New Website to Watch

5 12 2014

North American business and sport historian J. Andrew Ross has launched a new website. The image above is of his forthcoming book, which is published by Syracuse University Press.

The website discusses Dr Ross’s current academic research. He is working on a number of projects including a study using historical census data, a historical analysis of the life insurance industry, and an anthropometric history of hockey players. (See image below).

Dr Ross, who is based at the University of Guelph, also advises private-sector clients on historical issues.

Interview with the Author of _Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America_

6 11 2013

I recently discovered a podcast  in which historian Sharon Ann Murphy discusses her new book on the development of the life insurance industry in the United States before the Civil War.  Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010; paperback, 2013) describes ” the creation and expansion of the American life insurance industry from its early origins in the 1810s through the 1860s and examines how its growth paralleled and influenced the emergence of the middle class.” The book deals with issues such as gender, slavery, and the rise of statistical thinking.

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.

Lever Brothers in North America

13 02 2013

Warning: Self-Promotion Alert

The journal Business History has just published an article I wrote: A successful British MNE in the backyard of American big business: Explaining the performance of the American and Canadian subsidiaries of Lever Brothers 1888–1914 See here.

Ad for Sunlight Soap, 1915.


By the 1880s, Lever Brothers, an ancestor of today’s Unilever, was had emerged as a major player in the British soap industry. Its brands, such as Sunlight, could be found in all parts of the United Kingdom. The firm then decided to become a multinational. After 1888, Lever Brothers expanded into the United States and Canada. The surviving archival evidence suggests that the Canadian subsidiary was more successful than the American one in the period before 1914 (after that point the US operation became very successful . My article tries to explain why this was the case. It considers a number of factors that help to explain why this was the case. Some of the factors considered, such as differences between the Canadian and American tariffs, Canada’s more robust system of trademark protection, and differences in anti-trust law in the two North American countries. These are all themes very familiar to business historians. I also draw on the literature on identity economics and argues that the greater success enjoyed by Lever Brothers in Canada was, in part, rooted in Canada’s strongly British identity. The impact of identities on the policy makers, managers, and consumers who collectively shaped the two North American subsidiaries is assessed.

New Editorial Board: Essays in Economic & Business History (EEBH)

20 07 2012

Essays in Economic & Business History (EEBH), which is in its 31st year of publication, has made some major changes in the last few months. The most of important of these is the journal’s decision to shift to the Open Access model of publishing. There is also a new Editorial Board, which includes 28 well respected economic and business historians. Some the heavy-hitters in these disciplines are now on the board, including Joel Mokyr, Stephen Broadberry,  Youssef Cassis, and Doug Irwin, among others. 

Essays in Economic & Business History Editorial Board

Jeremy Atack, Vanderbilt University

Martha Bailey, University of Michigan

Gerben Bakker, London School of Economics

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, Bangor University

Dan Bogart, University of California, Irvine

Stephen Broadberry, London School of Economics

Ann Carlos, University of Colorado-Boulder

Youssef Cassis, European University Institute

Colleen A. Dunlavy, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Robert B. Ekelund, Auburn University

Jeffrey Fear, University of Redlands

Price Fishback, University of Arizona

Robert K. Fleck, Clemson University

Juan Flores, University of Geneva

Sheryllynne Haggerty, University of Nottingham

William J. Hausman, William and Mary

Douglas Irwin, Dartmouth College

Naomi Lamoreaux, Yale University

Manuel Llorca-Jaña, University of Chile & Universitat Pompeu Fabra

Joel Mokyr, Northwestern University

Aldo Musacchio, Harvard Business School

Jari Ojala, University of Jyväskylä

Jared Rubin, Chapman University

Peter Scott, University of Reading

Raymond Stokes, University of Glasgow

Janice Traflet, Bucknell University

Patrick Vanhorn, New College of Florida

John Wallis, University of Maryland

Mark Wilson, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

Business History and Environmental History

10 07 2012

I recently presented at the Association of Business Historians conference in Birmingham. It was a brilliant success, which attests to the organizational skills of Stephanie Decker, the chief planner. I always find business history conferences to be immensely stimulating because of their interdisciplinary nature and the commitment of the presenters to research that is both archive-based and theoretically informed.
There were many great papers at this year’s conference. However, there was one in particular that got me thinking about some of the fundamental issues that face business history as a discipline. That paper was by someone who wouldn’t describe herself as a business historian. I’m speaking of Jessica van Horssen’s piece, Medical Risk vs. Financial Reward: Corporate Social Responsibility in the Global Asbestos Trade, 1930-1977, which focused on the history of the Canadian asbestos industry, which she argued was basically the antithesis of ethical capitalism. The paper is based on her PhD research, which is described here.

