The Coming of Age of American Business: Three Centuries of Enterprise, 1600-1900

The Coming of Age of American Business: Three Centuries of Enterprise, 1600-1900

The Coming of Age of American Business: Three Centuries of Enterprise, 1600-1900

The Coming of Age of American Business: Three Centuries of Enterprise, 1600-1900


This study brings together under the heading of business history an account of the development of leading American financial, commercial, agricultural, transportation, and manufacturing enterprises during the period from the settlement of the colonies to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Originally published 1971.


If there be any truth to the contention of a dour president of the United States that the business of America is business (and who can doubt that there is), it would seem that the record of this ubiquitous activity should occupy an important place in our historical literature. Far more people have been engaged in business than in politics, diplomacy, or warfare, and business has perhaps had more to do with the material success of the American experiment than any of these. If the test of historicity is the capacity of events to produce change, business history deserves an important position in the circle of historical studies.

In the last three or four decades interest in the subject has rapidly increased. General textbooks in American history have given more attention to it and courses in business history have been inaugurated at some colleges and universities. An increasing number of fine monographs on industries, corporations, and functional aspects of business have come from the university presses, and the examination of business careers has become an important segment of biographical studies. Following World War II, articles on business history have appeared more frequently in the journals of economics, and today Business History Review is devoted entirely to the subject. Numerous articles on business history are also to be found in Explorations in Economic History.

My purpose in this book is to bring together as much of the widely variegated literature of American business history as possible into a single narrative covering the formative period of American business. Such a task poses many difficult problems, few if any of which can be solved to the satisfaction of all readers. Probably the first is the question of theme. Since business in its broadest sense covers such a broad range of human activities it is difficult to deal with its many segments within the same conceptual framework. The development of banking, for instance, seems to follow a quite different course than the history of manufacturing, and likewise the relationship between life insurance and retailing appears to be only tangential. Yet throughout the course of American history one pattern of development has been shared by many, if not most types of business. In their initial condition, as described in the first part of this book, all were part of the undifferentiated functions of the entrepreneur. This venerable type of businessman, whose ancestry stretched back into antiquity, might combine in various configurations the functions of importing and exporting, wholesaling and retailing, banking and brokerage, and even manufacturing on the small scale usual in colonial America. Of course business organizations in the form of partnerships and joint stock companies also extend back into antiquity, but these too were essentially entrepreneurial and bore little resemblance to the modern corporation with its specialization of function and carefully organized management.

Progress toward our modern business system was initiated when entrepreneurial functions became separate entities and embarked on courses of individual institutional development. Thus banking, insurance, and textile manufacturing became businesses rather than part-time activities of general entrepreneurs--to take three random examples. This stage of institutional development proceeded rapidly during the antebellum period, and by the 1870s American businesses had assumed substantially their modern forms. The second stage of development, which reached its apogee at the turn of the century, was combination and integration--the reorganizing of business units to provide more strategies of defense and opportunities for profit in a rapidly changing and highly competitive economy. The conclusion of this first wave of combination seems to be a convenient terminal point for this study because it marks the end of the formative period of American business.

In following the institutional development of business I have tried to keep the focus of this study on the continuing specialization of business operations. Therefore, I have dealt with such matters as finance . . .

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