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

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

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

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


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 Gaslight illuminates 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 creatively—and often subversively—in 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.


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 “DogKiller-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.

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