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Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor

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

Published by EH.NET (September 2001)

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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 H-Business@eh.net 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.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: WOMEN AND BUSINESS HISTORY

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]

ACCOUNTING FOR LEADERS

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

executives.

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, BRIDGE-BUILDER

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

autonomy.

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

choices,

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.

SURVEYING THE SURVEY

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

producers,

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

of

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

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

fizzled.

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

underscore

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.

EVALUATING THE RESULTS

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

Army,

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

business.

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

Dutch

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

act.

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

possible.”(p.216).

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?

A PARADOX and SOME PUZZLES

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

whether

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

been

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

business.

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

rights.

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

accountable?

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

behaved?

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

outcomes.

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

irrationally,

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.

Kwolek-Folland’s

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

vision.”(p.196).

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

outcomes.

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

struggles?

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

campaigns?

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

likely

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.

Nevertheless,

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

class,

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

support.

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

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

310

-825-3489 (0)

END NOTES

[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.<

dubof@mailbox.cc.binghamton.edu>

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

Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo

Author(s):Ball, Molly C.
Reviewer(s):Grandi, Guilherme

Published by EH.Net (May 2022).

Molly C. Ball. Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2020. xx + 271 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-68340-171-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Guilherme Grandi, Professor of Economics at University of São Paulo.

 

“It is time to reencounter and reconsider economic history,” Molly Ball writes in the introduction to her book Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo. For the researcher, a history lecturer at the University of Rochester, the history of working-class families in São Paulo during the Old Republic period is an ideal subject when it comes to building on our knowledge of labor relations in this Latin American immigrant city from 1891 to 1930. Yet why does she make this claim? Probably because the history of labor and immigration in Brazil have customarily been a subject of study within Social History and Sociology, rather than Economic History. Nevertheless, this does not mean that there is a dearth of excellent work on this subject, produced by economic historians in Brazil and abroad.

Navigating Life finds its place among a set of studies where one of the biggest references is the work of Warren Dean. Originally published in 1969, his book entitled The Industrialization of São Paulo opened up a field of research opportunities on labor and industry in one of Latin America’s immigration cities. Dean was a pioneer in highlighting the role played by foreign migrants in the development of industry in São Paulo. Other researchers followed Dean down this path, including Wilson Cano with his Raízes da concentracão industrial em São Paulo (The Roots of Industrial Concentration in São Paulo), first published in 1977. However, Ball’s book is most importantly in dialog with immigration studies in Brazil. It is an addition to other valuable studies on migration streams and living conditions for workers coming into southeastern Brazil. In this sense, she opens a window, allowing us to penetrate deeper into rank-and-file Paulistano workers’ lives. Using an up-to-date statistical method combined with other social research techniques, Ball lays bare some of the quirks of the labor market in Old Republic São Paulo, such as the discriminatory practices used against women workers, Portuguese immigrants, and Afro-Brazilians.

It is crucial to put her study in perspective in relation to others, because it has advanced an understanding of how life and work were articulated in São Paulo during the period in question. It is interesting to note that Sidney Chalhoub, the author of Trabalho, lar e botequim (Labor, Home and Tavern), did something quite similar in his study on the daily life of workers in Rio de Janeiro during the belle époque. Moreover, Santos e Imigração na Belle Époque (Santos and Immigration in Belle Époque), a diligent study by Marília Cánovas, also deserves mention regarding the historical reality of Spanish immigrants in Santos, a port city in the state of São Paulo. These works (the former published in 1986 and the latter in 2017) provide us with a range of evidence that can be compared to some of Ball’s findings.

Ethnic identity is one of them. Ball shows that there was a pronounced difference in relation to workers’ nationality that strongly impacted how immigrants entered São Paulo’s formal labor market and the results they were capable of obtaining. The prejudice held by Paulistano entrepreneurs, as identified by the author in her discussion of workers from Portugal, is emblematic and revealing in this regard. She shows how Portuguese immigrants experienced hiring discrimination in São Paulo, while German, Austrian and Italian immigrants could hold jobs that led to mobility into the working middle class. This unequal treatment also impacted access to health and education services for their children and relatives. This meant that Portuguese and Afro-Brazilians descendants were disproportionately hired for unskilled positions as compared to other foreign nationals. According to Ball, white workers were more likely to find a job in medium-skilled positions, corresponding to nine out of every ten workers hired. In contrast, black and pardo workers were more likely to be hired for unskilled positions, accounting for around 19 percent of these positions.

As Joel Wolfe had already pointed out in Working Women, Working Man, a study published in 1993, the gender gap is another fascinating topic highlighted by Ball. The wage disparity between men and women in the city of São Paulo is shown by using original archival and primary sources, like company reports, worker records, newspaper price databases, and cost-of-living surveys that she found in researching several Brazilian, American, and European archives. In examining the historical reality of four economic sectors (railroad, energy and urban transport, textile, and department stores), Ball discusses patterns and trends related to the hopes and behaviors of workers in the Paulistano labor market. What opportunities were available to them in terms of going on strike, job replacement, wage bargaining, and so on? The author emphasizes how different groups had shared expectations based on gender, racial, and national identities. In fact, black people, unskilled workers, and women frequently faced significant hiring discrimination and persistent wage disparities in Old Republic São Paulo. The research she has undertaken makes this clear and shows how difficult it was for these groups of people to find opportunities for advancement and social mobility throughout this period. She succinctly writes that “workers adapted their strategies to navigate the discrimination they faced.”

The most remarkable feature of Navigating Life is its research method, in line with New Economic History guidelines. Throughout the book’s six chapters, but particularly in Chapters 1 and 4, robust statistical evidence puts the labor history of Old Republic São Paulo at the same level that others have already placed places like Buenos Aires in Argentina and New York in the United States. Like São Paulo, these cities were highly sought out by European immigrants during the so-called First Globalization, i.e., between 1870 and 1914. Undoubtedly, Ball’s book has already found a place as essential literature in studies on living conditions experienced by workers in São Paulo during the golden age of the coffee economy. With plenty of well-founded arguments, it is an outstanding work of research that goes beyond paraphrasing the best and most widely-known interpretations of São Paulo’s economic and social history, so to speak, along with classical works on Brazilian historiography. Researchers with an interest in the labor history and economics of Brazil’s biggest city have a lot to gain from a reading of Navigating Life.

