An Illustrated Business History of the United States : A book review by Bob Morris

An Illustrated Business History of the United States
Richard Vague
University of Pennsylvania Press (2021)

A multi-dimensional examination of business in the United States, 1763-2015

The sequence of fourteen chapters of abundant material begins with “America’s First Business” (1763-1789) and concludes with “The Digital Revolution and Financial Crisis” (1996-2015). In each chapter, Richard Vague  makes superb use of these reader-friendly segments:

o Historical and economic context
o Wealthiest individuals
o Large industries
o Top imports
o Top exports
o Major inventions and innovations
o Several boxed mini-commentaries on the major figures, events, and developments well as the historical and economic impact of the given period.

As you correctly assume, there is a wealth of illustrations that complement and enhance Vague’s lively and eloquent narrative. As he explains, “The idea for this book came when I was writing a book on the history of financial crises and tried to find information on the largest businesses and wealthiest Americans in each business era, only to discover that such information was either fragmentary or missing altogether, especially for the nineteenth century. This book tries to rectify the gaps in our common knowledge of business history and as such has involved an extensive amount of original research. The details behind this research, along with additional research findings, are available on this book’s website.

The chapter titles are eminently appropriate:

1. Amerca’s First Business
2. Manufacturing and Banking
3. Canals and Railroads Change Everything
4. Land, Gold, the Telegraph, and Oil
5. “And the War Came”
6. The Gilded Age
7. Combination and Reform
8. Mass Production, Cars, and War
9. Excess and Depression
10. The Business of Warand the Postwar Boom
11. Oil Overdependence and Malaise
12. The Stormy Eighties
13. The Digital Revolution and Financial Crisis

Here is a representative selection of subjects that caught my eye:

o Largest city in the 1700s: Philadelphia (estimated population 30,000 in 1780; 42,440 in 1790).
o Top value of imports by country, 1811-1820: Great Britain ($290,000,000); next South and Central America ($101,000,000)
o Stock market leaders by industry sector, 1840: Finance (75%); next, Transports (12%).
o Largeat businesses, 1870: By revenue, New York Central & Hudson RR ($21,972,000); by assets, Central Pacific RR ($136,491,000)
o In 1927, Metropolitan life was the largest insurance company by insurance in force ($14,803,786,000) and by total assets (2,388,848,000).
o Mini-profiles of Vannevar Bush, H.L Hunt, and Elizabeth Arden in Chapter 10.
o Largest bank in 1970: Bank of America by total loans and discounts ($16,692,828,000); Bank of America by total assets ($29,739,902,000).
o Mini-commentary: “The Moonshot Leads to One GreatLeapin Innovation” in 1969.
o Mini-profiles of Steve Jobs Bill Gates, Walter Wriston, Bob Taylor, Martha Stewart, John H. Johnson, and Donald Regan in Chapter 12.
o “Forbes List of America’s Richest Families, 2014” (six Walton family members #1; total net worth, $152,000,000,000.

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine could possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of the material provided in this volume but I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of Richard Vague and of this contribution to thought leadership.

I conclude with three suggestions. Highlight key passages, and, keep a lined notebook near at hand in order to record your own comments, questions, and page references, as well as specific ideas that can be of immediate impact and value. These two simple tactics will facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key material later. The third suggestion? Keep this volume in mind as an appropriate gift for someone now preparing for a career in business or who has only recently embarked upon one.

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