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On the Make

On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America

Brian P. Luskey
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 287
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  • Book Info
    On the Make
    Book Description:

    In the bustling cities of the mid-nineteenth-century Northeast, young male clerks working in commercial offices and stores were on the make, persistently seeking wealth, respect, and self-gratification. Yet these strivers and "counter jumpers" discovered that claiming the identities of independent men - while making sense of a volatile capitalist economy and fluid urban society - was fraught with uncertainty. In On the Make, Brian P. Luskey illuminates at once the power of the ideology of self-making and the important contests over the meanings of respectability, manhood, and citizenship that helped to determine who clerks were and who they would become. Drawing from a rich array of archival materials, including clerks' diaries, newspapers, credit reports, census data, advice literature, and fiction, Luskey argues that a better understanding of clerks and clerking helps make sense of the culture of capitalism and the society it shaped in this pivotal era.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-5348-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Puzzled about Identity
    (pp. 1-20)

    The thirtieth day of March, 1848, marked a turning point in the life of an eighteen-year-old upstate New Yorker named William Hoffman. On that day, he chose to leave his family’s farm in Claverack and become an urban man of business. This momentous decision was the product of several weeks’ reflection about the process of self-making. Pondering the “perfect course of Providence” in his diary earlier in the month, he doubted that he could determine his destiny. “[W]hatever our fate is,” he wrote, “we must ca[l]mly submit to it without a murmur.” Yet at the same time, he felt that...

  5. 1 What Is My Prospects?
    (pp. 21-53)

    Antebellum Americans believed that they lived in a revolutionary epoch in history. As never before, in this age of capital, white men had opportunities to advance economically and socially outside the constraints of hierarchical relationships. In the nineteenth century, strivers contended, the origins of success came from within rather than from outside assistance. “The man who does not at least propose to himself to be better this year than he was last must be very good or bad indeed,” the New York importer’s clerk Edward Tailer wrote in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1850. “[T]here is no such thing...

  6. 2 The Humble Laborer in the White Collar
    (pp. 54-82)

    In the early evening of May 4, 1832, the six-story building of the metal and cotton dealer Phelps and Peck collapsed at the corner of Fulton and Cliff streets in New York City, crushing several men to death. TheNew-York Evening Postreported the irony that “the laborers employed about the establishment,” believing that the burden of heavy bales and plates had damaged the structure’s walls, “had come to a conclusion to work no longer in it than that very evening.” Three of the firm’s clerks had perished. Thomas Goddard, a “celebrated Accountant” well known for his bookkeeping talents, was...

  7. 3 Homo Counter-Jumperii
    (pp. 83-118)

    In February 1851, Henry Southworth attended a lecture on the subject of “Labor” given by the Reverend William Adams at New York’s Mechanics’ Institute on the Bowery. Adams was pastor of the city’s Broome Street Presbyterian Church, a congregation boasting several “merchant princes.” Southworth struggled to put his memories of the minister’s words on the pages of his diary. Adams argued that “all were workers who producted [sic] any thing,” whether that “ be thought, or tilling the land. . . . [S]ome’s work was mental [and] others physical.” The young clerk concluded that “the lecture was very interesting, and...

  8. 4 Striving for Citizenship
    (pp. 119-147)

    On August 12, 1841, Horace Greeley’sNew-York Daily Tribuneentreated the “enlightened mind” and the “generous heart” to support the cause of the city’s dry goods clerks, who would meet later that evening “to consider the subject of . . . proposing some regulation of their hours of labor.” Dry goods stores might open between the hours of six and seven in the morning and close at nine or ten on weekday evenings and sometimes midnight on Saturdays. Such a lengthy workday would exhaust any laborer, but dry goods clerks were handicapped by the popular perception that they lounged among...

  9. 5 The Republic of Broadcloth
    (pp. 148-175)

    It was not sufficient for the Declaration of Independence to declare that “all men are created equal.” Antebellum authors felt compelled to assert that white men walking along city streetsappearedto be equal. The clerks’ advocate Horace Greeley proclaimed in 1853 that “[t]he wearing of a superfine suit was once a principal mark of distinction in the countries of Europe between a laboring man and ‘a gentleman.’” Indeed, fine woolen broadcloth imported from Europe had long set the standard for refinement in the American republic. By midcentury, American manufacturers and laborers took the lead in “mechanical invention,” which led...

  10. 6 The Swedish Nightingale and the Peeping Tom
    (pp. 177-206)

    On September 1, 1850, William Hoffman joined a crowd of thousands at Castle Garden on the southern foot of Manhattan Island to greet the renowned “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, as she arrived from Europe. The impresario P. T. Barnum had aroused popular interest in the soprano’s impending American tour by focusing on what Hoffman called her “unsurpassed vocal . . . endowment.” The clerk was equally interested in her “unsullied character and . . . virtuous Life,” which she had forged despite encountering “ many seducing temptations.” Barnum had repeatedly emphasized Lind’s reputation for being both chaste and charitable, fashioning...

  11. Conclusion: Once More, Free
    (pp. 207-236)

    Bradford Morse was a good boy. In October 1852, he set sail from Boston to California on the clipper shipFlying Fish.He was eighteen years old and aspired to save his earnings and come to his family’s financial aid. His father, a bookkeeper at the Registry of Deeds in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, did not earn a salary sufficient to pay the family’s pew rent. Morse’s goal was to “buy a small farm” and “buildthathouse in North Chelsea” for his parents. He hoped a promising clerkship in San Francisco’s burgeoning commercial sector would help him accomplish this feat....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 237-272)
  13. Index
    (pp. 273-277)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 278-278)