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Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines

Author(s):McIntosh, Robert
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.NET (December 2001)


Robert McIntosh, Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000. xxviii + 305 pp. $34.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7735-2093-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics and Business, Lake Forest College.

Robert McIntosh (National Archives of Canada) offers a completely new and bold perspective on the issue of child labor during the industrialization period of a country. Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines examines the socioeconomic and political conditions of boys employed in the Canadian coal mines during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book departs dramatically from the ongoing debate between the pessimists and optimists regarding the exploitation of children during the Industrial Revolution of Great Britain, the industrialization of the United States and the development of Latin America. McIntosh puts forth the interpretation that the boys who worked in the pits during Canada’s Industrial Revolution were not victims of economic growth but instead mature young men who wanted to work and fought for their rights as workers. This archival study complete with photographs and contemporary testimonies contributes to the current body of literature by offering a nontraditional approach to child labor, a statistical record of the employment of boys in coal mines located in Nova Scotia and a chilling account of the conditions of work both above and below ground in coal pits. McIntosh weaves the use of primary sources throughout the book in supporting his main hypothesis that “despite some individual testimony to the contrary, the weight of evidence is that boys entered the mine happily” (p.176). He uses industrial publications, union publications and records, the press and travelers’ accounts of their visits to mines, the publications of students of the industry, royal commission inquiries and provincial Department of Mines’ published annual reports to show that the pit boys were not powerless, immature, incompetent children but instead courageous, mature, independent workers who wanted to work.

McIntosh is extremely successful in accomplishing two of the three main objectives of this book. Unfortunately, the research presented falls short of obtaining his first and most important objective — to introduce, develop and support an entirely new hypothesis of why children worked. His examination of all the factors that affected the demand and supply of boys for employment in the coalmines is quite interesting and well supported with historical facts. His hypothesis– that the boys wanted to work — is clearly stated and developed but the evidence provided is insufficient, making his argument unconvincing. He is extremely successful, however, in achieving his other two objectives. The photographs, testimonies of workers, and commission inquiries provide a detailed description of the type of work and conditions of work in the mines as well as exploring the relationships of the pit boys to their employers and their co-workers (chapters 3 and 4). Lastly, he places the pit boys in the context of their families and communities to explain their role in the family, community and local economy (chapters 6, 7, and 5, respectively).

While telling the history of the boys in Canadian coal mines, McIntosh applies the theory of the labor market to explain the increase and then eventual decrease in the employment of pit boys. The increase in the employment of boys to work above and below ground occurred due to primarily economic and social factors. He attributes the increase in the demand for pit boys to: (1) the termination of the General Mining Association monopoly in 1858 (p. 45); (2) railway construction which lead to the development of new coal fields (p. 47); (3) technological advances (the steam engine, extensive division of labor and specialization) (pp. 65-68) and (4) the expansion of surface work (p. 70). He attributes the increase in the supply of pit boys to: (1) the tradition of family-based labor (p. 48); (2) the custom that working as a young boy was training for an adult occupation (p. 175); (3) the establishment of security for the family where the boys’ wages provided insurance and pensions (pp. 106, 115) and (4) the boys’ desire to enter the mines over attending school (p. 175). The identification and discussion of each of these factors is succinct and convincing except the last reason for an increase in supply, the boys’ desire to enter the mines. The problem with this analysis is discussed at greater length below. It would have been beneficial to comparative economists, economic historians and development economists if McIntosh had developed the comparison with Great Britain more fully to identify what factors were country-specific and what factors were shared by Great Britain as well. This additional analysis would have contributed nicely to the current examination of the employment of child labor in developing countries today in coal and metal mines.

In his concluding chapter, McIntosh briefly touches upon the reasons for the disappearance of the pit boys from Canadian coalmines. As in Great Britain, the changes in technology and the newly reconstructed view of childhood gradually removed boys from the coalmines. Unlike Great Britain, a decline in the demand for coal due to competition from the United States, the Great Depression and the emergence of alternatives (natural gas and electricity) caused a decline in the mining industry in Canada. The role of mining and schooling legislation in the employment of boys, however, was not clear. At one point McIntosh claims that child labor laws and schooling laws had little impact on the decrease in child labor (pp. 89, 90). This stands in direct conflict with his statement that the legislation that raised the minimum wage and established compulsory schooling attendance contributed to the decrease in pit boys (p. 172). The impact of child labor laws and schooling laws on the use of child labor should have been developed further with the aim to make a defendable decisive claim.

The controversial stance that McIntosh takes in this book that the pit boys were not victims exploited by their parents or capitalists, although provocative, is not entirely compelling. McIntosh offers three main arguments to support his thesis. His first argument rests on an in depth examination of wage and income data for the Sydney Mines from 1871-1901 (chapter 6). Quite convincingly he shows that the conventional links between child labor and subsistence did not hold in Sydney. In Tables 6.6 and 6.7 the data reveal that boys in high-income households were almost as likely to be employed as boys in low-income households (pp. 119-121). This is a very important finding and should be further investigated using wage and income data from other cities and provinces. McIntosh then uses this data on wage and income from Sydney to conclude that in Canada the pit boys wanted to work and were not forced by parents or mine owners (p. 122). This seems plausible but certainly not exhaustive of the possible interpretations of this finding. Furthermore, one should not make a generalization for the whole country based on one city in one province. As he mentioned in earlier chapters, it could be that boys worked to help their family achieve a higher standard of living (p. 125), security in times of crisis such as death or old age (p. 106), or an occupation for adulthood (p. 123). Consequently, this argument, although interesting, is only partially persuasive in revealing boys overriding desire to work.

In his second argument, McIntosh identifies the inherent characteristics associated with the pit boys to demonstrate that they were valued independent workers whose “experience in the mine is a record of achievement” (p. 179). Miners viewed them as valued co-workers and important contributors to family income. The pit boys, moreover, did not define themselves as victims but instead they were proud of their role in the family and the economy. They were productive members of the working-class who opted for work because in society it was identified as manly over school, which was identified as effeminate. In opposition to the traditional view of child labor as one of “a record of blighted childhood” (p. 178), these boys and young men had self-respect and fought for their rights as workers. McIntosh successfully provides both direct and indirect evidence to show that the boys were mature, self-reliant, courageous individuals who displayed initiative.

The third argument carefully develops how the socially stimulated “web of solidarity” among the pit boys created a political response of action (p. 149). Socially the movement from childhood to manhood for boys was marked by their entry into the mines. Fathers had experienced this and now their sons went through the same process. As McIntosh stated, “in the mining family, boys learned not simply that certain work was women’s; they also learned that men’s work warranted both women’s respect and the lion’s share of the available food, drink, and leisure time” (p. 123). Once in the mines, moreover, the evidence undeniably illustrates a collective loyalty among the pit boys. They talked back to adults, whether parents or managers, until they were organized as a branch of the miners’ union. If they were not satisfied that their grievances were being heard, they would strike. McIntosh helps the reader to appreciate the significance of their action by pointing out that the entire mine had to shut down when the boys walked out because their duties were essential to the safe and productive operation of the mine. Therefore, the fact that there were 47 strikes in Nova Scotia from 1880 to 1926 makes this argument convincing (p. 120).

In conclusion, Boys in the Pits offers a new view of child labor that is sure to create discussion and additional research among historians and economic historians alike. In sharp contrast to Great Britain’s fragile young victims of exploitation, young pit boys in the mid-nineteenth century were described by Canadian newspapers as “cheerful imps” and the older ones as “happy,” “bright,” “animated” young men whose contributions to the family, the mine and the economy were highly valued (pp. 90-91). McIntosh does a superb job of documenting and describing the employment of child labor in Canadian coalmines while developing the hypothesis that the pit boys were anything but victims.

Carolyn Tuttle is author of Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution. Oxford and Boulder: Westview, 1999. In addition, she is the most recent winner of the Economic History Association’s Jonathan Hughes Prize for Excellence in Teaching Economic History


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor

Author(s):Engerman, Stanley L.
Reviewer(s):Pritchett, Jonathan B.

Published by EH.NET (September 2001)


Stanley L. Engerman, editor, Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. vi + 350 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-3521-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan B. Pritchett, Department of Economics, Tulane University.

The concept of freedom is not without contradictions. Laws outlawing slavery and indentured servitude restrict the freedom to contract. By submitting to the dictates of employers, workers temporarily surrender their freedom in exchange for wages. Laws intent on promoting the interests of labor, such as eight-hour or child-labor laws, often restrict its use. Economics (and economic history) is the study of choice. But are decisions truly free when the choices are severely limited? When starvation is the only alternative to working, is free labor just another form of slavery? Edited by Stanley Engerman, Terms of Labor is a volume of papers concerned with the meaning of free labor in Europe, the United States, and the West Indies. The contributions to this volume represent many different disciplines and they should appeal to a wide audience (a tribute to the fine editing by Engerman). Of particular note are the introduction by Engerman and the chapter by Robert Steinfeld on the changing legal and economic concept of free labor.

Western ideas of freedom are tied up with those of individualism. Whereas freedom for non-Europeans meant membership in the community, freedom for Europeans meant economic independence and the ownership of one’s own labor. In his chapter, David Eltis considers the contemporaneous growth of free labor in Europe and slave labor in the Americas. He argues that the impact of European values and social relationships on the non-European world was greater than the impact of European wealth and technology (p. 39). Furthermore, Eltis argues that the development of individual rights in Europe caused the eventual destruction of serfdom and slavery in the Americas.

Despite the profitability of sugar plantations in the British West Indies, Adam Smith believed that free labor was more productive than slaves. Abolitionists adopted his theory in an effort to promote the emancipation of slaves in the British colonies. Following emancipation in the 1830s, sugar production fell in the West Indies. In his chapter, Seymour Drescher discusses the attempts to reconcile Smith’s theory with the decline in output and its ideological impact on the abolitionist movement in the United States.

As argued by Peter Kolchin, the emancipation of Russian serfs was long and complex. Unlike ex-slaves in the United States, Russian serfs received land after emancipation (although not always the land they cultivated prior to emancipation). Serfs were required to pay for the land over time and they faced communal responsibility to the lords.

