Capitalism by Gaslight

A compelling history of nineteenth-century economic, social, and cultural life, Capitalism by Gaslight explores the blurred boundary between legitimate and illegitimate economic activity, describing the dealings of prostitutes, dealers in dirty books and used goods, mock auctioneers, illegal slavers, and other entrepreneurs.

Capitalism by Gaslight
Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America

Edited by Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson

2015 | 328 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History / Economics
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Table of Contents

Introduction—Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson

Chapter 1. The Loomis Gang's Market Revolution—Will B. Mackintosh

Chapter 2. The Promiscuous Economy: Cultural and Commercial Geographies of Secondhand in the Antebellum City—Robert J. Gamble

Chapter 3. The Era of Shinplasters: Making Sense of Unregulated Paper Money—Joshua R. Greenberg

Chapter 4. The Rag Race: Jewish Secondhand Clothing Dealers in England and America—Adam Mendelsohn

Chapter 5. Lickspittles and Land Sharks: The Immigrant Exploitation Business in Antebellum New York—Brendan P. O'Malley

Chapter 6. "The World Is But One Vast Mock Auction": Fraud and Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century America—Corey Goettsch

Chapter 7. Underground on the High Seas: Commerce, Character, and Complicity in the Illegal Slave Trade—Craig B. Hollander

Chapter 8. "Some Rascally Business": Thieving Slaves, Unscrupulous Whites, and Charleston's Illicit Waterfront Trade—Michael D. Thompson

Chapter 9. Selling Sex and Intimacy in the City: The Changing Business of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore—Katie M. Hemphill

Chapter 10. Economies of Print in the Nineteenth-Century City—Paul Erickson

Chapter 11. Back Number Budd: An African American Pioneer in the Old Newspaper and Information Management Business—Ellen Gruber Garvey

Conclusion—Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson

List of Contributors

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson

The gaslight of Philadelphia's street lamps illuminated the work of the successful entrepreneur James Francis during the Civil War era. He managed a crew of employees in two businesses. In the colder months, his team cleaned chimneys. When the weather turned warmer, he became Philadelphia's "Dog-Killer-in-Chief," leading his men in the grisly work of rounding up stray dogs and rendering them into wheel grease. He also caught stray pigs. This work purportedly helped him clear $1,000 a year, although the evidence suggests that he was able to save little from these earnings. The Evening Telegraph reported that a friend, the city's fire marshal Alexander Blackburn, paid for Francis's medical care, "Christian consolation" on his deathbed, and burial in 1864.

The fact that this man, an African American, had cultivated the regard of a white official was certainly noteworthy for the era. But such news did not lead to more widespread respect for his clear achievements. The Telegraph's obituary largely ignored Francis's good business sense and his vital role as a provider of essential services to the city's residents and employment for a number of workers. Instead, the newspaper announced that Francis's passing marked the "Death of a Well-Known Character." He would be missed more for his comforting presence in the panorama of urban street life than for the economic ingenuity and hard work by which he had carved a niche for himself and other black men at the center of the city's economy and society. His white contemporaries marginalized Francis and his crew of laborers, obscuring his endeavor and their toil in the shadows of social experience and the historical record.

James Francis and the markets he helped make have eluded the attention of historians for 150 years because many scholars have looked elsewhere to identify the creators of capitalist transformation. Economic historians have examined the exploits of elite merchants and financiers and have traced the flow of credit, capital, and commodities across oceans, rivers, canals, and railroads in order to assess macroeconomic issues of development and growth. Social historians have explored the ways in which the wrenching economic and social changes of a "market revolution" unsettled time-honored standards of household independence and produced conflict in the workplace, in the home, and on the streets. Scholars have also charted the development of consumer cultures in which shopkeepers and customers crafted refined spaces of display, sought access to cultural capital through their transactions, and gave new meanings to leisure, shopping, and goods. More recently, compelling new cultural histories have emphasized the ways capitalism "took command" in nineteenth-century American life—an "anonymous," pervasive, and "revolutionary" system that cultivated new practices of selfhood, ways of knowing, methods of dealing, and platforms for governance.

