Echoes Dispatches From Economic History

Marc Levinson

How New York Lost the Apparel Business

over 2 years ago
Singer Sewing Machines Advertisement

Signs are everywhere that U.S. industry is reviving, and there is much talk of government aid to help manufacturers update their factories. But an obscure episode half a century ago shows the need for caution.

Like many government policies, support for manufacturing can have unintended consequences. In 1962, it hurt many of the firms that policy makers were most eager to assist.

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John Steele Gordon

Have the Rich Ever Paid a Fair Share of Taxes? (Part 2)

over 2 years ago
Echoes, The Rich and Taxes (Part 2)

As the 19th century wound down, the industrialization of the U.S., by then the world's largest and most productive economy, was piling up fortunes of unprecedented size.

Cornelius Vanderbilt had died the richest self-made man in the world when he left his heirs $105 million in 1877. His son William Henry Vanderbilt doubled his father's fortune in just eight years. When Andrew Carnegie agreed to sell Carnegie Steel Corporation to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901, Morgan told him, "Congratulations on becoming the richest man in the world." By 1910, John D. Rockefeller was worth $1 billion.

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Philip Scranton

Patriotism and Protectionism Grips the U.K.

over 2 years ago
Echoes 4/16

"A patriotic Briton nowadays buys nothing from foreigners if he can help it," reported the New York Times in late April 1932.

Upper-class ladies shopping for alligator purses had to be assured that even if the reptile skin was imported, all the workmanship was domestic.

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Katherine Bygrave Howe

How the Titanic Made the Modern Radio Industry

over 2 years ago
Harold Bride

We remember the Titanic for its epic technological hubris. But the ship's sinking also marks the moment when a more modest technology, the wireless radio, began to transform the shipping industry.

As an example of the Progressive-era faith in technology, the Titanic is hard to equal. In addition to its sumptuous interior, the ship was able to churn across the ocean at a staggering 22.5 knots. It was also outfitted with the most sophisticated wireless-telegraph technology available, with a range of nearly 1,000 miles.

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John Steele Gordon

Have the Rich Ever Paid a Fair Share of Taxes? (Part 1)

over 2 years ago
Protected Monopolist Dreaming

The idea that the rich aren't paying their "fair share" of taxes isn't exactly a new beast in the zoo of American politics. It has been around since the Civil War ended 150 years ago.

To fund the war, the federal government taxed as it had never taxed before. The tariff, long the main source of government revenue, was raised sharply. So were excise taxes on commodities such as liquor. The government also instituted the country's first income tax, which imposed a 3 percent levy on incomes above $800. It was soon raised to 3 percent on earnings of more than $600 and 5 percent on those that exceeded $10,000.

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Christopher T. Baer

The Daunting Logistics Behind FDR's Simple Funeral

over 2 years ago
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nov. 19, 1939

On April 12, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered a fatal stroke at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had gone to recuperate from his grueling trip to the Big Three conference at Yalta.

FDR had left instructions for a relatively simple funeral with interment in the garden of his home in Hyde Park, New York. Nevertheless, the railroad companies had to work closely with the White House to organize, on short notice, the final journey home of a revered president.

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Richard Sylla & Robert E. Wright

’Fortune 500’ of 1812 Shows U.S. Banks’ Early Influence

over 2 years ago
Top 5 American Companies, 1812

Fortune magazine began publishing annual rankings of U.S. corporations by revenue in 1955. Ever since, scholars and forecasters have analyzed changes in the Fortune 500 to help inform their judgments about industry concentration and the relative importance of different sectors of the economy.

Historians would love to have snapshots of the nation’s largest corporations at earlier dates. Unfortunately data are scarce, especially before the Civil War. Based on our research, however, it is now possible to create a sort of historical “Fortune 500” ranked by corporate capitalization -- the total sum stockholders were supposed to pay for their shares.

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Philip Scranton

The Slow Death of Movie Monopolies

over 2 years ago
Echoes, 4/9

Famously, millions of Americans evaded the Great Depression’s miseries by going to the movies -- the “talkies” that made stars of Myrna Loy, William Powell, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and many others.

