Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America ed. by Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson (review)
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KEY WORDS

Capitalism, Economics, Markets, Slavery

Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America. Edited by Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. 316. Cloth, $49.95.)

This exemplary collection of essays “illuminates” the importance of markets “often labeled ‘marginal’ by contemporaries and historians” (3). Each author brings subtlety and refinement to topics that have eluded serious or sustained historical inquiry. They reveal how the legal, gendered, racial, and textual boundaries of nineteenth-century American capitalism were rife with liminality, conflict, and contortion. Indeed, beyond those boundaries, a bustling world of exchange would come to exist in the discourses, streets, flophouses, waterfronts, and auction houses that come to life in this volume. “This,” contend editors Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson, “was capitalism” too (9).

Luskey and Woloson’s poignant if all too brief introduction summarizes each essay and puts the volume in dialogue with the recent capitalism turn in nineteenth-century historiography. Beyond this, readers will find clear patterns and relationships between the essays. Will B. Mackintosh, Joshua R. Greenberg, and Katie M. Hemphill explore broad anxieties of trust and criminality in the wake of the “market revolution.” Mackintosh’s elegant essay explains how the Loomis Gang, a family of farmers and merchants in the Erie Canal hinterlands, used violence and cutting-edge commercial organization to expand its grasp throughout the Northeast. While the Loomis’ market revolution brought them greater wealth, they would fail to acquire the veneer of respectability they pursued on New York’s political stage. The Loomis’ ambivalent status in [End Page 417] business and law mirrored that of the “shinplaster,” or “paper money that was neither regulated … nor a counterfeit” (56). As Americans’ confidence in bank bills foundered amid rampant panics and legal flux, argues Greenberg, they turned to shinplasters. The circulation of unstable shinplasters dovetailed with a broader crisis of confidence in paper money and discursively reconstituted the meaning of the term “shin-plaster,” which by 1850, denoted “bad paper,” legal or otherwise, “that lacked confidence” (73). Blurred lines between legitimate and illegitimate commerce were also to be found in and around the Baltimore prostitution market, explains Hemphill. Drawing on Baltimore City Court and other sources, she reconstructs how women who sold sex in Baltimore shaped their practices to correspond to a shifting urban market. Brothel keepers would specialize their practices to fit the needs of clientele of varying classes, occupations, and locales. But financial success would require obscuring the pursuit of wealth behind “a genteel, domestic image,” by supplementing legitimate businesses such as boardinghouses (170).

Robert J. Gamble, Adam Mendelsohn, and Ellen Gruber Garvey investigate the contingent interplay between authentic and “secondhand” goods. Gamble’s prose glitters as he explains how fear of fraud pushed elite Baltimore and Philadelphia reformers to regulate poor residents’ expansive market in secondhand goods. An equally vast cultural geography of the secondhand nonetheless flourished as a critique of elite-controlled market morality. Adam Mendelsohn’s history of Jewish secondhand clothing merchants reveals how ethnicity further tinged elite fears of this market. Jewish merchants in New York and elsewhere “collected, patched, and resold” goods, and used networks of peddlers to find flush opportunities in the countryside.

Paul Erickson, Brendan P. O’Malley, and Corey Goettsch seek to complicate “the historiography of American business,” as Erickson puts it (190). Erickson suggests that individuals who acted simultaneously “as producers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers,” rather than as tidy cogs within a commercial machine, undermine business history’s idea of a unitary “book trade.” He does so by contextualizing book sales first within a broader economy of print, embracing obscene and illicit publications, and second within sales of “other kinds of goods” (214). O’Malley’s remarkable contribution lays bare the anatomy of a steerage passenger market that rivaled the operations of “respectable shipping [End Page 418] firms” (98) and exposed the limits of state regulatory authority. “Runners” moved from decks to docks and beyond to connect passengers with boardinghouse employees, ticket brokers, and passenger forwarders. They wielded violence and trickery against immigrants and, in moments of acute competition, against one another. Corey Goettsch reveals the fraudulent “mock...