“Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of Nineteenth-Century America,” an exhibition currently installed at the Library Company of Philadelphia, showcases the many ways in which Americans earned a living through economic transactions made beyond the spheres of “legitimate” commerce. Entrepreneurs of this sort included everyone from prostitutes and card sharps to confidence men, mock auctioneers, pickpockets, fences of stolen goods, and many others.
Although these shadow economies may have unfolded “off the books,” they were anything but marginal. Instead, they were crucially important parts of the mainstream economy, bound up in the development of commercial and industrial capitalism in nineteenth-century America. The shadow economy’s successful entrepreneurs-women, people of color, and children among them-had to be even more creative, flexible, and adaptive than “respectable” counterparts. During this critical period, the rules of “legitimate” economic engagement were still being established. What separated legal from illegal, moral from immoral, acceptable from disdained activities were far from settled issues. The practices, networks, and goods that constituted shadow economies often paralleled and in some instances overlapped with those found in wholesale and retail businesses, calling into question the morality and legitimacy of legal economic transactions.
The conference will highlight the innovative research being done by historians of capitalism and its culture as well as the rich collections of the Library Company that supports study of these topics.