Abstract: When Wall Street Met Main Street, 1890–1932

Julia Ott


When Wall Street Met Main Street, 1890-1932 recovers the lost history of the American investor and locates the origins of the belief in the ability of laissez-faire financial markets to provide economic security and justice for all. Although most assume that a mass investment culture emerged only recently, this study tells an earlier and more complex story. Early in the twentieth century, American society experienced economic consolidation and volatility, mounting inequality, surging immigration, radicalism, and a reduction in the ranks of independent proprietors. In response, certain corporations, a range of financial institutions, sundry opinion-makers, and even the federal government took deliberate steps to promote universal securities ownership. Securities marketers and their ideological allies envisioned that mass investment would sustain individual ownership and opportunity, the bases of political liberty. They devised retail-oriented institutions and marketing techniques; they advanced new theories that elevated the individual investor as the central figure in the political and economic system. However, they often disagreed about what role, if any, the state should play in promoting universal investment and protecting citizen-investors. At stake were fundamental questions about the distribution of power and the fate of democracy under industrial corporate capitalism. Contemporary neo-liberalism presumes that laissez faire markets—particularly financial markets—best allocate resources and facilitate every individual's quest for opportunity, prosperity, and security. Because scholars have failed to grasp history behind this set of ideas, they have been unable to account for its tenacity. Ultimately, this dissertation illustrates that the demographics, politics, and interests of "capital" are not predetermined, and must never be taken for granted.