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The “Capital Turn” and the “Commodity Turn” Featured at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting

This year the Business History Conference is sponsoring seven paper sessions and three roundtables at the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians, held in Philadelphia from April 4–7, 2019. Covering a diverse array of topics—including early nineteenth-century commercial fairs, twentieth-century financial reform, women and minority entrepreneurs in food service, and the politics of doing business in decolonizing regions—the panels attest to how business has become part of nearly every subfield of American history. Historians of food, race and ethnicity, environmental politics, international relations, and development will all find intriguing business-related panels.

The three roundtables center on new directions in the history capitalism. Six panelists (Jefferson Cowie, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Kim Phillips-Fein, William Powell Jones, Sam Rosenthal, and Marc Levinson) offer new perspectives on the so-called “Golden Age of American Capitalism” between 1945 and the early 1970s, when inequality declined and wages and social mobility rose. This era of economic expansion produced a political economy (and a white male-dominated social order) that slogans like “Make American Great Again” are meant to call to mind but that may no longer be replicable—for better and for worse. The two other roundtables take stock of the interpretive and methodological interventions advanced by the “capital turn” and the “commodity turn.” “Capitalization Takes Command” brings together Eli Cook, Jonathan Levy, Caitlin Rosenthal, and Martin Giraudeau to discuss the payoffs and pitfalls of moving capitalization (and novel forms of quantification) to the center of analysis. They ask how a focus on capital accounts, investment flows, and stock portfolios (as opposed to commodity chains and trade networks) can change our understanding of the past. The roundtable “Object Lessons: Profits and Pitfalls in Writing Histories of Commodities” features scholars known to audiences partly by the commodity they study: Bartow Elmore (Coca-Cola), Kendra Smith-Howard (milk), Cindy Ott (pumpkins), John Soluri (bananas), and Andrew Robichaud (ice).

The seven paper sessions illuminate several emerging trends in business history. Two take food and agriculture as their focal point. “Mediating Foodways in ‘The American Century’” examines how the federal government used media networks and discourses about freedom, nationalism, and agriculture to change American diets and foodways. The panel features papers on two interwar radio programs (the “Housekeeper’s Chat” aimed at rural households and a USDA broadcast); the mass media’s promotion of processed foods and food’s use as a weapon during World War II; and the Cornucopia Project, which used data management technologies to rebuild connections between food producers and consumers in the 1980s. Another food-related panel examines women and minority entrepreneurs who ran Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, rose to prominence as a Latina chef in an industry staffed by low-wage Latino food service workers, and operated Chinese restaurants at the peak of anti-Chinese sentiment. They illuminate how these marginalized yet resourceful entrepreneurs created business niches that traded on difference.

Historians of commerce and trade in antebellum America are featured in two paper sessions. One group of panelists analyzes early nineteenth-century commercial fairs not just as sites for buying, selling, and displaying consumer goods but as events that fostered contentious political debates about the meanings of free markets and the means of making profits. A second panel examines how American merchants, political leaders, and government bureaucrats endeavored to spread concepts of economic freedom both at home and abroad. They draw out the contested meanings of “economic freedom” by highlighting encounters between free-market oriented American merchants and their counterparts in China during the First Opium War; disputes between Indian leaders and U.S. officials over annuity payments; and debates over whether western land speculation could benefit poor southern farmers.

Conference-goers who attend the panels on commerce and trade in antebellum American can continue the conversation about the contested meanings of doing business by attending a session on interactions between American corporations and business people in decolonizing Africa, the newly independent Dominican Republic, and 1950s Venezuela. Situating their analysis in the complex context of global liberation movements and Cold War politics, the papers illuminate how struggles for freedom at home and struggles for local control and economic independence abroad animated American corporate decision-making.

Two more paper sessions highlight the value of joining the histories of business, public policy, and the law. The panel on “Finance and the Modern American State” features papers on Depression-era financial reform; commercial banking after World War II; and the banks rescues of the 1980s that laid the groundwork for the concept of “Too Big To Fail.” Together they explore how public policy has shaped American financial institutions and patterns of economic development and illuminate why the boundary between public and private finance remains difficult to pin down. The session on “The Nature of Deindustrialization: Rural Workers and Environmental Politics in the Age of Capital Flight” challenges the notion that rural workers cast aside their investment in environmental preservation in the 1970s as deindustrialization intensified concerns about job preservation. papers investigate iron miners who resisted plans to reindustrialize Lynn Mountain through prison construction and the woodworkers’ union that fought to protect old-growth stands in the Pacific Northwest. more study rural towns that advanced struggles for environmental justice—the hard rock mining towns that embraced tourism as a means to expose destructive mining practices and the Great Plains coal towns that pressed for responsible environmental policies as they wrestled with rapid growth stimulated by energy boom.

These business-focused sessions will surely make the OAH an intellectually invigorating and rewarding experience. They imaginatively address the conference theme, “The Work of Freedom,” by highlighting the varied ways minority entrepreneurs, rural workers, financial regulators, international corporations, commercial fairs, and the mass media promoted competing visions of economic freedom. 

Posted: January 16, 2019
Tagged: Conference, Previews