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History of Political Economy 32.3 (2000) 659-691

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Curiosities of Early Economic Literature:
An Address to His Fellow Members of the Hobby Club of New York

Edwin R. A. Seligman
Edited by Luca Fiorito

Editor’s Note

The paper presented below is an address given by Edwin R. A. Seligman to his fellow members of the Hobby Club of New York in 1914. The address was not published until 1920 when it was privately printed by John Henry Nash in a limited edition consisting of one hundred numbered copies. One of these copies was found among the Art Book collection at the Rare Books and Manuscript Library of Columbia University. In editing the piece itself, no major problem arose. I have corrected minor errors in spelling and in a few places have changed the capitalization of initial words in quotations to fit the syntax (the latter indicated with brackets). All words appearing in italics are words that were emphasized by Seligman in the original version of the address. Quotations have been checked against the volumes in Seligman’s own library—more than forty thousand volumes now in possession of Columbia University—so that page citations are to the exact works Seligman was quoting during the address. A complete list of references has also been provided. I wish to thank the Rare Books and Manuscript Library for permission to publish the material, and Mr. Bernard B. Crystal, the [End Page 659] assistant librarian, for his invaluable assistance during my research at Columbia.

Curiosities of Early Economic Literature1

Like most sciences, Economics has also its lighter side; and I have been asked to say something to you tonight about a few of the more amusing and curious aspects of what is generally—but of course mistakenly—dubbed the dismal science. It would, perhaps, have been easier for me to say something about the diverting aspects of collecting a library of thirty thousand volumes, part of which you see in this room; but I have been directed carefully to avoid the personal aspects of the case and to confine myself to the topic mentioned.

When we speak of early economic literature, it is important to know exactly what is meant. In a certain sense, economic literature is as old as literature itself; for from the very beginning thinkers took an interest in the explanation of the every-day facts of business life about them. There is in truth an economic literature to be found in Ancient Egypt, in Babylon, and in Carthage, and not a few of our economic principles can be traced back to the writings of the Greek philosophers.

In the early Middle Ages, again, the moral aspect of certain business practices and relations and the justifications of private property itself were discussed at length by the theologians, glossators, and jurists. If by early economic literature is meant the medieval literature on economic topics, there would be abundant opportunity to call attention to the more amusing examples of hair-splitting subtleties which are to be found in the economic discussions as well as in the theological disputations. [End Page 660]

By the literature of economics, however, is commonly understood the literature of the modern discipline of economics, that is, of the science which deals with business activities under economic conditions as they have developed since the advent of industrial capital. Strictly speaking, modern economic science has developed only since the coming of the factory system, that is, the system where capital has permeated every part of the productive process. But as capital began to be of importance at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the guild system was being replaced by the domestic system in industry and when the early trading companies carried on the commerce of the day, early economic literature is generally considered to be the literature of that early period, namely, from the close of the sixteenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century...


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