generate comparative statics regarding the effects on landowner and

squatter violence from changes in the level of property rights security,

changes in land values, parametric shifts in the parties’ cost functions, and

changes in the positions of the courts regarding evictions.

My main concern with the model is that it assumes each side understands the

rules of the game and knows the relevant probability functions, valuations, and

costs. With full information, however, why would violence ever occur? What the

authors characterize as violence is really an input provided by the parties to

encroach or resist encroachment and bears no necessary relationship to actual

violent conflict, which is an outcome. By failing to account for this, the

authors neglect the selection effect so familiar to law and economics scholars

in explaining which legal disputes are selected for litigation. A legal rule

more favorable to plaintiffs, say, a change from negligence to strict liability

for injuries due to defective products, will not necessarily lead to more

litigation (violence). It simply shifts the parties’ expectations and changes

the character of the disputes that get litigated.

The authors recognize earlier in the book that “there must be some uncertainty

in the outcome that contributes to violence.” But uncertainty, alone, may not

be enough if the parties hold identical expectations. Rather, asymmetric

information about probabilities, valuations, or costs seems necessary to

generate violence conflict. A model capable of explaining violent conflict

might hypothesize two different types of landowners and squatters — say,

aggressive and passive — with each group receiving a costly signal about the

other’s type that is accurate on average but subject to imperfectly correlated

errors. Violence occurs when the parties hold mistaken beliefs about one

another’s type.

From this perspective, violence is a costly but effective method of correcting

mistaken signals. Conditional on land reform policy, violence might even be

seen as a socially efficient signaling mechanism compared to the alternative.

Apparently, the alternative is for INCRA to expropriate private lands and then

match settlers to those lands in an orderly process free from violence. The

success of squatters in controlling the matching process through organized

invasions suggests that INCRA is incapable of efficiently generating the

necessary information. For all its drawbacks, a process of targeted invasions

backed by the threat of violent conflict may be superior.

This hypothesis has testable implications, the most obvious of which is that

the parties will have a mutual interest in minimizing information asymmetry and

the associated social losses from violence. By categorizing land disputes

according to various characteristics, we should be able to predict that

information asymmetry will decline as a given category of disputes recurs and

the parties learn. New categories of disputes reflecting a different

combination of characteristics than has previously been witnessed will be most

prone to violent conflict, while routine categories of disputes will be the

least prone to violent conflict. I cannot resist noting that the common ability

of human beings to recognize patterns and to reason by analogy allows them to

anticipate outcomes and to avoid or minimize costly signaling. This knowledge

is a public good that appears subject to network effects and may be one

plausible explanation for how human beings have escaped the infinite regress

problem, in which all rents are dissipated. That the rule of law, which

institutionalizes this knowledge by relying on precedent, is strongly

associated with wealth accumulation should come as no surprise.

According to the asymmetric information hypothesis, the magnitude of changes in

land values, rather than the level of land values, should be associated with

information asymmetry and should lead to an increase in violent conflict.

Indeed, the authors include a measure of land value changes in their empirical

analysis of violent deaths and its coefficient is positive and marginally

significant. If available, the variance of land values in an area might have

even greater predictive power.

The presence of INCRA in an area should increase information asymmetry and

violent conflict. Although INCRA might act predictably under normal

circumstances, as land disputes escalate there comes a point at which public

sentiment leads INCRA to dramatically change its stance in favor of supporting

squatters. Through some range, it therefore seems plausible that landowner and

squatter expectations regarding INCRA involvement will differ, leading to

violent conflict. According to the authors’ empirical work, the presence of

INCRA in an area has a large and highly significant positive effect on violent


Additional measures of information asymmetry might be the presence of

overlapping agency jurisdiction, changes in law or judicial sentiment, and

changes in political administration. Early on in a squatter organization’s

existence we should expect more violent deaths in the disputes it organizes,

but over time this effect should diminish as the organization gains a credible


The authors may be correct in conceding that land reform is in some broad sense

socially efficient, but this should translate into the inference that settling

the large population of unemployed landless peasants on the Brazilian frontier

can somehow be made privately efficient for frontier landowners. Why, in spite

of their considerable political influence, have they been unable to accomplish

this through sharecropping or land rental arrangements? I can even imagine a

group of neighboring landowners agreeing to give away a portion of their lands

to settlers in hopes that doing so would expand the market and generate

improvements in infrastructure sufficient to compensate for their ceded lands.

An entertaining explanation for this failure is that through some kind of

invisible hand process the owners of Brazil’s frontier lands have been

inadvertently acting to forestall the familiar rent dissipation from premature

settlement. But with the Brazilian government unable to credibly commit to

enforcing landowners’ claims, in what might be characterized as an episode of

Malthusian rational expectations rent dissipation took the form of a large

buildup in the population of unemployed peasants that ultimately overwhelmed

landowner interests. Land reform is then seen as the political manifestation of

the race to first possession.

D. Bruce Johnsen is author of “The Formation and Protection of Property Rights

Among the Southern Kwakiutl Indians,” Journal of Legal Studies 15: 41-67


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Money and the Nation State: The Financial Revolution, Government and the World Monetary System

Author(s):Dowd, Kevin
Timberlake, Richard H. Jr
Reviewer(s):Bodenhorn, Howard

Published by EH.NET (November 1999)


Kevin Dowd and Richard H. Timberlake, Jr., editors, Money and the Nation State: The Financial Revolution, Government and the World Monetary System. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction Publishers for the Independent Institute, 1998. vii + 453 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-56000-302-2; $24.95 (paper), 1-56000-930-6 (paper).

Reviewed for EH.NET by Howard Bodenhorn, Department of Economics, Lafayette University.

Kevin Dowd (Sheffield Hallam University) and Richard Timberlake (University of Georgia emeritus) bring together 13 essays, an introduction by the editors, and a foreword by Merton Miller, recipient of the 1990 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, all unified by an Austrian methodology. These authors believe that information and knowledge are dispersed so that centralized decision makers cannot possess the omniscience to effectively coordinate economic activity. True coordination or “catallaxy,” to employ Hayek’s preferred term, occurs through the operation of the invisible hand. While the Austrian approach is familiar enough to many, its application to monetary systems may not be. This book thus represents an important contribution because it “provides the essential framework for those willing to return to first principles in thinking about the role of monetary arrangements in economic life” (p. viii).

Money and the Nation State is divided into three sections. The first containing five chapters describing how the world abandoned a naturally evolving monetary arrangement (gold standard) for a government-controlled monopoly system. David Glasner (Chapter 1) walks us through the state’s involvement in money from ancient Lydia through Britain’s disastrous return to gold in 1925. Frank van Dun (Chapter 2) argues that money fell under state control through incremental expansion of the boundaries of sovereignty. Whatever becomes identified with the public interest or the common good quickly becomes a legitimate governmental activity.

Chapters 3 through 5 provide real insight into the mind of Austrian monetary analysts. Timberlake (Chapter 5 ), for example, reiterates Mises’s assertion that a gold standard acts as “an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments. Ideologically it belongs within the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights” (p. 179). Similarly, after detailing the gold standard, Britain’s interwar monetary machinations, Bretton Woods, and post-1973 developments, Leland Yeager (Chapter 3) concludes that all were “palliative policies of the usual variety; ” they were not “genuine commitment[s] by governments and central banks to currencies of stable purchasing power” (p. 101). Murray Rothbard (Chapter 4) summarizes by noting that these events ultimately plunged the world into a “chaos of fiat money, competing devaluations, exchange controls, and warring monetary and trade blocs, accompanied by a network of protectionist restrictions” (p. 155). All this seems like a lot to blame on modern monetary arrangements, and it is easy for critics to portray these writers as paranoid, conspiracy theorists, but a lot of what they have to say rings true and each makes a compelling case for his interpretation.

Section II includes four chapters that discuss the effects, intended and not, of central banks and modern monetary arrangements. Thomas Cargill (Chapter 6) recites a list of statutory changes in financial regulations in the post-Bretton Woods era. He argues that deregulation, while sometimes disruptive, was practically inevitable given the rapid advances in telecommunications and computer technologies, which opened the floodgates of financial innovation. Genie Short and Kenneth Robinson (Chapter 7) make the now familiar argument that financial safety nets, such as deposit insurance, generate moral hazard problems , which have the perverse effect of magnifying rather than eliminating financial instability. Alan Reynolds’ (Chapter 8) assessment of the International Monetary Fund’s activities is as unceasingly critical as any I have seen. He argues that the IMF doctors, like doctors of old, invariably prescribe the same wrong cure (the financial equivalent of purging and leeches) regardless of the patients’ illnesses. It is not surprising, then, that the IMF’s success stories are few and do not offset the devastation typically left in its wake.

Robert Keleher’s contribution (Chapter 9) on global economic integration provides a nice conclusion to the section. He posits that there are two broad approaches to increased integration: (1) a Keynes-gone-global approach; or (2) a classical Austrian-Hayekian approach. The former begins from the premise that governments can effectively coordinate economic activity, only now it needs to do so in an international setting. This implies a need for super-national organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization because sovereign countries rarely relinquish control over domestic policy instruments even though most create international externalities. The latter, or Hayekian, approach suggests that coordination should occur at the micro level. Countries should not attempt coordinated monetary and fiscal policies aimed at manipulating the macroeconomy. Instead, they should eliminate tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions on the free movement of labor, capital, and commodities. Moreover, they should adopt consistent rules for such things as bankruptcies, intellectual property, and contracts. Consistent accounting and disclosure rules, too, would eliminate one level of uncertainty and promote cross-country economic harmonization.

The third section of Money and the Nation State contains four chapters that outline proposals for financial reform. Richard Burdekin, Jilleen Westbrook, and Thomas Willet (Chapter 10) provide a public choice analysis of several central bank reform proposals and conclude that central bank independence is critical. Kevin Dowd (Chapter 11) provides a blistering critique of European monetary union. While supporters of union have argued that the benefits of a common currency outweigh its costs, little supporting evidence has been provided. The move toward union, it seems, is more political than economic and is driven by French fears of German hegemony on the continent (p. 355).

Lawrence H. White (Chapter 12) reconstructs, in a modern context, Hayek’s 1937 proposals for optimal monetary arrangements. One proposal was for universal free banking; the other for an apolitical transnational central bank. Finally, Steve Hanke and Kurt Schuler (Chapter 13) offer a spirited defense of currency boards, which issue notes convertible into a reserve asset, usually a foreign currency, on demand at a fixed exchange rate. Currency boards do not accept deposits; they do not act as lenders of last resort; they do not guarantee commercial bank deposits ; they do not interfere in commercial bank portfolios, or engage in a host of other regulatory functions. Consequently, currency boards do not suffer from the moral hazard problems inherent in central bank and deposit insurance structures and are compatible with stable free banking systems.