References:

Cano, W. (1990), Raízes da concentração industrial em São Paulo. 3a ed. São Paulo: Hucitec.

Cánovas, M.D.K. (2017), Santos e Imigração na Belle Époque. Os Espanhóis – Cotidiano Urbano, Práticas Associativas e Militância Política (1880-1922). São Paulo: Edusp.

Chalhoub, S. (2012), Trabalho, lar e botrquim: o cotidiano dos trabalhadores no Rio de Janeiro da belle époque. 3a ed. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp.

Dean, W. (1969), The Industrialization of São Paulo. 1880-1945. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Wolfe, J. (1993), Working Women, Working Men: São Paulo and the Rise of Brazil’s Industrial Working Class, 1900-1955. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

 

Guilherme Grandi is Professor of Economics at University of São Paulo. His research focuses on the history of transports, immigration, and labor history. He is the author of Estado e capital ferroviário em São Paulo (Alameda, 2013) and the co-organizer of História Econômica do Brasil: Primeira República e Era Vargas (Hucitec/Eduff, 2020).

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 (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (May 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at https://www.eh.net/book-reviews.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World

Author(s):McCloskey, Deirdre N.
Carden, Art
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (April 2022).

Deirdre N. McCloskey and Art Carden. Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 232 pp. $25.00 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0226739663.

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

 

For half a century Deirdre McCloskey has been a member of the starting lineup of economic history. The author of numerous books and hundreds of research papers and essays, her magnum opus is the monumental “Bourgeois Trilogy” that appeared between 2006 and 2016 and laid out her view of economic history and much else in about 2,000 pages. The slim volume here, co-authored with Art Carden, summarizes her views of what she has termed the “Great Enrichment” and makes it accessible to a wider public. In every way, this comparatively slim volume is vintage McCloskey: written in a rather informal conversational style, she states her views in her inimitable crystal-clear prose. She is relentless in her dismissal of other scholars she disagrees with and concepts she finds misleading, often with devastating bon mots. Thus the concept of capitalism is “a scientific mistake compressed in a single word” and the mistaken historians who elevated new-world slavery to a first-order cause of the Great Enrichment are told that “slavery was bad enough without ornamenting it with bad history and bad economics.” Indeed.

The book makes a powerful case for a classical liberal society: what accounts for economic success and growth is liberty. Other elements such as institutions, science, trade, resources and so on may have a mattered a bit, but the indispensable element that did it all was freedom from coercion, from regulation, and from oppression. That freedom was absent for most of human history, and it emerged only in Britain and the Low Countries in the seventeenth century. The Bourgeoisie, a group much maligned by the “left-wing clerisy,” are really the heroes of our prosperity and the “bourgeois deal” as they call it and as reflected in the well-chosen title of the book was the main driver that led to modern prosperity. The deal was simple: give us our freedom and we’ll make the economy grow. We’ll take the risks, but if we succeed, we’ll be rich and so will (almost) everyone else. The idea was so powerful and successful that it spread worldwide and has lifted up most economies on the planet. Hence, the majority of humanity is immensely richer than ever before and material life is better than ever before. That is the economic history of the modern world in a nutshell.

The explanandum, of course, is familiar to every undergraduate student of economic history. But the explanans may not be. The first sentence of the book’s preface is “The theme of our book is simple and true. But controversial.” Perhaps one might wonder, if this is all so self-evident, and the evidence so overwhelming, why is it still controversial? The message should be very attractive: freedom is obviously an attractive concept, something people are willing to die for. If an additional benefit is that it also makes us rich, what’s not to like? Why do not more people embrace the libertarian account that McCloskey and Carden tell here? Moreover, academics are also members of the bourgeoisie: why resist the idea that they are the heroes of the tale?

Much of the book — derived from Volume 2 of the McCloskey Trilogy — consists of the demolition of alternative explanations of the Great Enrichment. These interpretations are viewed not so much as completely wrong as inadequate: too small, too late, too early. Only the Bourgeois Deal, concluded in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, will do. The logic is powerful: people are entrepreneurial, they are ingenious, they are acquisitive. Give them a chance, let them loose, and they find opportunities to enrich themselves, and in the positive sum of economic development they will make everyone richer as well (even if not as rich as they are — but that does not bother the authors).

McCloskey and Carden clearly have no sympathy for the idea that what drove the Great Enrichment was something called state capacity, the ability of nations to create governments that helped create law and order, provide public goods, and solve coordination problems. Its importance has been stressed by both economic historians such as the late Larry Epstein and economists such as Tim Besley and Torsten Persson. It is striking that the regions that the authors point to as the birthplace of the Bourgeois Deal were actually areas in which economic regulation was tight and taxation was heavy. To be sure, after 1825 many of the most onerous coercive measures in Britain were abolished (the Corn Laws only in 1846), but the first century of the Industrial Revolution took place in a rather oppressive political environment where “liberty” may not have been the best characterization of the state of society. The apex of the British laissez faire economy took place after, not before the Industrial Revolution. In later cases, industrialization and growth occurred in economies such as Russia and Japan in the first half of the twentieth century, where individual liberty was not a priority.

This book makes a strong argument for ideational history. The idea of unfettered economic activity, as expressed so powerfully by Locke and his followers (above all, of course, Adam Smith), is the “engine” that drove the economies of the West into the Great Enrichment. Yet there is something odd in the argument as presented here: while the authors, like all liberal writers, are firmly committed to the wisdom and power of the market, and while this book presents a strong case for the historical importance of ideas, it does not dwell on the market for ideas. There is little here that explains how the idea of freedom and unfettered markets actually caught on. After all, as the book notes, there was powerful resistance from many corners, and the victory of liberalism was by no means assured. It was driven, they say, by successful revolutions (in sixteenth century Netherlands and seventeenth century England), the printing press, and the reformation. Had these not taken place, the Enrichment may not have occurred. Europe was not better, it was lucky. But ideas do not just catch on because of their future benefits: they have to be debated and sold in a market for ideas, in which its proponents persuade their audience based on the evidence, the logic, or the ethics of the idea. Yet surprisingly the market for ideas makes no entry in a book devoted to the praise of markets and the power of ideas. Indeed, it could be argued that in their account liberalism’s success was precisely due to what happened in the market for ideas. Intellectuals from Locke and Smith down persuaded the people that mattered of ideas that led to economic growth.

