Reflections on BHC 2013

24 03 2013

The Business History Conference in Columbus, Ohio ended last night. I find the annual meetings of the BHC to be intellectually stimulating and this conference was no exception. BHC is my favourite annual conference of the year.

For me the highlights of this year’s conference were as follows:

1)      The panel on careers for business historians outside of academe. (Even though I’m quite happy with my career as an academic historian, I’m really interested in other ways of reaching out to consumers of historical knowledge). We heard three really inspiring talks about historians who have succeeded outside of the academic world. Two of them did so by translating their love of history into profitable businesses. Margaret Graham (McGill University), who was one of the founders of the Winthrop Group, told us about its creation in the late 1970s. The Winthrop Group does public history work for many US corporations. Graham explained how the firm started out very small: none of the five founding partners drew a salary, they lived on peanut butter sandwiches, and drove long distances rather than flying to meet clients.   One of the Winthrop Group’s first big contracts was to write the official history of Alcoa. From that point on, the company flourished.  Wendy Woloson talked about her work at the Library Company in Philadelphia, a fantastic institution that was founded by Benjamin Franklin and which today houses many priceless primary sources, including some that are very important for historians of the early American economy. Working for the Library Company helped Woloson to become the first-class historian of capitalism that she is today. (Check out Capitalism by Gaslight). Terry Fife, founder of History Works Inc., talked about her interesting career.

2)      One of the highlights of the BHC is the Krooss Dissertation Colloquium. The Krooss prize is given to the best PhD dissertation on business history in the previous year. On the first day of the conference, the shortlisted candidates present a summary of their PhD research. These presentations are always delivered to a very high standard. On the last day of the conference, there is a banquet where the actual winner of the Krooss prize is announced.  This year’s shortlist included: Gavin Benke (PhD thesis on the political culture of Enron); Bartow Elmore (PhD thesis is an environmental history of Coca-Cola); Caitlin Rosenthal (a social history of accounting in America between 1740 and 1880). Caitlin’s dissertation was the winner. (It was probably an agonizingly difficult decision for the prize committee, since all three dissertations seemed very impressive). The thesis of Caitlin’s Harvard dissertation is fascinating. Cost accounting, which is now used by corporations and other organisations around the world, was developed in the US in the 19th century. Traditionally, we thought the cost accounting was developed by antebellum railroads in New England and was then adopted by other firms. (Managers wanted to know how much it cost to move a ton-mile of goods). Rosenthal’s research suggests that the origins of cost accounting were less benign: the origins of cost accounting actually lie not in the free-labour Northern states but on plantations in the Deep South and the Anglophone Caribbean, where planters used to increasingly sophisticated records manage their slaves more efficiently. Obviously there is a huge literature on the history and social significance of the rise of accounting: the control revolution had huge implications for wage labourers, consumers, and citizens. Rosenthal’s research helps to frame modern accountancy is a new way and encourages to think more critically about accountancy as a tool of social control.

3)      There were some good papers on the topics that are located in the area where business and environmental history overlap. It’s great to see that more research is now being done on how corporations interacted with the environment in the past.   This area of research truly is the wave of the future.

4)      Business historians of China based in Chinese universities were present at this year’s BHC in force. If you look at old programs, you can see that BHC began as a basically North American gathering. In the 1970s and 1980s, academics from Europe began flying over to present research on the business histories of their countries. Then the Japanese scholars started presenting at BHC, along with a few people from Latin America. Now the Chinese are getting involved. There was also a scholar from an African university, which may be a first for the BHC. It’s great to see the trend towards internationalisation continuing to develop.

5)      I really liked the panel on comparative approaches to patents and trademarks.

6)      Ken Lipartito gave a great presidential address on how business historians can help to re-connect positivistic economic history (think rational actor model and quantitative analysis) with the types of history that have been dominant in US history departments since the cultural turn.   My impression is that Lipartito was suggesting that commodification (i.e., the process by which classes are objects are transformed into commodities) could become the new master narrative of business history.

7)      Graeme Acheson of the University of Stirling gave a great paper on patterns of shareownership in Victorian Britain. His research appears to underline the Legal Origins theory advanced by La Porta et al.

8)      The book auction is always fun. I managed to get two of the books I bid on. (See picture below).


9)      There was a roundtable discussion of the new book Re-imagining Business History by Patrick Fridenson and Phil Scranton. Very interesting. I picked up a copy of that book.

I presented my research on HSBC in the long 1960s as part of a panel on “Money, Trade and Financial Institutions in China and Hong Kong”. I was honoured to present alongside some great people: Austin Dean, a grad student at Ohio State; Miriam Kaminishi, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore; and George Zhijian Qiao, a doctoral candidate at Stanford.

The staff and facilities of the conference hotel, the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Columbus were great.  The food and drink can be summed up as “good and plenty”.

The amusing thing about this year’s conference was that we were sharing the hotel and convention centre with a group of cheerleaders from across the Midwest. I think that some of the European delegates were fascinated to see this aspect of North American culture!

The best joke of the conference related to one of the cultural differences between North Americans and Europeans. One of the organizers was explaining that a reception would take place at a venue 0.6 miles from the hotel. He then joked: “The Europeans in the room will have no problems walking there. For the North Americans, there are shuttle buses!”