Is Business History Now Sexy?

7 04 2013

For the longest while, business history was deeply unfashionable in North American history departments. Indeed, many of the people doing research on business history migrated to other disciplines. That’s changing, as the New York Times reports on page A1 of today’s city edition. See here.

After decades of “history from below,” focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy.

Even before 2008, classes dealing with the history of capitalism were starting to make their way back into the curriculum. The GFC accelerated this trend for a number of reasons, the most important of which, I think, the frequency with which journalists and policymakers compared the crisis to the 1929 stock market crash.

The article discusses the growing community of scholars who teach history majors about the history of business. Photographs of Julia Ott, Stephen Mihm, and Bethany Moreton are included.  These historians are members of the Business History Conference. Many scholars today identify with the label “history of capitalism” rather than “business history” and approach the study of the past with a set of assumptions very different from that of traditional  business history associated with Alfred Chandler. Fairly typical of the new type of business history is Bethany Moreton’s fascinating book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard University Press, 2009).This book is a cultural history of Wal-Mart that shows how evangelical Protestantism was used to justify the free market and to attack the cultural and political foundations of the New Deal. It’s about an alliance of Deep South entrepreneurs, largely female evangelical employees, and free-market ideologues. Moreton’s research combines an interest in business history with the study of gender and religion. It is also decidedly non-celebratory, in sharp contrast to some earlier works in the field.  Indeed, the book’s page on the HUP website notes that “The author has assigned her royalties and subsidiary earnings to Interfaith Worker Justice and its local affiliate in Athens, GA, the Economic Justice Coalition.” 

Business history, which has the company as its basic unit of analysis, should not be confused with econometric history, which is both far more quantitative and interested in macro developments. (I’m currently at the Economic History Society Conference and have been listening to presentations by both econometric historians as well as narrative business historians. It is fascinating watching the two groups in dialogue). However, my impression is that economic history is increasingly important in economics departments.   Business history of a type is also being re-integrated into the curriculum of many management schools. The Rotman School of Business in Toronto has committed to nurturing Canadian business history.

My Panel at the 2013 BHC

18 01 2013

I’m going to be presenting at the 2013 Business History Conference in Columbus, Ohio in March. The program is now online.  This is my panel:

Money, Trade, and Financial Institutions in China and Hong Kong

Chair: Huei-Ying Kuo, Johns Hopkins University
Discussant: The Audience

Dean Austin, The Ohio State University, “The Culture of Money in Nineteenth-Century China”

Miriam Kaminishi, National University of Singapore, “Comparative Analysis of the Culture of Financial Business in China in the Early Twentieth Century: The British and Japanese Experiences”

George Zhijian Qiao, Stanford University, “Dashengkui and Big Business in Qing Mongolia”

Andrew D. Smith, Coventry University, “Creating the Post-Colonial Bank: HSBC between 1945 and 1965”

Creating the Post-Colonial Bank: HSBC in the 1960s

8 01 2013

AS: I recently heard that my paper has been accepted by the Business History Conference, which means that I will be presenting at their 2013 annual meeting, taking place March 21–23, 2013, at the Hyatt Regency Columbus hotel in Columbus, Ohio. I’m pretty happy when I heard that my paper had been accepted because I know that the BHC is very selective. Anyway, here is an abstract of my paper:

The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was founded in 1865, during the heyday of British imperialism in Asia. Until the early 1960s, the bank’s workforce was divided into three ethnic tiers: European or “Foreign Staff” recruited in London; an intermediate tier of Portuguese clerical workers; and native or Chinese workers who operated under the supervision of a comprador.  The Chinese staff were responsible for interaction with Chinese clients, whereas English-speaking clients dealt directly with the Bank’s European employees. Non-European employees had very limited authority to act on the bank’s behalf. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the bank eliminated this system and implemented the modern idea that individuals should be promoted on their individual merits rather than membership in an ethnic group. In 1964, an ethnic Chinese individual was appointed joint manager in Hong Kong. A system of personnel management that embodied the values of the colonial era had been swept in the rubbish bin of history.

At no point did HSBC issue a public statement explaining precisely why it had decided to eliminate this system. The minutes of the company’s board in Hong Kong indicate that this change was not discussed by the bank’s directors. In explaining why the system was eliminated, we therefore need to consult other primary sources, such as oral histories. This article, which is based on such sources as well as material in the HSBC archives, will situate HSBC’s decision to end the old human resources system within its geo-political and cultural context. This context included the Cold War, growing social integration between Chinese and whites in Hong Kong society, and the passage in 1965 of anti-discrimination legislation in Britain, the country from which senior HSBC managers were recruited. Much like other British firms faced with decolonization, HSBC understood that ensuring its survival required eliminating all vestiges of colonialism from its employment practices. This paper will also show that the decision to eliminate distinctions between the Chinese and European staff and customers was partially motivated by more prosaic considerations of efficiency and the rapid expansion of the bank’s branch network in Hong Kong.  The mechanization of certain clerical activities and the pending introduction of computers were also a factor.

