“Racial Peculiarities and National Characteristics”: American Exporters Assess Foreign Merchants in the Interwar Period (1919-1940)

12 12 2016


That’s the title of a paper Rowena Olegario recently presented to the American Capitalism Seminar at Johns Hopkins University.  Rowena is starting the planning and team-building phase of a collaborative project on Race and Trust: A Global History of Trading with ‘the Other. If you feel that you have research interests and expertise that would be a good fit for the project, you should let her know.


This paper examines how American businesses assessed potential buyers and trade partners in foreign countries, with particular attention to China and Japan, during the interwar period (1919 to 1940). The half-century after 1890 marked the United States’ ascent to economic and political power. In common with the countries of western Europe, Americans attempted to demarcate their country’s internal and external spaces based on notions of “racial” difference. Ethnology, biology, geography and other fields of study were enlisted to give legitimacy and universality to these ideas. Changing notions about race and ethnicity shaped debates about immigration and America’s new role in the world; they also influenced how manufacturers and exporters determined “whom to trust” as trade partners overseas.
Past scholarship has focused on the development of American foreign markets, but very few works have addressed how American businesses assessed foreign merchants. Examining trade journals, Congressional testimony, textbooks on foreign trade, and the voluminous contemporary writings on race and ethnicity, this paper probes some of the complex cultural assumptions that underlay the practices of international trade. The paper represents the first tentative steps of what I hope will be a collaborative project whose working title is “Race and Trust: A Global History of Trading with ‘the Other.’” My plan is to recruit scholars from every geographic region to examine how merchants assessed foreigners as trading partners and customers. Among the questions that will underpin the project are: How malleable were attitudes about foreign ‘others’? What effects did local and non-local events have on these attitudes? On what basis did merchants distinguish among different groups of foreigners, or subsets within racial groups? By going beyond the attitudes of westerners (“Orientalism” and its offshoots) to include non-western merchants from around the globe, and in different time periods, I hope to establish a firm historical grounding for the future study of this topic and contribute to the multidisciplinary literature on commercial trust.



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