Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Capitalism by Gaslight

Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America

Brian P. Luskey
Wendy A. Woloson
Daniel K. Richter
Kathleen M. Brown
Max Cavitch
David Waldstreicher
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 328
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Capitalism by Gaslight
    Book Description:

    While elite merchants, financiers, shopkeepers, and customers were the most visible producers, consumers, and distributors of goods and capital in the nineteenth century, they were certainly not alone in shaping the economy. Lurking in the shadows of capitalism's past are those who made markets by navigating a range of new financial instruments, information systems, and modes of transactions: prostitutes, dealers in used goods, mock auctioneers, illegal slavers, traffickers in stolen horses, emigrant runners, pilfering dock workers, and other ordinary people who, through their transactions and lives, helped to make capitalism as much as it made them.

    Capitalism by Gaslightilluminates American economic history by emphasizing the significance of these markets and the cultural debates they provoked. These essays reveal that the rules of economic engagement were still being established in the nineteenth century: delineations between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, acceptable and unsuitable were far from clear. The contributors examine the fluid mobility and unstable value of people and goods, the shifting geographies and structures of commercial institutions, the blurred boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate economic activity, and the daily lives of men and women who participated creativelyand often subversivelyin American commerce.

    With subjects ranging from women's studies and African American history to material and consumer culture, this compelling volume illustrates that when hidden forms of commerce are brought to light, they can become flashpoints revealing the tensions, fissures, and inequities inherent in capitalism itself.

    Contributors:Paul Erickson, Robert J. Gamble, Ellen Gruber Garvey, Corey Goettsch, Joshua R. Greenberg, Katie M. Hemphill, Craig B. Hollander, Brian P. Luskey, Will B. Mackintosh, Adam Mendelsohn, Brendan P. O'Malley, Michael D. Thompson, Wendy A. Woloson.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9102-5
    Subjects: History, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    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. TheEvening Telegraphreported that a friend, the...

  4. CHAPTER 1 The Loomis Gang’s Market Revolution
    (pp. 10-30)

    Just before dawn on the morning of Sunday, June 17, 1866, a mob of angry citizens gathered in the semidarkness about a mile from the Loomis farm in Sangerfield, New York. The Loomis dogs had been poisoned the night before, and the vigilantes quickly rousted the family from their beds and set fire to the house and barns. They hanged two family members from a nearby tree in order to extract confessions for a series of recent crimes; no one was killed, but the mob left in the early morning light with a Loomis son in irons, bound for the...

  5. CHAPTER 2 The Promiscuous Economy: Cultural and Commercial Geographies of Secondhand in the Antebellum City
    (pp. 31-52)

    Few streetscapes captured the enticing qualities of early nineteenth-century capitalism better than Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street. Visitors to the city’s most famous commercial street in the 1840s and 1850s, like Englishman William Chambers, observed “the thronging of well-dressed people” and its “large stores shewing a long vista of elegant counters, shelving, and glass-cases, such as may be seen in the better parts of London and Paris.” The window displays of the street’s jewelry establishments, George Foster wrote in 1848, “would have brought tears to the eyes of Benvenuto Cellini himself.” Another English sightseer similarly was dazzled by the “hundreds of omnibuses...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Era of Shinplasters: Making Sense of Unregulated Paper Money
    (pp. 53-75)

    In March 1837, Illinois governor Joseph Duncan approved legislation incorporating the Dixon Hotel Company in Dixon’s Ferry.¹ There was no bank in the new and expanding frontier town, so the company also asked for the right to issue paper money, but legislators struck out that part of the bill and passed it without such permission. The partial victory did not dissuade John Dixon and the members of the hotel company from printing their own shinplasters, including some featuring the misleading explanation “Chartered by the State of Illinois in 1837” in big letters across the top. While capital funds for the...

  7. CHAPTER 4 The Rag Race: Jewish Secondhand Clothing Dealers in England and America
    (pp. 76-92)

    “New York,” wrote James Fenimore Cooper in 1846, was a “Rag-Fair sort of place.” By the time he penned these words, the city had secured its position as the mercantile and financial capital of the United States. For all of its commercial glories, the city, with its “hobble-dehoy look,” reminded Cooper of Rag Fair, the tattered clothing mart centered on Petticoat Lane in London whose infamous reputation had been exported abroad. Despite ballooning almost 750 percent in size since the beginning of the century, the metropolis retained the “country air” of a much smaller town—and a neglected town at...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Lickspittles and Land Sharks: The Immigrant Exploitation Business in Antebellum New York
    (pp. 93-108)

    In August 1844, William Brown, a clothier from Leeds, sailed from Liverpool to New York with his family in a second-class cabin aboard the packet shipOxfordof the Black Ball Line. The vessel carried roughly three hundred Irish passengers in steerage. As the ship glided across New York’s Upper Bay at the end of the journey, Brown admired the “splendid city” coming into view. He noted “the steeples of numerous churches” that were “glittering in the sun like gold and silver.” Brown posited that from this vantage point, a weary traveler arriving in the “Empire City” for the first...

