The Visibility Project

Rachel Tamar Van

I teach “The History of U.S. Capitalism” at Cal Poly Pomona, one of 23 campuses in the California State University system.  Our university ranked in the top ten of what David Leonhardt of the New York Times referred to as “America’s Great Working Class Colleges.”[1]  Not surprisingly, the variety of life experiences my students bring with them makes every class unique.  My students are racially and ethnically diverse, but largely Southern Californian.  The vast majority work, sometimes multiple or full-time jobs.  A fair number are veterans.  Rarely is there a single reference point for news or interests.  As students walk in the door, even though they aren’t yet thinking this way, capitalism is a common ground for us all.

A key hurdle pedagogically is rendering capitalism visible—more specifically, using the tensions and debates in capitalism’s history to rethink the market logics of our own era.  Personal favorites of mine from the early republic include interrogating fair and fraudulent market behavior, using childhood to reconsider the tensions of wage labor, and focusing on debates over slave breeding and prostitution to ask what cannot be “on the market” at any given time.  We live in a market society.  But what that means has evolved over time.

“The Genius of Advertising” National Police Gazette (1880) from Alison Leigh Cohen, “A Guide to Houses No Gentleman Would Dare to Frequent,” New York Times January 26, 2011.

“The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette depicts men peering at the “advertisements” outside of a New York City brothel.

Markets & Fair Play.  There are two guaranteed conversation starters for my students:  parking (horrific) and consumption.  Students revel in tales of hard-won bargains, scams, or companies behaving badly. The more I teach this subject, the more I recognize the importance of storytelling to the morality of markets.  When Herman Melville published The Confidence Man in 1857, tales of “Yankee peddlers” were already staples of early American folklore.  Newspapers described “Peter Finks” and hucksters who pretended to be customers to push up bidding or make a fraudulent “bargain” look legitimate.  Swindles might include a lady or gentleman who offered to go in with a customer on an auctioned batch of silver, only to have the silver turn out to be mostly junk, or swapped out for tin, or for the “partner” to the deal suddenly disappear.  The lore challenged readers to catch the trick.  Would they have been swindled?  Or caught in the frenzy of the “buy now” of the deal? 

Even as the stories teased at the boundaries of fair play, they pushed the onus to consumers.  If successfully tricked, the consumer was a mark, not a worthy player in capitalism’s game.  Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick rose through more than “luck and pluck”—he had a keen eye for fraud.  But the stories also conveyed the genuine difficulty of telling a bargain from a swindle in a complex market society.  In 1845, the mayor of New York City hired men to hold up signs along Chatham Street saying, “beware mock auctions.”[2]  A newspaper editor belittled the campaign as “small potatoes.” Instead, signs should be placed in Wall Street: “Beware of usurers, bank swindlers, and bullet-eyed brokers.”  The lesson is easily translatable to contemporary society.  What can modern consumers and consumer-citizens be expected to know for themselves, in a complex market society?  When should we be suspicious of our own market mythos?

The key here is to use specific stories and cases to query students on the boundaries between personal responsibility and that of producers or vendors.  How does a society decide what is fair play?  Who arbitrates?  I have used a few examples, including the 1837 Flour Riot in New York City and railroad injury cases.[3]  Contrasting the arguments made in the early nineteenth century to seventeenth-century cases underscores that perspectives on profit and responsibility have evolved legal, religious, and public contexts.  Our own society is quite obliging of current examples.  This year, the Epi-pen pricing scandal captured students’ attention.

Pricing the Priceless Child.  Industrialization is a familiar subject, but thinking about the rise of wage labor through the lens of childhood – for many students, even recognizing that childhood has a history – is less so.  In her 1985 Pricing the Priceless Child, Viviana Zelizer argued that over the course of the long nineteenth century, children shifted from being seen as “useful” contributors to the family economy to being economically “worthless” – and, as any parents know well, actually very expensive – but emotionally “priceless.”[4]  Parents no longer expected a sort of reciprocity from their children, but, by the early twentieth century, expected to invest more into their children than they could ever hope to get back.  This seems counterintuitive to the logic of a market society.  So how did this happen?

“Cartoon shows crowds of children being plunged into the water on water wheel.” by Windsor McCay from the National Child Labor Committee Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The early republic was a focal point for this transition.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, childhood came to be viewed as a moment of innocence in explicit contrast to tensions rooted in the breakdown of the pre-industrial social order and the household economy.  But by the 1830s, a class-based split was evident.  At the same time as middle-class children were removed from the workforce to train into a growing white-collar workforce, poorer families became more dependent on children’s labor.[5]  Thus we discuss, was Florence Kelley right in her turn-of-the-twentieth century assertion:  Should there be a fundamental “right to childhood”?

