Learning How to Construct the Unknown: The Practice of Risk in Early North American Insurance Manuals

Selling insurance against possibly harmful future events became popular among Americans in the late eighteenth century. Among the reasons that more and more people in the former British colonies were drawn to conduct this kind of business was that acting as an insurer required neither formal training nor special equipment. Basically, anyone who was literate and had access to pen and paper could write up a contract that promised some sort of financial compensation for losses or damages to someone, if that person feared a certain event could disrupt his or her comfort and in exchange made a regular payment. Thus, a man named Ephraim Tucker decided in 1793 to issue insurance for “the elegant full-blooded horse Clericus” during its transfer between stables.[1] Philadelphia merchants routinely agreed to insure each other against the so-called dangers of the sea. Churches in New England raised funds to insure the lives of their clergy and the clergymen’s widows and children. Neighbors issued contracts to insure each other’s homes against destruction by fire. Firemen, too, clubbed together to provide financial means for any event that caused one of them to suffer physical harm. The practice of taking on other people’s risks, this shows, was often performed by nonexperts. Continue reading “Learning How to Construct the Unknown: The Practice of Risk in Early North American Insurance Manuals”

The Handbook as Genre: Conflicting Concepts in 1950s Physics Publishing

Why should researchers publish printed books in an age when everything is expected to be available online and when print is widely deemed outdated? Similarly, from 1955 to 1988, physicists who published articles in the 78-volume Handbuch der Physik—Encyclopedia of Physics had to explain to their colleagues why they were participating in a project that many thought too slow, too heavy, too expensive, too definitive, yet not dependable or up-to-date enough. Some authors were assailed by doubts themselves since publication dates were pushed back by the publisher time and time again. (Surely, the editor would have declined his own role in the project, had he known that the series would take some 33 years to complete.) Looking at the early period of the making of this handbook reveals some interesting aspects of the characteristics of science publishing in the mid-twentieth century, right when the struggling German publishing industry was seeking ways to gain traction,[1] and just before journal publishing as a stand-alone publishing model picked up pace.[2] Continue reading “The Handbook as Genre: Conflicting Concepts in 1950s Physics Publishing”

Selling by the Book: Instructions and the Commercialization of DIY Practices in Twentieth-Century Germany

The Bible is the world’s bestselling book of all time. In Germany, it was followed by a recipe book: Dr. Oetker’s Backen macht Freude (Baking is Fun). Exact numbers are not available for either book, yet it seems to be certain that at least from the 1950s to the 1980s, no other publication was as widely distributed in the country as these two. First published in 1930, Dr. Oetker’s book had managed to sell 20 million copies by the early 1960s, and more than 27 million by the 1980s.[1] Other cookbooks from the German food giant were less successful but still sold by the millions. It is not unjustified, from that perspective, that the company calls one of its books “the bible of cooking” on its homepage.[2] Continue reading “Selling by the Book: Instructions and the Commercialization of DIY Practices in Twentieth-Century Germany”

Economic Personae: The Making of Financial Identity in America

woman in credit bureau with credit files representing an assortment of businessmen

In 1936, actor Ian Keith petitioned a Los Angeles court to change his legal name. Born in Boston as Ian Macaulay Ross in 1899, Keith had honed his skills on Broadway stages before transitioning to the silver screen. By the mid-1930s, he was a familiar face in dozens of Hollywood films. He played the assassin John Wilkes Booth in Abraham Lincoln (1930), D. W. Griffith’s first “talkie,” and appeared in several Cecil B. DeMille epics, including The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934). Audiences knew him as Ian Keith, the stage name he had settled on in the early 1920s. Keith’s petition sought to make this public identity official. Continue reading “Economic Personae: The Making of Financial Identity in America”

Technologies of Trust: Marc Flandreau’s Examination of Financial and Anthropological Knowledge in Victorian Britain

Marc Flandreau. Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Victorian London can be seen as multiple cities at once: the imperial metropole par excellence, where different political visions clashed in the course of establishing and governing the British Empire; the thumping heart of global capitalism, busily circulating capital from one corner of the world to another through its formal securities markets and in private deal-making; and the origin point of the modern network of interconnected “learned societies.”[1] Flandreau, formerly of the University of Geneva and now the Howard Marks Chair of Economic History at the University of Pennsylvania, nimbly navigates the history of these three different Londons in Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science. Continue reading “Technologies of Trust: Marc Flandreau’s Examination of Financial and Anthropological Knowledge in Victorian Britain”