Current debates on financial reform pit those with few shared ideological premises against one another. One side of the debate argues that rapid changes in telecommunications and computers, along with increased globalization and a quickening pace of financial innovation require greater regulatory efforts to deal with the developing complexities. The other side argues that recent and future innovations have and will occur too quickly and be so significant that no regulatory mechanism will keep up with them, much less reign them in. Moreover, many innovations develop to circumvent existing regulations. The latter camp, inspired by the Austrian approach to markets, argues that only market-driven discipline will be an effective promoter of financial stability. The contributors to this volume all begin from Austrian premises and trace the implication of those premises for modern monetary arrangements. Most show that intervention leads to sub-optimal economic outcomes, and many argue that it leads to usurpation of economic and political rights. In some cases, the point is overstated, but in some of the more reflective sections, the message is clear and powerful.

Marx and Engels argued in the Communist Manifesto that one of the preconditions for communism was centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a central bank with an exclusive monopoly. While none of the contributors to this volume could convincingly argue that Marx and Engel’s precondition has been realized in any western-style economy, most would argue that central banking, by its very nature, entails the “fatal conceit” of central planning, one of the defining elements of socialism. Something to think about the next time you buy your morning coffee with a Federal Reserve note or, perhaps, your stored-value card.

Howard Bodenhorn is author of A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation-Building due from Cambridge University Press in January, 2000.


Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society

Author(s):Poovey, Mary
Reviewer(s):Alborn, Timothy

Published by EH.NET (September 1999)


Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xxv + 419 pp. $49.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-226-67525-4; $17.00 (paper), I

SBN: 0-226-67526-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy Alborn, Department of History, Lehman College, CUNY.

Economic historians don’t tend to think much about epistemology. As they trace unfolding developments in the economy, though, epistemology has a way of sneaking up on them. To cite an example from the recent past, The Economist this past July commented on the difficulty of squaring the enormous optimism generated by the new information-technology economy (reflected in the booming stock market) with the plainly unimpressive growth rates in all sectors of the economy barring computer sales. This was apparently “a sad case of the irresistible story meeting the immovable statistic,” claimed the magazine. As if to drive home the underlying epistemological quandary, the accompanying editorial (and magazine cover) was titled: “How real is the new economy?”

In A History of the Modern Fact, Mary Poovey reinterprets classic texts in political economy, philosophy, and statistics in order to locate the historical origins of what she claims is a peculiarly modern dilemma. Whether charting economic growth or planetary motion, she claims, we moderns feel the need to ground our claims in immovable statistics; yet at the same time we are compelled to find a transcendent meaning (an irresistible story) in the mass of details. Poovey brings to this project the perspective of a literary critic who has, in the past, turned her attention to putatively non “literary” topics like Florence Nightingale and poor law reform. Her recent appointment as director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at NYU has provided her with an institutional base from which to pursue the ambitious, and clearly historical, agenda for which A History of the Modern Fact is a blueprint.

It is indeed an ambitious book. One is tempted to apply to it Daniel Defoe’s definition of “project”, which Poovey quotes (p. 158): “a vast undertaking, too big to be managed.” The narrative moves from late-16th century British book-keeping manuals; through the debate between Gerald de Malynes and Thomas Mun on Britain’s money supply; William Petty’s writings on political arithmetic; Defoe’s essays on “projects” and mercantile conduct; Earl Shaftesbury on sociability; David Hume on conjectural history; Samuel Johnson on the Outer Hebrides; and Smith and Malthus on political economy, before concluding with a chapter on John Stuart Mill and the astronomer John Herschel. On the way, she has much to say about the history of classical rhetoric, moral philosophy, scientific societies, and the problem of induction. And for the most part, she succeeds at holding all these topics together by keeping in focus her subjects’ diverse efforts to solve the same problem: how to produce systematic knowledge about society in an era when the political basis of social order was being transformed?

Two important contexts for this problem appear in the book’s opening chapters: classical (or Ciceronian) rhetoric, which dominated the way Renaissance writers made arguments; and “reason of state” theories which viewed politics in terms of sound principles which an absolute monarch could then impose on his subjects. Poovey describes most of her subjects as struggling against one or both of these conventions on their way to inventing a new way of analyzing society. Double-entry bookkeeping, for instance, substituted plain-speaking numbers for Ciceronian excess, in the process selling the precision of balance sheets as a proxy for mercantile virtue. Thomas Mun similarly pitched his arguments against centralized monetary policy both by his recourse to precise-sounding (but wholly illustrative) figures depicting the balance of trade and by his defense of mercantile rules and expertise. And Daniel Defoe moved from tracing the tangible effects of mercantile enterprise (in his Essays upon Several Projects) to writing a conduct manual for merchants (his Compleat English Tradesman), once he had determined that real-world merchants were not capable of rising to his vicarious ambitions.

As all these examples suggest, Poovey is especially interested in what might be called the communitarian origins of the modern fact. Only once a stable community is in place, with formal rules resting on unspoken customs, can its accompanying way of knowing the world start to appear stable as well. Poovey presents each of her early modern participants in the making of the “modern fact” as falling short, in one way or another, of achieving such stability, and hence never quite securing trust in the facts they tried to generate. Neither her bookkeepers nor Mun really intended their “facts” to correspond transparently or comprehensively with “reality”; all that mattered for them was that their figures added up. And she presents other examples of people employing modern facts for premodern purposes, as when William Petty intended his political arithmetic to assist in the Hobbesian project of maintaining social order through kingly fiat.

The main arguments of A History of the Modern Fact come into focus in the chapters on Scottish moral philosophy and political economy. The subjects of these chapters first try to pin their hoped-for epistemological stability on divine design, before settling on the tools of disciplinary expertise. Poovey first traces the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson’s efforts to identify abstractions like “the human mind” at work in history, the reality of which he demonstrated not mainly by reference to historical evidence, but by internal coherence and the assumption that anything constructed by God must run like clockwork. The key figure in the move away from providential design, unsurprisingly, is David Hume, who drew attention to the problem of induction that providence left unanswered. Poovey portrays Hume as solving that problem to his satisfaction by asserting that even though all theories about society or nature can only be fictions, they are useful fictions which should not be abandoned just because they can never be fully proven. For Poovey the most important implication of this insight (although one which Hume shied away from) is that its success as a solution depends on the social authority of the expert whose job it is to invent theories, now that the expert can no longer appeal to the higher authority of God. Once experts achieve both the self-confidence to assert their systematic knowledge as “real” and the social status to enforce allegiance to those assertions, she claims, the modern fact is born.

The most important of Hume’s useful fictions, according to Poovey, was that of the market system, which Adam Smith famously adopted as the centerpiece of his Wealth of Nations. She describes Smith, like Hume, as being ambivalent about claiming the expert authority which lent weight to the thoroughly modern “fact”. But she points to Smith’s famous reference to unintended consequences as paving the way for the modern economist to make such claims. Even though Smith intended his “invisible hand” as a blow to “reason of state” theorists who assumed that rulers could fully predict and hence govern the behavior of their subjects, the notion of unintended consequences also further enhanced his status as an economic expert who could discern productive results, at least in hindsight, where others saw only self-interest. Poovey next turns from Smith to Malthus, who appealed to the economic fact of overpopulation to draw attention to a less optimistic unintended outcome: procreation leads to social disaster. Because this claim was even more clearly opposed to orthodox religious teaching than Smith’s had been (and Poovey makes the same point about Ricardo’s “dismal” theory of rent), the result was to cut economists off from any possible “providentialist” interpretation that might yet discover “reality” in their theories by reference to God’s design.

With this final problem, A History of the Modern Fact comes to an end. Post-Ricardian economists are presented with a choice: try and patch back together the failed marriage between social science and natural theology, or go bravely forward, insisting ever more stridently that “facts” — and not merely fictional “systems” — do in fact prop up their theories. Poovey discusses J.R. McCulloch as a representative of post-Ricardian providentialism; and traces the development of the London Statistical Society as an example of the grim march forward. The march was grim, she suggests, because in their rush to base their social authority on the “facts” of political economy, they came face to face with the problem that neither Smith nor Ricardo had worried very much about “evidence” in the modern sense of empirical verification. Smith had relied on the rhetorical force of his striking claim that bad behavior yields good results, while Ricardo had staked his claim to expertise on internally-coherent mathematics; both, in short, had been happy to assume, along with Hume, that “fictions” could indeed be useful. The statisticians did not agree, so they simply collected facts and chastised anyone who did not do so as merely “literary”. Since the statisticians still claimed to be doing social science, this move kept religious and social critics of political economy out of that domain, which in the long run allowed for further developments in economic theory (e.g. Jevons and Keynes). But, Poovey argues, this move certainly did not pave the way for any real solution to the problem of induction. As she concludes: “By stressing the incontrovertible nature of statistical ‘facts’ … by way of contrast to the excesses and deceits associated with fiction and rhetoric, apologists for statistics were able to downplay the methodological problem of moving from whatever numbers were collected to general principles” (313-314).

Poovey’s mission in this book is, as she states, to open a dialogue about the origins and limitations of modern knowledge claims. In this sense it is primarily educative and synthetic; but not, as in a survey textbook, with the aim of filling undergraduates with relevant facts and socializing them to organize their thoughts in accordance with the norms of an academic discipline. Rather, the goal is to educate other academics to take notice of lively debates in fields outside their own, and the topics in each chapter are intended to illustrate how some of the lessons of these debates might be applied in practice. What makes the book’s ungainly structure work (to the extent that it does work) is exactly what makes a good graduate program turn out good students: readers who have already thought about some of these issues are invited to pursue them in surprising directions. The other side of this is that many historians who have spent a career examining a single thread of this story in far more detail than Poovey could possibly have done will be tempted to split hairs, or to find little value added to their area of special expertise (those who are tempted to respond to the book in this way should at least not ignore the extensive footnotes, where Poovey provides running commentary on her use of secondary sources). And economic historians who have never been interested in the problem of induction (a sizeable demographic, if Poovey’s claims are correct) will most likely not have the patience to follow her arguments through to the end. In other words, this book is not very well designed to teach old dogs new tricks.

Poovey also uses her book to speak, more elliptically, to the ongoing academic debate over the merits of “postmodernism”; indeed, given her background as a literary critic, one way of reading this book is as an inquiry into the historical origins of postmodernism. At nearly every stage of her argument, she is careful to present examples of people proposing alternatives to the “modern fact” as a means of organizing knowledge. Hume, for instance, switched from treatises to essays after 1757 in order to encourage a more open-ended, conversational approach to knowledge; Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) appears at the end of chapter five as a very early example of postcolonial critical theory, in which the Highlanders’ agency is used to interrogate the limits of modern rationality. And Poovey concludes her book with the outright rejection of the “modern fact” by the Romantic poets Southey and Coleridge.