2011 edition of BEH On-Line

4 10 2011

The 2011 edition of BEH On-Line, a series devoted to edited essays from the Business History Conference annual meetings, is now available online:

Here is the Table of Contents for 2011.

Stephen B. Adams
Their Minds Will Follow: Big Business and California Higher Education, 1954-1960

James L. Baughman
Henry R. Luce and the Business of Journalism

William R. Childs
Henry Luce and Twentieth-Century Consumer Culture

Amy M. Hay
Dow Chemical vs. “Coercive Utopians”: Constructing the Contested Ground of Science and Government Regulation in 1970s America

William Lazonick and Edward March
The Rise and Demise of Lucent Technologies

Cinzia Lorandini
The Financing of SMEs and the Role of Knowledge: Some Evidence from Trentino-South Tyrol, 1950s-1990s

Rachel Maines
Engineering Standards as Collaborative Projects: Asbestos in the Table of Clearances

Shigehiro Nishimura
International Patent Control and Transfer of Knowledge: The United States and Japan before World War II

Laura D. Phillips
The Economics and Ideology of American Fair Trade: Louis Brandeis and Open Price Associations, 1911-1919

Lydia Redman
Knowledge Is Power? Victorian and Edwardian Employers and the Rhetoric of Expertise

Daniel L. Rust
Lambert-St. Louis International Airport’s Alternative W-lW: A Case Study

Minoru Shimamoto
R&D Strategy and Knowledge Creation in Japanese Chemical Firms, 1980-2010

Hiroshi Shimizu and Satoshi Kudo
How Well Does Knowledge Travel? The Transition from Energy to Commercial Application of Laser Diode Fabrication Technology

Marc Stern
Real or Rogue Charity? Private Health Clubs vs. the YMCA, 1970-2010

Jeffrey L. Sturchio and Louis Galambos
The German Connection: Merck and the Flow of Knowledge from Germany to the United States, 1880-1930

Ross Thomson
Did the Telegraph Lead Electrification? Industry and Science in American Innovation

Robert E. Wright
Governance and the Success of U.S. Community Banks, 1790-2010: Mutual Savings Banks, Local Commercial Banks, and the Merchants (National) Bank of New Bedford, Massachusetts

Alexia Yates
Developing Knowledge, the Knowledge of Development: Real Estate Speculators and Brokers in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris


BEH On-Line is the successor publication of the BHC’s Business and
Economic History, print collections of papers from the annual meetings. The complete run of Business and Economic History, 1962-1999, can be accessed from the BHC website, and includes a cumulative index as well. See





The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century

24 01 2011

I saw this notice on The Exchange, the blog of the Business History Conference.

The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century (Knopf, 2010), by Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, will be the focus of a roundtable discussion at the upcoming BHC meeting. The book, which is not only a biography, but an examination of Luce’s impact on the magazine publishing industry and on America’s self-image, has received widespread media attention. It has been reviewed extensively, including in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (accompanied by a podcast interview with Brinkley) and by Janet Maslin in “Books of the Times“; in The Economist, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and by NPR’s “Fresh Air.”


Alan Brinkley

Alas, I am not going to be at the BHC this year– I’ve had to pull out for a number of reasons, not least my relocation to a university a bit more distant from St. Louis, Missouri, the venue for this year’s conference. However, I’m really going to miss BHC this year and when I see that Brinkley is going to be there talking about his book, I really wish I could go. Luce published a family of magazines that dominated American culture in the middle of the twentieth century: Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. 

New BHC Blog

7 04 2010

The Business History Conference has created a blog. Launched on 1 April, it already looks rather promising.

BHC Deadline for Paper Proposals

20 09 2009

If you wish to present at the Business History Conference next year, you will need to get working on your paper proposal soon. The deadline is 1 October.

Demosthenic Hall, University of Georgia, Athens.

Demosthenic Hall, University of Georgia, Athens.

The 2010 will be held at the University of Georgia in Athens. Looks like a beautiful campus.

The above image comes from the Wikimedia Commons. It is reproduced under a Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Licence.

