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Echoes Dispatches From Economic History

Steam Engine

Name an inventor, evoke an invention. Gutenberg, moveable type. Galileo, the telescope; Samuel F.B. Morse, the telegraph; Matthew Murray, the sliding D- valve.

Matthew Murray?


Philip Scranton

The Rise of the Barter Economy

over 3 years ago
Barter Theater

With banking systems reeling, credit shrinking and tariff walls rising, customary trade channels began faltering in 1932. In their place, global and local barter economies developed.

“Following the lead of the United States and Brazil, which traded wheat and coffee, Germany has begun to obtain coffee in exchange for coal, Danish cattle for agricultural implements, and Russian petroleum for electrical machinery,” the Wall Street Journal reported in September.

Echoes: 9/7

Boosted by technology and social media, political campaigns have broadened and deepened their funding bases in recent years. Democrats have even rolled out a new text-to-give promotion aimed at soliciting small donations by encouraging voters to text 62262 -- key strokes that spell out President Barack Obama’s last name.

Broadening the funding base has long been a goal of politicians and parties, although some innovations have been more successful than others. In the late 1970s, both parties signed on to an ill-fated plan to actually put party-branded credit cards in constituent hands.


Wendy Woloson

Why Free Stuff Is So Irrationally Exciting

over 3 years ago
Echoes, 9/6

Loyalty points, frequent-flier miles, corporate-branded umbrellas, tote bags, stress balls and other trifles: All are contemporary versions of an old and very effective marketing strategy. We have always been suckers for free stuff.

Many of us remember pulverizing dry cereal to dust in an attempt to retrieve a free prize at the bottom of the box. Older generations were drawn to the miniature books, plastic charms and base-metal tokens sealed inside boxes of Cracker Jack. The mix of caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts was often an afterthought.


When the New Orleans chugged into the city for which it was named on Jan. 10, 1812, it made history as the first steam-powered vessel to travel the western waters of the U.S. At the time, few people thought it would touch off a commercial revolution.

Within 10 years, however, western-river steamboats carried twice as much freight in two weeks as had gone upriver in all of 1811. The Mississippi River pulsated with commerce. People and goods moved with relative ease between Pittsburgh, St. Paul, St. Louis, New Orleans and even Montana.


Philip Scranton

Corruption and Intrigue Grips New York

over 3 years ago
Jimmy Walker

From Boss Tweed’s influence in the 1800s to political scandals during the Great Depression, New York City was a hotbed of corruption.

Theodore Roosevelt fought it as police commissioner in the 1890s, but when his reform efforts angered corrupt New York politicians, he left to become the assistant secretary of the Navy. A generation later, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt also confronted New York graft in his efforts against its principal beneficiaries, Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine and New York City Mayor James Walker.

USS New Orleans

In the early years of the American republic, Sackets Harbor in upstate New York was one of the U.S. Navy’s most important ports, guarding access to the St. Lawrence River. In the War of 1812, Americans repulsed two British assaults there. As the war ended, they erected an odd memorial to their victories: the forlorn, uncompleted hulk of the battleship New Orleans.

It could still be seen rotting on its stocks 70 years later. If it had been launched, the New Orleans would have been one of the most powerful ships in the Navy. It was larger than Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory. But when peace came, construction stopped and the New Orleans began its long decline.

Echoes: 8/30

(Corrects year of railway’s completion in first paragraph and number of buffalo in 14th paragraph.)

The completion of the first transcontinental railway in 1869 divided the Great Plains in two. Some of its earliest passengers were buffalo hunters, and as they spread out from the railroad’s embankments, the vast buffalo herds were divided, as well.

Echoes: 8/29

In the summer of 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase negotiated a loan of gold from northeastern banks.

Until that gold arrived in Washington, the government planned to issue $50 million in demand notes, a currency payable on demand in gold at any Treasury office, to fund the military effort. Because the Treasury Department had no facility for the production of paper money, a private business in New York, the American Bank Note Company, produced the notes in sheets of four. These sheets were then sent to the Treasury, where scores of workers cut them and trimmed the almost 7 million notes with scissors.

