How difficult is it to collect data on 19th-century corporate charters? Since charters were (and are) granted only by governments, the degree of difficulty depends very much on the structure of the particular government and where in that structure the power to create corporations was lodged.
For the era of special incorporation (i.e., incorporation by special act), France and the U.S. lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. Because special charters in France were negotiated with a national ministry, they were few in number and are relatively easily located in the published national laws of France. Indeed, historian Charles E. Freedman's 1979 book, Joint-Stock Enterprise in France, 1807-1867, included an appendix listing most of the French sociétés anonymes (642 corporations) authorized from 1807 through 1867 (when France passed a general incorporation law). The United States is a different matter entirely. Special acts of incorporation were granted in much larger numbers by the multitude of state legislatures, which means combing through the published laws of each of the individual states. Britain and the German states occupy the middle of the spectrum.
For the era of general incorporation,* the difficulties in collecting data across the four countries are roughly comparable. Data is most accessible for France after 1867 and least accessible for the U.S. Data collection for the U.S. is complicated not only by federalism—the states continue to be the primary creators of corporations to this day—but also by "dual incorporation," that is, the co-existence in some states of incorporation by special acts of legislation and under general incorporation laws (see Hamill, "From Special Privilege to General Utility"  on my Readings on corporations page). The U.S. Census Bureau did not begin systematically collecting information on the form of business enterprises—proprietorships, partnerships, corporations—until 1916, after a federal corporate income tax was instituted.
* General incorporation laws specified administrative procedures for incorporation; any set of investors who met those requirements and paid the relevant fees could incorporate a company. In France, general incorporation was adopted in 1867; in Britain, in 1844 (without limited liability) and 1855/1856 (with limited liability). The German Confederation's law dated to 1870 and the German empire's to 1884. Generalizing about the U.S. is well-nigh impossible, except to say that general incorporation became the dominant—though by no means exclusive—mode of creating corporations over the third quarter of the nineteenth century.
The first efforts to collect data on U.S. corporations were initiated in the 1940s, supported by funding from the Social Science Research Council, the Carngeie Corporation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The signal achievement was George Heberton Evans' Business Incorporations in the United States, 1800-1943 (1948), an impressive—though incomplete—compilation of data on new incorporations. For a subset of corporatIons, Evans also reported on their authorized capital and the lines of business in which they engaged. One of his most extensive series, for the state of Ohio, captured nearly 130,000 corporations.
Although several state-level studies were published in the 1940s and 1950s (see Readings on the history of corporations), interest in corporations per se subsided after World War II. Business historians turned their attention to entrepreneurship, while "the state"—the creator of corporations—virtually disappeared from American social science. Only in the 1990s did scholarly interest in corporations (and the state) revive, stimulated in good part by dramatic corporate governance failures such as Enron and Worldcom.
Thanks to historians Richard Sylla and Robert Wright, a database of early U.S. charters is now available. With National Science Foundation support, they gleaned information from the published laws of the states on all corporations created by special act from 1791 to 1861. Their data—for more than 22,000 business corporations—are summarized in Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla, "Corporate Governance and Stockholder/Stakeholder Activism in the United States, 1790-1860" (2011) and subsequent publications (see Readings on corporations). The Sylla-Wright data may be downloaded from Penn's Magazine of Early American Datasets (MEAD).
With funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and others, I have compiled data on corporate charters granted in the 19th century in the US., Britain, France, and Germany. The core interest driving my collection of data was the historical evolution of shareholder voting rights, although my data also encompass authorized capital, line of business, administrative structure, and the like. Altogether, I have gathered information on nearly 10,000 corporations chartered by special act in the U.S., France, and the Germanies between 1825 and 1865/70 and under general incorporation laws in Britain from 1844 to 1865. The table below provides a summary.
|No. of Corporations|
What proportion of all charters does my data capture? For the U.S., 1790-1860, the Sylla-Wright data are complete, while mine represent a sample focused on the years 1835 and 1855. For France and Britain, my data complement what other scholars have collected (see Readings on corporations). For the German states, to my knowledge, my data on companies incorporated between 1825 and 1870 are the first to be compiled.
Although I have not yet deposited my data, I will do so once I've completed the cleaning process.