Francis used ingenuity and moxie just to get by. It would strain the limits of the available evidence to claim that he was, or thought himself to be, a capitalist. His white contemporaries certainly would not grant him the label's social stature as they made light of, rather than illuminated, his impressive efforts. Yet ordinary people, through their varied struggles to survive and succeed, created capitalism as much as captains of commerce and industry did. The purpose of this volume is to examine the many people, goods, transactions, strategies, and economic practices that have been obscured by nineteenth-century debates about the meanings of economic activity and more recent arguments about what constituted capitalism. The gaslight lamps of nineteenth-century cities provide a useful metaphor for us. In Capitalism by Gaslight, we bring these economies out of the shadows and illuminate them in order to better understand what capitalism was in the nineteenth century.

White Philadelphians' patronizing dismissal of Francis is as much a part of nineteenth-century capitalism as Francis's hard work: Americans at the time paid quite a bit of attention to what petty entrepreneurs were doing in order to lend moral legitimacy to the markets and activities they deemed respectable and appropriate. Within these cultural debates, we can see capitalism as a contest for meaning, especially among the privileged few who had access to economic and cultural resources that enabled them to control the discourse materially and rhetorically. Merchant princes reaped the economic rewards of other people's economic activity and also accumulated cultural capital by obscuring the exertions and creativity of those petty producers and entrepreneurs in order to validate and ennoble their own.

The markets we investigate here, often labeled "marginal" by contemporaries and historians, were actually central to the economy and to individuals' struggles for survival and their efforts to achieve ambitions. The story of nineteenth-century American capitalism that emerges in this collection reveals a multitude of people who made markets by navigating a range of new financial instruments, information, and transactions, the fluid mobility and mutable value of people and goods, and the shifting geography and structure of commercial institutions, even as powerful capitalists denigrated the activities of petty entrepreneurs in order to legitimate their own. What is more, by uncovering what ordinary individuals actually did, the contributors to this volume go far beyond illuminating the economic and cultural past. They recover a forgotten social history as well, for petty entrepreneurs who sold used clothing or struggled to make do by pilfering cotton were simply living their lives.

We see this collection as part of a scholarly project that has begun to show, as Rosanne Currarino has argued, that capitalism was a "contingent," "contested," and "historical" process that arose and attained shape out of "the messy minutiae of daily life." It is our contention that the "messy minutiae" that shaped the practices, habits, and worldviews of people such as James Francis helped to constitute capitalism in nineteenth-century America, a process that was gradual, highly contested, and certainly not monolithic. In order to make such a claim stick, we must establish the significance of market activity that historians have by and large dismissed as "underground," "marginal," and "informal" (and even "black," "illicit," or "gray"). These terms not only marginalize significant forms of commerce at the core of daily life but also exclude these activities from the larger history of capitalism.

This volume represents an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of Americans' economic activities in the nineteenth century and, in the process, to develop a more complete picture of American capitalism. The essays here contain revised and expanded versions of many of the papers presented at a conference jointly sponsored by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Library Company of Philadelphia. This conference brought together scholars embarking on innovative research projects focused on nineteenth-century economic activity of the sort that has, to date, remained relatively unexplored by historians. The provocative papers and lively conversation over the conference's two days signaled to us, the coorganizers, the need for further exploration of the subject.

Taken together, these essays illuminate how the capitalist system worked and how people worked the system. Commercial exchanges defined by movement, transience, and change have particularly confounded our understanding of certain market participants and their activities, because buyers, sellers, and service providers are not always who they claim to be, commodities often defy easy categorization, the medium of exchange can be in flux, and the goods that make it to market can be as counterfeit as their makers. As these essays show, economic enterprise was often by degrees legal or illegal, legitimate or illegitimate, making it that much more difficult for contemporaries to track and police them and for those studying them today to gauge their contributions to the larger economy. Transactions sometimes occurred in back alleys, basements, and places with nondescript façades and hidden entrances. And they also took place in the full light of day but, as criminal enterprises, ran afoul of the law.

