When the Business of Civilization Gets Personal: The Civilizing Process of Family Business in Massachusetts

Stephen Chambers

In early nineteenth-century Massachusetts, business was personal--but why? It is by no means obvious that insurance, banking, and manufacturing empires situated in a relatively concentrated geography should have been networked according to kinship and family ties. In the years from the Early Republic to the Civil War, the region’s economy boomed and was reconfigured by the creation of a network of canals, railroads, textile manufacturing, and commercial infrastructure that shifted entire populations, doubling the size of cities in just a handful of years, and, in some instances cases, creating new towns entirely. This economic and social transformation has been well-documented by generations of historians, as has the concentration of commercial power that accompanied it.

Yet, why should Massachusetts commercial families have invested in domestic manufacturing? The long-term returns at Lowell, for example, were just 7.9 percent annually, which was less than 2 percentage points above the legal rate of bank interest. And why should this have been shaped into a coherent business civilization defined by family? The explanation lies in what immediately preceded and accompanied this wave of early industrialization in New England: namely, the expansion of complimentary-competitive global trade depots in the region. From this perspective, banks and mills were conceived as stable “adventures”—ships that did not move.