The emphasis on ideas leads to the other question that the book raises. The period they describe as crucial to the emergence of the main elements of the Great Enrichment corresponds with the Age of Enlightenment. Yet the Enlightenment, arguably one of the most powerful cultural movements in history, plays no role in their account despite its commitment to ideas. Writing the economic history of modern economic progress without the Enlightenment is the ultimate prince-less Hamlet. Historians have recently rescued it from the dismissive attitudes of a misguided revisionist historiography, as exemplified by Ritchie Robertson’s recent tour de force (though it ignores economic history). Which precisely were the enlightenment ideas that mattered? A belief in liberty, free markets, and small government surely was part of it, although a disturbing number of philosophes felt that growth was too important to be left to the private sector and needed help from a friendly government. What the French called dirigisme was basically an attempt to recruit the government to help entrepreneurs in their endeavors. Britain was exceptional in its laissez faire approach to economic development — and even there the government was not altogether absent.

Above all, what is missing in this book is any serious acknowledgment of the role of what people at the time called “useful knowledge” — an understanding of natural phenomena and regularities. In many places of the book, the author invoke ingenuity as the force for progress. But how is ingenuity to lead to sustained growth without knowledge? Ingenuity and technological progress do not drop down from heaven as soon as liberty is declared. Skills, technical savoir faire, and dexterity have to be produced and created in the system. Increasingly it was realized that such skills needed to be augmented by an understanding of the natural regularities of mechanics, energy, and materials. The Enlightenment realized that natural philosophy could be harnessed to material needs, from fighting smallpox to finding longitude at sea to pumping water out of coal mines. McCloskey and Carden will have none of it. Science, they say, was unimportant as the driver of growth, because so many advances were made without it.

This assessment hinges on a somewhat narrow definition of what we mean by useful knowledge. The basic idea was one of progress, and progress was to be achieved because knowledge — both propositional and prescriptive — was cumulative. Progress occurred because in a well-functioning market for ideas, better insights about nature would beat out inferior opponents. Lavoisier’s chemistry replaced phlogiston and caloric, and vaccination pushed out the antiquated resignation that smallpox was a divine punishment for our sins. None of those triumphs, and countless others, were accepted without fierce resistance, and their victory was never assured. But this is why the story cannot be told without placing the Industrial Enlightenment on center stage. What the Industrial Revolution needed was knowledge: science, when appropriate, augmenting and supporting the often tacit knowledge of workmanship and materials, but also many other things: practical arithmetic (as shown in a brilliant forthcoming article by Kelly and Ó Gráda), the use of better tools and equipment, an understanding — often instinctive — of mechanics, heat, and chemical processes.

In short, a society that was free but ignorant would not grow. Unlike what Carden and McCloskey imply, ingenuity was not an automatic and passive link between freedom and prosperity. The sense that a systematic cataloguing and understanding of natural phenomena and regularities was needed to achieve progress permeated the thinking of the people who brought it about — including those who had no science themselves. As scientific knowledge expanded, people latched on to it and drew from it to come up with new ideas that made life better. Uneducated tinkerers, by themselves, could not have turned the Industrial Revolution into sustained growth. Inventions can be made serendipitously, without the faintest understanding of why and how they work; but such advances soon bog down. What we need now, then, is a serious discussion of how the elements of the Enlightenment interacted, that is, how personal freedom and the right incentives helped create the surge of practical knowledge and ingenuity that actually created the means for the Great Enrichment.

Liberalism, as it emerged in the West and as described in this book, was part and parcel of the European Enlightenment — though (like everything else in the writings of the eighteenth-century philosophes) it was disputed and doubted. Yet the Enlightenment was much more than liberalism, and if all that it had created was a belief in personal freedom and less restrictive government, its effects on the Great Enrichment may have been more modest. What counted was a belief in progress — material as well as social and political. Not all the prescriptions toward the perfection of society worked equally well — and perhaps that may be why the Enlightenment became something of a whipping boy for some writers influenced by the lamentable “Frankfurt School.” But on the matter of economic growth, the eighteenth-century intellectuals basically got it right. Material progress, the philosophes felt, was driven above all by knowledge and its accumulation, its testing in the market for ideas, and its application by engineers, mechanics, and entrepreneurs. These were the real causes of the Great Enrichment. Everything else — trade, politics, literacy, imperialism, and a host of other factors enumerated and dismissed by McCloskey and Carden — depended on that.

What, then, should we think of the role of “freedom” in economic growth? The question will be debated for generations and McCloskey has done our profession a great service by setting the terms of the debate. A large number of scholars would argue that rather than “laissez faire” policies, enlightened and competent governments could support and drive economic growth. As the late Alice Amsden has shown in her The Rise of the Rest, such governments existed. Without sufficient state capacity to guide and support development, many of the conditions for a Great Enrichment may not be there. Could there be such a thing as “too much liberty” just as there clearly was a thing such as too much coercion? In a forthcoming book, The Rise and Fall of Laissez Faire, Walker Hanlon shows how over the course of the nineteenth century Britain slowly retreated from a rather extreme form of laissez faire and introduced elements of regulation, coercion, and the welfare state to correct for some of the most undesirable consequences of the Industrial Revolution. So did every industrialized nation, some more, some less. Even the individualist and freedom-loving United States was dragged into a (partial) retreat from extreme liberalism, not just because most people demanded it, but because it was the right thing to do.

Perhaps the authors should consider this: liberalism depends on markets, and markets can fail. Part of liberty should therefore consist of society’s right to choose a certain amount of coercion and regulation by the state, to avoid such unacceptable outcomes as child labor, toxic chemical pollution, millions of people without medical insurance, and the poisoning of considerable portions of the population by pharmaceutical firms selling addictive substances. Somewhere between a libertarian free-for-all economy, and the horridly coercive worlds of Stalin and Mao, there is a goldilocks-like middle ground, far from optimal perhaps, but more livable than the alternatives. It is that middle ground that the Enlightenment strove for. In an imperfect world, that is the best we can do.