  9. CHAPTER 6 “The World Is But One Vast Mock Auction”: Fraud and Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century America
    (pp. 109-126)

    In July 1845, theNew York Heraldprinted a story about a swindle that was commonplace in antebellum New York City: the mock auction. The article recounts the story of “John Brown,” a “verdant youth” from the “wild woods of New Hampshire.” He was walking down Chatham Street when his “attention was arrested by the cries of an auctioneer—‘going, going, for only $5.00.’ ” He entered a mock auction store and was bedazzled by an array of beautiful watches, jewelry, pistols, and other items. Drawing on both the man’s sympathy and impulse for a good bargain, the auctioneer told...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Underground on the High Seas: Commerce, Character, and Complicity in the Illegal Slave Trade
    (pp. 127-149)

    The United States banned Americans from participating in the transatlantic slave trade through a series of state and federal laws, culminating in the 1807 Slave Trade Act.¹ The market for African slaves was far from closed, however. With foreign planters in the Caribbean and Brazil offering enormous sums for new slaves, numerous American merchants attempted to outfit illicit slaving voyages. Other Americans worked on slave ships, transporting Africans to the Americas in exchange for higher wages than sailors who served on vessels trading other African commodities. Slave traffickers were better compensated for the risks associated with breaking the 1807 act....

  11. CHAPTER 8 “Some Rascally Business”: Thieving Slaves, Unscrupulous Whites, and Charleston’s Illicit Waterfront Trade
    (pp. 150-167)

    On August 21, 1835, a master cooper in Charleston, South Carolina, named Jacob Schirmer recorded in his diary that “Lynch Law was exhibited this morning on the person of a Mr. Carroll, who has been carrying on the business of a Barber, but who has attended more to the purchase of Stolen cotton.” ¹ TheCharleston Courierexplained that R. W. Carroll—actually an alias employed by Richard Wood—had used his shop at 4 Queen Street near East Bay Street and the Cooper River wharves to receive “stolen goods, from negroes” and to export “about 60 bales of cotton...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Selling Sex and Intimacy in the City: The Changing Business of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore
    (pp. 168-189)

    In the early nineteenth century, Baltimore’s deep-water harbor at Fells Point was a booming site of maritime commerce and the gateway through which many visitors entered the city. When young Pennsylvania native William Darlington visited Baltimore late in the summer of 1803, he rode through the streets surrounding the Point’s wharves. “I have always been notorious,” Darlington wrote in his travel journal, “for gaping about in towns and acting thehaw-buck—reading all the signs &c.” Darlington noted that Fells Point was “a fine place for trade” as well as an amusing place to meander. Its taverns boasted all manner...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Economies of Print in the Nineteenth-Century City
    (pp. 190-214)

    A Cincinnati bookseller’s scrapbook on the book trade in Ohio raises questions about the historiography of American business. A late nineteenth-century article from a trade magazine evaluating the “leading book dealers in Columbus” pasted into the scrapbook lists ten businesses, four of which were newsstands (three in hotels, one at the train depot). The anonymous evaluator praised various stores for their enterprising spirit or their attractive window displays, and then added, “L. T. Thraw is a one-armed man who keeps a barber shop and attends strictly to business…. All the Hotel News-stands pay more attention to cigars than to any...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Back Number Budd: An African American Pioneer in the Old Newspaper and Information Management Business
    (pp. 215-232)

    Americans in the mid- to late nineteenth century felt overwhelmed by the abundance of cheap printed matter in circulation. It was full of valuable information, but how should they store it and find unindexed material again? “Many beautiful, interesting, and useful thoughts come to us through the newspapers, that are never seen in books, where they can be referred to when wanted. When they are gone they are lost. If one should keep a regular file of one of our principal papers, as theTribuneorHerald, in a few years it would be found to be valuable…. But they...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 233-236)

    The contributors to this volume offer interpretive frameworks for studying previously neglected markets and the people who created, negotiated, and debated them. The authors illuminate how these economies worked, identify who participated in them, and clarify the ways Americans appraised value and legitimacy in the nineteenth century. These essays give us a better sense of how Americans actually lived their lives in the nineteenth century and how they coped with and contributed to capitalist transformation.¹ Although these historical subjects can be elusive, when light is shed on them we can see that the people engaged in these countless, everyday transactions...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 237-302)
  17. List of Contributors
    (pp. 303-306)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 307-314)
    (pp. 315-316)