There is no consensus on the meaning of free labor. Leon Fink argues that the original concept of freedom for workers was economic autonomy. For example, ex-slaves in the U.S. South sought economic autonomy by working as sharecroppers rather than farm hands. As the nation industrialized, the worker’s goal of economic autonomy was replaced by a greater emphasis on labor’s rewards.

The original interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment was to prevent the state from enforcing labor contracts with penal sanctions. Robert Steinfeld finds this legal interpretation has changed over time. Recent court decisions have invalidated labor contracts when the threat of physical harm included economic threats. The court must judge whether a choice is so onerous that the parties entered the contract involuntarily. As argued by Steinfeld (p. 167), “Precisely because the line between free and coerced labor is drawn on the basis of normative and political judgments, it can never be drawn finally and irrevocably.”

The rhetoric of slavery has been applied to a variety of social movements, such as the quest for equal rights for women or attempts to unionize American workers. Abolitionists, however, portrayed Southern slavery as unique and not to be compared with other forms of oppression. Consequently, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass rejected the metaphoric use of “wage slavery” by the leaders of the labor movement. Because of their closer parallels, David Roediger argues that Douglass had fewer objections to the use of the slavery metaphor for women’s issues.

Amy Dru Stanley provides an interesting interpretation of the withdrawal of African American labor following the Civil War. A characteristic of American slavery was the high rate of labor force participation. Following emancipation, many married women and children withdrew from the labor force. Because it reduced the sharecropper’s output, white landowners objected to this labor withdrawal. Stanley interprets the withdrawal of labor as an assertion of freedom. The new freedmen felt that their wives should work at home (p. 195).

David Brody discusses the uneasy relationship between free labor and trade unionism. For example, the choice of joining a union creates a prisoners’ dilemma: collectively, workers are better off by joining the union but individually each would rather avoid the cost of membership. From the worker’s viewpoint, a closed shop solves the dilemma by restricting the worker’s right to contract. In his chapter, Brody reviews the evolution of U.S. labor law. In recognizing the legal rights of some workers to associate, union members benefit at the expense of nonmembers.

Clayne Pope surveys the economic progress of Americans during the era of free labor. According to Pope, there is “no necessary theoretical link between free labor institutions, high economic growth, and social mobility of labor” (p. 248). All that is necessary for economic growth is the efficient allocation of resources, especially labor. Indeed, the empirical evidence as to whether slavery hindered economic growth is ambiguous. Using regional income statistics, Fogel and Engerman show that the southern United States experienced rapid economic growth under slavery. Furthermore, the southern economy stagnated in the years following emancipation and the Civil War. The nation as a whole, however, has prospered under the era of free labor, with output per worker doubling every forty years. Using measures of economic well-being such as per capita income, the availability of leisure time, life expectancy, and attained heights, Pope shows that the era of free labor was a one of remarkable economic success. Not all shared equally in the nation’s growing output. There was little change in the distribution of wealth or income. Only non-traditional measures, such as the distribution of heights or life expectancy, show a trend toward greater equality. Citing recent research by David Galenson and himself, Pope finds considerable evidence of social mobility.

Jonathan B. Pritchett is Associate Professor of Economics at Tulane University. His most recent publication is “Quantitative Estimates of the United States Interregional Slave Trade, 1820- 1860,” Journal of Economic History 61 (June 2001), pp. 467-475.


Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume III: The Twentieth Century

Author(s):Engerman, Stanley L.
Gallman, Robert E.
Reviewer(s):Libecap, Gary

Published by EH.NET (March 2001)


Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume III: The Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. vii + 1190 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-55308-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary Libecap, Department of Economics, University of Arizona.

This is, of course, a volume about an extraordinarily successful economy in the twentieth century. Surely, in terms of individual welfare and economic advancement, there has been no parallel in human history. We not only are extremely lucky to be part of it, but are challenged to understand its origins and progress across the century. This volume is indispensable for such an undertaking. The chapters address key aspects of the American economy and are written by leading scholars in the field. In this review, I summarize some of the highlights from each of the seventeen chapters. There is a very useful bibliographic essay at the end of the volume for more details on the broad patterns described in each chapter. This is the third volume in the Cambridge series on the development of the American economy, and one that serious economic historians will want to have readily available for reference in research and for use in the classroom.

The volume appropriately begins with an overview of the macro economy, “American Macroeconomic Growth in an Era of Knowledge-based Progress: The Long Run Perspective,” by Moses Abramovitz and Paul David. The introduction provides an excellent summary of the recent history of the American economy. Abramovitz and David point out that in the twentieth century there was a shift from extensive productivity growth that characterized the nineteenth century to intensive growth that relied more on technological and organizational change. This is sensible since the American economy moved from a frontier, natural-resource-based economy to a more mature, technology, energy-based economy. While late nineteenth-century technological change tended to be capital using and labor saving, twentieth-century technological change was more intangible capital using and tangible capital and labor saving. Data are provided detailing changes in total factor productivity growth in the transitional decades of 1879 to 1909. Beginning at this time, there was a shift to a greater role for intangible assets — education and training and organized investment in R&D — that would define the twentieth century. Key areas in the new economy were electricity, telecommunications, petroleum, the internal combustion engine, and later, the digital computer. Abramovitz and David outline the rising global position of the American economy over the century. They begin with a statistical profile of American growth since 1800, noting measurement problems, in the early period due to a lack of basic data and in the later period due to problems of comparability and definition of inputs and outputs. Interpretation of production during wars also presents challenges. Many of these issues are familiar to economic historians and were raised in Volume II of the Cambridge series. The authors examine what measured growth fails to capture in reflecting well-being, chiefly improvements in product quality and introduction of new goods and services for consumers whose qualities are not well represented in standard consumption bundles.

Over the twentieth century, the American population became more urban, more western, and more geographically mobile. In Chapter 2, “Structural Changes: Regional and Urban,” Carol Heim outlines the broad regional and urban/rural shifts that have taken place. Cities have grown and regionally, the West and South have gained, especially in the post-WWII period in terms of population and income per capita. There has been general convergence in population and income per capita across the country over the century. Heim emphasizes market and non-market forces, and what she calls hypermarket factors, resource decisions within large firms, in explaining these trends. As part of urban/regional changes, there has been a shift from manufacturing to service, an issue addressed later by Claudia Goldin in her chapter on labor markets. The chapter includes useful data by region on the breakdown of gainful employment by major sector in geographic divisions that reflect the major trends of the century.

The U.S. experience in the twentieth century was really a North American experience, and the growth of the Canadian economy is described in Chapter 3, “Twentieth Century Canadian Economic History,” by Alan Green. He has a particularly heavy load to carry, describing one hundred years of Canadian development in a single chapter. The patterns are similar to those observed for the United States with increased urbanization and industrialization and a movement away from the older wheat and timber-based economy. He points out, however, that the Canadian economy in the 1970s shifted to new natural resources — oil and iron ore production. All in all, Green outlines a record of economic and population growth that for many periods exceeded that of the United States. He briefly examines the sources of economic growth — increases in factor inputs and the growth of total factor productivity. Most interesting is his overview of the wheat economy from 1896-1929, which includes a description of the wheat boom and the staple theory of growth. Green summarizes Canada’s experience with the Great Depression, and although the Canadian economy suffered a sharp drop between 1929 and 1933, as did the U.S., there was a noticeable rebound thereafter that exceeded that of the U.S. The Canadian economy continued to grow, until a slowdown after 1973, where it performed less well than its southern neighbor.

Chapter 4 returns to the American economy with “The Twentieth-Century Record of Inequality and Poverty in the United States” by Robert Plotnick, Eugene Smolensky, Eirik Evenhouse, and Siobhan Reilly. Many of the chapters in the volume address the growth of the economy. This one examines distribution. The authors define inequality and poverty, with the poverty rate equaling the proportion of the population with income below a particular income level fixed in real terms. Inequality was at its highest levels in the century during the period from 1900 to World War I. It then declined during the war, but rose once again through 1929. Inequality fell during the Great Depression and WWII and continued to fall until 1967. It was flat and then trended upward after 1979. The authors claim that there is no single factor that underlies the record of income inequality. In the latter part of the century, where the data are the best, labor supply and demand factors play key roles. After 1979, increases in the demand for skilled labor and technological change bias toward skilled labor led to a premium for those workers. Additionally, there have been changes in the composition of industry, with a shift away from manufacturing toward services, that have increased the earnings of skilled labor and reduced the relative position of the less skilled. The end of the chapter contains an assessment of the public policy effects of tax and expenditures on inequality. The authors find that despite substantial changes in the level and composition of government spending programs in the post-WWII period, there has not been a detectable impact on the trend of inequality. Turning from inequality to the issue of poverty, there has been a clear, generally persistent downward trend through the century. The elderly have experienced a marked decline in poverty, but single-parent households have done less well. In assessing the effects of government programs on poverty, the authors conclude that policies have tended to reinforce, not offset, market factors. The chapter ends with very useful data appendices.

Certainly, one of the major events of the American economy during the twentieth century was the Great Depression, and Chapter 5, “The Great Depression,” is by a leading scholar of the issue, Peter Temin. Temin argues that credit tightness explains most of the fall in production and prices during the first phase of the depression. He discusses the confounding effects of five events that have been cited in the literature as contributing to the start of the depression — the stock market crash, Smoot-Hawley tariff, the first banking crisis, the world-wide decline in commodity prices, and a decline in consumption. He examines the role of the Fed and its adherence to the Gold Standard. Temin argues that a serious macroeconomic downturn due to these factors was turned into the Great Depression by the Federal Reserve’s actions in late 1931 to preserve the Gold Standard. The devaluation that followed the movement off the Gold Standard by the Roosevelt Administration was not followed by aggressive fiscal policy so that the economy deteriorated sharply through 1933. There was recovery between 1933 and 1937, before another downturn. Temin discusses the first New Deal and the actions of the NIRA and AAA and then briefly turns to the second New Deal. Gold inflows from an increasingly unstable Europe increased the money supply, and this helped fuel the recovery through 1937. But government policy brought about an end to that recovery with the recession of 1937. Recovery followed in 1939, largely stimulated by new gold inflows and then the build up for World War II.