References

Amsden, Alice H. The Rise of “The Rest”: Challenges to the West from Late-Industrializing Economies. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Besley, Timothy, and Torsten Persson. Pillars of Prosperity: The Political Economics of Development Clusters. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Epstein, S.R. Freedom and Growth: The Rise of States and Markets in Europe, 1300–1750. Routledge, 2000.

Hanlon, Walker W. The Rise and Fall of Laissez Faire. Princeton University Press, forthcoming.

Kelly, Morgan, and Cormac Ó Gráda. “Connecting the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions: The Role of Practical Mathematics.” Journal of Economic History, forthcoming.

Robertson, Ritchie. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680–1790. New York: Harper Collins, 2021.

 

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 (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (April 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/Book-Reviews.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Europe
North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World

Author(s):McCloskey, Deirdre N.
Carden, Art
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (April 2022).

Deirdre N. McCloskey and Art Carden. Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 232 pp. $25.00 (hardback), ISBN: 9780226739663.

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

 

For half a century Deirdre McCloskey has been a member of the starting lineup of economic history. The author of numerous books and hundreds of research papers and essays, her magnum opus is the monumental “Bourgeois Trilogy” that appeared between 2006 and 2016 and laid out her view of economic history and much else in about 2,000 pages. The slim volume here, co-authored with Art Carden, summarizes her views of what she has termed the “Great Enrichment” and makes it accessible to a wider public. In every way, this comparatively slim volume is vintage McCloskey: written in a rather informal conversational style, she states her views in her inimitable crystal-clear prose. She is relentless in her dismissal of other scholars she disagrees with and concepts she finds misleading, often with devastating bon mots. Thus the concept of capitalism is “a scientific mistake compressed in a single word” and the mistaken historians who elevated new-world slavery to a first-order cause of the Great Enrichment are told that “slavery was bad enough without ornamenting it with bad history and bad economics.” Indeed.

The book makes a powerful case for a classical liberal society: what accounts for economic success and growth is liberty. Other elements such as institutions, science, trade, resources and so on may have a mattered a bit, but the indispensable element that did it all was freedom from coercion, from regulation, and from oppression. That freedom was absent for most of human history, and it emerged only in Britain and the Low Countries in the seventeenth century. The Bourgeoisie, a group much maligned by the “left-wing clerisy,” are really the heroes of our prosperity and the “bourgeois deal” as they call it and as reflected in the well-chosen title of the book was the main driver that led to modern prosperity. The deal was simple: give us our freedom and we’ll make the economy grow. We’ll take the risks, but if we succeed, we’ll be rich and so will (almost) everyone else. The idea was so powerful and successful that it spread worldwide and has lifted up most economies on the planet. Hence, the majority of humanity is immensely richer than ever before and material life is better than ever before. That is the economic history of the modern world in a nutshell.

The explanandum, of course, is familiar to every undergraduate student of economic history. But the explanans may not be. The first sentence of the book’s preface is “The theme of our book is simple and true. But controversial.” Perhaps one might wonder, if this is all so self-evident, and the evidence so overwhelming, why is it still controversial? The message should be very attractive: freedom is obviously an attractive concept, something people are willing to die for. If an additional benefit is that it also makes us rich, what’s not to like? Why do not more people embrace the libertarian account that McCloskey and Carden tell here? Moreover, academics are also members of the bourgeoisie: why resist the idea that they are the heroes of the tale?

Much of the book — derived from Vol. 2 of the McCloskey Trilogy — consists of the demolition of alternative explanations of the Great Enrichment. These interpretations are viewed not so much as completely wrong as inadequate: too small, too late, too early. Only the Bourgeois Deal, concluded in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, will do. The logic is powerful: people are entrepreneurial, they are ingenious, they are acquisitive. Give them a chance, let them loose, and they find opportunities to enrich themselves, and in the positive sum of economic development they will make everyone richer as well (even if not as rich as they are — but that does not bother the authors).

McCloskey and Carden clearly have no sympathy for the idea that what drove the Great Enrichment was something called state capacity, the ability of nations to create governments that helped create law and order, provide public goods, and solve coordination problems. Its importance has been stressed by both economic historians such as the late Larry Epstein and economists such as Tim Besley and Torsten Persson. It is striking that the regions that the authors point to as the birthplace of the Bourgeois Deal were actually areas in which economic regulation was tight and taxation was heavy. To be sure, after 1825 many of the most onerous coercive measures in Britain were abolished (the Corn Laws only in 1846), but the first century of the Industrial Revolution took place in a rather oppressive political environment where “liberty” may not have been the best characterization of the state of society. The apex of the British laissez faire economy took place after, not before the Industrial Revolution. In later cases, industrialization and growth occurred in economies such as Russia and Japan in the first half of the twentieth century, where individual liberty was not a priority.

This book makes a strong argument for ideational history. The idea of unfettered economic activity, as expressed so powerfully by Locke and his followers (above all, of course, Adam Smith), is the “engine” that drove the economies of the West into the Great Enrichment. Yet there is something odd in the argument as presented here: while the authors, like all liberal writers, are firmly committed to the wisdom and power of the market, and while this book presents a strong case for the historical importance of ideas, it does not dwell on the market for ideas. There is little here that explains how the idea of freedom and unfettered markets actually caught on. After all, as the book notes, there was powerful resistance from many corners, and the victory of liberalism was by no means assured. It was driven, they say, by successful revolutions (in sixteenth century Netherlands and seventeenth century England), the printing press, and the reformation. Had these not taken place, the Enrichment may not have occurred. Europe was not better, it was lucky. But ideas do not just catch on because of their future benefits: they have to be debated and sold in a market for ideas, in which its proponents persuade their audience based on the evidence, the logic, or the ethics of the idea. Yet surprisingly the market for ideas makes no entry in a book devoted to the praise of markets and the power of ideas. Indeed, it could be argued that in their account liberalism’s success was precisely due to what happened in the market for ideas. Intellectuals from Locke and Smith down persuaded the people that mattered of ideas that led to economic growth.