Driving home after the conference, I got thinking about the relationship between the sub-disciplines of business history and environmental history. I would say that these two sub-disciplines are currently thriving: more and more people want to be associated with them, attend their conferences, publish in their journals, etc.

These two sub-disciplines are thriving, in part, because they are interdisciplinary in a way that, say, diplomatic or gender history are not. Business and environmental history conferences attract scholars based in a range of disciplinary departments. At a typical business history conference, one will find people from such departments as public policy, political science, marketing, strategy, accounting, economics, as well as history. These scholars are drawing on a wide range of theoretical frameworks, ranging from Foucault to hardcore statistical analysis. Environment history conferences are equally inter-disciplinary, as they attract a range of scholars from the social and physical sciences.

Environmental and business history are quite similar in a lot of respects. It is sad, therefore, that there are isn’t more overlap between these two sub-disciplines. Logically, these two sub-disciplines should be engaged in an extensive dialogue, since for-profit entities have had a major impact on the environment over the last few hundred years.

In an article that appeared in the Business History Review in 2000, Christine Meisner Rosen and Christopher C. Sellers called for more engagement between the two sub-disciplines. They told business historians to do more research into the impact of companies on the environment and they told environmental historians to pay more attention to business and familiarise themselves with the secondary literature on business history. They wrote:

Oddly enough, however, despite this broad conception of their field, our colleagues in environmental history have shown almost as much reluctance to tackle business’s environmental relations as business historians have. Both fields have sorely neglected the borderlands between them. Pathbreaking environmental historians have launched a harsh critique of capitalism that has entailed surprisingly little scrutiny of managers or corporations.  Early on, most environmental historians concentrated on the history of wilderness, agriculture, the conservation movement, or modern environmentalism, where they believed nature and its defense were most obviously found.  Preoccupied with setting out a distinctive field of historical endeavor in relation to frontier and Western history as well as environmentalism itself, most assumed that they knew the history of the large corporation all too well—its inner workings as well as its outwardly impacts. They envisioned a monolithic nineteenth¬ and twentieth¬century economic system that offered little entry point or incentive for closer study of individual companies, businessmen, or even industries as a whole. A 1990 Journal of American History roundtable presenting the views and agendas of major environmental historians offered virtually no discussion of the shift to corporate capitalism that had become the central preoccupation of business history.

Obviously there has been some improvement in the last twelve years. Christine Meisner Rosen and Christopher C. Sellers have continued to publish work that lies on the interface between environmental and business history. Richard White springs to mind as an example of a historian whose research speaks to both environmental and business history. In 2007, Enterprise and Society, a leading business history journal, published Pierre Desrochers’s fascinating article “How Did the Invisible Hand Handle Industrial Waste? By-Product Development Before the Modern Environmental Era”. However, I think that it is still safe to say that the amount of cross-over research on business and environmental history is very limited, especially in view of the enormous importance of the topics involved. In their 2009 piece in the Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Hartmut Berghoff and Mathias Mutz showed that the situation hadn’t changed that much since 2000.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think there has been much improvement in the last three years either.

Business History at the CHA

24 05 2012

AS: There will be some business history related papers/meetings the forthcoming conference of the Canadian Historical Association in Waterloo.

Business History Committee Meeting Canadian Historical Association
– Monday May 28, 2012 12-1:15 MC2038

[le francais suit]


I would like to invite you all to the business meeting of the Business History Committee of the Canadian Historical Association. Please bring
your ideas and we will discuss the future directions, activities, and governance of the committee.