Arguably, people operating within these markets had to possess greater amounts of commercial acumen because they had to know the rules and systems in both legal and illegal spheres, all the while being cognizant of and being able to elude (or collude with) the authorities. The economies these people helped to create were characterized not by their fixity and reliability—like those of established businessmen with storefronts, ready access to stock, and dependable credit networks—but rather by their instability. These petty entrepreneurs had no choice but to make their own way, enjoying neither the benefits of formal apprenticeships nor the camaraderie of professional trade groups. In fact, their occupations were sometimes so interstitial that they were the only ones employed in those lines of work. They recognized market developments and met evolving consumer needs. These economic worlds operated interdependently, and because of that, we who study them today should not disaggregate them into distinct categories of "black," "white," and "gray" markets. It is more useful and accurate (yet certainly more challenging) to consider the range of economic activity as a spectrum shaded by nuance rather than attempt to delineate sharp contrasts between the darkness of the illicit and the brightness and purported purity of the licit.

The historiographical debate about the "market revolution" relied upon similarly clear distinctions and fostered a rancorous divide among scholars seeking to understand the transition to capitalism in early America. "Market" historians contended that most Americans welcomed opportunities to envision and engage with broader markets, while "social" historians argued that "precapitalist" farmers, planters, and artisans opposed the new terms of credit and organization of labor foisted on them by capitalist merchants and manufacturers. Will B. Mackintosh transcends this debate in his essay on the Loomis Gang, a family of horse thieves that would otherwise fall through the cracks of these rigid analytical categories. Mackintosh argues that we should understand that this family, whose criminal network extended from upstate New York to Pennsylvania and Canada, contributed to the larger social and economic changes unfolding in the Erie Canal corridor in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The Loomises sought profit and social mobility in the very region that historians have long associated with the triumph of new models of business organization and the pious, domestic values of the emerging middle class. The Loomises' market revolution mirrored and distorted the practices and institutions of law-abiding capitalists, and ultimately produced violence when neighbors lashed out in an attempt to destroy the alternative version of the market that the gang represented. But, like the activities of others described in this volume, the Loomises' activities were only by degrees distinct from so-called legitimate commerce.

Americans did not just debate the question of legitimacy when people trespassed moral boundaries. They were also concerned with the ways goods circulated and changed meanings as they did so. Robert J. Gamble demonstrates how fluid movement and amorphous legal categories complicated early officials' attempts to control public markets. Gamble explores the cultural forces behind the drive to categorize, legislate, and patrol petty entrepreneurs and commodities as they circulated promiscuously through Early Republic Philadelphia and Baltimore. Popular representations of the vast array of commodities moving through the city's sprawling secondhand marketplace—recycled, bartered, pawned, counterfeited, or stolen—show just how complicated this process could be.

Value was also fluid and contested, since it was time-sensitive, situational, and contingent upon people's faith in an ephemeral medium of exchange. To explain how Americans assessed value, Joshua R. Greenberg examines shinplasters, a historiographically neglected category of paper money printed by commercial entities and towns. A necessary yet particularly unstable form of currency, these dubiously legal bills circulated liberally at particular moments of national economic crisis or when state monetary laws changed, alleviating the problems associated with the shortage of available money. Ultimately, shinplasters destabilized Americans' trust in all paper money issued by banks, and politicians responded by attempting to harness that anxiety into support for their partisan perspectives on the banking issue more generally. In the years following the Panic of 1837, the meaning of the term "shinplaster" came to include legal bank bills of doubtful value as well. Thus, the circulation of shinplasters helped antebellum Americans facilitate economic transactions and determine what paper money was worth.