For many Cal Poly Pomona students, “family economy” is not a foreign concept.  Students often contribute to extended households through wages and extended networks of child and elder care.  The class considers the modern norms in conjunction with the historical debates.  Antebellum reformers and labor activists from Seth Luther to Thomas Skidmore, Robert Owen, and Fanny Wright used childhood to articulate arguments about what an American industrial society should look like.  What was exploitation versus healthy work?  What were the rights of parents versus employers versus children themselves?  What kinds of education should be required of all children regardless of their parents’ ability to pay, in order to maintain a democratic society?  Conversely, we probe how “childhood” also been exploitative—from apprenticeship laws geared toward Native Americans and African Americans to contemporary internships.  If the former examples elicit anger, the latter brings the issue home:  As juniors and seniors, they are more than ready to discuss internships touted as educational that sometimes were, and others that turned out to be little more than unpaid labor.

Can’t Buy Me Love. The literature rethinking slavery and capitalism is exploding.  But, to provide a final example, Amy Dru Stanley’s canonical examination of slavery and sexuality in conjunction with marriage and prostitution provides a starting point for considering market boundaries.  What, morally, should not be commodified?

Beginning in the 1830s, abolitionists circulated a series of “exposés” of how “love itself was profaned” through the breeding of slaves.[6]  Defenders of slavery in Congress vociferously denied that any such thing took place.  My students are almost universally skeptical of such protestations.  But the fact of protest is key.  Why was it morally defensible to have legal dominion over the bodies of other persons, to even separate families through sale – but “breeding” was anathema? 

George Fitzhugh’s defense of slavery linked it to marriage as moral living—in opposition to capitalism and free love.[7]  Fitzhugh argued that abolitionists desired a society of “free women and free negroes” in which love under the “despotism of capital” was reduced to individual will and consent and would “dissolve all domestic bonds.”  The rub was supposed to be the association with reformers like Victoria Woodhull and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who used the language of slavery to critique men’s privileges over women under coverture.  Slave breeding was anathema in that it struck at antebellum pretensions of paternalism.  Students see this even as they are generally surprised at the critique of northern market society.

The challenge for students, I find, is that these arguments suggest the distinctive ways that possession of women’s bodies ordered society, with the pedestal of domesticity “lifting” white women while subjugating black women, even as none of these women legally possessed their own bodies. Harriet Jacobs’s memoir illustrates this duality as her master sexually harassed her and her mistress, caught within her own bind, harassed her as well.  Jacobs described the subtle as well as explicit violence done to slaves and all those who dwell in a slave society by virtue of that possession.

In considering contrasts of selling selves and persons as chattel, the sentimentalization of “innocence” and “love” promised to keep things “off the market.”  And yet as Katie Hemphill’s consideration of Gentlemen’s Directories in Baltimore shows, brothels that masked the “cash nexus” of prostitution with rituals of courtship were able to command higher prices.[8]  These questions get at the core of the choices society makes about commoditization, selfhood, and the sacred.

Capitalism is economic, but it’s also social.  Americans discuss ownership, investment, and speculation as metaphors for all aspects of our lives.  Analyzing capitalism’s history helps to show contemporary institutions, ethics, and rationalities—our own folklores of capitalism—as the product of choices as well as contestation.  History combats naturalization, reminding us that this is a history we, too, can shape.


[1] David Leonhardt, “America’s Great Working Class Colleges,” New York Times Jan. 18, 2017.

[2] Corey Goettsch, “’The World is But One Vast Mock Auction,’” in Capitalism By Gaslight:  Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America (2015), 122.

[3] Courtney Fullilove, “The Price of Bread:  The New York City Flour Riot and the Paradox of Capitalist Food Systems,” Radical History Review (2014), 15-41; Barbara Welke, Recasting American Liberty:  Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 (2001).

[4] Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child:  The Changing Social Value of Children (1985).

[5] Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft:  A History of American Childhood (2002), 152.

[6] Amy Dru Stanley, “Slave Breeding & Free Lovers:  An Antebellum Argument over Slavery, Capitalism, and Personhood” in Gary Kornblith and Michael Zakim, eds., Capitalism Takes Command:  The Social Transformation of Nineteenth Century America (2011), 119-144; From Bondage to Contract:  Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (1998).

[7] A growing literature points to the importance of market-based connections in the cotton South.  See work by scholars such as Walter Johnson, Ed Baptist, Sven Beckert, Brian Schoen, and more.

[8] Katie Hemphill, “Selling Sex and Intimacy in the City:  the Changing Business of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore,” in Capitalism by Gaslight, eds. Brian Luskey and Wendy Wolosen (2015), 168-189.

20 March 2017

About the Author

Rachel Tamar Van is an Assistant Professor of Early American History at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Share this Post