Infamously, the film industry’s studio owners and distributors spent much of the 1930s in federal courts, as they had in the 1920s and would again in the 1940s, charged with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by constraining competition.

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Echoes

Most historians naturally tend to focus on the more dramatic aspects of Joan of Arc’s life -- her inexplicable prowess in battle, her mesmerizing testimony at her Trial of Condemnation, her horrific death by fire in Rouen.

But her most profound contribution to her kingdom’s ultimate victory may well have been her impact on English fiscal policy.

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Echoes: Armour

The furor over “pink slime,” the colorful term used in the media for what meatpackers call “lean finely textured beef,” reminds us once again that we don’t always know what we’re eating -- and that the way our food is produced can be seriously unsettling.

“Pink slime,” producers assure us, is a safe filler product made from beef trim that is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria, such as E. coli.

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Franklin Noll

The Birth of U.S. Fiat Currency

over 2 years ago
Echoes, two-dollar bill

On April 2, 1862, the first greenback left the U.S. Treasury, marking the start of a new era in the American monetary system.

At the start of the Civil War, the U.S. didn't have a national paper currency. Instead, the money supply consisted of U.S. coins and a collection of paper notes issued by private banks. Technically, the federal government began issuing its own paper currency in 1861. That year, the Lincoln administration issued $60 million in demand notes, a variant of a Treasury note that was redeemable "on demand" for gold coins at the Treasury or any sub-Treasury.

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Philip Scranton

Henry Ford's Depression Car

over 2 years ago
Depression

The first phase of the Great Depression hit Ford Motor Co. (F) hard. Sales of its flagship Model A declined by 50 percent from 1930 to the end of 1931, while Chevrolet rose to auto-market leadership.

Ford clearly needed to hurry development of its Model B, which had been in the works since 1929. But would rushing it to market during the Depression pay off?

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Gregory DL Morris

Merrill Lynch Anniversary Reminds Wall Street of Ethics

over 2 years ago
Merrill Lynch

April 1 is the 72nd anniversary of the day that a merger of brokers created Merrill Lynch, E. A. Pierce & Cassatt. While the predecessor firms trace their histories back almost a century, the brokerage known in the trade as ``Mother Merrill'' came together in 1940. Amid the incessant drumbeats of protesters and strident manifestos upon resignation, amid the debates over the Volcker rule and the Buffett tax, the words of Charles Merrill serve to remind the financial community of the quiet power of doing well by doing good.

At the time of the big combination Charles Merrill already had a reputation for marketing savvy. In 1911, Merrill wrote an article in Leslie's Weekly magazine called ``Mr. Average Investor'' in which he laid out his strategy to sell to the middle-class investor. ``Having thousands of customers scattered throughout the U.S. is infinitely preferable to being dependent upon the fluctuating buying power of a smaller and perhaps on the whole wealthier group of investors in any one section,'' he wrote.

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Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, Thomas Haigh & David Stearns

Visions of a Cashless Society: Echoes

over 2 years ago
Echoes: AmEx

Many technological innovations surfaced first in science fiction and then became a reality.

Think of Jules Verne imagining a flight to the moon and long-range submarines decades before such things existed; H. G. Wells warning of aerial bombardments prior to World War I; or Arthur C. Clarke writing on geosynchronous communications satellites in 1945.

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New Deal-era public-health advisories

A poll of Americans revealed that 68 percent thought it would be "a good idea" to introduce a national health-care system. "These American consumers," concluded one commentator, "are so ready for reform of the structure and economics of medicine that they are willing to effect it by compulsion."

One more skirmish in the ongoing fight over Obamacare? Not quite: This observation was written in 1944. The clash over whether the federal government should be involved in health care -- now being argued before the Supreme Court -- has deep roots in U.S. history. Much of the same rhetoric and many of the same epithets were hurled back and forth in the first chapter of this saga, which took place in the 1940s.

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Philip Scranton

How the Depression Changed Our Diet: Echoes

over 2 years ago
Depression Line

Our classic images of Great Depression-era foodways are, well, depressing: long lines of men entering soup kitchens for a free meal, and the mass destruction of wheat, corn or pigs to reduce supply and push prices up.

Yet the 1930s were also years of innovation in food services -- some short-lived, others that continue to this day.

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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."