The emphasis on ideas leads to the other question that the book raises. The period they describe as crucial to the emergence of the main elements of the Great Enrichment corresponds with the Age of Enlightenment. Yet the Enlightenment, arguably one of the most powerful cultural movements in history, plays no role in their account despite its commitment to ideas. Writing the economic history of modern economic progress without the Enlightenment is the ultimate prince-less Hamlet. Historians have recently rescued it from the dismissive attitudes of a misguided revisionist historiography, as exemplified by Ritchie Robertson’s recent tour de force (though it ignores economic history). Which precisely were the enlightenment ideas that mattered? A belief in liberty, free markets, and small government surely was part of it, although a disturbing number of philosophes felt that growth was too important to be left to the private sector and needed help from a friendly government. What the French called dirigisme was basically an attempt to recruit the government to help entrepreneurs in their endeavors. Britain was exceptional in its laissez faire approach to economic development — and even there the government was not altogether absent.

Above all, what is missing in this book is any serious acknowledgment of the role of what people at the time called “useful knowledge” — an understanding of natural phenomena and regularities. In many places of the book, the author invoke ingenuity as the force for progress. But how is ingenuity to lead to sustained growth without knowledge? Ingenuity and technological progress do not drop down from heaven as soon as liberty is declared. Skills, technical savoir faire, and dexterity have to be produced and created in the system. Increasingly it was realized that such skills needed to be augmented by an understanding of the natural regularities of mechanics, energy, and materials. The Enlightenment realized that natural philosophy could be harnessed to material needs, from fighting smallpox to finding longitude at sea to pumping water out of coal mines. McCloskey and Carden will have none of it. Science, they say, was unimportant as the driver of growth, because so many advances were made without it.

This assessment hinges on a somewhat narrow definition of what we mean by useful knowledge. The basic idea was one of progress, and progress was to be achieved because knowledge — both propositional and prescriptive — was cumulative. Progress occurred because in a well-functioning market for ideas, better insights about nature would beat out inferior opponents. Lavoisier’s chemistry replaced phlogiston and caloric, and vaccination pushed out the antiquated resignation that smallpox was a divine punishment for our sins. None of those triumphs, and countless others, were accepted without fierce resistance, and their victory was never assured. But this is why the story cannot be told without placing the Industrial Enlightenment on center stage. What the Industrial Revolution needed was knowledge: science, when appropriate, augmenting and supporting the often tacit knowledge of workmanship and materials, but also many other things: practical arithmetic (as shown in a brilliant forthcoming article by Kelly and Ó Gráda), the use of better tools and equipment, an understanding — often instinctive — of mechanics, heat, and chemical processes.

In short, a society that was free but ignorant would not grow. Unlike what Carden and McCloskey imply, ingenuity was not an automatic and passive link between freedom and prosperity. The sense that a systematic cataloguing and understanding of natural phenomena and regularities was needed to achieve progress permeated the thinking of the people who brought it about — including those who had no science themselves. As scientific knowledge expanded, people latched on to it and drew from it to come up with new ideas that made life better. Uneducated tinkerers, by themselves, could not have turned the Industrial Revolution into sustained growth. Inventions can be made serendipitously, without the faintest understanding of why and how they work; but such advances soon bog down. What we need now, then, is a serious discussion of how the elements of the Enlightenment interacted, that is, how personal freedom and the right incentives helped create the surge of practical knowledge and ingenuity that actually created the means for the Great Enrichment.

Liberalism, as it emerged in the West and as described in this book, was part and parcel of the European Enlightenment — though (like everything else in the writings of the eighteenth-century philosophes) it was disputed and doubted. Yet the Enlightenment was much more than liberalism, and if all that it had created was a belief in personal freedom and less restrictive government, its effects on the Great Enrichment may have been more modest. What counted was a belief in progress — material as well as social and political. Not all the prescriptions toward the perfection of society worked equally well — and perhaps that may be why the Enlightenment became something of a whipping boy for some writers influenced by the lamentable “Frankfurt School.” But on the matter of economic growth, the eighteenth-century intellectuals basically got it right. Material progress, the philosophes felt, was driven above all by knowledge and its accumulation, its testing in the market for ideas, and its application by engineers, mechanics, and entrepreneurs. These were the real causes of the Great Enrichment. Everything else — trade, politics, literacy, imperialism, and a host of other factors enumerated and dismissed by McCloskey and Carden — depended on that.

What, then, should we think of the role of “freedom” in economic growth? The question will be debated for generations and McCloskey has done our profession a great service by setting the terms of the debate. A large number of scholars would argue that rather than “laissez faire” policies, enlightened and competent governments could support and drive economic growth. As the late Alice Amsden has shown in her The Rise of the Rest, such governments existed. Without sufficient state capacity to guide and support development, many of the conditions for a Great Enrichment may not be there. Could there be such a thing as “too much liberty” just as there clearly was a thing such as too much coercion? In a forthcoming book, The Rise and Fall of Laissez Faire, Walker Hanlon shows how over the course of the nineteenth century Britain slowly retreated from a rather extreme form of laissez faire and introduced elements of regulation, coercion, and the welfare state to correct for some of the most undesirable consequences of the Industrial Revolution. So did every industrialized nation, some more, some less. Even the individualist and freedom-loving United States was dragged into a (partial) retreat from extreme liberalism, not just because most people demanded it, but because it was the right thing to do.

Perhaps the authors should consider this: liberalism depends on markets, and markets can fail. Part of liberty should therefore consist of society’s right to choose a certain amount of coercion and regulation by the state, to avoid such unacceptable outcomes as child labor, toxic chemical pollution, millions of people without medical insurance, and the poisoning of considerable portions of the population by pharmaceutical firms selling addictive substances. Somewhere between a libertarian free-for-all economy, and the horridly coercive worlds of Stalin and Mao, there is a goldilocks-like middle ground, far from optimal perhaps, but more livable than the alternatives. It is that middle ground that the Enlightenment strove for. In an imperfect world, that is the best we can do.