These various efforts to get beyond a focus on grand theories and endless evidence, she argues, all anticipate to some extent the more general tendency of various “postmodern” writers today to “solve” the problem of the modern fact by rejecting it; by denying that knowledge needs to be about grand theories, and focusing instead on “micropolitics” or formal models. Although she doesn’t explicitly say so, much of modern economic theory, at least dating back to Debreau, takes exactly this formalist approach to opting out of the problem of induction. As Poovey recognizes, though, and as the persistence of questions like “Is the New Economy Real?” suggests, the modern fact and its associated tensions are likely to remain with us for a long time to come.

Tim Alborn is assistant professor of history at Lehman College in the City University of New York. He has published Conceiving Companies: Joint-Stock Politics in Victorian England (Routledge, 1998) and is working on a book about the social history of British life assurance.


Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Timken: from Missouri to Mars–A Century of Leadership

Author(s):Pruitt, Bettye H.
Reviewer(s):Mazzoleni, Roberto

Published by EH.NET (June 1999)

Bettye H. Pruitt. Timken: from Missouri to Mars–A Century of


Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Scholl Press, 1998. xvii + 514 pp. Tables,

figures, photographs, appendices, notes, and index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN


Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Roberto Mazzoleni, Department of

Economics, University of Vermont.

Continuity and Change in the Growth of a Family Controlled U.S.

Manufacturing Firm

Established in 1899 by Henry Timken to commercialize tapered roller bearings

axles for carriages, the Timken Company today is a multinational corporation

with sales of about $2.6 billion (1998), 21,000 employees,

engaged in the manufacture and sales of bearings and alloy steel products that

find application in a wide variety of industries. To celebrate its

centennial, the Timken Company commissioned the Winthrop Group Inc. to write a

history of the firm. Timken: from Missouri to Mars–a century of leadership

in manufacturing is the result of historian Bettye H. Pruitt’s research

(with the assistance of Jeffrey R. Yost and others). Pruitt uses a variety of

sources, including internal corporate documents, personal correspondence of

several members of the company, as well as interviews with numerous individuals

from the company itself, its affiliates, and outsiders. The book’s rich detail

testifies to the quality and thoroughness of the author’s research. While

primarily focused on the business aspects of Timken’s life, the book also

discusses the firm’s relationship with the surrounding communities, its

philanthropic activities, and provides biographical sketches of many


associated with the firm,

including Timken family insiders as well as outsiders. These sections

contribute to establishing a link between the personalities of the firm’s

leaders and the culture of the organization. This is an important element in

the author’s assessment of Timken’s evolution. Pruitt emphasizes the firm’s

identity and sense of purpose as an anchor of stable values enabling the

strategic and organizational adaptation that allowed it to survive and

prosper. These cultural factors are linked to the Timken’s family continuing

control of the firm after a century of activity.

While the family ownership and control constitutes a distinctive feature of the

firm, the events in Timken’s history are in many respects quite representative

of U.S. manufacturing industries more generally, not only from a technological

and economic viewpoint but also from a cultural one,

as the author acknowledges in the book’s early pages. The chronological

sequence of chapters is punctuated by two focus chapters that describe the

company’s establishment of new production plants (see infra). These, Pruitt

argues, symbolize the technological and cultural differences between the mass


and the flexible manufacturing eras in Timken’s corporate history.

The origins of the Timken company can be traced as far back as 1855, to a

carriage business set up by Henry Timken, the son of German immigrants in

St.Louis, Missouri. During the 1890s,

Henry became involved in the development of anti-friction bearings and,

together with his nephew Reginald Heinzelman, he invented a tapered roller

bearing for which they received a patent in 1898. One year later, the Timken

Roller Bearing Axle Co. was incorporated for the commercialization of carriage

axles mounting their patented bearings. The growth of the bearing business

followed that of the automobile industry, although since the 1910s Timken began

to develop other markets for its products. Timken bearings were sold at a

premium over competing products, but over time, increased competition and the

possibility of vertical integration by car manufacturers threatened the

company’s future growth. Under the stewardship of Henry Timken’s son, Henry H.,


firm committed itself to competing on price and quality to sustain revenue

growth, a strategy that prompted Timken to seek cost savings by establishing an

in-house facility for steel production.

Pruitt suggests a transaction cost rationale for integration related to

Timken’s steel quality requirements which resulted in high steel prices,

monitoring and testing costs. Timken was also experiencing difficulties in

securing reliable supplies of high quality steel from electric arc furnaces.

These factors pushed Timken (and its main rival, Swedish firm SKF) to invest

in a facility for steelmaking. The decision was based on fairly inaccurate

estimates: the final investment costs exceeded the initial forecast by a full

order of magnitude (p.74). As a result, Timken was forced to seek external

finance from banks first, and to offer part of the company’s stock to the

public in 1922. In spite of the earlier reference to transaction and

manufacturing costs, Pruitt’s account indicates that the internal capability i

n steel production proved to be of fundamental value for the innovative

performance of the firm as it provided Timken with control over the interface

between bearing design and steel quality. Thanks to the learned capabilities in

product, process, and sales engineering, Timken experienced profit and revenue

growth throughout the 1920s.

Until the Great Depression, Timken’s policy of paying high wages had succeeded

at keeping unions out of its production plants. Only in the 1930s efforts by

the United Steel Workers to unionize the company’s plants in Canton, Ohio,

succeeded. The firm’s relationship with the union was marred by hostility. The

management spurned any interference with its control of shopfloor activities.

Timken was committed to a managerial style informed by hierarchical command

and control, a practice whose continuity inside the firm was facilitated by

recruiting executives through internal promotions.

The management’s anti-union stance played a role in 1950 when a

state-of-the-art production plant was set up in Bucyrus, Ohio, a rural area

that Timken hoped could provide a union-free environment. The new plant

featured extensive automation of the manufacturing process and focused on the

mass production of standardized products. Timken’s management could benefit

from vastly improved information systems and hoped that its control over the

production process would be unfettered by conflict with its labor force.

Generous employee compensation was expected to avert the unionization of the


At the same time, the firm intended to provide workers with the training needed

to realize job rotation programs and with team-based performance incentives.

The scale economies realized at the Bucyrus plant were the basis for Timken’s

retention of a firs t-mover advantage in the market for standardized tapered

roller bearings. In contrast with competitors whose product lines encompassed

alternative bearing designs, Timken remained committed to its time-honed

strategy of competing on price and quality in the tapered roller bearing

segment. The same conservatism was also visible in the company’s structure,

where the organization continued to be along functional lines. Pruitt

identifies these facts as symptoms of the incipient divergence of Timken’s


strategy and structure from the pattern typical of U.S. manufacturing firms.

These differences notwithstanding, Timken enjoyed a prolonged period of growth

and profitability. It developed a network of international affiliates whose

integration became an

important focus of managerial attention. Driven by the objective to coordinate

sales and production on a worldwide basis,

efforts were made to establish uniform quality and dimensional standards that

could realize interchangeability of products across plants. Whereas Timken’s

management effectively addressed these operational needs, it was not quite as

successful at developing an appropriate business strategy model for its

international affiliates. The business model behind the Bucyrus plant that

succeeded in the U.S. did not enjoy the same fate in other markets, partly

because the firm did not have a first-mover advantage vis-a-visits


The competitive pressures in the U.S. bearing market increased during the

1960s. In the usual pattern, Japanese entrants first targeted the low-cost end

of the ball bearing business. Having succeeded in that market segment,

the Japanese firms began to aim at the low-end of the tapered roller bearings

market. Timken’s ability to withstand their competitive threat was the result

of its continuing commitment to modernize manufacturing facilities and expand

capacity. New plants were set up in Gaffney, South Carolina, in 1971 and in

Lincolntown, North Carolina, in 1979. To be sure,

competition put a squeeze on pro fit margins in the bearings business during

the 1970s, but Timken weathered the storm satisfactorily thanks to the

profitability of its steelmaking division. In that area too, Timken upgraded

and expanded manufacturing facilities (notice the acquisition of Latrobe Steel

in 1975) and developed other markets for its steel products in addition to


By the late 1970s the firm’s ability to sustain continuous improvement in

bearings’ performance was diminishing. Problems had emerged in regard to the

quality of internal steel supplies. The response to this crisis,

initiated in 1978 as the Clean Steel Program, included a benchmarking exercise

conducted at steelmaking plants in Europe and Japan which revealed that Timken

needed to catch up with the industry’s best practice in order to secure its

competitive standing in the bearings business. In 1981 Timken decided to build

a new steel plant at Faircrest, Ohio.

These events were a watershed in the firm’s history. A prolonged period of

internal change ensued that wrought radical transformations in Timken’s

organization of shopfloor work as well as its corporate structure and culture.

Existing organizational practices had created an inward-looking culture that

failed to absorb useful managerial and technological knowledge from the

outside. The outcomes of the benchmarking exercise shook the management’s

confidence in the organization’s ability to identify and solve problems

internally and to generate the technological and organizational improvements


to sustain the competitive position of the firm.

Outside consultants from McKinsey & Co. collaborated with insiders to

restructure the company. Even more important, they facilitated the overhaul of

the corporate culture, and particularly the abandonment of the strict top-down

approach to management that had characterized Timken since its early years. The

book’s final chapters portray Timken as an organization alert to the need for

strategic adaptation and willing to embrace change in response to external

events. In what may be considered a radical departure from the company’s

conventional wisdom, Joseph Toot Jr. described the Timken Company as having

moved from “a strict , traditional, product orientation toward the application

of certain skills which we

believed we possessed in an exceptional way” (p.393).

The book’s strength is without a doubt in its detailed account of the corporate

history, which a reader without an all encompassing interest in the matter may

find dizzying at times. While I found the

book pleasant and engaging to read for the most part, occasionally, the

author’s attempt to provide details ends up clouding the story line more than I

thought desirable, particularly toward the final chapters of the book. Perhaps

inevitably, the book touches only briefly upon events and issues that

interested readers will want to know more about. For example, Pruitt tells us

that while British Timken had been using Statistical Process Control

(SPC) after World War II, the U.S. headquarters’ efforts at standardizing

procedures across plants were responsible for its elimination. Pruitt says that

British Timken promptly conformed to the orders from Canton

(pp.232-234), but there is no way to tell whether British Timken benefited from

SPC, and if so, why did it simply conform to the orders? Considering that

quality control processes were resumed twenty years later, it would have been

interesting to learn more about the circumstances of SPC’s demise.

