1865-1914: Capital Unbounded

Agricultural building at night, from northwest, 1893 World's Fair
Agricultural building at night, from northwest, 1893 World's FairJackson, William Henry, 1843-1942
Industry on the Chicago River
Industry on the Chicago RiverUnited States Army Corps of Engineers
Capitalism, Humanity, Government
Capitalism, Humanity, GovernmentMan Ray

>The half-century before the First World War witnessed unprecedented economic growth, trade, and migration throughout the world.  The abolition of chattel slavery in the U.S. signaled both the freedom of 4 million human beings and the victory of the northern industrial and commercial economy. The incorporation of the North American west into what was called a “free labor” economy witnessed the destruction of the wild Buffalo, the division of the Great Plains into saleable plots of land, and the expansion of factory production and wage labor across the region. The economic and cultural volatility of this period shaped the agendas of business leaders, reformers, and revolutionaries for decades to come.

During these years industrialists and bankers created the corporations that would dominate the twentieth century economy, and many hailed from central North America. International Harvester, United States Steel, and Standard Oil represented the trend toward business consolidation and the alliance of finance capital with manufacturing technology.  Others like the meatpacking giants of Chicago and the grain millers in Minneapolis would remake diets across the globe with inexpensive processed food.  The largest corporations aimed to limit competition and risk by dividing up market share with rivals, consolidating control of raw materials, and dominating retail distribution.

For working people, the unregulated economy offered both opportunities and difficulties. These were years of mass migration, especially between Europe and the Americas, which reshaped the demographics of the U.S. and Canada.  Most of these migrants came not as farmers, as had previous generations, but as wage workers.  Even in prosperous years, unemployment and low wages undermined family incomes, and governments offered little help during the frequent business downturns and panics. Immigrant communities developed institutions to soften the harshest aspects of industrial life, and reform-minded Americans advocated social legislation to aid workers.  Others organized trade unions seeking high wages or radical political movements seeking the fundamental transformation of capitalism.