The scholarship on business and economics in the nineteenth-century United States has emphasized the importance of personal relationships for establishing credit, with familial relationships central to establishing personal and economic credit. Yet, business and credit networks and their activities are often viewed as public simply because of their economic and political work.
This paper uses emotion as a lens to examine the creation and maintenance of familial business networks in the antebellum period. Analyzing the correspondence of extended familial business networks demonstrates that such networks were extended and maintained through adherence to emotional conventions specific to distinct yet overlapping communities – familial, business, and political. Within business culture, these conventions included using the language of favors (which implied reciprocity); relying upon assurances of friendship, respect, and intimacy; and deploying the metaphor of servitude. Deploying the language of favors in business correspondence reinforced reciprocal obligations of support in family networks generally and in business networks more specifically, tying the economic interests of individual members together. Similarly, assurances of friendship and respect built the trust necessary for credit and conducting business transactions from afar. Many business relationships were explicitly hierarchical, as evidenced by the repetitions of phrases such as “Your Obedient Servant” in correspondence. The use of servant carried very different connotations than employee. Where an employee remained in the seemingly public world outside the home, a servant breached the boundary into the home and consequently into the seemingly private world of the family. Men and women utilized these conventions to establish and maintain trust and credit, reinforce reciprocal obligations of membership, and ensure the success of the family network’s economic interests. Thus, this paper argues that the use of such conventions in business correspondence created, extended, and maintained business networks while firmly ensconcing them in the private world of the family.