The Growth of the American Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of the United States

By Robert G. Albion; Harold F. Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 15
Business Organization and the Development of an Industrial Discipline

The Day of the Merchant

IN THE UNITED STATES in 1790 business was organized and business activities generally were conducted in the fashion that had been traditional in Europe for centuries. Business in this country consisted of shipping, brokerage, and wholesale and retail selling. There were but three banks in the United States of 1790, three bridge companies, a handful of insurance associations, and a dozen canal companies.1 Of several manufacturing enterprises attempted on a factory basis, only one had succeeded. There was no labor force skilled in handling machinery, nor any executives experienced in managing complex business structures. Lack of inland transportation, save on occasional rivers, confined the market to the Seaboard cities, and left the farmers of the interior largely self-sufficient. The city merchant was the typical business figure. From a small shop in downtown Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore he carried on both wholesale and retail trade in various commodities, receiving his wares from and dispatching them to all parts of the world. Since he stayed in his office directing his agents, supercargoes, and ship captains, letting buyers come to him, he has been called the "sedentary" or "resident" merchant.

By, 1860 American business had assumed almost all the varied forms and functions that we are familiar with in the twentieth century. Great railroad, telegraph, shipping, and canal companies employing thousands of men maintained metropolitan offices with scores of clerks, copyists, accountants, and executives. Banks and insurance companies had imposing buildings in every city. A thousand traveling salesmen drummed the wares of large factories devoted to textile, iron, leather, hardware, furniture, and many other kinds of manufactures. The modern type of corporation with hundreds or thousands of stockholders was the usual form in transportation, commercial banking, and insurance and had even appeared in some lines of manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution had come to America, and created the modern world of business.

____________________
1
See: Joseph S. Davis, Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations, 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917.

-303-

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