The Economics of Urban Life in 19th-Century Mexico and Brazil

AHA Session 73
Conference on Latin American History 13
Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Room A707 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Matthew Vitz, University of California, San Diego
Matthew Vitz, University of California, San Diego

Session Abstract

This panel highlights the importance of quotidian economic activities to nineteenth-century urban history in Mexico and Brazil. It aims to refocus scholarly attention on everyday transactions and sites where individuals negotiated daily life. The papers that comprise the panel examine how pharmacists and their clients, landlords and their tenants, entrepreneurs and the artists and artisans in their employ faced off inside Mexico City courtrooms to collect debts owed for curative tonics, unpaid rents, and unremunerated services. They also assess how inside municipal meeting chambers elected officials in São Paulo haggled over local ordinance codes and manuscript budgets to create a fiscal system that could sustain the local economy. From these analyses emerge the agents and institutions that gave shape to dynamic urban micro-economies. The three papers offer detailed examinations of how such micro-economies functioned, and as such they reveal the relationship between economic life and the wider legal, social, and political webs in which daily transactions were enmeshed.

Historians of Mexico and Brazil have focused significant attention on the countries’ respective nineteenth-century economic development, most notably with the lag or underdevelopment both experienced relative to the United States and Europe. The bulk of their research in the past several decades has focused on the analysis of large aggregated data sets using sophisticated economic modeling and statistical analysis. As a result, we now know much more about gross domestic product, price indexes, and the impact of technology transfer on industrialization in the region. We also better understand how corrupt bureaucracies, tax evasion, and the inadequate protection of property rights—so-called institutional deficiencies—contributed to less-than-robust growth in the region until the final decades of the nineteenth century. We know far less, however, about everyday financial transactions in these places and how quotidian negotiations shaped life at the local level.

The papers in this panel do just that. Bringing quantitative and qualitative methodologies to bear on understudied archival materials, the panelists seek to illuminate how national economic patterns and policies affected individuals and businesses in the towns and cities whose residents formed the basis for grand macroeconomic narratives. Louise Walker’s paper analyzes court documents from middling people who presented at small claims court in Mexico City and asks what happened when people could not pay their debts. Anne Hanley’s paper examines financial accounts and municipal ordinances to study the contours of local business development in the nineteenth-century Brazilian economy. Lance Ingwersen’s paper employs municipal records, court transcripts, account books, and correspondence to explore the local economies supported by the theater business in 1820s and 1830s Mexico City.

By refocusing attention on local economic life, on individual agents and institutions and their embedment in the fabric of everyday urban life, the panelists hope to illuminate how individuals understood and negotiated insolvency, property rights, contractual obligations, and economic justice. They also seek to show how individuals assigned economic and social value to the businesses that sustained them, and how these ideas changed across the nineteenth century.

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