Goose Commerce

ATTN: This blog is no longer updating here by daelnorwood
November 20, 2022, 8:39 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

As of November 2022, I’ve moved operations to my main page:

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The Labor of Organizing Capitalists by daelnorwood
November 14, 2022, 10:58 am
Filed under: Archival Follies, Beginning the "Businessman", Now in Actual Work

Or, Who Did The Work of Making the Business Lobby?

#BizManBook Research Note #1

A photo of mainly men and some women seated at banquet tables, set for the desert or coffee course, dressed in business suits; black and white image.
Source: Peter Schawang, Minnesota Association of Commercial Secretaries 25th Anniversary, St. Paul., February 12, 1944, photograph, b&w, 8″ x 10″, February 12, 1944, AV1982.85.1, Minnesota Historical Society,

In the early 20th century, a new kind of man appeared in America. “[L]ooking pleasant but worried,” he scurries toward his downtown office, arriving by 8:30am to be attend to a packed schedule of meetings, calls, and endless paperwork, working through breakfast, lunch, dinner, and not infrequently well beyond. He’s an avid golfer, but those hours on the links aren’t leisure, they’re a good walk ruined by networking. His blood pressure is high, his hair is going prematurely grey, perhaps because others claim his hours; he has “about as much time to call his own as a member of the fire department.”1 Often the sole salaried employee of his organization, he wears as many hats as the haberdasher can supply: he serves as “a business man, an organizer, a diplomat, a strategist, a mixer, and an all-around man of versatile ability.”2

So who was this new, harried man – and what was his business?

As he was described and then theorized in the business print culture of the 1910s and 1920s, this busy, multifarious, and frankly tired figure was the “commercial secretary.” Sometimes also styled the “commercial executive” – when he was feeling presumptuous – his work was to shape the business men of an American city into a purposeful, effective force. His labor was organizing capitalists.

The commercial secretary made his home in an institution that first became pervasive in Gilded Age America: the local commercial association, aka the chamber of commerce, board of trade, or business league. The keystone administrator of a nonprofit organization that served the cause of for-profit enterprise, the commercial secretary was an employee whose task was to nurture and guide entrepreneurs and executives – and translate their aggregate economic power into civic improvement and public infrastructure.

The commercial secretary occupies an interesting niche in the modernizing United States. Within the paradigm of the “managerial revolution,” he must be figured a partisan for professional, systematized, and scientific control of corporate bodies, against the amateurish whims of individual owners. From another perspective, however, the commercial secretary was simply another creature of the era’s powerful proprietary capitalists, like a railroad lawyer or “friendly” politician. But unlike those figures, commercial secretaries claimed to represent the business men of a given locality, as a whole class, not particular enterprises or even industries. As such they might be properly characterized as a kind of community organizer, or class activist, engaged in the slow, boring political work of building “business solidarity.”3

Understanding themselves to be agents of capital-p “Progress,” commercial secretaries thought of civic improvement as their special purview. As they took steps to professionalize in the early 20th-century, they did so in the name of something greater than the sum of their members private interests: they claimed to work for the good of the whole city. (And it was usually the urban core they focused on – like many other Progressives, they saw cities as the key problem of the present, and the path to the future). You can glimpse something of the grandiosity of secretaries’ ambitions in the courses of study and reading lists they designed to train the rising generation: organizational design and commercial law, macro, micro, and political economics, business statistics, and accounting, to start; and then for more advanced students, education in corporate finance, scientific management, urban governance, immigration reform, military science, European and American history, the classics, socialism, marketing, advertising, and psychology – all to be supplemented with the daily newspaper, and founded on practical experience.4

So far in my research for my new project, The Beginnings of the “Businessman,” I have been working with institutional collections – the records and publications of the New York Chamber of Commerce, or the Boston Board of Trade, etc. Stepping into these records means entering a world authored, almost entirely, by commercial secretaries. Secretaries took the meeting minutes, summarized committee findings, and then drafted, edited, and ordered the printing and layout of institutional reports and periodicals. They also did a significant share of the backroom backslapping and conversational cajoling that brought members together in the first place (traces of which shows up in correspondence). And though commercial associations’ power and legitimacy were always understood to reside in their members, it was through the secretary that that they found collective expression.

In that sense, we might usefully consider commercial secretaries to be the “stage managers” in the managerial revolution. Offstage organizers who kept things moving while emotionally overwrought players rushed in and out of the wings to take action. And indeed, in some organizations, they often refused (or were denied) the limelight. George Wilson, the longtime secretary of the New York Chamber of Commerce, oversaw his organizations’ transformation from provincial mercantile club to industrial and financial lobbying giant; but after he died, a member who stood to hail his memory still failed to recognize his portrait hanging on the wall of the meeting room he was in.5 Most commercial secretaries claimed more space than Wilson – but even those who modeled themselves on his shy propriety left a mark, in the record, shaping how business men were represented to the world, and to themselves.