Besides the Depression, the other major events of the twentieth century were wars, and in Chapter 6, “War and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century” Michael Edelstein, attempts to gauge the costs of war. This is a very interesting and ambitious chapter. During the twentieth century, there were four major military conflicts — World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War — along with the Cold War. These conflicts demanded considerable change in the amount of resources devoted by the United States to military activities, which were quite small in the late nineteenth century. Edelstein gauges the direct and indirect costs of these wars, with the direct costs being expenditures for labor, capital, and goods, and the indirect costs including the lost lives, injuries, and destruction of capital and land. Estimates are provided for each as a share of GNP in Table 6.1. The Cold War was the most costly conflict in terms of direct expenditures. Edelstein then turns to the financing of these military conflicts, examining total expenditures and their funding through taxes, borrowing and inflation. Financing approaches are outlined in Table 6.2-6.9. One long-term effect was the apparent permanent increase in the income tax, which was raised by the Revenue Acts of 1941 and 1942. WWII and Korea were financed more by taxation, while Vietnam more by inflation. Finally, Edelstein examines the opportunity costs of the wars by examining the lost capital and investment in public and private enterprises, as described in tables 6.10-6.12. WWI’s opportunity costs included a reduction in nondurable goods consumption and investment in residential and business structures. WWII, held back any growth in consumption, and reduced investment, and the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam reduced non-durable consumption and relied on deficit financing.

Another broad trend of the twentieth century was the growth of international trade. Peter Lindert, in Chapter 7, “U.S. Foreign Trade and Trade Policy in the Twentieth Century,” examines changes in America’s competitive advantage, the goals of government policy, and their impact on trade. Over the century, he finds a steady increase in the advantage of American skill-intensive goods, with exports increasing. This was not the case for natural resource-based exports. Lindert notes that some industries lost competitive advantage over time, particularly, steel and autos. Although protectionism rose and fell, efforts to promote infant industries never dominated U.S. trade policy. Lindert concludes that U.S. government intervention played no major role in determining which sectors increased or lost competitiveness. Market forces were dominant.

Chapter 8, “U.S. Foreign Financial Relations in the Twentieth Century” by Barry Eichengreen, continues the examination of international trade and monetary patterns. This is one of the best summaries of the financial history of the twentieth century I have seen. It is so complete that students should find it especially useful. The theme of the chapter is that international financial transactions and the institutions that governed them significantly influenced the growth and formation of the American economy. More narrowly, foreign investment led to railroad construction, and more broadly, the business cycle and responses to it were shaped by international capital flows. A related theme is that U.S. financial flows have affected other economies. U.S. capital contributed to European reconstruction following WWI and less positively, transmitted the American depression in the 1930s to other economies. American capital flows had an even greater impact after WWII. Eichengreen examines the gold standard and international financial management during WWI and the associated transformation of U.S. foreign finance. He notes that the United States became more of a creditor at that time, raising policy tensions for balancing internal and external financial markets. This tension was very apparent during the start of the depression, when the U.S. retreated from its international financial position with devaluation and the move off the gold standard. World War II and post-war reconstruction once again increased the role of the United States in the international monetary system. Eichengreen cites Lend Lease, other foreign aid through the Marshall Plan, international borrowing for reconstruction, the Bretton Woods Conference, and the IMF as examples of the key contribution provided by the U.S. in the latter part of the century.

Chapter 9, “Twentieth Century American Population Growth,” by Richard Easterlin shifts attention from financial flows to demographic patterns. This chapter by another leading scholar in the field provides valuable demographic data and charts that outline key trends. Easterlin summarizes patterns that emerged during the century — fertility and mortality continued to decline — and discusses contributing factors. Internal migration to the West, noted earlier in the volume by Carol Heim, is examined in more detail. During the twentieth century, international migration ebbed and flowed, and by the end of the period became a major contributor to population growth. Easterlin concludes with discussion of the implications of the general aging of the population, a pattern offset somewhat by immigration.

Another very complete and useful chapter is by Claudia Goldin, “Labor Markets in the Twentieth Century,” Chapter 10. Goldin summarizes major trends in American labor markets and provides valuable data to demonstrate those trends. Labor gained enormously over the century in terms of increases in real hourly earnings, enhanced worker benefits, reduced hours per week, a reduction in years of work over lifetime, and greater security in the face of unemployment, old age, sickness, and job injury. Goldin argues that these improvements were not really due to union activity or to legislation. They mostly followed from market conditions. Over the century, the face of labor changed. There was a decline in child labor and work by the elderly. The labor force participation of women, however, rose sharply from around 18 percent at the turn of the century to close to 50 percent of the labor force by the end. There were other changes in the labor market, including a shift from manufacturing to service with greater emphasis on skill. The distributional implications of this change in labor markets were noted earlier in Chapter 4. Goldin also points out that workers gained more protection from unemployment, acquired more formal education, and developed increased long-term relationships with firms over the century. At the same time, less discretion was given to supervisors and foremen in hiring and firing and more labor decisions were determined by formal workplace rules. There were fewer strikes and greater reliance on rewards than on punishment by managers. The observed evolution of modern labor markets in the U.S. has affected both individual well being and the performance of the macro economy. Still, Goldin points out that there are differences across region, among immigrants, and across skill levels. She summarizes major twentieth century intervention in the job market, including the enactment of Social Security legislation, OSHA, and the passage of the Wagner Act. Even so, Goldin argues that these actions did not fundamentally change labor markets. Rather, they reinforced market trends. Among the useful data provided are labor force participation; the industrial distribution of the labor force; occupational distribution; self employment figures; productivity measures; data on earnings, benefits, and hours; union membership; unemployment; wage inequality; black/white differences; and the contribution of education.

The discussion of labor markets continues in Chapter 11, “Labor Law” by Christopher Tomlins. Tomlins provides institutional background for the experiences described by Goldin. He traces the beginning of labor law in England and its transfer to the United States in the eighteenth century. He examines the roles of the judicial and legislative bodies in the U.S. in framing labor markets. Unionization, the adoption of workers’ compensation, the granting of anti-trust exemption to unions, the labor provisions of the NIRA and the Wagner Act, as well as Taft Hartley legislation are described.

Chapter 12 turns to agriculture, “The Transformation of Northern Agriculture, 1910-1990,” by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. The well-written introduction summarizes changes in American agriculture in the north during the century, including the decline in the number of farms and farmers and increases in productivity. Improvements in transportation and communication better linked agriculture with the rest of the economy. Olmstead and Rhode examine three themes: sources of technological change, the farm crisis, and government intervention. They begin with discussion of regional contrasts in farm size and number of farms between 1910 and 1990. They emphasize the importance of technological change in explaining these trends. Most productivity change occurred after 1940. There was a labor-saving bias, and a machinery and fertilizer-using bias in technological change. Mechanization was spurred by the internal combustion engine and improved tractor design. The chemical and biological revolutions brought hybrid seeds. Olmstead and Rhode describe the roles of the federal government in providing telephone and electricity to rural areas, in promoting research through the Hatch Act and the agricultural experiment stations, and in subsidizing agriculture. Declining commodity prices, worsening terms of trade, and falling farm populations led to greater federal support of agriculture, beginning in the 1920s, expanding during the New Deal, and continuing through the rest of the century.

While international financial flows were described in Chapter 8 by Barry Eichengreen, Eugene White completes the discussion with focus on internal developments in Chapter 13, “Banking and Finance in the Twentieth Century.” White argues that twentieth century American economic growth was financed by a expanded flow of funds, channeled by alternating waves of financial institutional innovation and government regulation. Government regulation was expanded through adoption of the Federal Reserve System and through various pieces of New Deal legislation, such as the Glass-Steagall Act. White describes the tension that subsequently emerged later in the century between market forces and the regulatory structure that ultimately resulted in political pressure for deregulation. He describes the actions of the Federal Reserve Bank between1913 and 1929 and its relative ineffectiveness in the late 1920s and early 1930s in response to bank failures. This discussion effectively supplements that provided by Eichengreen and Temin. He outlines the consequences of the New Deal and its legacy for financial markets in the last part of the century.

The role of technological change in twentieth century American economic development was emphasized by Abramovitz and David in Chapter 1 and by Goldin in Chapter 10. David Mowery and Nathan Rosenberg examine technology in more detail in Chapter 14, “Twentieth-Century Technological Change.” The distinctive feature of the twentieth century, according to Mowery and Rosenberg, was the institutionalization of the inventive process within firms, universities, and government laboratories. There was emphasis on the use of the scientific method to promote invention and practical use of technology. The authors describe the organization of research and development and the incremental adoption of new technology to improve products and processes. They link the contribution of technology to the pattern of American economic growth. Mowery and Rosenberg note, as well, that as the century progressed, international flows of technology increased through reductions in trade barriers. They show that early technological change tended to be linked with resource endowments and occurred within the chemical and petroleum industries. But there were other examples and the chapter includes short case studies of the internal combustion engine, the automobile and airplane industries, plastics, synthetic fibers, pharmaceuticals, electric power and electronics in production and in consumer products, semi conductors, and of course, computer hardware and software. They provide measures of the growth of industrial R&D and its ties to university research and government investment.

Much R&D occurred within modern corporations, and Louis Galambos describes the development of the corporation in Chapter 15, “The U.S. Corporate Economy in the Twentieth Century.” He outlines the U.S. business system, and argues that there were three major changes: a shift to the corporate form of organization and the development of a high degree of concentration at the beginning of the century; the movement toward the multi-division firm in the 1940s and 1950s, as illustrated by Ford and AT&T; and most significantly, the development of global organizations in the latter part of the century.

Big business and big government collided, as described in Chapter 16, “Government Regulation of Business,” by Richard Vietor. Vietor argues that the growth of regulation over the century in part was due to market failure and in part due to the strategic use of government by firms to enhance their competitive position. He usefully summaries theories of regulation, including the public interest and capture views. Vietor also describes the role of regulatory bodies, which were increasingly influential across the century. He highlights early anti-trust policy, New Deal regulation, and social and environmental regulation in the latter part of the century. He also discusses the deregulation that took place in some industries, notably, in airlines, telecommunications, petroleum and natural gas, and utilities.

The final chapter, “The Public Sector,” by Elliott Brownlee completes the discussion introduced by Vietor. Brownlee describes the growth of government in the twentieth century with data on the relative sizes of the federal, state, and local sectors. He emphasizes Robert Higgs’ crisis argument in explaining the expansion of the public sector. The importance of WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII are noted. Deregulation, however, remains more difficult to understand.