References

Amsden, Alice H. The Rise of “The Rest”: Challenges to the West from Late-Industrializing Economies. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Besley, Timothy, and Torsten Persson. Pillars of Prosperity: The Political Economics of Development Clusters. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Epstein, S.R. Freedom and Growth: The Rise of States and Markets in Europe, 1300–1750. Routledge, 2000.

Hanlon, Walker W. The Rise and Fall of Laissez Faire. Princeton University Press, forthcoming.

Kelly, Morgan, and Cormac Ó Gráda. “Connecting the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions: The Role of Practical Mathematics.” Journal of Economic History, forthcoming.

Robertson, Ritchie. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680–1790. New York: Harper Collins, 2021.

 

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 (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (April 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/Book-Reviews.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity

Author(s):Goldin, Claudia
Reviewer(s):Folbre, Nancy

Published by EH.NET (January 2022).

Claudia Goldin. Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. xii + 344 pp. $27.95 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-6912-0178-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nancy Folbre, Professor Emerita of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

 

Gender inequality in earnings can’t be entirely blamed on discriminatory preferences, because it is deeply inscribed in the institutional structure and technology of modern economies. In her latest book, Career and Family, Claudia Goldin drives this point home. Along the way, she provides a compelling history of the ways in which successive cohorts of college-educated women in the U.S. managed to engineer new routes of economic opportunity and lead a “quiet revolution” in gender roles.  In her view, the biggest roadblock they now face–conflicting demands of work and family–is emblematic of a larger conflict between efficiency and equity.

Her basic argument will be familiar to fans of her previous research, especially her 2006 American Economic Review article “The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women’s Employment, Education, and Family.” This book, aimed at a larger audience, includes biographical narratives that illustrate the ways in which individual women built on the successes of previous generations to claim opportunities for themselves. At the same time, it emphasizes a basic dilemma that limits women’s room for maneuver.

Work is greedy, and families are needy. Women prefer the flexibility to commit to both but pay a high price for “having it all” because the marketplace pays a premium for professionals and managers willing to work long hours.  Even high-powered couples who might prefer to equitably share family care responsibilities find it costly, requiring a huge sacrifice of potential earnings from a primary—and highly specialized– breadwinner. The trade-off can best be alleviated by changes in the temporal demands of high-wage employment, but these demands are largely driven by gains from specialization, continuity, and flexibility on the job.

The basic roadmap of career/family conflict is well-traveled. Goldin’s distinctive contribution lies in her economic analysis. While some legal scholars like Joan Williams and Nancy Segal (2003) apply terms such as “family responsibility discrimination,” Goldin highlights the impact of relative prices on both the demand side and the supply side of the labor market.  Whether or not employers have discriminatory attitudes, they prefer to hire—and are willing to pay a premium for—ideal workers willing to put in long hours. Some highly educated women find ways around the problem; others voluntarily sacrifice career prospects in return for a package that includes both greater affluence and more time for their children.

While compelling in many respects, this economic analysis relies heavily on paradigmatic neoclassical assumptions.  By Goldin’s account, care for family members represents a personal preference rather than a productive contribution, and market wages are accurate markers of productivity. In my view, she defines efficiency too narrowly, overlooking the possibility that current institutional structures governing interactions between the family, the market and the state are inefficient as well as unfair.

Gender specialization in marriage has mixed consequences. Mothers without access to independent income face significant financial risks, especially if they lack personal wealth. Divorce has more negative consequences for caregivers than for breadwinners, and the threat of significant reduction in post-divorce living standards reduces women’s bargaining power within families. As Shelly Lundberg and Robert Pollak (2003) explain, contracting and bargaining problems can undermine Pareto optimality in marriage; women are increasingly aware of the potential costs of economic dependence. Fathers who devote little time to their children may fail to develop a close relationship with them, with adverse consequences for family members that can neutralize the benefits of higher income (Petts et al. 2020). Specialization can lead to outcomes that leave everyone worse off.

The decision to raise children or care for other dependent family members can be described as an effort to maximize individual utility. However, such effort is constrained by costs that are shaped by social institutions beyond the market, and it leads to consequences for economy as a whole—such as the future supply of workers and taxpayers.  The increasing costs and risks of raising children help explain why fertility rates in the U.S. (as in many other countries) have fallen far below replacement levels.  Research on the fiscal consequences of fertility decline raises important questions regarding the “efficient” distribution of the costs of investment in human capabilities (Wolf et al. 2011).

Just as greater family income doesn’t always signal greater family efficiency, higher earnings don’t always signal higher productivity. Goldin and others (e.g., Cha and Weeden 2014) convincingly show that earnings per hour in the U.S. increase substantially with total hours of work.  However, a wage premium does not necessarily imply a total compensation premium:  non-wage compensation (including employee benefits) can exceed 40% of total compensation for high earners, and much of it represents a fixed cost that is amortized over increased hours of employment (Gittleman and Pierce 2013).

Many customers and clients value flexibility and continuity, but these needs can potentially be met by institutional reorganization, such team-based services. Problems with lack of continuity in the U.S. health care system have less to do with providers’ hours on the job than with specialization and institutional incentives to cut costs (Frey 2018). Indeed, long hours of health care provision can lead to serious errors; the medical profession validated concerns about the adverse effects of hospital residents’ extreme hours in 2003 when it placed strict limits on shift lengths (Keller et al. 2009).

Bankers and CEOs may well prefer subordinates who are at their beck and call. Is this a productivity-related imperative or a privilege of managerial power? Both institutional inertia and information problems complicate the answer to this question. Like a college diploma that is costly to acquire but not actually necessary for effective job performance, willingness to work long hours may be a signal of potential worker effort that moves job applicants to the head of the hiring queue. Cha and Weeden (2014) offer some evidence that rat-race effects push many into longer work hours than they would prefer. This coordination problem helps explain public choices to regulate hours of employment.

Trade-offs are often a fact of life, and public policies can’t always assuage them. Potential gains from specialization, continuity, job-specific skills, and single-mindedness will always loom large—in both careers and families. On the other hand, life is a portfolio that invites diversification, and many important assets—like healthy family and community members– are undervalued simply because they can’t be bought and sold. Much depends on how gains are defined, and for whom.

