After years of being on the margins of American historiography, business history is not only back, it's trendy. Hard to imagine, isn't it?
For the last forty years or so, the vast majority of U.S. business historians simply could not or would not swim with the historiographical currents that carried away anything with a semblance of the traditional. (By contrast, historians of Britain, Germany, and Japan, to name three, never lost their interest in business).
Race, gender, and class--all of which should have mattered to business history but never did--swept away old-fashioned biographers and corporate historians, many of whom created works for hire, chronicling the glorious history of this or that major firm and earning a nice living doing so. Who has ever heard of Allen Nevins, except for the fact that there's a nice prize named after him?
The chroniclers of rich, white men and the companies that they founded were not the only drowning victims. Those engaged in the ever-serious endeavor of giving voice to the voiceless and celebrating individual agency had little interest in business. The result was the marginalization of a left-leaning band of historians who, after reading their Marx or Mills or Domhoff, rebelled against the corporate hagiographers. They viewed business as a force that corrupted politics, snuffed out Progressivism, and shunted the New Deal down a conservative byway.
But who cared about business when the subaltern were rising? The people were too busy with acts of resistance and community formation and identity construction to care about corporations. Gabriel Kolko? Barton Bernstein?...footnotes, at best.
Sure, some smart business historians rested on the historiographical banks, above the swirling eddies. Louis Galambos held a comfy perch at Hopkins, above the historiographical floodline. While others were sinking, Naomi Lamoreaux found herself high and dry at Brown and then UCLA (but in the economics department). Giants like Alfred Chandler and Thomas McCraw and Sanford Jacoby found themselves isolated, but well-compensated, among the cliff-diving MBAs rather than the dog-paddling ABDs. And historians of advertising and consumerism never wholly neglected business history, even if they grew increasingly interested in reception and resistance.
Now, however, the shape of the river is changing--and fast. Histories of business and capitalism, enlivened by a more than little culture and gender and religion and politics, are moving into the mainstream.
No place exemplifies the rise of business history than the University of Georgia. While most departments still classify their faculty by chronology or region, Georgia boasts of a whole cluster of historians of capitalism. It's a brilliant move--and because of it Georgia is quickly becoming one of the most interesting departments in the country. Leading the way are some young, trendy scholars. Bethany Moreton, a young Yale Ph.D., published a widely reviewed book about Walmart and the Arkansan Christian women who made it. (How many historians two years out of grad school get marquee reviews in the New York Times?) Moreton's colleague, Shane Hamilton, penned a prizewinner on the trucking industry and is now writing a history of supermarkets. Stephen Mihm, a nineteenth century historian, offers a history of the crooks and losers, the counterfeiters and capitalists, who made a fast buck in more ways than one in the free-wheeling economy of antebellum years.
Georgia is not alone. NYU is home to the energetic historian of business and conservatism, Kim Philips-Fein, and the bestselling chronicler of Ford's misguided Amazonian venture, Greg Grandin. Harvard primadonna Niall Ferguson has made a fortune huffing and puffing about the global economy (a throwback to the days when business historians wrote about and for their subjects) while his heavyweight sidekick, cotton scholar Sven Beckert, has forgone flash for substance.
Business is big history again.