- The Accidental Business Historian
I want to begin with an apology to Anne Tyler, whose title I have so blatantly misappropriated. The idea of the "accidental business historian" has appealed to me for a long time, and I thought maybe Tyler's book also could provide a pithy lesson.1 Although a few of Macon Leary's character traits did strike a little close to home—there was a time, early in my career, that I would have considered multitasking by doing my laundry under foot while taking a shower—Macon's story is different from mine, except for the fact that we discovered our careers by accident.
But more about that shortly. Over the past few weeks I have enjoyed reading or rereading every presidential address given at the Business History Conference (BHC) since 1975, when the organization began publishing them regularly.2 They tend to be quite serious, and most of them stand very well the test of time.
In his 1975 address, Herman Krooss commented on the genre: "Presidential addresses that I have heard and observed come in four guises: What the discipline has done to me; What I have done to [End Page 765] the discipline; The state of the discipline; And what you can do for the discipline. In other words, recollections, research, appraisal, and tasks."3 For the many years I was Secretary-Treasurer of this organization, I insisted that the Presidential address include at least some recollections, on the order of "how did you get into this field; who were your mentors?" I was not always obeyed, but I do intend to heed my own prior advice. Also, almost every BHC President has used the address to at least mention his or her own work, and I will be no exception. I have just completed—with Mira Wilkins, Peter Hertner, and others—what I think is a very exciting project, which I will turn to at the end of the address.
However, there are two things I am not inclined to do. First, I am not inclined to appraise the state of the field, since I have already written about this.4 Second, Imost definitely am not inclined to suggest future directions for the field. You may think this is an irresponsible position for a President of the organization, but I think business history is very healthy precisely because it has been open to so many approaches and points of view. I trust that it will continue to be so, and that Enterprise & Society will reflect this. In my view, it would be a mistake to overly restrict the definition of business history. The BHC recently conducted a web survey, and it was very interesting to me that of the nearly 200 BHC members who responded, only 60 or 30 percent, indicated that the BHC was their primary professional organization. The health of the organization depends on our interdisciplinarity. I consider myself a business historian, but also an economic historian, a public policy historian, and a bit of a historian of technology.
So, let me get back to the title of this address, the accidental business historian. The point is that I don't think anybody grows up wanting to be a business historian. It happens by accident. Even Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. noted in his 1978 Presidential address, "All through my education—at local schools, then at Exeter and Harvard, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the past. I loved history, but it never occurred to me that a historian might profitably study business."5
I also think a lot of young people have an inherent interest in commerce, industry, markets, and money, but that precious few grow [End Page 766] up wanting to be economists. I suspect a lot of them want to go into business. I grew up wanting to be a teacher, mainly because I liked school. By the time I was in college, I thought I wanted to be an accountant, a lawyer, or a college teacher. When I had to pick a major, I chose economics because I had a very low-key but inspirational instructor, because it seemed to be the more "academic...