Goldin calls out the inequitable division of labor that assigns women more responsibility than men for family care, but her focus on career-oriented college-educated women deflects attention from other dimensions of inequality.  Women without a college education have been far less successful than their more credentialed counterparts at winning work-family benefits such as paid family leave from their employers (Adelstein and Peters 2019). International comparisons show that the effect of national family policies is strongly mediated by earnings inequality—with greatest benefits for low earners (Hook and Paek 2020).

Earnings inequality can reduce the incentives for more affluent women to support progressive family policies that would increase public investments in care infrastructure, and even encourage indifference toward the many low-wage women–from nannies and housecleaners to childcare and eldercare workers–who help keep the price of outsourced domestic services relatively low. In the U.S., college-educated mothers living in cities with large numbers of women immigrants are able to put in longer hours on the job (and also raise more children) than those living in comparable cities (Cortés and Pan 2019).

From a market-centric perspective, this represents an efficient outcome. However, in my book, it doesn’t qualify as a grand convergence or a gender revolution.

References

Adelstein, Shirley, and H. Elizabeth Peters. 2019. “Parents’ Access to Work-Family Supports.” The Urban Institute. Accessed January 2, 2022. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/101144/parents_access_to_work-family_supports_1.pdf

Cha, Youngjoo, and Kim A. Weeden. 2014. “Overwork and the Slow Convergence in the Gender Gap in Wages.” American Sociological Review 79:3, 457-484.

Cortés, Patricia, and Jessica Pan. 2019. “When Time Binds: Substitutes for Household Production, Returns to Working Long Hours, and the Skilled Gender Wage Gap.” Journal of Labor Economics 37:2, 351-398.

Frey, John J. 2018. “Colluding with the Decline of Continuity.” The Annals of Family Medicine 16:6, 488-489.

Gittleman, Maury, and Brooks Pierce. 2013. “An Improved Measure of Inter-Industry Pay Differentials.” Journal of Economic and Social Measurement 38:3, 229-242.

Goldin, Claudia. 2006. “The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women’s Employment, Education, and Family.” American Economic Review 96: 2, 1-21.

Hook, Jennifer L., and Eunjeong Paek. 2020. “National Family Policies and Mothers’ Employment: How Earnings Inequality Shapes Policy Effects Across and Within Countries.” American Sociological Review 85:3, 381-416.

Keller, Simone M., Phyllis Berryman, and Eileen Lukes. 2009. “Effects of Extended Work Shifts and Shift Work on Patient Safety, Productivity, and Employee Health.” Aaohn Journal 57:12, 497-504.

Lundberg, Shelly, and Robert A. Pollak. 2003. “Efficiency in Marriage.” Review of Economics of the Household 1:3, 153-167.

Petts, Richard J., Chris Knoester, and Jane Waldfogel. 2020. “Fathers’ Paternity Leave-Taking and Children’s Perceptions of Father-Child Relationships in the United States.” Sex Roles 82:3, 173-188.

Williams, Joan C., and Nancy Segal. 2003. “Beyond the Maternal Wall: Relief for Family Caregivers who are Discriminated Against on the Job.” Harvard Women’s Law Journal 26, 77-162.

Wolf, Douglas A., Ronald D. Lee, Timothy Miller, Gretchen Donehower, and Alexandre Genest. 2011. “Fiscal Externalities of Becoming a Parent.” Population and Development Review 37:2, 241-266.

 

Nancy Folbre is Professor Emerita of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her most recent book is The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems (New York: Verso, 2021).

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 (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (January 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

 

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

Lars Sandberg

Deirdre McCloskey, Richard Steckel, and Richard Sylla contributed to this memorial as colleagues, collaborators, and friends of Lars Sandberg for decades.

Lars G. Sandberg, an economist and economic historian who made notable contributions in several areas—Sweden’s modern economic history, the rise and decline of British cotton textile manufacturing, and the relationship between nutrition and stature—died on September 29, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, Sandberg was professor emeritus of economics at Ohio State University, where he taught from 1970 until he retired in 1995. Previously he held faculty positions at Harvard and Dartmouth. He earned his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 1964, after graduating from Harvard College summa cum laude and winner of the Williams Prize awarded to the top economics graduate in the class of 1961.

Lars was born in Sweden in 1939, and moved to America as a child after World War II when his father, an international law expert, took up a position at the newly established United Nations. He grew up in the suburbs of New York City. Despite becoming fully Americanized and a U.S. citizen, Lars retained a slight Swedish accent throughout his life. He and one of us (Dick Sylla), who became lifelong friends as undergraduates in Harvard’s Lowell House, used Lars’s background and accent to lead others in the House to believe that Lars was of noble birth and would one day become
the Count of Uppsala, the Swedish city where he was born. As part of this ruse perpetrated on naïve fellow students, Lars would teach them that certain off-color Swedish words meant simple things like “hello” and “goodbye,” and his housemates would then show how sophisticated they were by greeting Lars with those Swedish words, much to his amusement.

From 1964 to 1967, Lars was an instructor and assistant professor of economics at Harvard, and served as the Economics Department’s Head Tutor. McCloskey encountered him in this role in the fall of 1962, in a little discussion section in Edward Chamberlain’s course on microeconomics for economics majors. Lars’ students were charmed by his direct, sarcastic manner, which was mightily aroused by their failure in repeated quizzes to get straight the difference between an income and a substitution effect. Lars was as an economic historian and member of Gerschenkron’s graduate
economic history seminar, which McCloskey also joined a couple of years later. The seminar had such future economic historians as Sylla, Knick Harley, Barbara Solow, and Richard Sutch, and in one year the later-to-be Nobel winner Thomas Sargent. Lars’ acerbic wit was again on display.

Then he spent three years as an associate professor at Dartmouth before
accepting the offer of a full professorship at Ohio State in 1970. With his European background and slight Swedish accent, Lars was a something of a sophisticate in the Economics Department at Ohio State. He knew the proper manners and social rules, and he occasionally expressed amusement by first-generation college undergraduates who seemingly did not understand such things. Lars’s wry humor and his sophisticated
bearing sometimes confused such students. He was, however, generous with his time and advice, and genuinely interested in helping all students with learning, especially those who were committed to the endeavor.

