Markets in Crisis: Deception, Confidence, and Reputation in Nineteenth-Century America

Solicited by the Business History Conference

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: African American; Antebellum; Business and Economy; Family; Social and Cultural; Urban and Suburban


These papers explore various mechanisms to alleviate the “crisis in confidence” that punctuated the nineteenth-century’s economic boom and busts, especially the strategies aimed at infusing confidence in economic transactions to ward against fears of deception. Efforts to systematize early credit reporting sought to depersonalize (and thus improve) reports using objective “outsiders,” but elsewhere, newspapers deployed coded language to prompt imagined personal connections between market actors, and perhaps paradoxically, economic metaphors structured Americans’ thinking about some of the most intimate personal relationships. Culture and economy intertwined, as reputation could provoke economic confidence, but only when wielded in the right market.

Papers Presented

“As gentlemen, they are in good repute”: Local Reputation, Outside Agents, and Access to Credit in the Early Credit Industry

In 1856, the head of R. G. Dun & Company’s Charleston office penned an assessment of a hinterland lumber mill’s creditworthiness. Its proprietor, he wrote, was “entirely, a Correct man,” and “good for 8 or 10[,000]$.” Yet by the time the report was submitted, the mill had ceased operation, one of its partners was in jail, the firm faced a series of collections suits, and local credit correspondents had expressed serious reservations about the proprietor’s character. Such glaring inaccuracies provoke a closer examination of the credit agency’s intelligence gathering process, and the role of individual agents within that process. Through a close examination of the reports and related documents, historians can identify the anonymous agents and the role of networks in shaping the credit industry. This paper reconstructs a case study of the Charleston office head, one of a new breed of professionals recruited by the Dun company to provide objective third-party information, and who built their careers assessing other businesses’ reputations. As outsiders, such agents’ reports were expected to balance and correct those of the more numerous local agents who were enmeshed in local networks and loyalties. Yet as this study reveals, these ‘outsider’ reports were often shaped by local connections and community assumptions. This paper thus highlights the continuing importance of personal connections within the new credit industry’s commodification of risk, as well as the mechanisms by which social status translated into uneven access to credit in nineteenth-century America.

Presented By
Amanda R. Mushal, The Citadel

Deception in the Antebellum U.S. “Marriage Market”

The concept of the “marriage market” emerged in tandem with consumer capitalism in the nineteenth century. Even though romantic love was heralded as the only true basis of marriage, the law still structured marriage as primarily a property relationship. Under the doctrine of coverture inherited from English common law, upon marriage a woman’s legal identity was subsumed by her husband, who typically gained control of any wealth or property his bride brought to their union. The post-Revolutionary emphasis on emotional compatibility and intimacy sat in uneasy tension with the financial significance of marriage. For those “in the market,” the market analogy often reflected fears of deception. These fears were especially associated with marriage brokers and matrimonial advertising, both of which attracted both clients and controversy. Third-party matchmaking drew on the logic of consumer capitalism to appeal to individuals’ desire for choice by expanding the pool of potential spouses. Potential clients were warned that, especially in rapidly expanding cities, potential matches might not be what they claimed. Matchmakers were derided as swindlers, and those who engaged their services or took out ads were dismissed as ignorant, greedy, or both. Facilitated matches were denounced as immoral, on the assumption that most participants sought not love but money. Yet the persistent popularity of market metaphors reflected antebellum Americans’ recognition that marriage remained fundamentally economic even as it was recast as primarily emotional. When both markets and marriage law generally operated on the principle of caveat emptor, deception could have profound consequences.

Presented By
Lindsay Mitchell Keiter, Penn State Altoona

“Respectability Politics in the Black Press: The Language of Character and Commercial Belonging in the Nineteenth Century”

In 1837, James Green placed an advertisement in a local newspaper for his dry goods store, “respectfully” informing his “friends and the Public,” he had been able to enlarge his New York City store, and inviting them to call. Green’s advertisement was typical of the period, as most merchants demonstrated their knowledge of proper etiquette in newspaper advertisements of the day. Why did they do this? In the complex and unpredictable market economy of the antebellum years, status and reputation had provided leverage points for both economic and cultural capital. Like other members of their class, merchants and tradesmen learned how to use appropriate language cues to signal respectability and trustworthiness–cultural tools that would help them gain credit and patronage. Mobilizing these codes of middle-class status, northern free blacks also used respectability to further the political goals of abolitionism and black equality. African-American newspapers played an important role in such activism, and, I argue, leveraged the advertising pages further their political goals. This paper traces changing language tropes in newspaper advertising to examine how respectability politics shaped the African-American consumer market, especially after 1865. As the nation descended into the Jim Crow era by 1900, African-American leaders continued to use the language of respectability in order to assert belonging on the national stage, with very little success. In the black press, however, the language of respectability succeeded in bringing a measure of commercial belonging for black consumers before 1900.