As I indicated in the beginning of this review, Volume III of the Cambridge Economic History of the United States is a superb companion to the earlier two volumes and is an essential addition to the libraries of all serious students of the American economy.

Gary D. Libecap is former editor of the Journal of Economic History. His books include Titles, Conflict and Land Use: The Development of Property Rights and Land Reform on the Brazilian Amazon Frontier (with Lee Alston and Bernardo Mueller) University of Michigan Press, 1999; The Federal Civil Service and the Problem of Bureaucracy: The Economics and Politics of Institutional Change, (with Ronald Johnson), University of Chicago Press and NBER, 1994, The Political Economy of Regulation: An Historical Analysis of Government and the Economy (co-editor with Claudia Goldin), University of Chicago Press and NBER, 1994, and Contracting for Property Rights, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.


Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940

Author(s):Mohun, Arwen
Mohu, Arwen

Published by EH.Net (November 2000)

Arwen Mohun. Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United

States and Great Britain, 1880-1940. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins

University Press, 1999. x + 348 pp. ISBN 0-8018-6002-4 (cloth, $19.95).

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Jeffrey M. Hornstein, PhD candidate in

the Department of History, University of Maryland.

A large part of the cultural history of the American twentieth century

revolves around domestic appliances. If this seems a bit overstated, recall

the 1959 “kitchen debate” between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S.

Vice President Richard Nixon in which much of the discussion revolved around

which adversary in the Cold War was better able to “liberate” its women from

domestic tasks through appliances. Particular mention was made of the washing

machine, by 1959 a feature in the majority of American homes, but a very small

minority of Soviet homes. As Elaine Tyler May and others have argued, the

domestic scene was a crucial site of Cold War cultural contestation, fought

largely along gender and class lines. The washing machine was an icon of

postwar American prosperity. It became axiomatic that middle class Americans

did their own laundry in the privacy of their own(ed) homes. Public

laundromats existed either for those not yet able to become home owners with a

pair of spanking new Kenmore machines in their basement, or those marginal few

in the so-called underclass who would never really fit in anyway.

Arwen Mohun’s Steam Laundries helps us to understand why the leaders of two

nuclear superpowers found themselves arguing about washing machines. Though

it is much, much more than that, at one level Mohun’s book is part of the

“path not taken” genre in the history of technology. She tells a

transatlantic tale of the failed attempt to industrialize women’s most dreaded

chore, laundry, and the gender and class troubles attendant to that attempt.

Had Mohun’s laundrymen succeeded in preempting the spread of individual

washing machines by convincing Anglo-American women to eschew performing this

onerous task themselves, the Nixon-Khruschev debate would have been very

different, and one wonders what possibilities for discussion might have opened

up. Alas, we shall never know.

But Mohun’s main project is trying to explain how and why the laundrymen

failed, and in the course of telling this story, Mohun provides a compelling,

rich, multi-layered history of modern America and Britain. In a style both

scholarly and eminently readable, she tells a tale that captures several large

histories in a deceptively “little” topic, the rise and fall of the steam

laundry industry from about 1880 through 1950. In 280 pages, the reader is

taken on a journey through not only the history of the failed attempt by some

industrialists in the United States and Britain to remove one of the most

onerous of the traditional “women’s jobs” from the home, but through several

other stories as well. We learn about the technology of laundering, the

history of women’s trade unionism in both the US and Britain, the history of

progressivism in all its glorious ambiguity, and the masculine world of the

trade association. The latter Mohun suggestively, but somewhat cursorily,

analyzes through the lens of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community.” (An

extended analysis of the laundrymen’s social and cultural milieu is found in

her 1997 article in Technology and Culture, “Laundrymen Construct Their

World.” This reader wondered why it was left out of the book.).

By way of contextualizing the “laundry problem,” Steam Laundries begins

with a very useful discussion of the history of cleanliness. In the nineteenth

century, middle class Americans and Britons became “voracious consumers of

cleanliness” (32) as they came to associate foul odors and dirty clothes with

disease and moral laxity. In fact, Mohun suggests that cleanliness was a key

marker of middle class identity in this period of increasing urbanization and

its attendant filth. Middle class people became concerned not only with

their own cleanliness, with distinguishing themselves from the “unwashed

masses” – the clean, white, starched, and ironed shirt became a central symbol

of middle class self-presentation – but also with the laundering process

itself. Cleanliness was “gradually gendered.” Women came to be seen as “the

cleaner sex, better able to judge the clean from the unclean” and “to oversee

the consumption of cleanliness” (33). Thus were the cultural foundations laid

for both the gendered division of labor within the industrial laundry, and the

extremely durable link between laundry and domesticity.

This allows Mohun to argue that the failure of the “laundry industry” to

rescue women from the dreaded domestic chore has at least as much to do with

gender and class as it does with technology. It is a story full of irony.

The technologies developed and promoted by industrial laundrymen ultimately

were privatized, so to speak, and configured into home-sized packages, thus

undermining the industry. At the same time, the laundrymen failed to figure

industrial laundries as more hygienic and efficient than home laundering.

Mohun suggests that technology, politics, and economics conspired to make

privatized laundering a nearly irresistible option: cheaper machines,

widespread electrification and water and sewage systems, and expanded consumer

credit led to a boom in machine purchases beginning in the 1920s. Ironically,

Mohun notes, the Depression gave washing machines an advantage over commercial

laundries. Price wars among manufacturers, installment plans with little or

no down payment, and the rational consumer strategy of investing in durable

goods all played a role in sealing the fate of the industrial laundry. At the

same time, culture played a crucial role. Not surprisingly, racism factored

into the equation, as washing machine and soap manufacturers associated

commercial laundries – which employed significant numbers of African American

women – with miscegenation, stirring fears of “other people’s dirt and the

dirt of workers” (259). Advertisers relentlessly sold the idea that the

washing machine was a crucial status symbol and used “emotional selling” to

associate the machine with marital bliss and the health of children. Gender

and ethnicity intertwined, as one machine dealer in an immigrant community put

up a window display suggesting that “real American men spared their wives the

tortures of washday” with appliances (264).

Yet, there is a counterfactual question that haunts the book. Why would one

expect industrial laundries to have succeeded in either Britain or the United

States? (Not surprisingly, industrial laundries were quite prevalent in

Khruschev’s USSR.) A master theme in twentieth century American life has

surely been the increasing privatization of things through technology. One

can chart a variety of shifts from the social to the private: children’s

leisure from playground to backyard; adult leisure from the social experience

of the cinema to the private experience of television and video;

transportation from the streetcar to the automobile. Why would laundry buck

this trend? Mohun suggests that an important factor in explaining the decline

was also the standardization of the washing machine, a “quintessential

twentieth-century technology,” as opposed to the localism of the commercial

laundry. Ultimately, then, mass production and mass culture combined forces

to produce a result that might seem paradoxical – reinforcing privatization.

Minor criticism notwithstanding, Steam Laundries is a fabulous book,

deserving of a wide audience among social historians, business and economic

historians, historians of technology, and gender historians, suitable for use

in upper-division undergraduate courses and graduate seminars. The Johns

Hopkins University Press has done its usual fine job of editing, and the final

product is visually appealing, loaded with illustrations, and well organized.

One only hopes it comes out in a more affordable paper edition soon.

Jeffrey Hornstein’s main research interests are the relationship betweeen

subjectivity/identity and political economy in 20th century USA. His latest

publication is “The Rise of the Realtor: Professionalism, Gender, and

Middle-Class Identity,” in Middling Sorts: An Exploration in the History of

the American Middle Class, Burton Bledstein and Robert Johnston (eds.),

Routledge, 2000.

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

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

State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the Unite dStates, 1876-1914

Author(s):Friedman, Gerald
Reviewer(s):Dubofsky, Melvyn

Published by EH.NET (January 2000)

Gerald Friedman, State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the United

States, 1876-1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. xiv + 317

pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-2325-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Melvyn Dubofsky, Departments of History and Sociology,

Binghamton University, SUNY.<>

Gerald Friedman, an associate professor of economics at the University of

Massachusetts-Amherst, has written a book that resonates with the spirit of the

last decade of the twentieth century. Although his subject is the growth,

character, and composition of the French and U.S. labor movements in the era of

the Second International, the apogee of Marxism, Friedman views the past

through the lens of the present, a time when labor retreats,

Marxism has been declared dead, and “there is no alternative (TINA)” in sight

to a voracious global capitalism. Based on his comparison of the U.S. and

French labor movements between the 1870s and World War I, Friedman concludes

first, that workers cannot advance their interests without non-working-class

allies and a sympathetic state, and, second, that “orthodox” Marxists, then

and later, were wrong in their economic determinism (historical materialism)

and revolutionary teleology.

Friedman uses the comparative history of U.S. and French labor movements to

make his case. Not only that; he also attempts to reverse the conventional

portrait of the two national labor movements. He suggests that an increasingly

radical and militant French labor movement led by revolutionary syndicalists

grew more rapidly than its U.S. counterpart;

better served the material interests of its members; and succeeded in

organizing the “towering heights” of the French economy, its mass-production

enterprises. By way of contrast, after 1904, a

“conservative” “pure and simple” U.S. labor movement failed to advance; did

little or nothing for the great mass of workers; and failed absolutely to

penetrate the dominant “Fordist” sector of the economy. How does Friedman

explain the relative success of French labor and failure of U.S. labor?

Simply put, he argues that trade unions and the labor movements in both

countries were too weak alone to counteract the greater power of capitalists.

In France, however, Republicans could not defend the Third Republic against

Monarchists and reactionaries (with whom businesspeople allied) without the

support of labor. Hence the French state protected unions against attacks by

capital and encouraged public mediation in place of private or public

repression. In the U.S., however, a liberal state faced no challenge from

anti-Republican reactionaries, hence had no need to build alliances with labor,

and thus enabled employers to crush unions and,

on occasion, used public power to the same end. Put another way, as Friedman

does, the dynamics of French politics and state-making enabled labor to drift

left and remain rhetorically revolutionary while the political process in the

U.S. left labor no choice but to practice

“prudential unionism” and the principle of sauve qui peut.