Echoes: 8/28

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”

There couldn’t be a more concise presentation of the current partisan standoff in Congress and also of this year’s presidential race.


Philip Scranton

Britain's 'Bitterest Struggle'

over 3 years ago

In 1932, Lancashire, the U.K.’s cotton-manufacturing center, was a terrible mess.

At its peak in 1913, the nation’s cotton industry turned out 8 billion yards of cloth, 85 percent of which was sold abroad, the Economist reported. In 1924, production had slowed to 5.6 billion yards, 83 percent shipped internationally. By 1931, output was dismal, 3.1 billion, as exports shrank 60 percent due to higher tariffs and increasing capacity elsewhere, particularly in Japan.


While watching the “Today Show” one morning in 1967 from his Southern California home, Roy Bellman felt his knees buckle. The program was offering remote coverage from the iconic Gimbels department store in New York’s Herald Square. There, a reporter breathlessly introduced the “world’s first computerized ticketing system.”

For Bellman, a manager at Computer Sciences Corp., it was as though the floor had dropped out beneath him. He could barely process the images on the flickering screen because, up until that moment, he had thought that his company -- not the one featured on the “Today Show” -- was developing the world’s first computerized ticketing system.


Marc Levinson

How the Postal Service Revolutionized Retailing

over 3 years ago
Echoes: Parcel Post

Once, not too long ago, the local shopping district was filled with booksellers and hardware dealers who had known you for years.

Then an out-of-town competitor homed in on the party, offering goods of all sorts delivered from a far-away warehouse. The local merchants, paying rent on their brick- and-mortar stores, couldn’t match the intruder’s prices. One by one, they began to close their doors.

Sierra Sam

Beginning with 2011 model-year vehicles, federal regulators have required automakers to use petite female crash dummies in frontal automotive crash tests.

Several news outlets have picked this story up. Yet they haven’t recognized that it’s part of a longer struggle in business-government relations -- and the product of a long-held cultural resistance to considering gender differences in design.


Philip Scranton

Disgruntled Farmers Take a ‘Holiday’

over 3 years ago
Echoes: 8/20

In summer 1932, sections of the Midwest experienced militant and sometimes violent responses to an intensifying agricultural crisis.

Grain farmers denounced futures markets and the ineffectual policies of President Herbert Hoover. Dairy and livestock farmers revolted when unregulated spot markets savaged their returns on investment.


Kirsten Salyer

Weekly Links

over 3 years ago

Naked Capitalism on the 40-year war on students
History News Network on whether Monica Lewinsky saved Social Security
Slate on the historic importance of the pallet
The New York Times Magazine on predictions of the future from 1964
Wonkblog on how people think recessions are rarer than they are
Read more from Echoes, Bloomberg View's economic history blog.


Lawrence B. Glickman

Ryan Revives Old National Fixation on ‘Free Enterprise’

over 3 years ago
Echoes: 8/17

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, regularly invokes free enterprise, which he has called “one of the greatest forces for good this world has ever known.”

Representative Paul Ryan, Romney’s recently announced running mate, uses the phrase even more frequently. In his very first speech as Romney’s selection, he called for a return to the founding principles of “liberty, freedom, free enterprise.”

Echoes: 8/15

Helen Gurley Brown, who died this week at 90, embodied countless contradictions. In her first book, “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962), Brown scandalized the nation by arguing that single women ought to have lives of sexual fulfillment rather than of spinster desperation. Notably, she waited to do this until she had safely nabbed her own Mr. Right, and then wrote the book only at his urging.

She advised women to use their feminine wiles in the work place (though she always contended that sleeping your way to the top was all but impossible). She steered the failing Hearst publication Cosmopolitan far into the black, and into pop culture history, by eliminating all traces of cosmopolitanism and recasting the magazine as a guidebook for what became known as the “Cosmo girl.”


About Echoes

Echoes is Bloomberg View's economic history blog. It is edited by Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and the author, with Nouriel Roubini, of "Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance," and of "A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States."

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