Knowledge Production and Economic Life in the Long Gilded Age

AHA Session 19
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Robert MacDougall, University of Western Ontario
Richard R. John, Columbia University

Session Abstract

This panel seeks to connect the histories of capitalism in the Long Gilded Age (Leon Fink, The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and Lessons of a New World Order) to those of science and technology via knowledge production. Recent historiography has witnessed heightened investigation of economic concepts, metrics, and tools themselves, as both direct and mediating determinants of social inequality and justifications for it. Studies have underscored the significance of cost- and national income accounting methods as well as insurance, risk, and credit valuations. More classic works in labor history (David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor; David Noble, America by Design) laid bare the dense web of linkages between managerial devices, engineering, and the biological and physical sciences in the making of corporate capitalism.

This panel builds on and departs from existing efforts in two related ways. First, we attempt to integrate the older focus on the consolidation of corporate power, the naturalization of inequality, and the contested transition to conflict and reform within an unreservedly capitalist frame with the more recent investigations of shifting financial epistemes by focusing on “economic life.” “Economic life” stands at the intersection of everyday activities and life as capitalized (something that has received more attention in the literature on antebellum slavery). This means engaging with the intellectual, legal, gender, and visual aspects of economic activities such as investment, prediction, and assertions to property and managerial control from the bottom up and top down, including both popular science and the professionalizing sciences of the Gilded Age.

Eli Cook’s paper on “Humanizing Capital and Capitalizing Humans” reveals the Gilded Age origins of the human capital concept and the role of its inventors--physicists, chemists, economists, self-help gurus and businessmen--in legitimating inequality and delineating the boundaries of reform as self-uplift. Liat Spiro’s paper, “Drafting Protection for Immaterial Property in the Age of Heavy Industry,” traces how Gilded Age machinery and machine-tools firms used depiction practices, from mechanical drafting to metallography, to simultaneously refashion industrial work processes and make and defend intellectual property claims through the accumulation of “ghost property,” or visual evidence of every step or material rendered in production. Jamie Pietruska’s paper, “Promises of Love and Money: Occult Forecasting in Early Twentieth-Century New York City,” shows how a fin-de-siècle boom in fortune-telling and astrology accompanied the rise of agricultural statistics and commodity price forecasting as part of a wider prediction culture in which women as well as men produced, consumed, and hoped to leverage knowledge of the future in economic daily life.

See more of: AHA Sessions