New Research

Review: US Economic History Workshop

By Kate Rivington

Impeccably timed, however unplanned, to coincide with the US Midterm elections, on November 7, 2018 The University of Melbourne hosted a workshop on US Economic History. The workshop, organised by Dr. Kat Ellinghaus and Professor Trevor Burnard, featured papers by scholars from The University of Melbourne, Monash University, and La Trobe University, as well as a fascinating keynote address from Professor Peter Mancall, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at the University of Southern California, which was met with insightful comments from a number of visiting US-based scholars. The workshop incorporated a vast range of topics and time periods, from Peter Mancall’s discussion of the origins of the American economy in the sixteenth century, up until Tim Minchin’s paper on the foreign-owned automobile industry in the late twentieth century.


David Goodman, from the University of Melbourne, started us off for the day with his paper ‘The Business of Fortune-Telling’. David explained how fortune-telling as a profession, which he described as “large, successful, and ubiquitous”, began to boom in certain American cities, such as Chicago, in the nineteenth century. He argued that fortune-telling, which was predominately a female-driven business, was a legitimate business, as, if it had been purely fraudulent, the trade would not have persisted for as long as it did. David suggested that what is needed is a comprehensive economic history of fortune-telling. Next up was Tim Verhoeven from Monash University, with his paper ‘Religion and Class in 19th Century America: The Sunday Rest Campaign’. Tim suggested that at core of the Sunday rest movement was a “conflict between labour and capital”, as, while businesses such as post offices and barber shops opened, and thrived on Sundays, the workers did not enjoy having to work on a day that they believed should be their “rest” day. Tim explained that the ground became fertile for an alliance between the workforce and churches, who both believed that Sunday should be a day of rest. However, Tim noted that the ambiguity that surrounded the world “rest” caused strain within this unlikely alliance – while for the clergy Sunday should be a day of worship, for others the term was more flexible, and more related to leisure than worship.


Following on from Tim, I presented my paper ‘The Price They Pay: The Economic Repercussions of Being an Anti-Slavery Southerner’. I discussed the various ways that being openly anti-slavery in the American South could impact the financial status of an individual. Anti-slavery Southerners often had their employment terminated, their businesses became the targets of anti-abolitionist mobs, and they experienced a drastic loss of personal equity if they chose to free their slaves. I also noted that while the economic effects were mostly negative, anti-slavery Southerners could often capitalise on their status as a “witness” of slavery when publishing anti-slavery tracts, which were often widely disseminated. Last up in the first panel was Tim Minchin of La Trobe University and his paper ‘America’s Other Automakers: A History of the Foreign-Owned Automotive Sector in the US’. Tim noted that when we think of the American automotive industry, we would likely think of companies such as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. However, he notes that last year 49% of cars in the US were made by foreign manufactures, and that there are currently twenty-two foreign car plants in the US, the most popular being Japanese, German and Korean. Tim noted that BMW has a large facility in South Carolina, and Mercedes in Alabama, and that the South has become a signification region for car production, which, he argues, “challenges the notion about what is the American car industry”. Tim has identified the lack of literature on the foreign-owned sector as a significant omission. Tim related this changing automobile landscape to ongoing debates on globalization, and the increasing relocation of production to poor areas within wealthy countries.


The second panel of the day began with La Trobe University’s Claudia Haake’s paper ‘The Value of Words – Traces of Wampum in Seneca Letters of the Removal Era’. Claudia discussed how wampum had been traditionally used as an instrument of diplomacy in trade, and how its analysis can provide insight into letter-writing practices of native Americans. These letters were written by groups of people, and for letters to use wampum suggested that what was being said was important, and that it had the support of others. Claudia considered the “notion of authorship”, and how these letters often underwent several processes of translation. The inclusion of wampum was a way to retain cultural value. Following on from Claudia, Kat Ellinghaus of the University of Melbourne gave her paper: ‘“Quite Some Mansion”: Osage and Quapaw Women Navigate the Policy of Competency”’. Kat explained how certificates of competency were part of government policy at the height of the assimilation period, and to be certified competent meant that indigenous men and women could purchase and sell property without any government supervision. Competency was seen as the “end point of assimilation”, however, Kat noted that in some cases there is no evidence to suggest that these men and women actually gave up their cultures; rather, they acted as assimilated as a way of navigating the government’s system of “surveillance and oppression”. Kat also commented on the role of gender in such cases; men were considered eligible for competency if they were “intelligent and industrious”, whereas women were required to be “respectable, frugal middle class-women”.


Josh Specht of Monash University was up next with his paper ‘How to Lose Money in the Cattle Business: Ecology and Capital in Nineteenth-Century Texas’. Josh discussed what are generally considered to be the causes of the bankruptcy of the western cattle industry – including the claim that the industry suffered from particularly harsh conditions in the winter of 1886-87, known as the “great die-up”. Josh argued that the downfall of the cattle industry in the West was the result of what he labeled a “hybrid economic/environmental disaster”. Josh explained one of the primary tensions underlying the downfall – to make money in the cattle business, the animals had to be scattered widely; however, to investors, this made little sense. Ultimately Josh asserted that the collapse of the cattle boom in the West could be attributed to how ranching worked in the nineteenth century. The last speaker of this panel was Toby Nash of the University of Melbourne, and his paper ‘The Dockside Marketplace: Waterfront Commerce and Imperial Practice in British American Port-Cities’. Toby employs the space of the dockside marketplace in cities such as Providence, Rhode Island and Charleston, South Carolina as a “nucleus for the exchange of goods and people” as a way to understand processes at the shoreline, and thus as a way to understand imperial governance more broadly. Toby chose to narrow his scope, a “spacial scale-down”, from the port city to the shoreline itself, which, he suggested, allows us to focus on “intimate economic functions – the dockside as a terminal for entry and exit”.


The day was concluded with a keynote address from Peter Mancall of the University of Southern California, which was titled ‘The Origins of the American Economy’. Peter’s keynote was based on his upcoming ‘American Origins’, the first volume of the Oxford History of the United States, which he is currently working on. Peter noted that he has already written over five hundred pages, and has not even yet reached Jamestown in 1607, which he suggests is reflective of the complex histories of North America in the sixteenth century. A range of insightful comments on Peter’s keynote were given by Trevor Burnard (University of Melbourne), Patrick Griffin (University of Notre Dame), Eliga Gould (University of New Hampshire), and Andrew O’Shaughnessy (Vice President of Monticello and Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Centre for Jefferson Studies at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation). This discussion prompted questions as to whether or not the term “economy” even remains applicable when analysing this period. A big thank you to Kat Ellinghaus and the University of Melbourne for making this workshop possible. Considering economic history in such a range of different ways made for an extremely enriching day, especially considering a number of those involved would not consider their work traditionally “economic.”