Abstract: Plodding Along as Usual: Microentrepreneurs in Nineteenth-Century America

Susan Ingalls Lewis


Mid-nineteenth-century entrepreneurs participated in numerous tiny businesses that barely scraped by, yet continued to "plod along as usual," to quote a Baltimore credit reporter. Neither absolute failures nor true successes, these enterprises seem to fall into the cracks between business and labor history. Although such individuals and families were clearly engaged in business, they were also working hard just to make a living. Based on my preliminary research for a comparative study of female proprietors in cities across the eastern half of the United States (based on research in the R.G. Dun & Co. credit ledgers), I will connect previous findings on businesswomen in Albany, New York, to new material on Baltimore, Buffalo, Charleston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Louisville, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Providence. This paper argues that acknowledging the vast sea of small, struggling business ventures is vital to understanding the economy of nineteenth-century cities. In addition, exploring the motivations and material circumstances behind microentrepreneurs' willingness to "plod along" at concerns that never provided more than a living illuminates the reality of people's lives in the industrializing United States.