Does Friedman establish his case? Here I remain less convinced. As an

economist trained in the use of statistics and quantification, Friedman deploys

a variety of data bases, tables, graphs, standard deviations, and regression

analyses to prove his points. A review of this length is not the place to

engage in a debate over the validity of such quantifiable evidence. Suffice it

to say that the meaning of Friedman’s numbers can be interpreted in more than

one way. I prefer to focus on more substantial shortcomings. Are

France and the U.S. actually a good comparison, and is it true, as Friedman

claims (p. 12), that the economic and political differences between the two

nations “were relatively small.” Yes, the U.S.

and France were both capitalist economies and republican polities. Beyond

that, however, it seems to me that enormous differences loomed. One nation was

a centralized, unitary state administered by a trained bureaucracy and governed

by codified legal principles under Roman law. The other was a decentralized,

federal state lacking a trained cadre of administrators and governed by a

common law regime that gave judges enormous autonomy and authority. One nation

had a relatively, large and stable agricultural sector characterized by

small-scale peasant farming and a manufacturing sector dominated in the main

by relatively small enterprises dependent on skilled craftsmen adept at

small-batch production. The other had an agricultural sector that declined

quite rapidly relative to the non-agricultural sector and in

which large holdings increasingly characterized the dynamic staple-producing,

export-driven side of farming;

it also had an industrial sector increasingly characterized by gargantuan

enterprises employing armies of machine operators to mass produce capital and

consumer goods. Should one expect comparable trajectories for labor movements

in Fordist and pre-Fordist economic regimes?

And what of Friedman’s portrait of the histories of the French and U.S.

labor movements? Was the French movement relatively successful as compared to

the one in the U.S.? Did French unions really succeed before World War I in

unionizing among employees in large-scale, mass-production enterprises?

Were U.S. unions as loath to organize the less skilled and as disdainful of

workers in the mass-production sector as Friedman claims? Friedman’s own

statistical and written data fail to answer those questions. If typical French

locals were as small as Friedman’s data indicate, indeed on average far smaller

than U.S. union locals, how could they be characterized as examples of

successful industrial unionism? For an economist trained in quantification,

Friedman provides precious little data in the way of comparative wage rates,

annual earnings, hours of work, working conditions,

and consumption standards, to judge the relative impact of French and U.S.

unions on the lives of their members. Did U.S. unions fail to organize less

skilled mass-production workers because their leaders were narrow-minded,

selfish, chauvinistic, and sexist individuals or because their adversaries

were too powerful, as Friedman’s own evidence suggests?

Does Friedman’s explication of comparative business history and politics in the

two nations work any better? His businesspeople on both sides of the Atlantic

proved equally anti-union but were French entrepreneurs more reactionary, even

Monarchist, hierarchical paternalists than their U.S.

republican, individualistic brothers in capitalism? Did French employers seek

to keep their employees out of unions by playing the “good father” to

obedient, deferential workers, while U.S. employers designed welfare capitalism

to encourage competitive individualism among their more skilled employees? I

suggest that Friedman read carefully the testimony of leading

“welfare capitalists” before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations

(1913-15) to see how they perceived their loyal workers as children who

preferred not to think or to act on their own. Or that he visit Binghamton,

New York, the home of one of the most notable practitioners of welfare

capitalism, the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company (mistakenly called

Endicott-Peabody in the text, p. 197, and index) and view the statue of George

F. Johnson erected in George F. Johnson Recreation Park which features the

patron patronizing two adorable children, or the two arches erected by local

shoe workers to honor their patron. Finally, what of politics? Was the French

state and its republican majority more dependent on working-class votes and

more solicitous of working-class interests than its U.S. counterparts? Again I

find Friedman’s evidence problematic. One of French labor’s friends in power,

Georges Clemenceau, as described by Friedman, in 1906 sent troops to the Nord

and the Pas de Calais to break a coal miner’s strike and

repress riotous behavior by the strikers. Yet in Friedman’s words, Clemenceau

“restrained labor militancy…to preserve republican order, to protect the

Republic. But he never acted merely to bolster capitalist authority, never

acceded to the demands of

employers and the right that he crush organized labor or reject the right of

workers to form unions and to strike. Instead he continued to support labor

organization and to promote collective bargaining as the basis for social peace

and a new republican order (p. 202).” How did this differ from Theodore

Roosevelt’s logic four years earlier during the strike of anthracite coal

miners in northeastern Pennsylvania, when he threatened to send troops not to

repress labor but to seize the mines? Or from the lab or policies of Woodrow

Wilson on the eve of World War I or Herbert Hoover in the 1920s? Workers voted

in the U.S. as well as in France; their leaders also sought to practice

coalition politics; and some, if not all,

office-holders sought labor’s votes.

Friedman also might have done well to temper his criticism of Karl Marx and

“orthodox Marxism.” After all, Marx’s voluminous writings are like scripture,

subject to multiple interpretations and open to the principle that “seek and ye

shall find.” Moreover,

in his haste to make a case for historical contingency and human agency,

Friedman might have done well to recall Marx’s sage words from the

Eighteenth Brumaire, that man indeed makes his own history, but only

“under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain

of the living.” In his neglect of that astute advice, Friedman misconstrues

Marx’s faith in human agency as well as his “third thesis on Feuerbach.” In

that thesis Marx did not write declaratively, as Friedman cites him (p. 297)

“that it is men who change circumstances and that it is essential to educate

the educator himself.” Rather, Marx asked in response to those who believed

that education could alter society, “Who educates the educator?”

Lest I appear too critical of Friedman’s effort to make us think more

critically about the past and also to remind us about paths not taken as a

result of human volition, let me close by suggesting that this is a book well

worth reading and pondering. Whether its author is right or wrong in many of

his claims, he does make readers consider carefully significant historical and

contemporary issues. And he is certainly right that labor cannot advance its

material and moral interests without non-working-class allies in state and

society, a truth perhaps more to the point today than ever in the past.

Melvyn Dubofsky is Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology at

Binghamton University, SUNY. This spring the University of Illinois Press will

publish a collection of his essays titled Hard Work: The Making of Labor

History. It will also publish a new abridged paperback version of his

history, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of

the World.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840 (reviewed in both English and Spanish)

Author(s):Marsh, Ben
Reviewer(s):Luque Pecci, José María

Published by EH.Net (March 2023).

Ben Marsh. Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 502 pp. $39.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1108418287.

Reviewed for EH.Net by José María Luque Pecci.

[Note: A Spanish-language review also appears in this document, after the English-language review.]


Although the history of silk in the Atlantic system is the history of a raw material which was never intended to be a mass consumer product, it has not ceased to be of economic interest and to be in the minds of many entrepreneurs. Ben Marsh presents a titanic work with fine historical details, in which the history of silk associated with the American Colonization is “unravelled” like a silk thread. The evolution of the silk business in the three main empires involved in the colonization of America is explained by means of private, social, and institutional motivations up to the early years of the United States.

The work presents three distinct parts: Emergence, Persistence, and Convergence of silk production in the Atlantic system. The author explains the birth and distribution of silk production nuclei over 340 years (1500–1840), from the European discovery of America until the consolidation of the United States as a nation.

The Emergence of silk in the colonized American territories begins with an accurate and documented relationship between the conquest of the kingdom of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs and the establishment of sericulture in American lands. The interest in silk cultivation of important figures in the early days of American colonization, such as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (p. 54), is striking. The question about why silk represented a possible source of wealth for the colonized lands is immediately answered. In the Americas initially discovered, from the Caribbean islands to the Mexican lands, species of native mulberry trees were discovered. Since the existence or cultivation of mulberry trees is the starting point of any silk exploitation, the colonizers considered the opportunities for sericulture (breeding silkworms and cultivating silk). This was also the case in the English colonies of the Bahamas and Virginia, as well as the French colonies of the Mississippi Delta (p. 188). Thus, the presence of mulberry trees in the lands was the common motivating factor, but problems with labour represented a stumbling block.

After 200 years of American colonization, it was the English silk enterprises which consolidated silk production as a productive activity. The strong development of the textile manufacturing industry in Great Britain, and the dynamic population growth in its Atlantic colonies (p. 225), made the Persistence of sericulture possible, something which the Spanish and French had already abandoned at the beginning of the 18th century. It is also necessary to add other factors for the persistence of silk activities: the Enlightenment and scientific promotion. The birth of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a clear example of how institutional influence based on the development of science in the English territories fostered the excellence and success of colonial silk farms in Georgia and other colonies.

The third part of the book concentrates on the last years of the British dominions in North America and in the subsequent period called the Age of Revolutions (the American and French Revolutions). The author explains how silk production underwent a moral interpretation as a product of clear imperial tradition: silk was produced in the colonies and woven in England, and many raised their voices against it as a product that was the standard-bearer of European inequality. Cleverly, the Americans reconverted silk into a product of national pride, promoting the elaboration of fabrics in the territories of the incipient country (Convergence). The experience of George Washington, who in his first appearance as president on 30 April 1789, wore a suit of fine Connecticut cloth along with American-made silk stockings, illustrates the point.

Along with the detailed micro-historical passages that weave this magnificent work, it is necessary to highlight two social and economic phenomena that accompany the whole journey: Female and Child Labour, and Slavery. The role of Female and Child Labour in pre-industrial manufacturing such as sericulture is well known. (See, for example, Maxime Berg’s 1985 book The Age of Manufactures). Throughout Marsh’s book, we can observe activities associated with silkworm rearing that were performed by women and children. Collecting mulberry leaves, feeding the worms, taking care of the rearing facilities, were activities that would certainly not be performed by men, who were employed in more physically demanding tasks. Spinning, which is the first phase of the silk manufacturing process, was traditionally carried out by women (p. 192). This book adds to the literature on the importance of women in pre-industrial development. Women in the Americas, of European, African, and Native American descent, were linked to the second and shameful phenomenon: slavery. Slavery accompanied almost every episode recounted in this book. First, there is the enslavement of Native Americans that accompanied the Spanish colonization with the encomienda system. Under this system, the natives were ceded to Spanish or Creole landowners who sometimes acted as true slavers. Secondly, there is the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, first in the colonies of the three empires mentioned in the book, and later in the Southern states of the United States. As expected, slavery was closely connected to the North Atlantic silk trade due to the labour problems cited above.

