Friday, January 13, 2012

New Exhibition Looks at 19th-Century Criminal Enterprise

“Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of 19th-Century America,” which opens January 17, shines light on underground urban commerce in early America.  Drawing on books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, prints, photographs, and ephemera in the Library Company’s collection, guest curator Wendy Woloson showcases the many ways in which Americans earned their livings through economic transactions made beyond “legitimate” spheres. Entrepreneurs in this realm included prostitutes and card sharps, confidence men, mock auctioneers, pickpockets, and fences of stolen goods.

Crime was certainly not a new development in the 19th century.  Reports of highway robberies and stolen goods appeared in newspapers from their first issues on colonial soil. Yet the profound and relatively rapid shifts in the country's economic structure and demographic patterns after the Revolution contributed to the flourishing of both legal and illegal commerce.  While the shadow economies featured in the exhibition may have unfolded “off the books,” they were crucially important parts of the mainstream economy, bound up in the development of commercial and industrial capitalism in nineteenth-century America.

Woloson explores these changes using the Library Company's rich collections of Americana. An interactive portion of the exhibition will allow visitors to page through pamphlets, including a recipe book with instructions for making homemade whiskey. Each visitor will leave the Library Company with a small trade card containing the biography of someone who operated in the commercial underworld.  The exhibition will open on January 17 and run through August 24.  Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

No comments:

Post a Comment

LCP News Menu