Caitlin Rosenthal

Assistant Professor of History, University of California-Berkeley

    My research explores the history of numeracy and its relationship to American capitalism and democracy. Numeracy—which is to mathematics what literacy is to reading—includes all kinds of quantitative practices, from everyday arithmetic to sophisticated financial reporting, information technology, and accounting. I study the ways legal and social institutions shape these practices and the impact of calculation on political and moral reasoning. Today numbers are everywhere, occupying a privileged rhetorical status that began to emerge in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe reflected in 1853, numbers could increasingly be “found on all sides of every subject to an extent that is really very confusing.” My interest in information technologies grew out of my recently completed doctoral dissertation, “From Memory to Mastery.” The project charts the transformation of numerical reasoning in America between 1750 and 1880. I use a wide array of quantitative and partially quantitative records to show how accounting evolved from a system of recordkeeping into an instrument of control and analysis—from an aid to memory to an instrument of mastery. I also describe the sophisticated accounting practices that supported harsh labor regimes on slave plantations in the American South, a finding that provided the impetus for my first book project. This study, From Slavery to Scientific Management (under contract at Harvard University Press), investigates the complex relationship between slavery and capitalism in American history. Traditional narratives in business and economic history begin in the factories of England and New England, extending only much later to the American South. I begin, instead, on West Indian sugar plantations in the late eighteenth century, tracing the development of business practices forward to the rise of Taylorism in the early twentieth century. I use account books and financial records as a window into the business practices of early planters, showing how slavery and the slave trade actually facilitated the development of modern management practices. Other research interests include the evolution of historical art markets, the history of photography, and corporate social responsibility. Outside of academic life, I run, bike, paint, cook, read mystery novels and make bad jokes.

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Offices Held

Trustee (2014 to 2017)

Committee Service

Electronic Media Oversight Committee (2014 to 2017) (chair 2016 to 2017)
AHA-OAH Liaison Committee (2013 to 2015) (chair 2012 to 2013)
AHA-OAH Liaison Committee (2010 to 2013) (chair 2012 to 2013)

Doctoral Colloquium Participation

Doctoral Colloquium 2010, Athens, Georgia