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  • On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Patricia Cline Cohen (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. 277. Cloth, $65.00; paper, $25.00.)

Brian P. Luskey explores in rich detail the world of clerks working in New York City from 1830 to 1870, the years of that city’s rise to national preeminence in business. Clerks were strivers, Luskey writes, eager to move from their entry-level jobs to the higher rungs of mercantile firms by dint of hard work, ambition, and the acquisition of certain markers of the successful self-made man. Luskey uses the term “cultural capital” often, glossed variously as authority, gentility, respectability, status, power, and whiteness. Young men learned to display these assets in order to gain validation from others and confidence in themselves.

Luskey also shows the dark side of clerking: low pay, long hours, menial labor, and the ever-present temptations of the city’s saloons and brothels that were thought to threaten a clerk’s economic and cultural capital. An important claim advanced in the book is that not all clerks chose between the church and the brothel, as moralists of the day sermonized; some managed to partake of both worlds. An array of sources provides Luskey’s evidentiary base: clerks’ diaries, letters, censuses, credit reports, employers’ records, and newspapers, including the bawdy flash press of the era. The endnotes also testify to the author’s deep immersion in the large secondary literatures related to his project.

The introduction presents data from two censuses (the 1850 federal census and the 1855 New York State census) to form a picture of the fourteen thousand clerks living in New York at the time. Luskey drew samples from the two censuses (roughly a thousand clerks from each) to construct tables showing age, marital status, sex, household type, nativity, and ethnicity. A few surprises surfaced: in 1855, 21 percent of the clerks were married; 38 percent were twenty-six or older; 45 percent lived with relatives, rather than in boardinghouses; 43 percent were foreign born; and 64 percent had foreign-born parents. The traditional view of clerks as Yankee boys moving from farm to city is substantially disrupted by Luskey’s findings, especially those on ethnicity. Luskey explains that foreign-born clerks gravitated to ethnic-specific work sites. He includes them in ensuing chapters on occasion, but his main narrative focuses on the domestic clerks. Perhaps his sampling technique, described only in an endnote, needs [End Page 436] review. For the 1850 census, he included clerks from every other page of the census for all of Ward 3 and for the first enumeration district of Ward 7 and third enumeration district of Ward 9; for 1855, he drew his sample from one enumeration district in all but five wards. Was there a logic to his choice of wards and districts? Were ethnic neighborhoods inadvertently overrepresented?

Luskey later utilizes his two sample populations in a dazzling demonstration of what modern databases allow. Thanks to the search features on, which can search nationally on clusters of identifiers, he was able to find two hundred of the men in later censuses to see how they fared. A table on page 215 intelligently summarizes the outcomes, including categories for zigzag mobility uncovered in multiple censuses. Social mobility historians of the 1970s could never have imagined such a feat.

These empirical sections serve as bookends to a work that is primarily cultural and not quantitative history. Luskey mobilizes his diarists to illuminate stages of clerkship: finding a job, negotiating salary, locating cheap but decent lodgings, learning the business, looking the part with fashionable dress, and so on. (He relies heavily on just six diarists, all exceptionally perceptive, but still one wishes for more individual voices.) There is a wonderful chapter on “counter jumpers,” a term of derision for clerks positioned as thin, weak fops. Courtship gets short shrift, confined to a few pages recounting four diarists’ fleeting experiences with respectable women. Yet making a suitable marriage was a premier opportunity to demonstrate...


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pp. 436-438
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