The time and location of the meeting is from 12:00-1:15 on Monday May 28 in the Waterloo Math and Computer Science Building Room MC2308.

Though it takes place at lunch hour there is no provision for lunch, so brown bagging will be the order of the day.

Also, please see below for two panels of particular interest to business historians.

The meeting will be chaired by  J. Andrew Ross,  Lecturer, Department of History and Department of Economics
University of Guelph,

Panels of Interest

8:30-10:00/ 8 h 30-10 h 00 Waterloo  MC 2038

Business and Government Control of Media – Historical Questions, Connections and Reflections / Contrôle des médias par les entreprises
et le gouvernement : questions historiques, connexions et réflexions

4.1 Kristin Hall, University of Waterloo
“I give you these particulars to let you know something of the system which we have”: The Maclean Publishing Company of Canada and the Establishment of a British Subsidiary, 1913-1918

4.2 Colin McCullough, York University
“You can’t say anything that contradicts the pictures”: The National Film Board of Canada’s representations of peacekeeping, 1957-1964

4.3 Michael Stamm, Michigan State University
“The Local Newspaper as Multinational Corporation: The Chicago Tribune across the United States-Canada Border”

Facilitator / Animatrice : Barbara Freeman, Carleton University

10:30-12:00 / 10 h 30-12 h 00 Waterloo MC 2017

45. The Visible Hand: Government Regulation and Business / La main visible : la règlementation gouvernementale et les entreprises

45.1 Braden Hutchinson, Queen’s University
Manufacturing an Industry? Marginal Children, the Craft Toy Movement and the Consuming Child, 1914-1919

45.2 John Hillhouse, McMaster University
State Protectionism and Regulation in the Canadian Life Insurance Industry, 1950-1965

45.3 Dimitry Anastakis, Trent University
Foreign Investment Scare, or Fair Share? The Rhetoric and Realities of Canadian Economic Nationalism, 1968-1984

Facilitator / Animateur : Steven Hewitt, University of Birmingham

Celebratory Narratives and the Fortune 500 of 1812

12 04 2012

Since 1995, Fortune magazine has been  publishing annual rankings of U.S. corporations by size. Observers analyse changes in the Fortune 500 to track the evolution of the economy. Remember how the top of the list used to be dominated by industrial behemoths such as United States Steel?

Recently, two business historians, Dick Sylla and Robert E. Wright, have tried to create a retrospective Fortune 500-type list for the US in 1812. They posted it recently on Bloomberg’s business history blog, Echoes.

Sylla and Wright show that the list of large US corporations in 1812 was dominated by banks rather than manufacturing firms.

This is a very interesting intellectual exercise and I enjoyed their post. However, I think Sylla and Wright have fallen into the trap of writing a celebratory narrative of US business history that goes something like this: Americans have been world leaders in business from the earliest days of their republic and their precocious modernity of early American business owed much to the excellence of the political and legal institutions of the United States.

Consider this part of their blog post:

The larger significance of being able to come up with a Fortune 500 for 1812 demands some reflection. The country’s population then was about 7.5 million, less than that of New York City today, and far less than the populations of leading European nations. Yet international comparisons, to the extent we can make them, indicate that the U.S. already had more business corporations than any other country, and possibly more than all other countries put together.

France had chartered 13 corporations by 1812, and Prussia had chartered eight. An old source indicates that England had only 156 joint-stock companies before 1824, and so the entire U.K. probably had no more than 200 to 300. In contrast, our U.S. data show more than a thousand charters by 1812.

The U.S. was the world’s first “corporation nation,” and the ease of incorporating businesses released a lot of entrepreneurial energy that helped to build an ever-expanding economy. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. would be the world’s largest national economy with tens of thousands of corporations.

Americans continue to have mixed feelings about corporations, just as they did in 1812 and throughout our history. But there’s no denying that the corporation played a large role in making Americans who they were — and are.

In other words, the US in 1812 was more sophisticated, capitalist, and quintessentially modern than other Western nations.

