Unprecedented economic and social changes in America during the 19th century gave rise to new kinds of commercial enterprises – in particular those of the illegal sort. Crime was certainly nothing new to Americans, and reports of highway robberies and stolen goods appeared in newspapers from their first issues on Colonial soil. Yet the profound and relatively rapid shifts in the country’s economic structure and demographic patterns after the Revolution contributed in great measure to the flourishing of both legal and illegal commerce.
Significantly, the first decades of the 19th century saw the economic elite continue to solidify their power; in the following decades they would leverage this power, consolidating both raw materials and human labor to create the country’s manufacturing sector and turning formerly autonomous skilled artisans and farmers into a dependent workforce. In addition, people seeking new opportunities from rural America and abroad crowded into urban areas as never before. Population influxes created cities dense with strangers who were desperately seeking work and ever more vulnerable to the whims of the economy’s seemingly relentless boom and bust cycles.
Undeniably, these factors offered opportunities to countless individuals, many of whom would enjoy modest prosperity embellished with the trappings of middle-class gentility. At the same time, prevailing economic and social conditions presented viable commercial advancement to an unexpected population – people who chose to take advantage of quasi-legal and downright illegal opportunities.
The earliest entrepreneurial activities of the successful merchant may be indistinguishable from those of the fraudulent schemer. Shadow economies, then and now, appeal to both the aspiring winner and the judgmental moralist in all of us. One person’s idea of a brilliant entrepreneurial move is another person’s idea of a deceitful con. And a close examination of thieves, prostitutes, snake oil salesmen, card sharps, counterfeiters, and conmen can reveal that all commercial enterprise is a matter of seizing the opportunities of the moment, and avoiding the traps set by others.
Taking its title from a 19th-century literary genre that exposed the darker side of American life, Capitalism by Gaslight introduces us to many of these shadowy entrepreneurs. At its heart the exhibition attempts to neither romanticize nor condemn, but to present the commerce of extra-legal businesspeople in more nuanced yet concrete ways. Although these transactions occurred most expediently in secluded back alleys and basement hideouts, many conmen benefited from the air of legitimacy given to schemes pulled off in broad daylight. And although entrepreneurs working in gray and black markets were excoriated by prominent businessmen, reformers, and authorities, they often had intimate ties to legitimate commercial networks and enjoyed the fruits of their very critics’ patronage. Possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, many underworld operators closely resembled respected businessmen. Perhaps most surprisingly, these illegal forms of commerce were integral to the success of the larger American economy and continue in varied forms today.