About This Conference

Inspired by the Library Company's current exhibition "Capitalism by Gaslight," this conference highlights the innovative research being done by historians of capitalism and its culture. These scholars examine the many ways in which Americans earned a living through economic transactions made beyond the spheres of legitimate commerce. Although these shadow economies may have unfolded off the books, they were anything but marginal. They were, rather, crucially important parts of the mainstream economy, bound up in the development of commercial and industrial capitalism in nineteenth-century America. In papers about how these shadow economies worked, panelists analyze the creative, flexible, and adaptive means entrepreneurs adopted in order to succeed in their endeavors. Other papers examine the cultural debates in which Americans came into conflict about the rules of legitimate economic engagement, for what separated legal from illegal, moral from immoral, and acceptable from disdained activities were far from settled issues. The practices, networks, and goods that constituted shadow economies often paralleled and in some instances overlapped with those found in wholesale and retail businesses, calling into question the morality and legitimacy of legal economic transactions. By bringing these economies out of the shadows, these historians seek to clarify what capitalism was and the ways in which it shaped nineteenth-century America.