Lars was unusual among colleagues and friends in his ability to examine
objectively almost any subject, or at least a wide range of subjects. These ranged from diplomacy in the Middle East, to reactions to The Bell Curve by Murray and Herrnstein, to the economics of college sports, and to national politics. Somehow, Lars could place himself outside these conversations, much as a fly on the wall would listen but not intervene, and then he would provide objective commentary without the emotion that often obscured clear thinking.

Professionally, Lars was always alert and appreciated for his insights and quick wit at seminars and faculty meetings, whether on discussions of tenure and promotion cases, or the misuse of historical “facts,” or inappropriate methods and shaky conclusions in scholarly presentations. Quick to defend the field of economic history before doubtful colleagues, Lars stood our chosen enterprise well at these gatherings.

Lars did not begin his scholarly career as an economic historian. His early work in the 1960s leveraged his interest in his native Sweden and his command of its language to study Swedish economic policies—tax, antitrust, and agricultural policies, in particular—in the decades surrounding the middle of the twentieth century. Sweden had a reputation for innovative economic policies in this era, so Sandberg’s work was of
general interest to policy economists. His undergraduate and Ph.D. advisor was Arthur Smithies, a policy economist, and not Harvard’s great economic historian, Alexander Gerschenkron. But Gerschenkron entered his life at this time via his and Smithies’ secretary, Joyce Bigelow. Lars knew Joyce from his sessions with Smithies, and on a trip to Europe and the Middle East with Sylla in 1962, he began to woo her with an almost daily cryptic postcard from some exotic place. This courting strategy worked. Lars’s
and Joyce’s wedding took place in June,1963, with Gerschenkron (and Sylla, who soon thereafter became a student of Gerschenkron) attending.

By the late 1960s, Sandberg turned to economic history, publishing several
articles and a book on the development of the British cotton textile industry from its major role in the first industrial revolution to its becoming a symbol of British “decline” by the early twentieth century. The book, Lancashire in Decline: a study in entrepreneurship, technology, and international trade (1974), challenged long previously held views that the decline of the British textile industry represented an entrepreneurial
failure to adopt new and more efficient technologies and other forms of irrational behavior by British corporate managers. Sandberg instead demonstrated the British industry, primarily an export industry, was whipsawed and declined because of international market developments beyond its control. Other nations that early on imported textiles from Britain developed their own textile industries and substituted domestic production for British imports. Initially that happened in developing
economies such as the United States, France, Germany, and Italy. Later it occurred in such markets as Brazil, India, China, and Japan. The lesson drawn is that textile production will move to places in the world where the relatively unskilled labor it requires is available at a cost advantage over an older, more developed area. A check of the labels of origin of most of the garments we wear still appears to confirm this lesson of history.

Other influential work of Sandberg written while at Ohio State included “The Case of the Impoverished Sophisticate: Human Capital and Swedish Economic Growth before World War I” (JEH March 1979, 225-42), which challenged or significantly adapted the views of his other Harvard mentor, Gerschenkron, about the sources of early economic development in Europe. Gerschenkron promulgated the idea that economic backwardness was ultimately an advantage for rapid economic growth because latecomers could borrow effective technologies and institutions from the success stories. Sandberg argued that Sweden in many respects was hardly backward by European standards of the early nineteenth century. Admittedly, Sweden was poor compared to the leading European
developers pre-1850, but it was also sophisticated as measured by levels of literacy, attributes of its banking system, modest mortality rates, and the economic success of Swedish emigrants to America. This paper was co-winner of the Arthur Cole prize judged by the editorial board for the best article published in the Journal in 1978-79.

Sandberg’s basic idea was that Protestantism gave northern Europe, and Sweden in particular, an advantage in economic development because it required followers to read the Bible. Therefore, literacy (the “sophisticate”) and the accumulation of human capital while impoverished became allies in the latter half of the nineteenth century because they promoted banking and financial developments that bolstered the creation and diffusion of
new technologies and markets. Charles Kindleberger (see his Financial History of Western Europe, 1984, pp. 131-34) challenged this portrayal of Sweden’s literacy-financial development-economic growth nexus, but subsequent work by Swedish scholars, e.g., A. Ögren and H. Lindgren, supports Sandberg’s interpretation.

Lars contributed several pieces to the literature on heights. Following a presentation on slave heights and health that Rick Steckel gave at Ohio State in the fall of 1977, Lars mentioned that Sweden had considerable height data lodged in muster rolls. In the summer of 1978, he collected a sample of 2000 heights from the Uppland regiment whose members were born in the 160-year span beginning in 1720, which became the basis for Sandberg and
Steckel, “Soldier, Soldier, What Made You Grow So Tall? A Study of Height, Health, and Nutrition in Sweden, 1720–1881,” Economy and History, 23 (1980), 91-105. This paper showed an early rise in Swedish stature (by European standards) that the authors attributed to the vigorous diffusion of the potato into Swedish agriculture.

The early success of this paper led to vastly more data collected from the military archives in Stockholm in the summer of 1980 by Lars, Rick, and Rick’s wife, Barbara. Lars’s parents were gracious hosts for this five-week endeavor, and while taking a break from the delicious home cooking to dine at fine Stockholm restaurants, Barbara (being pregnant) never overcame the unpleasant taste of herring on her pallet. Further collaborations with Rick Steckel led to the publication of five height papers, the most influential of which were “Overpopulation and Malnutrition Rediscovered: Hard Times in 19th Century Sweden,” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988), 1-19, and “Was Industrialization Hazardous to Your Health? – Not in Sweden,” in Richard Steckel and Roderick Floud (ed.) Health and Welfare during Industrialization (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1997), 127-60.

After retiring from Ohio State in 1995, Lars continued to teach there and as an adjunct professor of economic history at Uppsala University in Sweden. An avid reader, he spent much of his time in libraries, and he followed developments in Sweden by reading its daily papers on the Internet. He also enjoyed the arts and sporting events, rarely missing Masterpiece Theater or Ohio State football games. He loved boats, sailing the coast of Sweden and cruising to Alaska and the Caribbean with family and friends. Lars chose to take an early retirement, which ended up lasting a quarter century. He
enjoyed every day of it.