An examination of another type of rags—secondhand clothing—and the Jewish men who collected, patched, and resold them illuminates how ethnicity factored into commercial interactions. Adam Mendelsohn explains that rag traders not only appreciated the economic potential in others' cast-offs but also applied ingenuity and hard work to create value where others saw worthlessness. Anti-Semitic observers disputed these entrepreneurs' respectability—even though they were operating within the bounds of the law and providing necessary garments for many classes of people—and cast the trade as a disreputable one. And yet, in spite of their detractors' efforts to cordon off New York's Chatham Street and London's Petticoat Lane—the main sites of old clothes commerce—from more reputable marketplaces, secondhand dealers circulated widely. As a result, at least in the American context, Jews resorted to peddling, a valuable (if informal) apprenticeship that often led them to successful careers as clothing manufacturers and shopkeepers.

The large-scale influx of Irish and German immigrants on American shores, another example of the circulation of people during the nineteenth century, offered opportunities for unscrupulous native-born businessmen to nestle into a lucrative but culturally contested market niche based upon their exploitation of the newcomers. Brendan P. O'Malley takes up Mendelsohn's transatlantic approach and analyzes the world of a group of nefarious middlemen, the "emigrant runners" who took advantage of immigrants to American shores in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Runners, in some respects hated and distrusted as much as the foreigners they duped, offered transportation and temporary housing to immigrants. Keenly sizing up the needs of a vulnerable population, they were able to envision a business opportunity and capitalize on it. They evaded regulation in part by immersing themselves in the violent urban subculture of the era. Moreover, their black deeds intersected with those of corrupt politicians, exposing the blurry boundaries between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" business practices and highlighting the need for—and limits of—institutional reform.

In this vacuum of oversight, opportunities to dupe and defraud proliferated, making the debate about moral legitimacy more shrill but also ripe for popular entertainment as Americans came to understand these issues by reading about the frauds of the day. Corey Goettsch examines New York's notorious mock auctions, in which by-bidders worked in league with crooked auctioneers to hoodwink passersby into purchasing goods of dubious value. Pretending to sell precious items such as gold watches at incredibly low prices, mock auctions capitalized on both Americans' growing desire to participate in the bustling marketplace of consumer goods and their questionable ability to judge the quality and value of such goods. Mock auctioneers and the "Peter Funks" who abetted them emerged—like Jewish secondhand dealers and immigrant exploiters—as capitalism's bogeymen, figures whom contemporaries thought most aptly personified fraud in their society. Because these men were highly skilled entrepreneurs who knew and could work every angle to exploit their victims, they also symbolized the ways in which every capitalist could be a Peter Funk.

In this cultural milieu, assertions about character became ever more significant, even (and especially) among participants in the most morally troubling markets. Craig B. Hollander returns us to the Atlantic Ocean to describe the risks that Americans took and the rewards they reaped in the illegal slave trade in the years following the War of 1812. After 1807, a nefarious but lawful commerce became illegal under British law. And yet, even with the United States following suit in the next year to clarify the distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate, slave trade financiers and ship captains in the United States and Cuba maintained and strengthened their economic networks. They also forged ties with merchants not explicitly engaged in the slave trade but who hoped to profit from trade in the markets that slavers visited. Like many of the other essays in this collection, Hollander's work illustrates the ways in which illicit trade could end up supporting legal institutions and forms of exchange. In addition, it demonstrates how financial incentives encouraged many to engage in lucrative and immoral business practices.

Even within slave society, the boundaries of legitimacy were also up for debate. Slaveholders passed laws that prohibited commercial exchange between slaves and white people who did not own them. Hemmed in by these constraints, slaves and nonslaveholders nevertheless participated in commercial networks that were embedded within and contributed to the larger movement of goods in the Atlantic economy. Michael D. Thompson examines the ways slaves and their white abettors seized opportunities to steal cotton and other staple goods from Charleston's waterfront during the antebellum period. The problem of theft also intersected with the questions of legitimacy that surrounded slavery, as slaveholders tried to explain away slaves' pilfering as an outgrowth of their moral deficiency and the influence of the enterprising whites who were in league with them. Hardly a marginal activity, the theft of staple goods on Charleston's wharves registered on the account books of the city's slaveholders and merchants, and in no small measure shaped the markets in those commodities.

