Luskey, On The Make

In On The Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America, Brian P. Luskey explores the world of male clerks and clerkships in nineteenth-century New York City.  During the antebellum period, clerkships represented crucial opportunities for young men to enter into the business world, gain valuable experience, and generate connections that could eventually allow them to become business proprietors in their own right.  Through experience as a clerk, the right connections, and a willingness to subordinate oneself under another business proprietor for a period of time, clerks in the antebellum North provided themselves with the tools necessary to enter into the middle, and sometime even elite, class.  For Luskey, the story of clerks in New York City is one of decline, as during the Civil War and the postbellum period, the benefits of clerkships, and both men’s willingness and ability to take on clerk positions diminished.  Competition for clerkships from immigrants and women, who could be paid less than men, in addition to the difficulties of gaining credit for opening one’s own business for former clerks resulted in young men less frequently utilizing clerkships as a spring board for private business ownership.  Luskey contends that after the Civil War, these diminishing prospects of private business ownership led many young men to eschew the discipline required to own and run a business, and instead adapted to the emerging opportunities in “middle management,” placing a higher premium on stability and salary than on independent ownership.

 

[Class notes: Luskey fits better with Rockman’s definition of class, in that the abandonment of clerkships, occupation of middle management positions, has more to do with availability of capital/credit than initial aspirations.]

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