Presented By
Jennifer M. Black, Misericordia University

Session Participants

Chair: Stephen W. Campbell, Cal Poly Pomona
Stephen W. Campbell is a lecturer in the department of history at Cal Poly Pomona. He holds a Master of Arts degree in history from California State University, Sacramento, and a PhD in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Campbell is an early 19th century U.S. historian with expertise in political, economic, financial, and media history. In addition to his part-time work at Pasadena City College, Campbell has taught a range of undergraduate history courses at Cal Poly Pomona, including early and modern U.S. history, and specialized courses like Jacksonian Democracy and the History of U.S. Capitalism. Campbell’s first book, The Bank War and the Partisan Press: Newspapers, Financial Institutions, and the Post Office in Jacksonian America (University of Kansas Press, 2019), re-examines the famous political conflict between President Andrew Jackson and the Second Bank of the United States. The Bank War and the Partisan Press focuses on the funding and dissemination of party newspapers, exploring their political and financial links with the federal bureaucracy and state-chartered financial institutions. The book demonstrates how a revolving cast of newspaper editors, financiers, and postal workers appropriated the financial resources of pre-existing political institutions—and even created new ones—to enrich themselves and further their careers. Campbell has also authored articles in Ohio Valley History, Missouri Historical Review, American Nineteenth Century History, and most recently, “‘A Very Large Extent of Virgin Land’: Nicholas Biddle, Cotton, and the Expansion of Slavery,” which appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography in January 2021

Presenter: Jennifer M. Black, Misericordia University
Jennifer M. Black is Associate Professor of History and Government at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA, where she teaches courses in US history, visual & material culture, American capitalism, and public history. She holds a PhD in American History and Visual Studies from the University of Southern California, as well as an MA in Public History and a BA in Art History, both from Western Michigan University. Jennifer has published in Winterthur Portfolio, Material Culture, and several edited collections; her articles and book chapters examine the intersection of culture and economics in the nineteenth century United States, turning specifically to material culture and advertising to uncover the commodification of sentiment, visual constructions of citizenship, the iconography of trademarks, and the market for memory-making. Her forthcoming book, “Branding Trust: Advertising and Trademarks in the US,” investigates the interaction between advertising professionals, manufacturers, and the public from the Panic of 1837 through World War I, tracing the uneven development of  branding practices and trademark regulation in the US. The book is under contract with University of Pennsylvania Press and is expected in 2023.

Presenter: Lindsay Mitchell Keiter, Penn State Altoona
Lindsay M. Keiter’s current research focuses on the economic functions of marriage in the late eighteenth through early nineteenth centuries, when ideals of marriage rapidly evolved. By examining how families planned financially and how marriage functioned as a conduit for various types of property, she connects the experiences of families and individuals to the wider forces of early America’s volatile, growing market economy. More broadly, Keiter is interested in the histories of gender and women, the law, capitalism, and public history and interpretation.Her research has been supported most recently by the American Antiquarian Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, the New-York Historical Society, and the American Philosophical Society. She has presented papers at conferences of the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic, the American Historical Association, and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Keiter received her doctorate from the College of William & Mary and worked as a historian for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation before joining the faculty at the Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona campus as an assistant professor of history.

Presenter: Amanda R. Mushal, The Citadel
Amanda R. Mushal is Associate Professor of History at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Her current research examines the development of early institutional credit reporting, with a focus on the role of personal connections in assessments of creditworthiness. She co-edited Cultures of Memory in the Nineteenth Century: Consuming Commemoration, published by Palgrave in 2020, and is a contributor to The Field of Honor: Essays on Southern Character and American Identity (University of South Carolina Press) and The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century (Louisiana State University Press). She has presented at conferences of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, the Business History Conference, the Nineteenth Century Studies Association, and the Southern Association for Women Historians. She also served on the content team for the International African American Museum and as editorial contributor for online exhibits of the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and her B.A. from the College of William and Mary.

Commentator: Daniel Wadhwani, University of Southern California
R. Dan Wadhwani: is Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship & Director of the Founder Central Initiative Greif Center at the University of Southern California. Dan's research and teaching examines how entrepreneurial processes drive socio-economic change. He has published in leading journals in management (AMJ, SMJ, SEJ, JMS) and business history (BHR, BH, E&S), and is co-editor of Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods (Oxford University Press, 2014). Dan is former chair of the AoM Management History Division and currently president-elect of the Business History Conference, the leading business history association in North America. He has received research and teaching awards, most recently the Williamson Prize which is awarded every 2-3 years to a mid-career scholar "who has made significant contributions to business history."