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History of capitalism

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NEW! I've added a page of links to scholarly conversations occurring online. Go to Tools / Online conversation.

As a field of academic study, the "history of capitalism" sounds new. But it actually has a long history that extends back to the turn of the twentieth century, when "economic history" first emerged as a recognized field of scholarly inquiry.

As a discipline, History focused at that time primarily on elite politics or high culture. Economic history, in the words of an early practitioner, explored what many then regarded as "a sordid side of human affairs." And capitalism as a distinctive social organization of production and distribution fell squarely within its domain.

Illustration from Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor (1890)
Wealth inequality, 1890

At its broadest, as I see it, the "new" history of capitalism encompasses three overlapping pools of scholarship. One focuses on the social and cultural experience of capitalism; another is concerned principally to test the theory and methods of economics against its history; and a third, methodologically more eclectic, treats capitalism as the "dependent variable" and, paying close attention to its political underpinnings, asks why capitalism has taken the particular forms that it has in different times and places.

The fundamental premise of this website is that the fullest understanding of the history of capitalism requires close attention to all of its dimensions—social, cultural, economic, and political—although the political dimension is most salient in my own research (see CAD PhD).

I created this site in the late 1990s, shortly after I had begun a research project on shareholder voting rights. Over time, as my research and teaching interests evolved, I expanded the site to become both a portal for the history of capitalism and a gateway into research on the history of corporations—my own newly reinvigorated now that I have retired from teaching and administration.

Creation of this site was made possible, in part, by funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, for which I remain deeply indebted. The site underwent major redesigns in 2013 and again in 2020, using Project Seven extensions for Dreamweaver. I will tweak the site a bit further as I master some additional html/css—stay tuned!

If you have suggestions for additions to this site or notice any errors, please get in touch.