I suppose this fits with historian Alfred Chandler’s view that it was the United States that took the lead in making the transition from family firms and other allegedly archaic structures to managerial capitalism and the modern corporation. However, as Leslie Hannah, a distinguished business historian based at the LSE and the University of Tokyo, has argued, there is evidence to suggest that modern corporate governance and forms of industrial was pioneered in Britain and was adopted only later adopted by the United States, which was a relatively primitive economy as late as 1900.

Dick Sylla and Bob Wright are great historians, but I think that the international comparison they are making in these paragraphs is a bit problematic.

Call for Papers: British Academy of Management Conference

19 01 2012
AS: Business historians might be interested in this CFP. 
Theme: ‘Management Research Revisited: Prospects for Theory and Practice’ Cardiff University 2012, Management and Business History Track
In 2012 our track aims to build on the successful experience of BAM 2011.  In 2012 the conference theme gives us as historians an excellent opportunity to emphasise the benefits of longitudinal work to management scholars more generally.  The theorists of the past were bounded by the historical context of the period that they found themselves in, and we must understand that context in order to be able to make comparisons with the present in terms of applicability.  As historians we are in an excellent position to demonstrate the usefulness of knowledge of that context. History also provides some opportunity for reflective practice: approaches and strategies which appeared to work during the crises of the 1930s or 1970s may not work today and vice versa.  As a track we can make an important contribution to the discussion as a whole at BAM 2012, while further encouraging historians to think more clearly about how theory underpins their work and how it can potentially inform practice.
We believe that the current environment both in the world of practice and within the academic sphere offers historians an excellent opportunity to introduce the value of their work to other social scientists. We seek interested historians to submit papers to BAM’s Business and Management History track by 17th February 2012.  BAM is a widely attended conference; last year’s event at Aston University attracted 693 delegates, and offers opportunities to discuss themes as wide raging as Entrepreneurship, Human Resource Management, Knowledge and Learning, Marketing and Retailing, Logistics and Supply Chain Management, and Strategic Management among many others.  We seek to attract papers that have historical relevance to categories such as these.  All full length papers that are submitted will be read by two referees and recommendations made, so BAM offers an excellent opportunity to gain some critique for a working paper before submitting it to a journal.
See for further conference and submissions information, or contact the Track Chair Kevin D. Tennent at

What makes “interesting” Business History? Evaluation of the most cited recent business history journal articles

23 08 2011

That’s the title of a paper that will be presented on Thursday at the European Business History Association conference in Athens.

The paper “discusses the impact and context of the most cited articles in two premier  journals in the field of business history in the 1990s (Business History Review, BHR  (USA) and Business History, BH (UK). Why do scholars refer to these articles? The obvious and most simple answer is that the most cited articles are interesting. But  what makes a business history article an interesting one? Is it the topic of the paper,  the findings, the method applied, the theoretical framework, the scholar him/herself  and his or her reputation, the high quality of the article in general, or perhaps the  controversial nature of the subject or the argumentative style the scholar has decided  to use?

In earlier research we found that the use of even simple quantitative tools increased the citation counts in BHR, with the more quantitatively sophisticated  articles receiving more citations, but not in BH. There were certain differences in the  subject matter between the two journals that might be linked to the divergence of  European and American academic discourses. Overall, the interdisciplinary appeal of  articles that used quantitative methods, when used in conjunction with theory, was  higher.

You can read the full paper here.

The basic lesson to be taken from this paper is that if a business historian wants his or her research to be read and cited by many people, a business historian needs to engage with theory and use plenty of quantitative data. It matters much less which country or time period you are studying.  To my mind, however, the really interesting thing is the difference between American and European academic culture identified by the authors.

One further thought– why wasn’t Enterprise and Society, the business history journal published by Oxford Journals, included in this analysis?  In 2010, the impact factor of the Business History Review (founded in 1926) was 0.648. The impact factor for Business History (founded 1958) was  0.427. Enterprise and Society‘s impact factor in 2010 was somewhat lower, at 0.306, but this journal is much younger, having been founded in 2000. Perhaps EandS should be included in future versions of this paper.

The authors are:  Heli Valtonen, University of Jyväskylä; Academy of Finland, Finland ; Jari Ojala, University of Jyväskylä, Finland; Jari Eloranta Appalachian State University, USA.