As this post suggests, commercial secretaries have caught my attention. A prolix group of liminal figures, they are interesting as indexes of how apolitical “progressivism” mixed with the celebration of business “civilization” in the bubbling stew of modern urban capitalist America. But they are also something of a distraction. While they occasionally weighed in on how “business men” should get involved in civic affairs, and offered useful some delineation of what that character of a “business man” looked like, they mostly shied away from any close examination of their meal tickets. Instead, they preferred to look inward, and consider what qualities and capacities they and their organizations needed to make the world safe for vigorous local capitalist enterprise. But as I get back into the habit of writing through my sources, I thought it would be fitting to go meta, and give some attention to the men (and some women) who sent the fancy business banquet invites, and organized the diners.

1. John E. Northway, “The Secretary in Action,” in Proceedings: Fifth Annual Meeting of the National Association of Commercial Organization Secretaries (Worcester, MA: National Association of Commercial Organization Secretaries, 1919), 96-98,

2. “The Profession of Secretary,” Nation’s Business (December 16, 1912), v1 n5, p.12,

3. Edward D. Jones, “The University and the Secretary,” in Commercial Organizations, Their Function, Operation and Service, ed. William George Bruce (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1920), 420,

4. Roland B. Woodward, “The Most Helpful Secretarial Literature,” in Commercial Organizations, Their Function, Operation and Service, ed. William George Bruce (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1920), 396–407,; Paul T. Cherington, “The Secretarial Field for College Graduates,” The Nation’s Business, (August 15, 1913) v1, n14, pp. 7,

5. Chris Mead, The Magicians of Main Street: America and Its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945 (Oakton, Virginia: John Cruger Press, 2014), 167.

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Hope and the Worldly Historian by daelnorwood
December 14, 2015, 10:00 am
Filed under: Found Historiography, History and Historians


And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
     For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” (1)

The last few days, I’ve been turning Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent post about the place of hope in the practice of history – or rather, his contention that the latter leads to a lack of the former – over in my mind.

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A Collection of Altered States by goosecommerce
April 6, 2015, 11:32 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Fun facts from this morning’s research:

Harvard has on deposit “the world’s largest private collection of material documenting altered states of mind,” The Julio Mario Santo Domingo Collection.

The archive was compiled and donated (well, loaned) by an investment advisor(Julio Mario Santo Domingo), whose interests “centered on sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” In addition to the 50k+ print and audiovisual materials held by Harvard’s libraries, Santo Domingo also “formed a major Rock and Roll Collection (now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland)” and owned “the world’s largest collection of opium pipes.”

This is his bookplate, as displayed on the collection description website:

this book kills fascists

Appropriately, “[t]he Santo Domingo Collection is not physically together in one location,” but rather distributed across the university and the virtual world because it just can’t be contained, man. (Happily, that also means that Harvard’s diligent librarians have scanned many items and made them publicly accessible – so the collection is a great online resource if you’re looking for 19th-century works on opium, say).

If you’re interested in learning more, see the collection description on the Houghton Library website, search the HOLLIS catalog, or watch the Modern Books and Manuscripts Blog.

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From Friend Barnum to Friend Greeley by goosecommerce
May 19, 2014, 5:32 pm
Filed under: Archival Follies

Or, For the “Sources Whose Stories I Wish I Had More Time To Pursue, But Never Will” File

An excerpt from the September 29, 1847 edition of the New-York Daily Tribune:

“We were rejoiced at receiving the other day the following note from our friend P. T. Barnum, renouncing henceforth the indulgence of misnamed Temperate Drinking. … None who knows the writer can doubt that he means what he says, and will live up to it.”


1847-09-29_NY Trib Temperance

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The Fraught Freight of Transcontinentals by goosecommerce
February 25, 2014, 10:01 am
Filed under: Found Historiography, Power At Play | Tags: , , , , ,

Or, You Make a Better Road Than A Destination, America

Burr Map 2

It’s been a busy week for the appreciation of the promise and perils of transcontinental, or if you prefer, inter-oceanic, travel.

Allow me to explain…

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Fabrics of Our (Historical) Lives by goosecommerce
December 30, 2013, 4:39 pm
Filed under: Found Historiography | Tags: , , , ,

Or, A Mini-Museum Review, In Three Parts

Or, I came, I marveled, I exited through the gift shop

Sarasa with Small Rosettes

I. The current Met Exhibit on early modern textile trading is FANTASTIC. If you’ve got the means and the opportunity, I heartily recommend getting out to “Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800.” And do it quickly! It closes January 5th. (And if you can’t get there, at least go to the website and look at some of this stuff). It’s a fascinating display of objects that are astounding enough on their own, but the way Amelia Peck and her colleagues have put them together really does something new. Put briefly, they’ve selected choice conversations in fabric to showcase early modern globalization through one of its driving forces, textile production and consumption.