While the book rarely attempts to generalize from Timken’

s experience on specific issues, the introductory chapter places Timken’s

corporate history in a broader perspective provided by the scholarly debate

concerning the factors promoting corporate success and longevity. Pruitt lays

out two views, contrasting

Chandler’s [1] emphasis on a firm’s strategic focus on core businesses and

investments in organizational capabilities, with the cultural approach found in

Collins and Porras [2] and de Geus [3]

emphasizing a core ideology that “guides and inspires people

throughout the organization and remains relatively fixed for long periods of


(p.xiii). This contrast does not receive much analytical attention in the rest

of the book. As Pruitt reckons, both themes appear in Timken’s history. This

suggests that the views presented as mutually exclusive need instead to be

integrated with one another. In fact, I would argue that Pruitt’s own narrative

supports the broad proposition that an organization’s culture (intended as a

constellation of values and norms of interaction) is an important determinant

of its capabilities. While the rich evidence discussed in the book clearly

bears on the nexus between culture and capabilities, the nexus is not

adequately developed. Pruitt’s recurring references to the legacy of “a

compelling sense of purpose and a cohesive corporate culture” (p.31), or the

“timeless importance of corporate purpose and identity” (p.xvi) seem to

identify these cultural factors as the key determinant of Timken’s longevity

and success. These emphases

are not supported, in my opinion, by adequate analytical arguments clarifying

the relationship between these concepts and corporate success.

Pruitt’s book provides interesting insights on a much broader range of themes

than my review suggests. Among them

, I would mention the discussions of patent litigation, the effects of

antitrust restrictions on its relationships to foreign subsidiaries, lobbying

for antidumping tariffs,

the development of internal R&D programs, technological developments in steel


bearing technologies, the firm’s relationship with standard-setting

organizations, as well as its marketing efforts with respect to particular

customers or industries. As a result, the book deserves the attention of a wide

audience of scholars, from business and economic historians to scholars of

industrial organization, strategic management, and technological innovation.


[1] Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., Scale and Scope. The Dynamics of Industrial

Capitalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1990.[

2] Collins, James C. and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits

of Visionary Companies. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1994.

[3] de Geus, Arie, The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent

Business Environment. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Incorporating Women: A History of Women and Business in the United States

Author(s):Kwolek-Folland, Angel
Reviewer(s):Yeager, Mary A.

Published by and EH.Net (April 1999)

Angel Kwolek-Folland. Incorporating Women: A History of Women and Business

in the United States Twayne’s Evolution of Modern Business Series. New

York: Twayne Publishers, Simon &

Schuster Macmillan, 1998. ix + pp. 275.

Bibliography and index. (cloth), ISBN 0-8057-4519-X.

Reviewed for H-Business by Mary A. Yeager, Department of History, University of

California, Los Angeles, California.


Angel Kwolek-Folland’s Incorporating Women is the first survey to

synthesize the history of women and business anywhere in the world. Its

pioneering status raises a series of significant questions for the scholarly

and business communities and the public at large. Why have businesswomen in

America been the first women to have their history surveyed and synthesized?

And why now? In view of the fact that there is still a great deal that we do

not know about women in business, is the synthesis premature? What does the

synthesis offer historians of women and business and what is its significance

for future research? And finally, where do we go from here? [1]


The practice of business and women’s history

in the United States has reached a historiographical cross-roads just when

demographic and economic changes are interacting to compel a dramatic

restructuring of American business. As we approach the millennium, old

certainties about the superior competitiveness of American business have given

way to the uncertainties of global capitalism run amok. Women, including those

with children, have become fifty-one percent of the labor force. They have

started more new businesses at a faster rate than men. T hey have earned more

baccalaureate and graduate degrees than have men across an increasing number of

professions. More women have climbed into the ranks of middle management,

while the small number of women at the very top has held its own.

For the first time in the history of American business, women who work have

begun to be perceived as a partial solution to the problems of competitiveness

rather than as a major social problem. No longer is the question whether single

or married women should work but

rather, how long women will work at a particular occupation and pay scale?

Will married women and men be able to juggle the kids and career demands to

suit personal and familial lifestyles?

The appearance of a historical synthesis of American women and

business at this time is significant because it has been pieced together from

two radically different historiographical traditions before a great deal of

substantive or systematic research on women in business has been completed.

Until relatively recently

, historians have used gender more often to exclude rather than to include the

opposite sex. American business history was generally written by and about men

in growth-oriented manufacturing firms.

American women’s history was written by and about women

who lived compartmentalized lives in private or public spheres.

More is known about women as workers than as businesspeople. Evidence on

women’s labor force-participation is abundant, quantifiable and relatively

accessible, embedded in government labor and occupational censuses, and

company records. As an activity, business confounds with multiple meanings and

definitions. It sweeps in production and trade, manufacturing,

agriculture and service, as well as producers, entrepreneurs, professionals,

workers and managers. As an occupation, it is notoriously ambiguous, often

swept into other occupational groupings, such as proprietors or administrators.

As a career or profession, it offers numerous choices, from clerks to

middle-level managers and corporate


Businesswomen have been hard to see and difficult to track. They have been

misfits in the male world of business and a privileged minority among women.

Their names have been erased in law and custom by those of husbands, fathers

and brothers.

Their economic activities have spilled across boundaries demarcating

households, families, firms and markets. Their multifaceted roles as wives and

mothers, daughters and widows have blurred their business identities. Most

female business activities have occurred in smaller corners and invisible

niches of the service sector rather than in growth-oriented manufacturing

industries, in family-oriented businesses and retail shops,

and in educational, philanthropic, and health-care and reform-oriented

institutions. The motives of businesswomen have involved a complex and changing

mixture of economic and non-economic factors. Their stories have tended to be

communal and familial, muffling individual decision-making strategies and the

competitive noises of

firms and industries.

Kwolek-Folland has learned from her subjects how to transform problems into

opportunities. She uses debates about working women as scaffolding for the

synthesis. Chapter titles evoke a succession of images about working women:

“Fem ale Economies,” “Mills and More,” “Difference at Work,” “Personal Work,”

“Crisis Management” and “Difference at Work.” Work offers women a way to gain

greater economic visibility. It expands opportunities to undertake business.

Indeed, women’s movement into white collar work in the late nineteenth and

earlier twentieth centuries marks, for her, one of the most important changes

for women in business in the past 300 years. Data on occupations and women’s

labor force participation are correlated generally with women’s increasing

involvement in business activities. Business activities are based on a gendered

division of labor. Women participate in business like workers participating in

the economy, as part of a proletariat, more often in feminized, sex-segregated

dead-end jobs and slower-growing niches of service-oriented industries.

Women’s status at work serves as a lightning rod for the debate over women’s

roles more generally. Debates about working women grow out of debates about

women’s place.

Businesswomen across the centuries have often adopted a work-oriented view of

business. Business has been a way to make a living and survive. So integral

has business been to women’s lives, that some women have steadfastly refused to

distinguish business from life. “You can never think of me as a business

woman,” one woman cautioned her daughter in 1910.

“That is because I make a business of life and living my business.”

“Business is just life,” American real estate entrepreneur Edith Mae Cummings

wrote in 1929, “and we had life long before we had business.”[2]


Kwolek-Folland knows how to listen to women’s voices. She has designed the

synthesis to disrupt disciplinary boundaries that have kept women in separate

spheres a nd men the only players in a male-dominated business game.

Given that “Women have always been in business in America (p.1),”

Kwolek-Folland has defined her central challenge as one of “incorporation”:

how to bring “others,” particularly women of different

classes, races and ethnicities into American business history and how to bring

business into American women’s history.

Incorporation has the ring of a conservative project of integration. Cynical

feminists well-versed in the history of British legal traditions might well

hesitate. After all, English civil law recognized the man and wife as one,

but came to define the “one” as “male.” Who is incorporated into what? Who are

the “gatekeepers” of the incorporation process? What are the terms of

incorporation? And what are the results of the incorporation process, both

for those incorporated and for the incorporating body as a whole?

Kwolek-Folland does not ally with feminist theorists determined to tear down

business institutions in order to clear the playing field of businessmen.

Nor is she a neo-progressive reformer nipping at the heels of Charles and Mary

Beard. She is an artist in tone, style, and temperament, using conservative

colors to cover radical aims.

Double entendres bedevil the incorporation process. Incorporation is testily

political, both a form and process, interacting to constrain and liberate women

unevenly and unequally over time. Power is interpreted as direct authority and

indirect influence. Both the terms and outcome of the incorporation process

are contingent, dependent in part upon how societies regard and value “others”,

as reflected by women’s changing legal status and business activities.

Incorporation involves struggles over the meaning and significance of business

and its associated concepts of profit, risk,

entrepreneurship, and success. Kwolek-Folland defines business expansively as:

“engaging in economic activity in a market to seek profit and assuming the

financial responsibility for that activity.” (p.5). Profit is

often embedded in non-economic goals; risk is defined as much in personal and

familial as in monetary terms; entrepreneurship is defined broadly as “new”

areas of economic activity; success is linked to women’s emancipation and


To incorporate

women into the history of business Kwolek-Folland uses analytical tools derived

from political and women’s history. Social categories of race, gender,

ethnicity and class order human experiences along a continuum of differences

that reveal the dynamics of

power embedded in business activities and institutions. Kwolek-Folland regards

these social categories as a “force,” and more than occasionally, as an

“irrational force” which shapes “how businesses approach markets, make hiring


and create organizational forms.” (p.8). Women’s political struggles both

spearhead and reflect changes in business activities and structures,

shifting the meaning and influence of business in women’s lives.

Business is incorporated into women’s history through inequities and

asymmetries of power associated with different business structures and economic

activities and roles. Business organizations reinforce differences between men

and women and other women. Business imparts new meaning and significance to

these categories by serving as fickle emancipator of women’s roles and

conscious conservator of woman’s place. It bridges the divide that has

separated women’s private and public lives.

Underlying Kwolek-Folland’s assumptions about the importance of social

categories to the understanding and meaning of business is a reformer’s vision

of a

more equitable and just business system, one where gender differences are not

unequally valued, where social condition does not constrain business

opportunity, where a male standard is not synonymous with

a universal standard, and where men and women have equal chances to exploit

business opportunities. To liberate business from the shackles of a

male-dominated business history and to emancipate women from a private world of

love and ritual, she crafts a single, all-encompassing narrative to bestow

public and historical legitimacy on businesswomen.


The survey situates women within a chronological framework that evolves

primarily out of economic and business history. Except for the middle of the

twentieth century, when government policies take center stage, the

periodization scheme is based upon major changes in the nature and dynamics of

liberal, market-oriented capitalism, beginning with a pre-industrial period

and advancing jerkily with successive industrial revolutions across the

nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Women enter economic and business history

indirectly by way of their business activities and relationships with other

women and men in business and the larger society, as members of families, of

social-reform, educational, and political networks. Business enters women’s

history indirectly by way of opportunities and legal status,

through economic roles and activities that women assume as


entrepreneurs, managers and professionals.

