PEAES Economic History in the Philadelphia Region Guide to Manuscripts and Print Resources for Research

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Economic History of Today PEAES Acknowledgements Notes to Researchers Scope of This Guide Library Company of Philadelphia Homepage


Recent research has employed a more expansive conceptualization of what was “economic” about early American life than earlier generations did. Many writers are more willing of late to blend econometric and historical studies, to bring together the voices of deeply divided interpretations of the past, and to incorporate particular lives and historical moments into knowledge compiled by generations of working economic historians. Others are considering new methodological directions and new kinds of sources. Perhaps we will never derive satisfying estimates of the extent and character of economic growth before the 1850s, develop the correct balance of economic characteristics in commerce or agriculture across times and places, understand sufficiently the onset of industrialization or origins of capitalism, give our readers the best economic portraits of changing households, shops, and stores -- or any of the other issues economic historians continue to debate.

Perhaps economists and historians will never agree, for example, about whether North American agricultural production – in its many forms – was driven primarily by external demand or by cultural choice, or both. Perhaps we will never agree about whether output (as yields of crops, shipbuilding, small manufacturers, or any other economic activity) was rising because Americans chose to do it as economically rational agents, or because they followed available opportunities within the constraints of custom, local policies, or the environment. Nevertheless, scholars who investigate the economic bases of any of these problems have done much more than manipulate empirical data, and their analyses have permeated historians’ thinking – often unwittingly – about myriad unresolved social, labor, and cultural issues. In turn, economic historians often now join contextualization, narrative, and cultural interpretations to economic models and counterfactual propositions; only the most resolute scholars insist that there is an all-encompassing homo economicus.

More broadly, social historians not only of business, banking, transportation, and commerce, but also of migrating peoples, slavery, agriculture, industry, urban and rural environments, technology, gender and family construction, and social inequality and opportunity have been deeply influenced by the findings of economic historians in recent years. The present generation is foraging unabashedly in other disciplines and adapting itself to the wave of culture studies washing over the profession, but it is also rediscovering political economy, "creative destruction" in economic development, the role of governments in facilitating or blocking economic change, the importance of statistics and data for understanding workers and consumers, and more. New questions are crowding under the capacious umbrella of "economic history" about race, labor relations, gender, intellectual climates of opinion, entrepreneurship, finance, commerce, manufacturing, war and revolution, and other themes. New work redefines old physical and social boundaries as well; in addition to colonial (or imperial) and national arenas of investigation, they are putting local, regional, sectional, and Atlantic world contexts under close scrutiny, and employing comparative and interdisciplinary methodologies.

We are also beginning to link manufactures to household spending; banking to popular ideology; rises in agricultural productivity to the role of the state; merchant’s international trade to the environment; community economies to Atlantic world and global events; urban shopkeeping to prices and demand during foreign revolutions; the relationship of empire- and nation-making to the economics of fashion. We are beginning to know more about the relationship of international prices or rising standards of living, on the one hand, even as we peer more deeply into households, follow Americans to work, or trace entrepreneurial failure. Between the top and bottom layers of the American economy, scholars are focusing intently on the “middling” artisan layer, the ambitious entrepreneurs, the small manufacturers, and others who have rarely been direct subjects of analysis in economic history. Slowly, too, we are making connections between owning and using objects, how they were produced or exchanged, and the wider economic consequences of these activities.

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