Abstract: Populist Incorporation: Reform Movements and Business Models in the Gilded Age

Charles Postel


The Farmers' Alliance provided the organizational foundation of the Populist insurgency. The National Cordage Company held a monopoly in binding twine and other essential farm supplies. In 1891, the leaders of the Farmers' Alliance and the managers of National Cordage formed the National Union Company, a business partnership that promised to merge the capital of a giant Wall Street corporation with the organized power of the nation's farmers. Although short-lived, the National Union Company represented one of the many symbiotic relationships between the reform organizations of the Populist coalition and the burgeoning corporate institutions of Gilded Age America. To understand Populist thinking about business and commerce it is essential to return to Richard Hofstadter's characterization of the "country businessman." This term implies neither curse nor praise, but rather it is how farm reformers of the time defined their own position. And it is the first premise of the business models that they pursued. The Populists believed, as did many Americans, that the future lay with organizational consolidation and economies of scale. True, farm reformers attacked concentrated wealth, and they had friends like the journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd, who wrote scathing exposes of corporate giants. Still, farm reformers recognized the advantages of size, concentration, and corporate organization. Cooperation and incorporation were closely intertwined in the Populist imagination and in their business enterprises. In the fusion of the two they hoped that even the small producers would gain access to economies of scale, standardization, technology, and regulated markets.