Women jump start the business of colonization in the 1550s as dependent sexual

objects of colonizers’ imaginations. They end their business journeys in 1997,

still unevenly and unequally incorporated

into the business system as legal independents, on unequal terms relative to

men and to each other,

with laws that promise justice without protection. After four and a half

centuries of ever-diversifying business activities and at least three decades


debate and litigation about equal pay, businesswomen stand stalled in their

tracks. Women’s revolutionary breakthrough into the top tiers of management has


For Kwolek-Folland, the setbacks are more telling than the advances. As if to


how much and how little had changed with regard to women and their

relationship to business, she places powerful corporate tycoon Estee Lauder —

named “Outstanding Mother of the Year” in 1984,– atop the shoulders of Ojibwa

fur traders, market women, butter makers bankers, and factory girls. Gender

stereotypes have continued to dog women’s advance in the business world,

constructing their public personas even as women reconstruct the businessworld.


Kwolek-Folland’s survey and

synthesis have alerted us to power differentials embedded in difference.

Society’s unequal valuation of “others” nurtured a system of laws regarding

property rights, citizenship, suffrage, marriage and divorce that disadvantaged

women more than men and so me women more than others. Women’s status, as

reflected both in formal laws and informal customs, interacted with economic

conditions to shape women’s business opportunities and the manner of engaging

in business.

The framework enables us to see more clearly different women’s varying

experiences in the business world over time. Some businesswomen mimic the

monotonous and routine male shopkeepers and businessmen the world over, like

Rose Stolowy of Kansas City, Missouri, or Catherine Ferguson, a confectioner

shop-owner. Famous women, such as Rebecca Lukens, Amelia Earhart, and Oprah

Winfrey share brief appearances with their not-so famous contemporary

counterparts, like Phebe Cills, an African-American toy store owner, and the

infamous sisters Aida and

Minna Everleigh. Good businesswomen, like caterer Edith McConnell, coexist with

the less successful, such as Christina Barnes, who “negotiated the business

world with difficulty.” And then there are some who are larger than life, such

as the six-foot,

200 pound Sarah Bowman, who made money from prostitution AND the United States


only to die ungloriously of a tarantula bite in 1866.

Race opened opportunities for black businesswomen and professionals in

segregated niches of the economy and closed

them in areas dominated by whites. It imposed special social and economic

burdens upon black businesspeople as community builders and as economic

role-models. Black women undertook a variety of business roles even as slaves

and engaged in a range of business activities even though they gained both

property, voting and civil rights later than white women. Their work histories

were longer and more continuous than either white women or black men. Black

women boasted one of the nation’s first and most successful brothel-keepers,

the first female bank president, the first female self-made millionaire in

America, and one of the wealthiest celebrity queens in the entertainment


Ethnicity affected whether women went into business at all. It proved

important to women’s control of property, as in the case of the early female


settlers, and formative of entrepreneurial cultures, as in the case of Jewish

women, whom Kwolek-Folland celebrates as the most entrepreneurial of American

businesswomen. Len a Himmelstein Bryant (Lane Bryant Company),

Fanny Goldberg Stahl, Esther Mentzer (Estee Lauder) stand tall in the female

hall of business fame.

Class functioned as a marker of legal and economic status as well as a

gate-keeper of the incorporation process, promoting gender rules that

distinguished women from men and income bars that distanced lower from upper

income groups. It gave wealthier women an easier entree into politics and

educational institutions, which positioned them more strategically as leaders

in social reform and philanthropic institutions.

Business played a mixed role in the lives of women. On the one hand,

business structures operated to reinforce rather than undermine differences.

In the early 1800s textile owners hired young, single

white women because the skills associated with textile production were already

categorized as women’s work. Later, with the coming of managerial capitalism,

the gender coding of managerial and job rules kept women out of the

highest-paying highest status

jobs and paved the way for the feminization of clerical and personnel work. On

the other hand, business expanded women’s opportunities and control, empowering

women as owners and managers even as it reinforced differences between men and

women. Indeed, for some women in social-reform and political networks in the

late nineteenth century, business activities became a proto-feminist political


Successive market-expanding industrial revolutions improved more than they

undermined business women’s economic well-being, generating more income and

greater autonomy and independence for businesswomen than was the case for women

who worked as employees of others. Only when the scope of government’s

involvement in women’s issues broadened across the 20th century

, did business assume a more threatening and ominous role as a major antagonist

in a series of sexual discrimination and affirmative actions cases. With regard

to some issues, such as paid family-leave, big business jumped ahead of the

government, offering its own assistance packages, while small business owners,

many of whom were women, protested on grounds that such legislation would

disadvantage them relative to larger rivals.

For Kwolek-Folland and the women whose experiences she surveys, business

activities generally were growth-enhancing and value-creating activities.

The historical purpose of business, after all, she concludes, has been “to

make people’s lives better or to raise the standard of living for as many as


Sighs of relief among business historians are likely to be matched by

discomfiting growls from feminists who have always seen more of the meanness

than the magic in the market and in business activities. Inevitably,

scholars in both camps will single out different

aspects of the survey and synthesis for praise and criticism. However, as a

business historian and free-farming feminist, with one eye on men and business

institutions, and the other on businesswomen and the world, I want to focus my

remarks on this unresolved paradox: Why has a study so steeped in the rhetoric

of power and difference not revealed more about how power and difference

actually operate in the business world? About what power means, how it is

expressed and used,

by whom for what ends? Why does a study about women and business so closely

resemble the histories of women at work?


Social categories may well hide as much as they reveal about how power really

works in the world of business. Businesswomen have been swept into the history

of business armed with only one set of tools to differentiate them. Race,

ethnicity, class and gender have masked differences arising from women’s

individual capabilities and skills; they have made differences between and

among women of the same social categories difficult to see and to understand;

they have imposed an unnecessary uniformity upon women as a group.

The transformation of categories from inert, disembodied experiences into

causal forces, stalls early on. Business practices are overwhelmed by

cultural forces. Modern business tycoons stand atop the shoulders of Ojibwa

traders, but it is difficult to differentiate one businesswoman and business

from another or to account for differences in the performance and profitability

of business activities over time. Despite the fact that Indians held

dramatically different conceptions of gender roles, of property, autonomy and

responsibility, Indian women emerge as American history’s earliest

businesswomen and consumers.

Women as a group appear to share more similarities than differences but the

business experiences of men and women are allegedly more different than

similar. These hypotheses remain to be tested.

Women are described as having been more continuously and often

circumscribed in their choices and activities by the “family claim” then men

have been.

Yet, histories of businessmen in the pre-industrial period have suggested that

the family claim also structured the economic activity of men. We need to know


women and men interpreted the claim differently and how their interpretations

influenced economic outcomes.

Kwolek-Folland’s definition of business is at war with business realities.

Why has business as “activity” been yoked to the claim of “financial

responsibility” rather than to market-and profit-oriented decisions, as has


customary in business history? The choice carries definite ethical and moral

connotations. It broadens the population of businesswomen and businesses but

pinches interpretive

possibilities. The price is operational imprecision and ambiguity.

Activities are different from decisions. Activities indicate little more than

a kind of busyness, industry or work; they are described by their properties.

Decisions are associated with

choices that businesspeople make in the course of doing business, in order to

remain in business. Financial responsibility literally refers to “a charge, a

trust, or duty for which one is responsible.” [3] If a reasonable understanding

of responsible

is that it has to be within the power of the one who is responsible, then how

is that determination to be made? What is meant by the assumption of financial

responsibility, and how is “responsibility” to be determined?

Kwolek-Folland does not consistently

or systematically apply the definition.

Instead, she offers an expansive interpretation whose meanings have to be

squeezed from an ever changing business context.

Kwolek-Folland regards “independence” to be the core of the legal definition of


The ability to negotiate contracts and to acquire, use and dispose of

property is severely impaired without legal recognition and protection of those

rights. Without legal status as “independents,” women could do business as

dependents of others, but they could not profit from their own business

activities. Only as women gained legal recognition and protection as

“independents” and autonomous individuals with the right to their own bodies,

earnings and profits in the late nineteenth century, could they

exploit the same opportunities available to men who had those privileges and


The definition seems to deny that men and women have long strategized about the

ways in which they could shift, avoid or elide financial responsibility.

They have devised marriages and designed partnerships and firms with precisely

these goals in mind. The definition may be appropriately applied to women who

act as business proprietors, but how is it to be operationalized in a dynamic

world full of business activities undertaken by many individuals and groups

engaged in cooperative ventures, as members of family businesses,

partnerships or teams associated with single firms or corporate enterprise?

What if businesswomen assume financial responsibility but are not held


By identifying women in business by their activities and roles as producers,

entrepreneurs, professional and managers, Kwolek-Folland constrains women’s

choices and robs them of the opportunity to exercise control or to assume

financial responsibility. Without interrogating activities or roles, it is

difficult to distinguish one businesswoman or type of business activity from

another, except insofar as production differs from trade and sales and service.

Managerial roles are gender coded but we need to know why and when the codes

took the form they did with respect to different businesses over time. To what

extent did individual women construct and re-construct managerial roles to suit

their own talents and capabilities?

In the 1950s entrepreneurial historians tried but generally failed in their

efforts to use role theory to link men in business to society. Roles represent

problematic psychological categories. Individuals and groups fulfill, perform

and create roles. Activities do not necessarily conform to prescribed roles.

Roles straight-jacket behavior but people also deviate from socially prescribed

roles. How is the historian to determine when women are performing roles

prescribed by society or crafting them as they proceed?

How have women conceived of their roles in business and how have they actually


Racial and ethnic differences have also mattered to people’s conceptions of

business roles, activities and results. The survey builds upon studies of black

businesspeople to

suggest that their business strategies often were community-building strategies

as well. But not all of these interrelated strategies worked from the

standpoint of business longevity and profitability. What happened, for

example, when and if black businesswomen deviated from social expectations of

them as community builders?

Social categories need to be more systematically related to women’s

decision-making and organizational capabilities in particular businesses.

Kwolek-Folland surveys how some women

used skills developed in household and family or reform contexts to transform

socially-oriented businesses or non-profit institutions into profitable

businesses. However, we also need to know what kinds of decisions they made,

and which family or household decisions informed their business decisions.

