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  • On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Donna J. Rilling (bio)
On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America. By Brian P. Luskey. (New York: New York University Press, 2010. Pp. 228. Cloth, $48.00.)

On the Make is a cleverly conceived and tightly argued study of clerks in New York City between 1830 and 1870 that draws together social, business, and cultural history approaches. It is well grounded in a wide range of sources, among them censuses, diaries, credit records, periodicals, and popular humor. The book contributes to recent approaches to capitalist transformations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that connect [End Page 526] production to consumption, economic change to cultural and political ideologies, and the home to the marketplace. Clerks are excellent subjects because they were the "faces of capitalist transformation" (2), Brian Luskey suggests. They were ubiquitous in the nation's commercial center, striving to rise up the social and economic ladder, and eagerly and visibly engaging in the city's consumer abundance. Their experiences in the workplace and in the streets capture debates over citizenship, class, race, and gender in antebellum America.

Migrants from the countryside, immigrants from Europe, and urban sons flocked to antebellum cities, convinced that clerking in the commercial world would assure their rise to independence and respectability. Young men bought into the advice literature that held out eighteenth-century successes (Ben Franklin, for example), even though these models were ill suited to the perils of the volatile antebellum economy. Still, they believed the cultural narratives and internalized the "ideology of self-making" (2). If they failed, diarists reflected, their own lack of perseverance and character would be to blame; how could capitalism itself be rigged against them? Self-consciously and self-critically, they set about assembling the "cultural capital"—respectability, character, aloofness from the laboring masses—to complement their projected economic status.

Clerks did not seek economic gain alone, but also social and political affirmation of their autonomous status as men. At each step, however, clerking plagued them with its ambiguities. Meager salaries, slow advancement, and menial tasks did not reconcile with the ideas youths held about their future prospects as proprietors. Were perseverance and the development of good character their own rewards if commercial success was elusive? Contemporary advice manuals seemed to hedge. Daily work toyed with the self-image of clerks and their ability to capture respectability. Headwork—keeping books, copying letters, taking inventory, serving customers—underscored their claim to the white collar. But the manual tasks they actually performed meant that those collars were soiled with sweat. Clerks chafed at doing the "dirty work of the store" (62), which was regularly though not exclusively assigned to African American or Irish porters. In practice, the line between headwork and hard work was porous. Discomforted by the slippage, clerks (who were overwhelmingly white) wore their collars as markers of refinement, and used popular culture to endorse racial and class stereotypes, limit access to their ranks, and bolster their sense of white superiority. [End Page 527]

Denying the physical labor of their station also cast doubt on clerks' rights to political capital. When the "Early Closing Movement" sought to free them from late evening hours, supporters championed their rights as workers—a status clerks rejected. Clerks stood aloof from labor associations and democratic politics, eschewing "ruder participants and corrupt practices" in lieu of a more "respectable mode of politics" centered in the lyceum and library (121). Critics nonetheless mocked the notion that young men would use evenings for self-improvement and study, pointing to urban leisurely pursuits—frequenting gambling houses and brothels—associated with unsupervised youth. Luskey argues that clerks, once again owing to their dichotomous status (were they laborers whose interests mirrored the producing class, or were they improving citizens destined to be proprietors?) missed the chance to claim political autonomy because they ceded to others the defense of early closure. Moreover, by appealing to women consumers to avoid evening shopping and thereby convince merchants to reduce hours, the movement undermined clerks' citizenship. How could male independence rest on the actions of women?

Not only were clerks suspect...


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