What could be called the history of a failure – “Much (American sericulture) had been proven to be possible, but rarely had it been proven to be profitable” (p.453) – in my opinion, is the history of human development itself. It is the history of those who tried new enterprises and faced the difficulties of promoting an economic activity from scratch and obtaining some profit. The history of the silk industry told here is the history of a commodity, which, although it did not become the economic engine of entire regions, was a source of wealth for some local cases.

Finally, it should be noted that the work on all the sources that accompanies this masterpiece is of such dimension that it would be unfair to highlight one or another more than the others, but the great diversity of archives, languages and types of documents is worth mentioning. A meta-analysis of the book leads to the conclusion that it is a work of historical research, which could not be more exhaustive and complete. The immense myriad of sources used and logically placed, are a sublime example of rigor.


José María Luque Pecci is a doctoral student in economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona whose thesis project is “Exports through the Port of Cadiz as an Indicator of Spanish Textile Production, 1720-1820.” He has also researched the contribution of the “high wages” of spinners to the First Industrial Revolution.


Spanish-language version


Ben Marsh. Unravelled Dreams. Silk and the Atlantic World: 1500–1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 502 pp. $39.99 (de tapa dura), ISBN 978-1108418287.

La historia de la seda en el sistema Atlántico es la historia de una materia prima que nunca estuvo llamada a ser un producto de consumo masivo pero no por ello dejó de tener interés económico y de estar en la cabeza de muchos emprendedores. Ben Marsh presenta una obra titánica donde se cuenta la historia de la seda asociada a la colonización de América pasando por finísimos detalles históricos como si de un hilo de seda se tratase, uniendo motivaciones privadas, sociales e institucionales para explicar el desarrollo que tuvo el negocio de la seda en los tres imperios que principalmente colonizaron América, hasta llegar a los primeros años de los Estados Unidos.

La obra presenta tres partes bien diferenciadas, aparición, persistencia y convergencia de la producción sedera en el sistema Atlántico, donde explica el nacimiento y distribución de los núcleos de producción sedera a lo largo de 340 años (1500–1840), desde el descubrimiento de América hasta la consolidación de los Estados Unidos de América como nación.

La aparición de la seda en los territorios americanos colonizados comienza con una acertadísima y documentada relación entre la conquista del reino de Granada por los Reyes Católicos y la implantación de la sericultura en tierras americanas. Llama la atención el interés que figuras tan importantes en los primeros días de la colonización americana como Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (p. 54) tuvieron por el cultivo de la seda. A la pregunta de ¿Por qué se plantea la seda como posible fuente de riqueza para las tierras colonizadas? la respuesta es inmediata. En toda la América inicialmente descubierta, desde las islas del caribe hasta las tierras mexicanas se descubrieron especies de moreras autóctonas que llamaron a sus conocedores a plantear la posibilidad de cultivar seda. Porque efectivamente, la existencia o cultivo de moreras es el punto de partida de toda explotación sedera. Este es también el caso en las colonias inglesas de Bahamas y Virginia o el de las francesas del delta del Missisipi (p. 188) en el intento de desarrollar la sericultura. Si la presencia de moreras en las tierras descubiertas para el mundo occidental fue ese factor motivador común, los problemas con la mano de obra fue uno de las principales escollos que encontraron los emprendedores.

Tras doscientos años de colonización americana fueron las experiencias inglesas las que se consolidaron como actividad productiva (persistencia). El fuerte desarrollo de la industria manufacturera textil en las islas británicas y el dinámico crecimiento poblacional de las colonias atlánticas (p. 225) sirvieron para mantener e incrementar las explotaciones sederas que españoles y franceses ya habían abandonado comenzando el siglo XVIII. Es necesario añadir también otro factor de persistencia de las actividades sederas como es la ilustración y la promoción científica. El nacimiento de la RSA “premium society” (p. 298) es un claro ejemplo de cómo el influjo institucional basado en el desarrollo de la ciencia en los territorios ingleses fomentó la excelencia y el éxito de explotaciones en colonias como Georgia.

Ya en la tercera parte, centrados en los últimos años de los dominios británicos en norte América y en el periodo posterior llamado la era de las revoluciones (Americana y Francesa), el autor nos explica cómo la producción sedera pasó el trámite moral de ser un producto de clara tradición imperial, la seda se producía en las colonias y se tejía en Inglaterra, donde no pocos alzaron la voz en contra de un producto que abanderaba la desigualdad europea. Inteligentemente lo supieron reconvertir en un producto de orgullo nacional fomentando la elaboración de los tejidos en los territorios del incipiente país (convergencia). La experiencia de George Washington (p.  403) que en 1789 en su primera aparición como presidente vistió un traje de paño fino de Connecticut junto a unas medias de seda también americanas zanja magistralmente el debate.

Junto a los detallados pasajes micro-históricos que tejen esta magnífica obra es necesario resaltar dos fenómenos social-económicos que acompañan en todo el camino, el trabajo femenino e infantil y la esclavitud. El trabajo femenino e infantil asociado a las labores manufactureras preindustriales es bien conocido (The Age of Manufactures, Maxime Berg, 1985) y no es menos importante en la sericultura. A lo largo de la obra podemos observar actividades asociadas a la cría del gusano de seda que eran desempeñadas por mujeres y niños. Recolección de las hojas de la morera, alimentación de los gusanos, cuidado de las instalaciones de cría, eran actividades que seguramente no serían realizadas por hombres, empleados en tareas más físicas como el arado de tierras o el acarreo de mercancías. Además, la primera fase manufacturera en la obtención de la seda consiste en el hilado, la actividad preindustrial que desembocó en las primeras experiencias industriales de éxito (Cotton Mills) y que era realizada por mujeres, pues bien, en el caso de la seda esta responsabilidad recayó también en la manos expertas de éstas (p. 192). Sirva esta obra como un ejemplo más de la importancia del trabajo femenino en la modernización económica del siglo XVIII. Mujeres, en el caso americano, de ascendencia europea, africana o nativa americana, lo que enlaza con el segundo y vergonzante fenómeno económico-social. La esclavitud acompaña a casi todos los episodios que se relatan en la obra. En primer lugar la esclavitud de nativos americanos que acompañaron a la colonización española con el sistema de encomiendas, donde los nativos eran cedidos a los propietarios de la tierra españoles o criollos que actuaban en ocasiones como verdaderos esclavistas. En segundo lugar la esclavitud de africanos y afroamericanos, primero en las colonias de los tres imperios citados en la obra y posteriormente en los estados sureños de los Estados Unidos. Como era de esperar tanto la esclavitud nativo-americana como la africana estuvieron muy relacionadas con la historia de la seda en el Atlántico Norte quedando patente en varios capítulos del libro.

Lo que en términos generales se podría llamar la historia de un fracaso, “Much (American sericulture) had been proven to be possible, but rarely had it been proven to be profitable” (p. 453), es en realidad la misma historia del hombre y su desarrollo, la historia de los que lo intentaron y afrontaron las dificultades de promover una actividad económica desde cero, que si bien no se convirtió en motor económico de regiones enteras sí fue fuente de riqueza para algunos casos locales.

Para terminar, hay que destacar que el trabajo de fuentes que acompaña a esta obra es de tal dimensión que sería injusto resaltar una u otra más que las demás, pero sí cabe reseñar la gran diversidad de archivos, lenguas y tipos de documentos. Haciendo un meta-análisis de la obra, la conclusión es que se trata de un trabajo de investigación histórica, que no puede ser más exhaustiva y completa. La inmensa miríada de fuentes utilizadas y colocadas de forma lógica son un ejemplo sublime de rigurosidad.


José María Luque Pecci es economista por la Universidad de Sevilla e historiador económico por las Universidades de Barcelona y Autónoma de Barcelona. Actualmente está doctorando por la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona con el proyecto de tesis “Las exportaciones por el puerto de Cádiz como indicador de la producción textil española. 1720-1820”. Desde el comienzo de sus estudios de posgrado en historia económica se ha interesado por la producción textil en el siglo XVIII presentando como trabajo fin de máster el ensayo, “¿Fueron los altos salarios de las hilanderas motor de la primera industrialización? El debate High-Wage Low-Wage Economy.”

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (March 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Servitude and Slavery
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

Paul Allan David

Paul Allan David died on January 23, 2023, at his home in Palo Alto, at the age of 87, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Paul was a major figure in redefining economic history, though his research interests and influence ultimately ranged far beyond his original specialties. Influenced by his father Henry David, a distinguished historian of the American labor movement, Paul studied both parent disciplines even as an undergraduate at Harvard (1952-1956). Thus he became an early practitioner of what was then known as the New Economic History, now more often called Cliometrics: understanding historical economies through rigorously specified models and quantitative evidence. But Paul possessed far more historical sensibility than most cliometricians, cultivated during his postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge (1956-1958). Returning to Harvard, Paul worked with Alexander Gerschenkron, pursuing an ambitious thesis project on the economic history of Chicago. Harvard awarded him a Ph.D. in 1973, not because he had completed the dissertation, but because by then he had compiled such an extensive publication record that they felt he had earned the degree!

Paul came to Stanford in 1961, maintaining that affiliation throughout his career. Even without a Ph.D., he advanced to Associate and then full Professor of Economics. Degree in hand, he served as department chair from 1979 to 1983. Perhaps Paul’s deepest legacy for Stanford was establishing the school as a leading center for economic history. The joint Berkeley-Stanford Colloquium, organized by Paul and Al Fishlow in the 1960s, was a focal point for Bay Area economic history for decades. At Stanford, the patriarch was Moe Abramovitz, who remained active in both research and workshops long after his retirement in 1979. But it was Paul who recruited or helped to recruit Nate Rosenberg, Gavin Wright, Avner Greif, and Ran Abramitzky – to name only those who became full professors of economics. We claim that there are more active economic historians from Stanford than from any other program. A much larger number of graduate students did not become history specialists but were exposed to Paul’s perspective through his teaching or that of his colleagues. We like to think that some of this historical thinking rubbed off and became something of a hallmark for a Stanford economics Ph.D.

Always an economic historian, Paul soon extended his horizons in diverse and seemingly disparate directions. He became a strong advocate of the view that historical research should be fundamental to the economics discipline; in brief, “history matters.” The essence of the argument was captured by Paul’s incisive account of the persistence of the QWERTY typewriter keyboard despite its technical disadvantages, one of the most cited articles in all of economics (AER 1985). “History Matters” is the title of a festschrift presented by a group of Paul’s former students in 2004, in which the editors write: “No scholar has more forcefully and influentially argued the case for making economics a truly historical social science – one that, like evolutionary biology, gives past events a central role in understanding the present.”