Businesses differ according to operating rules and the short and long run goals

with respect to other institutions and society. Decisions and risks which

women undertake as owners or managers of hospitals

are likely to be different than the kinds of decisions made by women as family

partners, heads of families, or by businesswomen involved in the intensely

competitive cosmetic and restaurant businesses. Why were some women able to

transform household skills into effective business practices, when others

could not? Household production and consumption decisions of nineteenth century

middle-class women and twentieth century farm women gather social significance

primarily as gender dividing strategies. But

we also need to know how these decisions structured economic behavior and


The study suppresses the competitive forces that are at the heart of the

American business system. Although it argues from difference, it homogenizes

women as a group who seldom compete on the same playing field, either with men

or with other women in the same industry. Except in rare instances,

outcomes are seldom revealed nor evaluated. Individual female rodeo riders

compete with men, but we do not know whether they competed effectively or not.

We learn of Ellen Demorest’s pattern business but not of the competition she

experienced from Ebenezer Butterick, who eventually dominated the industry.

“Status” is another concept that creates problems for the survey and synthesis.

Kwolek-Folland employs status as a legal concept, as signifier of

reputation, of income and class, of women’s visibility and relative

equality/inequality in regard to men and other women. Yet indicators of status

do not always mesh with economic

realities. Given that social attitudes about women’s place have remained

stubbornly resistant to change,

Kwolek-Folland’s assertion that by the end of the nineteenth century, women had

achieved a legal status equal to that of men in business, is problematic.

Women could now do business and profit from their own endeavors but to what

extent did they? Data on female labor force participation and occupations pose

interpretive difficulties here. What are the causal lines of influence between

changes in legal

status and business activities?

The survey recognizes the difficulty of positioning irrational and rational

forces on the same economic stage. The problem is not simply a disagreement

about matters of meaning and definition. It also relates to the interpretive

tools that are used to analyze the evidence. To demonstrate how irrational

notions about race undermined the “myth of rationality” in business,

Kwolek-Folland offers a singular notable example, drawn from the history of

financial industries.

White providers of life insurance in the late nineteenth century refused to

sell insurance policies to black customers on the basis of actuarial

information which suggested that blacks had higher mortality rates than whites.

Citing evidence which linked higher mortality rates to environmental

conditions rather than to stereotypical notions about blacks as a group, she

concludes that white managers acted irrationally.

However, by allowing culture to subsume gender and race, and economic

rationalism to

define business practice, Kwolek-Folland misses an opportunity to examine how

and why notions of rationality, with respect to culture and economics,

sometimes complement rather than clash. If managers did not know what evidence

demonstrated, they are more

likely to make unilateral decisions on the basis of cultural predisposition

and habit. As long as other white competitors refused to market to blacks and

social attitudes condoned discrimination, then these actions may well have

produced economically efficient outcomes. Managers would have behaved


from an economic standpoint, only if they refused to sell to blacks when other

rivals were busily cashing in.

Determining why businesspeople do what they do has never been easy. But

economic tools of principal-agent theory are available to determine more

precisely when and why some individuals, rather than behaving act more like the

utility-maximizing automatons of neo-classical economics, act opportunistically

and with guile.


discourse about power is more tantalizing than effective.

Instead of directly confronting issues of power in the market, as business

historians have done when they analyze why some firms or businessmen wield

greater market power than others, she assumes that power adheres primarily in

social categories and institutional structures. Power floats ambiguously on the

surface of business life, seeping from institutional structures and emanating

from unequal relationships between people and things. What kind of

power is at issue is unclear. Kwolek-Folland defines power as direct authority

and indirect influence, yet it is unclear how power and influence operate with

regard to women in business. Is it the power and control that derives from

ownership status, from position, from skill, from unique talents in a

competitive market? Is it the power that comes from having more money and using

it to buy more capital to invest? Is it the competitive power that comes from

being in a technologically cutting-edge industry

at the right time? Is it he power that is embedded in women’s networks and

political activities, in the battle for suffrage and property rights? Is it the

power that derives from impotence and image, from gender and race, as the case

of government policies suggest?

Some businesswomen, like Oprah Winfrey, clearly have power. The survey suggests

that Oprah’s power derives from ownership of Harpo Entertainment Group.

“Winfrey’s control over this conglomerate,” reports Kwolek-Folland,

“gave her the ability

– rare in the business world – to shape the concern according to her personal


Mere ownership does not necessarily give control nor does it create an ability

to control. Businesspeople who own assets must also be skilled enough and

willing and able to use power to exert the kind of control that is necessary in

order to make money in an a high-stakes, intensely competitive game. Business

historians will want to know more about how Oprah acquired control and secured

the assets necessary to build and grow Harpo Productions. Why and when did

she choose the conglomerate form? Was this organizational form particularly

suited to the entertainment business and Oprah’s managerial style? The ability

to shape business according to one’s own vision may well be important to some

women and men in business, but some visions are likely to be more effective

than others in generating and sustaining returns.

The survey suggests several reasons why power is important in business.

Power seems to be important because women don’t have enough of it relative to

men, or because men have more of it than women and use it to keep women from

getting it and because more businessmen seem ready to wield it than

businesswomen. Power is also important with respect to

the ability to control business and influence government policy and legal


Yet, power is notable by its absence from legislative debates over economic

rights, suffrage, property and citizenship, from debates about regulatory

policies regarding

small and big businesses. The survey suggests that more women battled for

economic rights than for suffrage, but given that the nineteenth century

suffrage campaign proved more effective than the campaigns for economic rights,

we need to know why. Feminists and other leaders of women’s organizations put

in only brief appearances in the book,

and when they do, the survey reduces the infighting among feminist leaders

regarding different strategies to common goals. Business historians will want

to know more

about business’ roles in coalition building strategies. Which businesses and

businesspeople allied with female protagonists or antagonists in these


In the twentieth century women’s leaders appear to have garnered more

legislative victories de spite the persistence of traditional attitudes

regarding women’s roles. Why? Kwolek-Folland attributes the results to a

massive social revolution. Other scholars have suggested that business may well

have had a hand in the “conquest of cool” that fueled

a cultural counter-revolution.[4] What was business’ role in these 20th century

revolutions compared to its role in nineteenth century women’s rights


The problem and the opportunity with the survey and synthesis at this stage is

that historians of women and business have focused upon a different set of

differences. Whereas business historians have studied the differences that

emanate from the structure, behavior, conduct and performance of businesspeople

and firms, historians of women have stressed the agency of individuals and

groups and the politics of liberation. Business historians have investigated a

different power dynamic, one associated with price and product competition,

with cost-saving technologies, and with decision-making strategies instead of

that associated with meaning and understanding.

Business historians have concerned themselves primarily with market power,

with the ability of firms to dominate industries and throw their weight around

without being held publicly accountable. They have studied regulatory

patterns to determine the extent to which government policies,

such as anti-trust, have clipped or augmented the market power of particular

firms in particular industries.

Kwolek-Folland expects other approaches and perspectives to increase the

scholarly returns from efforts to understand women and business. She

underscores how the American business system came to be built upon the notion

of difference while simultaneously revealing the dangers of arguments based on

difference. Beliefs about women’s differences from men in the late-nineteenth

century opened some doors for some women but closed others and barred women’s

continuous advance in the business world. Arguments on the basis of gender

differences kept women outsiders in the business world even as women made a

place for themselves in the businessworld.

Just as a business system built on gender difference is likely to crumble when

difference is no longer valued, so too is a synthesis built upon difference


to unravel as women and men occupy the same historical stage. Kwolek-Folland’s

survey necessarily homogenizes women in order to emphasize the differences

between their experiences and those of men, in terms of business opportunities,

ownership and managerial rights, and access to credit, among other things.

Just how different those experiences were in fact remains to be determined by

more systematic comparison of their roles and activities with respect to a

variety of sectors and industries. Business historians are likely to see more

of the differences between iron-manufacturer Rebecca Lukens and prostitute

Sarah Bowman and more similarities between Rebecca Lukens and her male

competitor in Delaware.


only by constructing numerous bridges with a variety of tools are we likely to

understand precisely what difference men and women and business institutions

have made to the growth and development of various economic sectors over time.

If we are to turn problems of difference into exciting new

research opportunities, I caution against traveling alone down a separate but

equal road. Women and men in business have interacted throughout history inside

and outside of markets and firms, as family members, as marriage and business

partners, and as competitors, in different industries over time.

They have suffered asymmetries of power and inequities of income. Their

occupations as businesspeople have been jointly shaped by a structure of sexual

inequality. But they have both been engaged in a joint

enterprise that has as its ultimate objective, the generation of a higher

standard of living for everyone. Regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or


business is still business and only survives in the long run if it generates

some income above its

costs. As a market-oriented activity and institution,

the study of business forces a focus on the interaction between men and women,

on the interconnections between families and firms, on the transgressing of

private and public boundaries. Bringing women into business raises new

questions about how business institutions deal with ideas of “masculinity” and

“femininity” and about how women deal with and view the business world. [5]

Kwolek-Folland has done more than grasp the possibilities. She has constructed

one bridge over troubled waters. It is up to others to undertake the

painstaking empirical research needed to build additional bridges. Only then

are women likely to undergo the transformation from workers in business to

businesspeople with different personalities, skills, competitive and

organizational abilities, business experiences, and institutional means of


Mary Yeager Associate Professor of History Bunche Hall UCLA 405 Hilgard Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90095-1473 310-273-6328 (h)


-825-3489 (0)


[1] For an illuminating discussion of the pros and cons of synthesis, see Eric

Monkonnen, “The Dangers of Synthesis,” in Notes and Comment, American

Historical Review, vol. 91, no.5 (December, 1986), 1146-1157.

[2] Zora Putn am Wilkins, Letters of a Business Woman to Her Daughter and

Letters of a Business Girl to Her Mother (Boston: Marshall Jones Company,

1923), p.4, and Edith Mae Cummings, Pots, Pans and Millions: A Study of

Woman’s Right to Be in Business, Her Proclivities and Capacity for Success

(National School of Business Science for Women: Washington, D.C.,

1929), p.100.

[3] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary(New York:

Oxford University Press, 1971), r.v. “responsibility,” p. 2514.

[4] Thom as Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture,

And the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago

Press, 1997).

[5] See Mary A. Yeager, “General Introduction,” Vol. I, Women in

Business, 3 vols., The International Library of Critical Writings in

Business History (Aldershot, UK and Brookfield, US: Elgar Reference

Collection, forthcoming March 1999).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Market Dominance: How Firms Gain, Hold, or Lose It and the Impact on Economic Performance

Author(s):Rosenbaum, David I
Reviewer(s):Castaneda, Christopher J.

Published by EH.NET (March 1999)


David I. Rosenbaum, editor. Market Dominance: How Firms Gain, Hold, or Lose It and the Impact on Economic Performance. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998. viii + 274 pp. $69.50 (hardcover) , ISBN: 0-275-95604-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Christopher J. Castaneda, Department of History, California State University, Sacramento.