II. But! There are quibbles. First the bigger picture: they’ve got a slideshow at the beginning that depicts trade routes – but only those transoceanic links frequented by Europeans. Now, the centuries-long development of deep-water European maritime trading was a crucial event, but those ventures never operated in a vacuum, even on the water. The Indian ocean was not a blank but for Portuguese ships; it had thriving networks of dhows connecting Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist worlds. Similarly, China’s traders had fleets of junks making connections to Southeast Asia and Japan that facilitated all kinds of exhange, even of European design ideas. However, the opening presentation leaves one to suppose that all transcultural transmission was the result of traveling Europeans, and announces the show’s narrative to be a simplistic story of East-West interaction (one where Europeans appear to have more agency, in many cases, than non-Europeans).

Luckily this is an interpretation that the items on display emphatically undermine, in myriad ways. So this is not a case of a deep misunderstanding on the part of the curators, but rather a matter of failing, in the introductory instance, to effectively communicate the more complex reality. Still, a more accurate set of maps would have gone a long way to setting things up.


Second, a more personally-interested beef: one of the last wall texts in the exhibit (pictured above) was so full of Nopes (and half-Nopes) about North America and Asian trade that I nearly quibbled myself out of the room. So don’t buy what this sign is selling you: the smuggling trade in Asian goods was extensive, and colonial Americans did indeed have access to “the real thing”; American “engagement with the Asian trade” had its booms and busts, but nonetheless continued throughout the nineteenth-century, not just for a short time; in the specific case of Indian cottons, geopolitics and simple political economy tamped down their consumption well before cotton agriculture or textile production got going in the U.S.; and so on, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Long story short, this wall text channels narratives and just-so stories that come from (way) older scholarship –– or, more generously, takes its cues from the history of fashion or artistic styles alone, and not the wider history.

III. But man, the works on display! Are amazing. Beautiful, incredibly well-preserved, and just gorgeous examples of wonderful art – I really can’t say that enough. The Met’s curators have very ably, and very intelligently, put these items into dialogue, and have thereby made a convincing argument about the need to see world trade, art, and the lived experience of globalization as all operating within the same frame.

I very much hope they do many more such exhibits in the future.

Image 1: “Sarasa with Small Rosettes,” 18th century, India, Cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.57

Image 2: The vexing wall text. Courtesy(?) of the author.

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Such Phrenology. So Railroad. Wow. by goosecommerce

Or, Meme Translation

Asa Whitney Doge

Today I found a portrait and detailed profile of one of the characters I’m currently writing about in the American Phrenological Journal.

Yes folks, in November 1849, Asa Whitney, railroad projector and lobbyist for humanity, was not only the man of the hour and talk of the town, but also the cover model for America’s leading pseudoscientific periodical. Reading what the nation’s foremost experts in head-bumps and skull-shapes had provided to the interested public concerning the former China merchant, it occurred to me that the phrenologist’s analysis might very easily be stripped of its Victorian vagaries, and translated into a jargon with more currency today; that is, into doge speak. Thus, the above.

(Also, per Gary Larson, it was late and I was tired).

Full cite (incl. original image):

“Article LXXI: Phrenological Character of Asa Whitney, with a Likeness,” American Phrenological Journal 11, no. 11 (November 1, 1849): 329–333.

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Hunting Snark – and History by goosecommerce
December 5, 2013, 5:26 pm
Filed under: Corrupting the Youth, History and Historians | Tags: , , , , , ,

 Or, <eye roll> Primary Documents </eye roll>

Tom Scocca’s recent snarking on smarm has got me thinking about the connections between history, as it is written and pursued, and one of the defining literary styles of our time. But before I bloviate over a blog post, here’s the essay: go have a look.

I’ll wait.

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No Formula for Comfort by goosecommerce
December 3, 2013, 11:08 pm
Filed under: And now for something completely different..., Dismal Scientists

Or, Accountants Really, Really Don’t Mince Words

Self-Portrait with Eye-shade

I’ve been doing some research in-and-around accountancy, including some attempts to learn actual methods. It is what it is; mainly what I’ve noticed is that authors in the field like to get ahead of you on the question of how excruciating (supposedly) their subject can be.

For example, there’s the almost-a-Bond-villain approach:

“Let’s begin with candor. Do you expect to enjoy this introductory course in financial accounting?”

~Clyde P. Stickney, Financial accounting: an introduction to concepts, methods, and uses, 8th ed., The Dryden Press series in accounting (Fort Worth: Dryden Press, 1997).

And the overly-descriptive but also passive-aggressive horror-movie gambit…

“If for many people history is boring and all about dead people, why produce a Companion to the history of a discipline that is widely perceived as a mind-numbing activity performed by the living dead – cold, colourless number crunchers? In this volume we hope to show that accounting history is much more than describing the content of crumbling ledgers, the scrutiny of faded balance sheets and charting impenetrable methods for recording transactions in the past. While we don’t promise to excite readers with historical tales of lust, debauchery, and murder, we do hope to reveal the manner in which the seemingly innocuous practice of accounting has pervaded human existence in numerous and fascinating ways.”

~J. R. Edwards and Stephen P. Walker, eds., The Routledge companion to accounting history, Routledge companions (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009).

But dramatic introduction hooks aside, it’s not really as bad as all that. Money is interesting!

Image: Anton Graff, “Self-Portrait with Eye-Shade,” 1813, Wikimedia Commons

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