Abstract: American Businesses Assess Foreign Merchants, 1890-1940

Rowena Olegario


This paper examines how American businesses assessed potential trade partners, primarily in China and Japan, during the interwar period, 1919 to 1940. The half-century after 1890 marked the United States' ascent to economic and political power. In common with the countries of western Europe, Americans attempted to demarcate their country's internal and external spaces based on notions of "racial" difference. Ethnology, biology, geography, and other fields of study were enlisted to give legitimacy and universality to these ideas. Changing notions about race and ethnicity shaped debates about immigration and America's new role in the world; they also influenced how manufacturers and exporters determined "whom to trust" as trade partners overseas. Past scholarship has focused on the development of American foreign markets, but none has addressed how American businesses assessed foreign merchants. Examining trade journals, Congressional testimony, textbooks on foreign trade, and the voluminous contemporary writings on race and ethnicity, this paper probes some of the complex cultural assumptions that underlay the practices of international trade.