A continuing theme throughout Paul’s career was the diffusion of new technologies. An important early paper considered the adoption of the mechanical reaper in the American Midwest. Invention occurred in the 1830s, yet the first wave of adoption occurred only in the 1850s. The twenty-year delay, according to Paul, was explained by the fact that a minimum scale was required to cover the fixed costs of purchasing the reaper. Only when farm size passed this “threshold” did mechanization make economic sense. Specialists have debated the specifics ever since, but the basic form of Paul’s diffusion model has been highly influential. In many respects it formalized accounts of delayed diffusion presented by Nate Rosenberg, and thus became something of a “Stanford school” of thought in this area. Scrolling forward to 1990, the era of the “Solow paradox,” Paul offered an analogy between the delayed productivity effects of computer technology and a similar lag in the impact of electrification between the 1880s and the 1920s. With the IT-driven productivity surge of the late 1990s, this article also attained iconic status (AER 1990).

This line of inquiry led Paul into an extensive engagement with policy issues related to science and technology, such as the role of interoperability standards in the evolution of network industries. He was particularly active in Europe. Although Paul maintained his Stanford affiliation throughout his lifetime, beginning in 1993 he spent about half his time at All Souls College, moving to the Oxford Internet Institute from 2002 to 2008. From his Oxford base, Paul was a frequent participant in European networks dealing with the promotion and regulation of information technologies. His European colleagues presented Paul with a second festschrift in 2006, entitled: New Frontiers in the Economics of Innovation and New Technology.

Another of Paul’s enduring interests was demography, specifically the onset of fertility control in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Often working with his former graduate student Warren Sanderson, Paul pioneered techniques to measure the extent of fertility control from a type of data several countries collected in the early twentieth century. This “Cohort Parity Analysis” led to new insights into early fertility transitions in the United States, Ireland, and Great Britain. Paul also deployed his under-used talent as an economic theorist to better explicate how rational couples try to reduce completed family size when the only contraceptive methods available are costly and uncertain. His thinking on this issue induced an array of historically minded social scientists to rethink the evidence for early fertility transitions. His work in demography illustrates Paul’s belief in taking seriously the methods and ideas of other disciplines, as well as the considerable influence of his wife and occasional collaborator, Sheila Ryan Johansson.

These specialties would constitute an ample intellectual legacy for a normal scholar, but for Paul, they are only one component of a much larger total. He also made significant contributions in macroeconomics and growth accounting, natural resources, slavery, migration, and climate change, among other subject areas.

Paul’s academic honors are too numerous to be listed in full, but they include: Fellow of the Econometric Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and British Academy; Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge; President of the Economic History Association; President of the Western Economic Association International.

Paul married Janet M. Williamson in 1958. They later divorced. He married Sheila Ryan Johansson in 1982. In addition to Sheila, Paul is survived by children: Rachel, Matthew, Elizabeth and Kenneth; and five grandchildren.

Tim Guinnane, Bill Sundstrom, Gavin Wright

Department of Economics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

Author(s):DeLong, J. Bradford
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

J. Bradford DeLong. Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2022. 605 pp. $35 (hardback), ISBN 978-0465019595.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Northwestern University.


The twentieth century was like no other. That statement, of course, is true for any century, but economic historians will strongly argue that degree is everything, and that the twentieth century was more different. The evocative simile of a hockey-stick blade, which turns up sharply in the nineteenth century after a long flat handle, describes far more than just the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the associated rise in temperatures. It includes income, life expectancy, average years of schooling, and many other variables. It is thus with more than usual interest that our profession has looked forward to Brad DeLong’s long-awaited hefty volume that ventures to be a survey of the century worldwide.

The title of the book (not acknowledged) comes from W.B. Yeats’s famous poem of despair, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 after the mayhem of World War I:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(The title was also appropriated by Joan Didion in an essay on the San Francisco counterculture.) How many potential buyers of this book will get this allusion is something that an editor at Basic Books might know. The subtitle, of course, is more direct and will make every red-blooded economic historian want to plunk down for this (very reasonably priced) tome before rushing off to revise their class notes to reflect the insights of this widely respected and erudite scholar and public intellectual.

In many ways, they will not be disappointed. DeLong’s book, as will surprise no one, is exceedingly well written. It provides a narrative that is captivating, witty, often sardonic, at times even entertaining despite the often bleak realities it describes. The twentieth century, whatever else it was, was rarely boring: the rapid trend changes embodied in the hockey stick were punctuated by dramatic and often shocking events: two major wars; a great depression; the rise and fall of two brutal totalitarian movements that threatened and failed to take over the world; the rise and fall and rise of liberal democracies; and a long list of macro-inventions that changed material life on this planet in more dimensions than we can count. Arranged in a roughly chronological order, the book surveys the main events with a keen eye for irony and contingency, and while DeLong never hides his political and economic predilections, he writes with few distracting commitments to one ideological point of view or another.

This book is uncommon in that much of it is written in reference to intellectual history: far more than in most books called “an economic history of —” facts are juxtaposed with thoughts and thinkers. The writings of Hayek, Polanyi, Marx, Luxemburg, Friedman, Feldstein, Hobsbawm, and countless others are confronted with the historical developments as DeLong sees them. What influence did they have on how things turned out? DeLong is particularly fascinated by human folly, miscalculations, and plain ignorance. Time after time he cites some past essay or speech written by a policymaker or intellectual, adding his clear judgment: this was wrong. The only major twentieth century thinker who emerges entirely unscathed from DeLong’s critiques is John Maynard Keynes.

DeLong organizes his history around certain themes at the exclusion of others, which is of course his prerogative, and his choices illustrate his originality and imagination. A case where his out-of-the-box style shines through is his repeated juxtaposition of two influential thinkers of the mid twentieth century, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Polanyi, neither of whom was in the mainstream of economics. Hayek represents the belief in free enterprise and the strong resistance to regulation and redistribution, captured by DeLong’s phrase (repeated multiple times) “the market giveth and the market taketh away, the name of the market be blessed,” whereas Polanyi felt that the “invention” of the market economy during the Industrial Revolution (a wholly imaginary account) was a curse that threatened more fundamental human rights. For DeLong, the welfare states that emerged in the mixed economies in liberal post-1945 Europe represent a “shotgun marriage” between the two ideologies that otherwise shared nothing.

In many other places, DeLong provides keen insights, some big and some small, no more so than when he points out that much technological progress after 1945 was actually partially skill-reducing in that automation and mechanization could rely on workers with low human capital, and all the ingenuity was front-loaded by high-skill engineers and designers. Once that process got fully under way, firms had an irresistible temptation to outsource production to countries where low-skill labor was substantially cheaper — especially in a world in which long-distance communications (and hence control from afar) and transportation (as stressed by Vaclav Smil) became cheap and reliable (pp. 413-414).

One of the more appealing features of this book is DeLong’s willingness to engage the possibility that much of what went wrong in the twentieth century was the result of bad luck and contingency. Anyone familiar with the literature of what Acemoglu and Robinson (not cited) have called the critical junctures of the century, will see how accidents or relatively minor events with cascading consequences may have determined historical trajectories, though perhaps not everyone may embrace his example of the Florida hanging chads that gave an election to the “astonishingly-unqualified-for-the job” G.W. Bush. Others see material structures and inevitable historical forces, says DeLong, where he sees accidents and happenstance. But then he adds, “future historians will probably be in accord with [their interpretations], not mine” (p. 518). My sense is that there may be room for both.

Whether this book will do well with the general public is hard to say, but professional economic historians will notice that there is surprisingly little economics in it. Perhaps inevitably for a book about the twentieth century, it dwells far more on politics than on economics, and while the two are of course inextricable in any account of the world economy, the relative attention paid to politics and policy and the people involved in them seems oddly disproportionate for a book written by a professional economist. The book raises many of the most pertinent questions that economic historians worry about while thinking about the many challenging questions of the twentieth century: What were the economic roots of World War I? Why did the Soviet economy collapse? Why was Western Europe (a mixed economy) so successful after 1945 while Argentina (another mixed economy) failed? Why do some emerging economies become industrialized and in some fashion democratic, while others sink into poverty, misgovernment, and autocracy, ending up like Haiti, Myanmar, or Venezuela? Why did thousands of years of gender inequality and male domination over women come closer to an end in the twentieth century? The reader will find informed and thoughtful reflections touching lightly on all those and many other issues, but few if any well worked-out answers. While many scattered numbers are cited (often not sourced), there are no tables or graphs anywhere. Some of the most important economic developments of the century are either ignored or dealt with so succinctly that any undergraduate reading it may miss their significance. But even when they are discussed, some economic developments with enormous consequences seem to be treated with a broad brush if at all. Throughout the book, DeLong prefers anecdote to analysis, biographical vignettes to insight, bon-mot to depth.

The concept of utopia is a major focus of the book. Somehow, DeLong notes with sadness in his concluding chapter, utopia has eluded us despite the huge increase in material resources; humanity had an opportunity to bring it about and failed. Yet the concept seems less than fully developed. The complex and volatile relationship between the West and the Soviet world in the Khrushchev era is summarized in a typical two-line paragraph: “And so, the world entered a stable, well-shy-of-utopia equilibrium, so you had to squint hard to see it” (p. 331). Clever, but not all that enlightening. The triumph of the West at the end of the cold war, says DeLong, may have proven that the West’s economic system was “better or at least less bad” than communism, but he then adds a warning: “be not proud” —the Western system was not so much “more utopian than less dystopian” (p. 337). Few have ever believed that the economic systems that emerged in the post-1945 mixed free market economies had serious pretension to provide a utopia; but they did provide a reasonable standard of living, access to education, and economic security to a large and growing segment of the population, and in the most successful cases (sadly not including the United States) they all but eliminated poverty. Perhaps the greatest transformation was evident in the (approximate) doubling of life expectancy across much of the world and the spectacular decline in infant and child mortality, which the book barely mentions. That may not have been utopia, but it was pretty good.

