Agency Revisited: Business, Class, and Gender in the 19th-Century Agency Economy

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:50 PM
Thurgood Marshall East (Marriott Wardman Park)
Natalie Marine-Street, Stanford University
To a greater extent than we have recognized, the economy of the nineteenth-century United States was an agency economy, knit together and given shape through the granting of territorial business rights, the dispersion of commercial responsibilities, and personalized economic relationships both intimate and tenuous. This paper articulates the business and the cultural importance of the agency system of distributing consumer goods—especially printed materials—in the nineteenth-century U.S. economy and explores some of the gender and class ramifications of the distribution mechanism.

With a gathering force in the antebellum decades and real abandon after the Civil War, entrepreneurs recruited individuals into agency networks and assigned them territories in which to cultivate demand for new kinds of mass-produced consumer goods—lavishly illustrated books, family magazines, engravings, patent medicines, and more. Very visible in the publishing industry, entrepreneurs deployed the distribution model across different business sectors. Agents not only persuaded people to buy but as independent contractors they also shouldered risks and carried out quotidian economic practices, including the delivery of goods and the collection and transmission of money, that enabled businesses to function.

The possibilities of the agency system appealed not only to men struggling to make their way in a changing economy but also to women. In the segmented and highly unequal nineteenth-century labor market, commission-based agency work provided a rare venue that valued the labor of men and women equally. Yet, while avidly sought out by publishers and manufacturers, female agents encountered special problems – the imbrication of their work with women’s political action and an abiding tendency to associate women who sold goods with “fallen women” or prostitutes.

In revisiting the nearly forgotten business meaning of the word “agency,” this paper argues for the centrality of gender to an important mechanism of capitalism and illuminates the importance of the small-scale actions of sometimes unlikely economic actors.