Their boundaries blurry and porous, nineteenth-century criminal and quasi-criminal economies thrived. Ever elusive, this kind of commerce was impossible to police, quantify, and control. The most successful criminal entrepreneurs attempted to bridge the worlds of legitimate and illegitimate, knowing how to finesse the various legal, economic, and cultural systems. Katie M. Hemphill's essay on the business of prostitution in Baltimore encourages historians to reconsider the line between exploitation and opportunity. A form of illicit commerce, prostitution was nevertheless a robust trade and in fact developed in tandem with the city's commercial and transportation infrastructures. The popularity of glamorous hotels and restaurants and the proximity of a local clientele of male clerks and merchants made the older model of "brothel"—an establishment that housed men and offered them many domestic services beyond sex—largely obsolete. Madams began to specialize—to adopt a term that business historians have applied to this era of transformation—in providing sexual services (often to city elders, police officials, merchants, clerks, and other respectable men in the community) even as they diversified by offering clients the types of sociability often associated with middle-class gentility. Enterprising madams also disguised their quests for profits by domesticating a hurly-burly environment.

Hemphill's essay and the ones that follow it suggest that we must pay closer attention to the ways in which entrepreneurs both specialized and diversified their operations to get by in the nineteenth-century economy. Paul Erickson argues that we must situate the nineteenth-century book trade within a broader commercial context. In fact, his vignettes portraying bookselling barbers, smut-peddling purveyors of "fancy goods," and profit-minded reformers confound scholars' assertions that a clearly defined "book trade" was separated from the retailing of other commodities. These salesmen and their customers, participants in an economy that was about more than books, unsettled distinctions between respectable and disreputable trade for their contemporaries even as they add complexity to our understanding of nineteenth-century business organization.

The people showcased in these essays encountered immense barriers for getting by and getting ahead, demonstrating amazing ingenuity and a willingness to rethink the concepts of value in order to survive. The story of Robert M. Budd, the dealer in old newspapers who is the subject of Ellen Gruber Garvey's concluding essay, illustrates new themes that would emerge at the end of the century while also showing how Budd's line of work was closely linked to earlier secondhand dealers, such as Mendelsohn's used clothing sellers. Focusing on a man known by his contemporaries as "Back Number Budd," Garvey describes an innovative entrepreneur and early participant in an information revolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a business owner, Budd saw profit in materials that others had devalued. He saved old newspapers and created a system of filing that lawyers and newspaper correspondents paid him to access. A pioneer of the time, Budd recognized the value of commodifying information and succeeded for a time in cornering the market for that information in New York City.

These essays reveal that during the nineteenth century the rules of economic engagement were still being established, meaning that definitions of terms such as legal and illegal, moral and immoral, acceptable and disdained were up for debate. At a time when many Americans condemned the social upheaval and economic inequality resulting from capitalism, some prominent merchants, ministers, reformers, journalists, and authors of fiction sought to establish wholesale and retail trade as legitimate norms against which all other trafficking should be judged. Historians have adopted these moral categories of legitimacy a little too faithfully, taking for granted the value judgments placed on so-called aberrant economic ventures and ignoring or marginalizing them in their own scholarship. In fact, "upstanding" men of commerce engaged in illegal, semilicit, and morally suspect economic practices of their own, whether by pressing their thumbs on the scale, marking up goods to reap unreasonable profits, dealing with black-market suppliers, or patronizing brothels. By the same token, those who defied the law outright were still tied to legitimate markets, as goods and money were recirculated and obtained new values and new meanings, moving through the market's porous membranes from legal to illegal and back again.

These essays illuminate the economies of people whom contemporaries relegated to the shadows of capitalism's dramatic triumph in the nineteenth century. When exposed to light, these otherwise hidden forms of commerce become flashpoints revealing the tensions, fissures, and inequities inherent in capitalism itself. Indeed, this was capitalism.