Several other important episodes of the economic history of the twentieth century seem oddly under-emphasized or neglected in this volume. One is the economic history of the Soviet Union, which gets one thin chapter sardonically called “really-existing socialism.” DeLong manages to miss the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 involving the death by starvation of at least 2.6 million Ukrainians (see Naumenko’s recent analysis of this catastrophe), whereas Lenin’s taste in classical music somehow deserves a mention. The book never comes to grips with the deeper questions of whether the collapse of the Soviet system really prove that the collectivist experiment “failed” in some definable sense. Nor does it note the many ironies and contradictions of an economic system that side-stepped Hayek’s wisdom regarding the essential role of market prices in the allocation of resources, for which DeLong elsewhere expresses his unqualified admiration for (pp. 93-94, 526). Not to mention the environmental devastation that the workers’ paradise inflicted on the soil, water, and air of the socialist nations.

Equally surprising is the absence of any serious discussion of the miraculous decline in fertility that took place during this period, which has dropped every European country (and now the US) to a fertility level below replacement. For a scholar explicitly committed to a Malthusian view of most of human history, this omission is astonishing (the word “contraception” does not appear in the book). Does a phenomenon this momentous in human history really merit no more than a single paragraph in a chapter titled “inclusion”?

All in all, the great paradox of the twentieth century remains that despite the horrors and the violence and despite repeated setbacks, material life improved more in a hundred years than in the previous ten thousand. To be sure, inequality remained high, which DeLong seems to feel keeps us from utopia; it is surprising that he fails to refer to Walter Scheidel’s recent Great Leveler, which shows at length that a rise in equality and “utopia” rarely went together. The European welfare state was, as DeLong notes in a thoughtful chapter on post 1945 social democracy, as close as we may ever get to it, and even it was far from foolproof. Yet as Peter Lindert’s path-breaking work has shown, it was as good as it gets and it was cheap even if its sustainability remains a continuing open question. Perhaps the economics of the welfare state requires more Lindert and less Polanyi.

The principal driver of the great enrichment, oddly enough, is never seriously discussed in this book. The main primum movens of economic growth was and remained the rapid expansion of the combination of science and technology and the positive interaction of the two, as Robert Gordon has shown in lavish detail. For DeLong the roots of this complex and profoundly transformative mechanism seem to be a minor matter, thus opening this book to a criticism of playing a prince-less Hamlet. DeLong feels that technological progress was generated primarily by industrial research labs and through the “routinization of scientific discovery” (pp. 1, 274, 526). This cursory treatment is wholly inadequate; had it not been for the continued expansion of useful knowledge, all other sources of increased human welfare would have eventually fizzled out. But why and how did it maintain its relentless progress? How was it incentivized and rewarded? Why and how did the West maintain its leadership, and why did the capabilities to deploy it productively reach some countries and not others?

It seems unreasonable to expect that any scholar with a finite life expectancy can do full justice to a subject this enormous. With his idiosyncratic style and approach, DeLong has created an enthralling and coherent narrative of the twentieth century. Readers will be persuaded or not, annoyed here and there, impressed in many places, catch a few errors, but it is hard to put the book down even for those who know most of the details. It is perhaps not a fully satisfactory and complete account, but it serves our profession by fully heeding one tenet: the deadliest enemy of economic history is not error but boredom.


Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, New York: Crown, 2012.

Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Economic Growth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Lindert, Peter. Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Naumenko, Natalya. “The Political Economy of Famine: The Ukrainian Famine of 1933.” Journal of Economic History, Volume 81, Issue 1, March 2021, pp. 156 -197.

Scheidel, Walter. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Smil, Vaclav. Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.


Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University, and Sackler Professor, (by special appointment) at the Eitan Berglas School of Economics, Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is A Culture of Growth (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Income and Wealth
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration

Author(s):Chomsky, Aviva
Reviewer(s):Hübner, Jamin Andreas

Published by EH.Net (August 2022).

Aviva Chomsky. Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration. Boston: Beacon Press, 2021. 294 pp. $25.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0807056486.

Reviewed by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.


It is often disturbing how uncritically economic history tends to treat imperialism and colonialism. (I recently described some of these problems in my review of The Economic History of Colonialism; see Capital & Class 46:1). There are, however, new works of social, political, and economic history that don’t make the repeated errors of eurocentrism and instead use primary sources that give voice to the unheard and suppressed. Historian Aviva Chomsky’s Central America’s Forgotten History is one of these books. It explores the true human costs of interventions that are often justified in the name of “economic development.”

The book basically explains why so many people have been and are immigrating to North America from Central America and how American economic interests led to the invasion, occupation, conquering, and violent suppression of peoples and societies in Central America. Importantly, it restores and re-centers the memories of witnesses of these events.

The first section discusses how memory suppression favors certain economic and political goals, and outlines the major markets (coffee, bananas, etc.) and the central role of anti-communist Cold War rhetoric in these American interventions. The second section looks at each place and episode of crisis and economic imperialism (from roughly the late 1800s to 1990s): Guatemala (ch. 4), Nicaragua (ch. 5), El Salvador (ch. 6), and Honduras (ch. 7). Chapter 8 looks at Central American solidarity in the United States. The last section looks at what happened in Central America the last forty years in light of American foreign policy, from the neoliberal program of Ronald Reagan’s administration to the immigration restrictions of Donald Trump’s.

Chomsky highlights the “Good Neighbor Policy” in Guatemala during the 1930s and its connections with the New Deal. “Too much democracy had allowed workers, peasants, and the government to challenge” US corporations; “United Fruit discovered that it was much more profit to do business with a dictator than with a democratic president” (p. 46). Furthermore, with the rise of Soviet communism, “Cold War counterrevolution targeted not only communism but virtually any movement for social change” (p. 46). The military dictator Jorge Ubico “subjected Indians to forced labor,” “provided tax exemption for the United Fruit Company and [invited] the United States to establish its first military base in the country” (p. 48). By the 1950s, most of the country’s exports went to the U.S. When the country elected a reformist (who proposed to outlaw forced labor, redistribute land, and grant rights to peasants), the America CIA orchestrated a violent overthrow of the government in 1953-54, and purged the land of “communists” (anyone who resisted, unionized, or refused to work for private capital). Investors wrote the economic laws; American oil companies wrote laws for drilling, the Bank of America revised the bank code and opened branches in the country and government loans were granted to buy products from General Motors. “For US businesses …the coup brought magnificent windfalls” (p. 76).

Then came big economic shifts. “First came the cotton boom…For peasant farmers, cotton meant eviction…forced recruitment through debt and low wages…child labor,” etc. (p. 54). Then came the “beef boom,” which created few jobs but absorbed massive amounts of land—all while the population exploded in growth. While multinational companies profited, these changes caused mass malnutrition for Guatemalans and economic servitude; “by the early 1980s, all five Central American companies held debts significantly larger than their annual earnings” (pp. 56-57). The people resisted by forming economic cooperatives and latched on to Liberation Theology amidst their Catholic tradition and offered an alternative society. “They established hospitals, health clinics,” training programs, and other essential services that the “free” market failed to produce (p. 83). The U.S. tried to train Guatemalans to invade Cuba on their behalf, but this effort failed miserably. Meanwhile, factories continued to be built for textiles, canned foods, soda pop, shoes, where workers were “surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by armed men and police dogs, and patrolled inside by armed supervisors” (p. 85). When the people rose up in revolt in the late 1970s to 1983, the government enacted scorched-earth violence, massacres, executions, displacement, and genocide of indigenes (pp. 90-94)—and then facilitated a civil war. Although military aid from the US officially ended in 1977, the country has not recovered from such trauma.

In Nicaragua, the US occupied the country for most of the first third of the twentieth century, to ensure that no other country built canals for competing economic trade. In the late 1970s a revolution led by the Sandinistas rose up against the Somoza family dictatorship and gained control (p. 99). Chomsky writes that the Sandinista government, despite armed opposition, got off to an impressive start:

“The gains of the first years of the revolution were close to astonishing. Land reforms transformed the agricultural structure and increase productivity, both in basic grains like corn, beans, and rice, and in exports like sugar and coffee. The population was eating more—significantly more—and imports of basic grains dropped close to zero. Public health campaigns reduced or eradicated malaria, polio, measles, and tetanus, and the infant mortality rate dropped by a third. Hundreds of new schools were built… [the revolution had] extraordinary mobilization, voluntarism, flexibility and optimism.” (p. 105).

Conservatives in the U.S. sought to take Nicaragua back and get its people, institutions, and land working for American capital. Chomsky carefully explains how Reagan fought hard during his Presidency—on behalf of investors, and against Congress and public opinion—to cover up his administration’s illegal war against Nicaragua.

In El Salvador the coffee industry had long exploited workers, much as it had in Nicaragua. American companies moved in during the 1960s. “When the country implemented the first rural minimum wage in 1965, coffee planters responded by simply expelling peasants from their plantations. The cotton, sugar, and cattle revolutions after WWII concentrated more fertile land in the hands of the oligarchy and further squeezed El Salvador’s peasants…” (p. 125). The country suffered decades of civil war, regime change, and constant U.S. intervention.

Honduras was arguably the training ground for these economic programs, and in the 1980s it was literally the training ground for the U.S.-financed contra rebels attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. (Thus the nickname “The USS Honduras.”) In addition to special economic zones, neoliberal land reform in the 1990s privatized the real estate market and essentially removed collective and cooperative lands from the people so that private companies could monetize the palm oil market (pp. 156-57). In familiar fashion, a leftist, socialist-oriented President was elected by the people in 2005 and then deposed in 2009 in a coup that Chomsky describes as western- and U.S.-backed. Thereafter, free-market reforms created mass poverty (66%) and doubling of unemployment (p. 161). Foreign investors, however, profited well—which would seem to have been the point.

By the end of the book, it is all too clear why so many people from Central America are moving North, and why Trump’s “shithole countries” remark about some Central American (as well as African) countries actually points to the legacy of American imperialism. It’s also clear why few in America want to remember this legacy.

Central America’s Forgotten History is similar to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and Jonathan Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism, both of which look at the devastating effects of American economic interventionism in Central and Latin America. Chomsky gives more attention to the role of the Catholic Church, social repression, and provides a sweeping, lucid narrative summary of this history. Given the effects and sheer scale of these interventions, they deserve recognition not just from political and social historians, but from economic historians as well.


Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist, and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century