Dominating Markets

Powerful firms can force the inefficient allocation of resources. If the mark et fails to discipline such firms, should government policy do so? In this collection of essays edited by David I. Rosenbaum, Professor of Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, fourteen authors study this issue by analyzing eleven dominant firms operating in ten industries. Each essay is essentially a case study that examines an industry dominated for varying time periods by a particular firm. In the case of automobiles, both Ford and General Motors are scrutinized in a single essay; the chapter on the tobacco industry probes several firms that comprise the Tobacco Trust. Altogether, the authors query issues related to corporate dominance in the oil, tobacco, aluminum, magnesium, film, automobile, computer, software, health insurance, and long- distance telephone industries. Some of the subjects, such as the rise of Standard Oil between 1865 and 1911, the early histories of Ford and GM, and AT&T’s long-term monopoly are familiar to students of big business. Other essays scrutinize less well known examples of firm dominance such as Blue Cross’s role in health insurance and Dow Chemical’s involvement in the magnesium industry.

The essays are expectedly complementary. They elucidate common factors that thematically link each story of dominance. Six traits generally characterize these firms in their rise to dominance, maintenance of monopoly, and (in most cases) loss of control. The common traits that facilitated the development of dominance in these examples are: being a first mover; strong leader ship; cost advantages often through economies of scale; effective product promotion to stimulate demand; strategic use of patents and technology; and general dominance through size. While these characteristics suggest that a generally efficient firm is most likely to attain a commanding position in its industry, efficiency provided only one path towards dominance; AT&T, Standard Oil, and the tobacco trust also achieved market control by preying on competitors and engaging in price wars.

The rise to dominance in these cases typically followed implementation of cost advantages. Dow and Alcoa had lower costs in certain stages of production; Ford pioneered cost efficient assembly line manufacture; GM lowered its costs through massive sales volume; and Kodak created cost advantages for itself by exploiting the complementary camera and film markets. Vertical integration, the authors contend, was not always an effective strategy for dominance; at GM integration facilitated lower cost production in the firm’s early years yet brought high costs later.

These cases also suggest common strategies for maintaining market control. Innovating and implementing new technology, and protecting it through patents, contributed to sustained dominance and generally empowered these firms; in other instances new technologies allowed businesses to challenge existing industry leaders. Strong and progressive management also characterized firms in control of their markets. Chief executives who understood their markets and were able to make insightful strategic decisions based on changing market conditions “led the evolution of their industries” (p. 234). Dominating firms controlled by dominating leaders are hallmarks of corporate America, yet all have finite life spans. Today we ponder the future of a Microsoft without Bill Gates. Indeed, a chief manager can also lead a firm to dominance and then take it to the house of problems. Henry Ford became “autocratic . . . . and unable to respond to changing market conditions” (p. 247). At Kodak and IBM, a variety of factors contributed to the decline of management’s sagacity and these firms’ loss of market control.

Microsoft and the Tobacco Trust are the only organizations in this study which remain dominant. The other firms lost their market control for a variety of reasons generally defined as a loss of advantage: management became arrogant and inflexible, market conditions changed, and the government flexed its own muscle. In the case of Standard Oil, a combination of new supply areas in the mid-continent and California along with a proliferation of Gulf Coast refineries changed the oil industry’s market structure as well as Standard’s position in that market. Federal anti-trust policy also contributed to the demise of many firms’ hold on their markets. The U.S. Supreme Court dissolved Standard Oil in 1911, AT&T’s monopoly ended with the Modified Final Judgment of 1982, anti-trust action directed at IBM changed its corporate strategy, and Microsoft is fighting a similar battle today.

These concise and brief case studies provide cogent summaries of the rise and fall of very big business within a market context. In the case of tobacco, the topic is not monopoly but oligopoly and the Tobacco Trust. The authors of this essay note that during the twentieth century, three to four firms consistently controlled from 80 to 98% of the cigarette sales market. For comparative purposes, the editor/authors might have included another essay on an industry dominated by oligopoly. For example, recent congressional debate about the efficacy of the Public Utility Holding Company Act (1935) suggests another industrial study which most likely contains similar lessons.

Ultimately, this collection of essays concludes that government intervention in markets is justifiable in certain instances. While dominant firms often bring technological innovation and more efficient production methods to their industries, they sometimes stifle competition and misuse the power that their very size creates. Since some “[d]ominant firms can become inefficient, yet remain dominant for many years” and others “can price inefficiently without attracting successful entry,” a government policy toward dominance is required (p. 253).

Not only should antitrust policy be used to prevent dominant firms from quashing competition, government should consider its antitrust policy within broader trade policy. Rosenbaum concludes that since in some industries only foreign competitors were able to overcome a U.S. dominant firm’s advantages, “a fairly open trade policy may be one tool to limit the power of dominant firms” (p. 254). It is not only market forces which determine the destiny of powerful firms, it is often price wars, strategic acquisitions, pricing schemes, and other management strategies intended to stifle competition that need to be controlled if not by the market then by policy. The call for reasonable domestic policy is somewhat muted in the sense that policy is described generically. Altogether, this is an interesting collection of essays which suggest that dominant firms should be responsive to reasonable rules of competition which, left unenforced by the “invisible hand” of the domestic market, should be exacted by foreign competitors or promulgated by government policy and law.

Christopher J. Castaneda is Associate Professor of History. His most recent work is Invisible Fuel: Manufactured and Natural Gas in American History, 1800-2000 (New York: Twayne Publishers, forthcoming 1999).


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Four Books on Philanthropy

Author(s):Hopkins, Bruce R.
Blazek, Jody
Tesdahl, D. Benson
Salamon, Lester M.
Sealander, Judith
Reviewer(s):Goldin, Milton


Published by and EH.Net (May 1998)

Bruce R. Hopkins and Jody Blazek. Private Foundations: Tax Law and Compliance. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. xxi + 498 pp. List of exhibits, appendices, tables, bibliographical references and index. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-471-16892-0.

Bruce R. Hopkins and D. Benson Tesdahl. Intermediate Sanctions: Curbing Nonprofit Abuse. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. xiii + 194 pp. Appendices, glossary, bibliography, index. $49.95 (paper), ISBN 0-471-17456-4.

Lester M. Salamon, with the assistance of Stefan Toepler and Associates. The International Guide to Nonprofit Law. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. xxxii + 400 pp. Appendices, bibliography, index. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-471-05518-2.

Judith Sealander. Private Wealth and Public Life: Foundation Philanthropy and the Reshaping of American Public Policy from the Progressive Era to the New Deal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. xii + 245 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8018-5460-1.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Milton Goldin , National Coalition of Independent Scholars

What ties together these four timely books is scrupulous research on subjects that require, but infrequently receive, thorough investigation: attempts (in the first three books listed) to offer lucid descriptions of complex legal frameworks, and perceptions in all four books that at the turn of the 21st century Congress may be no closer to defining coherent guidelines for grant-giving entities and other nonprofit organizations than it was at the turn of the 20th century, when American charity began its journey to “scientific philanthropy.” Hopkins and Blazek offer a survey of foundation law, Hopkins and Tesdahl discuss “intermediate sanctions” (a major new legal issue for nonprofits), and Lester M. Salamon and co-authors survey nonprofit law and issues in the United States and twenty-one other countries. Judith Sealander is the only writer in this group not to emphasize that our present understandings of what foundations can and cannot do are riddled with legalisms so convoluted that they severely test the understandings of highly-qualified lawyers, accountants, nonprofit executives, and fund raising professionals, not to mention the Internal Revenue Service. Sealander tells us that many historians, past and present, have not got quite right how seven pioneering foundations–four of them Rockefeller (the Rockefeller Foundation, the Laura Spelman Memorial, the General Education Board, and the Bureau of Social Hygiene), and the Commonwealth Fund, Rosenwald Fund, and Russell Sage Foundation–functioned during their early years and why these enterprises had problems deciding what foundations could and could not do.

One measure of the need for such books is the spectacular growth in the number of nonprofits, including foundations, especially during the past half century. As late as 1940, America had only 12,500 nonprofits. By 1967, there were 309,000, and by 1993, there were some 1.3 million–a 10,300 percent increase in just over fifty years. At the beginning of the 20th century, only eight foundations were in existence; today there are estimated to be some 50,000–a 624,900 percent increase.[1] Salamon further points out (p. 2) that as of 1990, in seven major industrial nations including the United States, “nonprofit organizations employed the equivalent of 11.8 million full-time employees….This was six times larger than the number of workers employed by the largest private corporation in each of these countries.”

In 1993, American nonprofits had total annual operating budgets of some $500 billion; foundations had assets of about $195.8 billion. Two years earlier, two adjoining hospitals in New York City–New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center–had a combined annual budget of $1 billion, which more than equaled the budget of the entire United States government just prior to World War I.[2] Hopkins and Blazek, attorneys and legal authorities on tax- exempt organizations, remind us (p. 18) in Private Foundations that although Congress first concerned itself with foundations in 1912, no body of law governing such organizations existed prior to the Tax Reform Act of 1969. This legislation came into existence thanks mainly to Representative C. Wright Patman of Texas, a populist who deplored the existence of foundations to the same extent that he deplored the existence of Wall Street financial institutions, and for the same reason–wealthy Easterners served on the boards of both the banks and the foundations.

In theory, after the 1969 enactment, statutes and regulations would frame foundation law. But in practice, procedural details, which stemmed from IRS private determinations–meaning letter rulings, technical advice, and general counsel memoranda–that are technically not “law,” as Hopkins and Blazek also rightly remind us beginning on p. 8, actually defined foundation law. Such documents emerged from the IRS with bewildering frequency. The IRS initiated (and in some instances reversed) policy so rapidly that no one knew exactly what was happening at any specified moment.

Hopkins and Blazek add (p. 200) that the Tax Reform Act of 1981 in which Congress revised private foundation mandatory distribution rules, partly because of dramatically high interest rates paid on bonds and other debt instruments during the late 1970s, further complicated matters. But surprisingly, the authors do not touch on a new height of cynicism about foundation regulation inevitable with a discovery by donors and their financial advisors, in the early 1990s, that the IRS sometimes does not strictly enforce regulations governing tax-exempt organizations. (The Clinton administration has thus far cut by ten percent the budget of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division, which today has only 400 agents to oversee nonprofits, or one agent for every 3,250 such organizations. On the state level, attorneys general in 24 states have no designated person assigned to monitor nonprofits, and only 11 states have two or more people dealing with such matters full time, according to the National Association of Attorneys General.)[3]

Wisely, Hopkins and Blazek decided to limit Foundations to what could be of the most advantage to a market consisting mainly of attorneys, nonprofit board members, and professionals in the nonprofit field. Their work serves as a valuable handbook summarizing foundation law, and it can assist foundation officers and managers in understanding and completing such documents as IRS Form 990-PF, which must be filed annually to prove that a private foundation maintains an ongoing policy satisfying rules.