Proceedings of the Business History Conference

21 07 2009

The proceedings of Business History Conference from 1962 to 1974 are now available on the BHC Web site. The papers are in PDF format and can be downloaded free of charge by anybody. I would like to commend the BHC for making this scholarship freely available. The BHC makes very effective use of technology, which is one of the reasons why I am proud to be a member of that organization.

Business History Conference

16 06 2009

Last week, I presented the joint session of the Business History Conference and the European Business History Association held in Milan. The BHC is one of the two conferences I attend every year, the other being the Canadian Historical Association. Joint sessions with the EBHA are relatively rare, as the BHC is normally held somewhere in North America. I really appreciated the opportunity to meet so many historians of business from Europe, not to mention Asia and Australia. I’m a better scholar for having made such international contact.
For this year’s conference, I organized a panel on “Culture, Institutions, and Overseas Investment: British Investment in the Dominions in the Age of High Imperialism”.
The papers and presenters were:

Andrew Smith, Laurentian University

The Dollars and Cents of British Imperialism: The Political Economy of British Investment in Canada, 1867-1914


“This paper examines four important British free-standing companies that were active in present-day Canada in the 1860s and 1870s. These companies were the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canada Company, the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada, and the Grand Trunk Railway. In the early 1860s, these companies lobbied the British government to unite the previously separate colonies in North America. The companies were controlled by well-connected gentlemanly capitalists who were in a position to influence British policy. In 1867, the British Parliament passed legislation uniting four of the colonies in mainland North America into a federal state know as the Dominion of Canada. This paper examines what happened to these companies after 1867. This paper will show that the union of the colonies did not benefit the four companies in the ways their directors had anticipated. The Grand Trunk remained on the edge of bankruptcy after 1867. The Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canada Company, and the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada also derived fewer benefits from Confederation than they had anticipated.”

Andrew Dilley, University of Aberdeen

Empire and Risk: Edwardian Financiers, Australia, and Canada, c.1899-1914

Abstract: “It has often been claimed that British investors showed no marked “imperial piety.” Yet there is a good case that investments in the Dominions (self-governing colonies within the British empire) occupied an exceptional place in the capital market—particularly enjoying low interest rates. This paper traces the ways in which London financiers and investors in the Edwardian period expected the imperial connection to affect the risk of investing in Canada and Australia. By reconstructing the assumptions linking investment and empire, the factors contributing to dominion “exceptionalism” become clearer. The paper suggests that empire reassured investors in two ways. First, certain institutional factors, especially legal integration through the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and British defensive guarantees reassured some investors. However, there institutional factors depended on colonial consent. Second, empire promoted information flows, social networking, and certain shared cultural assumptions which were also seen by many to make the dominions safer havens for British capital. Colonial borrowers played on these factors in their dealings with the capital market. The paper concludes that while empire membership did not replace more familiar economic and political factors in calculations of risk, it did inform the way in which those risks were judged.”

Gary Magee, La Trobe University, Bundoora

Investors, Information, and the British World, 1860-1913
Abstract: “This paper concerns itself with the export of British capital between 1860 and 1913. It seeks to lay bare key financial relationships and mechanisms that made such a massive movement of money possible. On what basis did British investors make their decisions? More particularly, in what ways did the ties of social interaction predispose them to provide greater support to investment projects within the “British world” than outside it? This paper examines these questions in two ways: by studying the coverage of investment opportunities as reported by the press and by exploring some of the rich social and financial networks that underpinned Britain’s capital markets. The exceptionalism of the “British world” in these regards stemmed from the way its institutions, press, and transnational networks gave rise to an informational asymmetry within the UK capital markets. As a consequence, British investors found themselves making choices on the basis of a stock of knowledge that was heavily biased in favor of opportunities that existed in the “British World.” This state of affairs was in many ways the natural by-product of the global expansion of British human and social capital in the nineteenth century.”

I think that our panel went very well. I was very pleased to be presenting alongside two very strong presenters, Dilley and Magee. Our very impressive discussant, Duncan Ross, who teaches at the University of Glasgow (see here and here), gave excellent feedback, as did the audience. I received questions from Leslie Hannah (LSE), Richard Sylla (NYU Stern School of Business), and Joe Martin (Director of Canadian Business History, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto).

The rest of the conference was also good. The organization was superb, as was the food and drink.  More importantly, I heard many excellent papers. I was very impressed by the research presented by Rowena Olegario, Kevin Tennent, Andrew Russell, and Leslie Hannah.

Invisible Hands: New Book on History of American Free-Market Ideology

1 05 2009

I’ve put another book on my must read list for this summers. It’s Kim Phillips-Fein first book, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan. I heard Kim present part of this research at the 2005 Business History Conference and I was really intrigued. I’m looking forward to reading this book.