Completing Form 990-PF can be a daunting task. The authors tell us that “instructions are 26 pages long and exemplify the complexity of reporting and compliance requirements for a private foundation” (p. 331). Successful completion of the form does not guarantee immunity from IRS searches: “The manner in which the IRS chooses organizations to examine changes from year to year is always a matter of great speculation. In some years, the IRS looks at business leagues, some years at social clubs, and in other years it may examine hospitals, related clinics, and universities” (p. 71).

Readers will find a chart (pp. 331-356) outlining those Form 990-PF parts to prepare first and those parts that are dependent upon some other part for completion. An invaluable checklist of private foundation compliance issues (pp. 356-390) should be read by every person with more than a casual interest in the subject.

Hopkins and Blazek make admirable efforts to define terms as well as to deal with frameworks, optimistically writing (p. viii), “the myth has to be dispelled that private foundations are difficult if not impossible to manage.” Which, under the circumstances, might seem a hopeless task to some readers. Consider a problem that emerges as early as page 13, with the term “charitable.” Federal income tax regulations, which use the term in its English common law sense, note that it can also be used in a “generally accepted legal sense” (p. 13), which regulations fail to precisely define. This leads Hopkins and Blazek to note a court decision in which a judge found that “evolutions” in the definition of “charitable” are “wrought by changes in moral and ethical precepts generally held, or by changes in relative values assigned to different and sometimes competing and even conflicting interests of society” (p. 13). This may strike some readers as proof positive that the courts lean to a striking lack of clarity.

In Intermediate Sanctions, Hopkins, this time with D. Benson Tesdahl, an attorney and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, deals with a new challenge for the nonprofit field, to grasp the essentials of “intermediate sanctions.” These new laws stem, in part, from IRS concerns about “self-dealing,” which it defines, in the “private foundation context,” as “inappropriate arrangements between a private foundation and those closely associated with it” (p. 180).

As an example (not cited in the book) of what had concerned the IRS, two Shubert Foundation attorneys and officers, Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, benefited greatly from a highly-unusual and little-known tax ruling in 1979 that gave that foundation an exemption from federal tax laws that declare that private charities generally cannot own a controlling stake in a profit-making business.[4] It had developed that Jacobs and Schoenfeld received hundreds of thousands of dollars as paid advisers to the benefit funds of their own workers in the Shubert Theater chain,[5] who, like the attorneys, might possibly have been considered foundation employees by the IRS, given that the foundation controlled the theaters. “The only mystery–and that was scant,” write Hopkins and Tesdahl, “surrounding intermediate sanctions waswhenthey would be enacted” (p. x). Which is not quite accurate, because another mystery was whom, exactly, would the sanctions concern? No further newspaper articles suggested that they concerned Jacobs and Schoenfeld, and/or the Shubert Foundation, but the IRS had already been emphatic that penalties–structured as excise taxes–could be imposed on disqualified persons who improperly benefited from transactions and on an organization’s managers who participated in such transactions knowing that they were improper.

Would new definitions of “disqualified persons” be offered? In answer to this question, Hopkins and Tesdahl note as possible examples of wrong doers the executive officer of a tax-exempt charitable hospital, the director of a large museum, the president of a small private college, and the executive director of an advocacy group, all of whom could be theoretically caught in a legal net because in each instance an “excess benefit transaction” might have taken place in connection with their earnings or benefits (pp. 1-5).

And what is an “excess benefit transaction”? The authors define it as “Any transaction in which an economic benefit is provided by an applicable tax-exempt organization directly or indirectly to or for the use of the disqualified person, if the value of the economic benefit provided by the exempt organization exceeds the value of the consideration (including the performance of services) received for providing the benefit”(p. 8). Hopkins and Tesdahl predict, “the potential impact on operations of nonprofit organizations is enormous…(but) much of the actual outcome will depend on the vigor of the IRS and, ultimately, of the courts” (p. 8). Additionally, “Intermediate sanctions have the promise of transforming the private inurement and private benefit doctrines, and are likely to impact the composition and functioning of many boards of directors of nonprofit organizations,” given that they also “apply with respect to public charities and tax-exempt social welfare organizations.” (p. 8).

This is quite a large “promise,” and again, the Treasury Department would have performed a mighty service had it provided more guidance, in advance. The authors rightly argue (p. x) that what the IRS should have done was have an intermediate sanctions explanatory package available within a week of the enactment–say, by early August 1996. Had this happened, exempt organizations might not have floundered for months with little knowledge about compliance, definitions of key elements, and specifics on sanctions to be applied.

What the Treasury Department did not do, Hopkins and Tesdahl have concisely done in the pages of Intermediate Sanctions, which, likePrivate Foundations…, can be used as a handbook by those individuals who need reliable information quickly. On a larger scale, Lester Salamon’s purpose in The International Guide is to address legal particulars of a worldwide proliferation of American-style foundations and nonprofits. Salamon is a professor in the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, and director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. Highly-informative books and articles on nonprofit issues have flowed from his pen over the years, and recently he has been particularly concerned with the issue of nonprofit for-profit activities.

Salamon’s The International Guide grew out of a series of “field guides” he tells us (p. xiii) were commissioned on the legal treatment of nonprofit organizations in thirteen countries. The process yielded far more material than could effectively be used in the monographs, and the idea emerged that an international guide should be produced. Salamon warns, however, that we must “understand the great difficulties attending the kind of task that was attempted here, particularly given the complex legal questions that were at issue. In such a context, no account, and certainly no account operating within the space constraints of this one, can aspire to definitiveness” (p. xiii).

Salamon’s caveat notwithstanding, his book, like Hopkins and Blazek’s, offers an excellent introduction not only to nonprofit law (foundations are understandably not covered as thoroughly as in Hopkins and Blazek) but to systemic issues in the nonprofit field. American readers should particularly note his concern that such issues go “largely invisible in both scholarly analysis and public debate, with the result that we know precious little about them in most places” (p. 7).

This state of affairs, he counsels, could one day present a serious problem: “For the nonprofit sector to remain able to secure contributions, it is imperative that public trust in the sector be protected” (p. 36).

Salamon is less confident than Hopkins and Blazek, however, that the nonprofit system can continue to exist as we know it. “The United States is a common law country that nevertheless has a written constitution. In addition, the country has a federal governmental structure that features a national government and 50 state governments with their own elected officials and their own authority to exercise sovereign powers. These circumstances make the legal position of the nonprofit sector far more amorphous and disjointed in the United States than the significant size and scope of this sector might suggest” (p. 342).

Finally, credit must be given Salamon for doing more than simply citing problems. His Appendix A, “Toward a Vital Voluntary Sector: An International Statement of Principles,” offers an “emerging consensus so that those involved in the development of the third sector around the world can take its contents into account when framing their own policies and practices” (pp. 369-374).

After attempting to grasp nonprofit law, reading Judith Sealander’s Private Wealth is almost like dipping into a novel. Her interests are not only the pros and cons of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century foundations noted above, but assessments of their founders. Among the people she favors are John D. Rockefeller, Sr., John D., Jr., Julius Rosenwald, and, notably, the remarkable John Campbell of the Russell Sage Foundation, who is seldom mentioned in the literature. She believes Andrew Carnegie’s influence on philanthropy to have been overrated by scholars (p. 16), and his appearance at the Walsh Committee Hearings, in 1912, to have been something of a farce (p. 229). (Rockefeller, who, with Carnegie, was a founder of modern American philanthropy, would not have shared her views on the Steel King. Rockefeller admiringly wrote Carnegie, after the publication of Carnegie’s two seminal essays on philanthropy in the North American Review, “I would that more men of wealth were doing as you are doing with your money.” Later, Rockefeller ruefully admitted, “I (had been) still following the haphazard fashion of giving here and there as appeals presented themselves.”)

Sealander makes clear, with respect to all seven foundations, that there were great differences between what these Progressive Era donors and their staffs hoped to accomplish and what they could realistically achieve. There was an additional gap, she suggests, between what “Americans, including public policy makers” knew about John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the most generous giver of all, and how political establishments and writers portrayed him: “The overwhelming majority of the country’s population never heard him, or saw him, or read a word he wrote” (p. 56). Yet the image conjured up by media and politicians led to a situation in which “Americans decided Rockefeller was a terrible man because leading politicians and journalists told them so” (p. 56).

Nor does Sealander approve of today’s “static” lack of interest (pp. 6, 9, 31) in studies of the emergence and history of foundations. She could have added that albeit bereft of critical information, one school of thought in academies condemns such agencies because they exist thanks to the benevolence of individuals who may not truly be benevolent, only interested in tax relief. Meanwhile, another school of thought, also based in academies, lauds them because from where else can money for experimental and non-governmental programs come, if non-benevolent as well as benevolent types do not create foundations and thus save on their taxes?

The truth, of course, lies somewhere between these extreme views. But the right question never seems to get asked: After a century of experience, have foundations done enough good to merit the loss of taxable funds their existence costs the public treasury?

Which returns us to issues raised earlier in this review. We do not currently know enough about the impact of foundations and nonprofits on economies to render informed judgements. And the price of not knowing, carried too far into the future, may one day be a sudden, angry public awakening to the fact that benevolence has a price in tax relief that societies cannot afford.

Sealander ends her study, “The small group of people who created the foundations this volume has examined possessed an intellectual gift lost to many in the late twentieth century. With a fierce kind of optimism we now find peculiar, they believed people could be better, that government could be better, that society could improve” (p. 245).

I couldn’t agree more. Put in the vernacular, whatever their personal flaws, men and women of the generation that included Rockefeller, Carnegie, Rosenwald, and Katherine Bement Davis (a student of Thorstein Veblen) put their time and/or their money where their mouths were.

[1]. The statistic, 50,000, is from Hopkins and Blazek, Op. cit., pp. 1, 10; Sealander, Op. cit., p. 10, writes that there were 22,000 foundations in 1990.

[2]. Milton Goldin, “At New York Hospital, Memorial, Consolidation Becoming Imperative.” The New York Observer 5 August-12 August, 1991, p. 18.

[3]. Thomas J. Billitteri. “Rethinking Who Can Sue a Charity.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy 12 March 1998, p. 35.

[4]. Mel Gussow. “Bernard B. Jacobs, a Pillar of American Theater as Shubert Executive, Dies at 80.” New York Times 28 Aug 1996, D: 18.

[5]. Ralph Blumenthal. “Shubert Leaders Got Fees from Workers’ Funds.” New York Times 6 June 1996, C:16.


Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII