Category Archives: Business history

Cold, Calculating Political Economy’: Fixed costs, the Rate of Profit and the Length of the Working Day in the Factory Act Debates, 1832-1847

By Steve Toms (Leeds University Business School)


The paper re-analyses the evidence presented by pro and anti-regulation interests during the debates on factory reform. To do so it considers the interrelationship between fixed costs, the rate of profit and the length of the working day. The interrelationship casts new light on the lobbying positions on either side of the debate. It does so by comparing the evidence presented in the debates before parliament and associated pamphlets with actual figures contained in the business records of implicated firms. As a result the paper identifies the compromise position of the working day length compatible with reasonable rates of profit based on actual cost structures. It is thereby able to reinterpret the validity of the claims of contemporary political economy used to support the cases for and against factory regulation.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-03-22 and its a follow up to that reviewed by Masayoshi Noguchi in an earlier post on the NEP-HIS blog (click here)

This second paper by Toms draws on a range of archival materials from both government and businesses to explore in detail the implications of legislative changes on British business during the industrial revolution.  It shows how the debates concerning the implementation of stricter working hours were contentious. Outlining the difficulties faced by the government and businesses to uniformly apply these new measures, particularly since businesses were exposed to different pressures according to their contribution to society, it shows how these factors further influencing the implementation and drafting of these measures.   By citing the debates of the anti-regulation bodies in Parliament, and also Parliamentary debates, it exemplifies how the interpretations of profit influenced the debates tabled by the Ten Hours movement – the pressure group created with a view to enshrine, in legislation, a maximum 10 hour working day.   This perspective in itself is new, particularly since it moves away from the traditional approaches adopted by trade union historians such as Alistair Reid and others who have examined the influence of unions in these disputes, but have examined them from the perspective of strikes (Reid, 2005).



Adopting a theoretical approach, especially in its examination of different interpretations of profit in the nineteenth century, this paper scrutinizes the range of factors that determined wages in nineteenth century factories, concluding that the reasons were much more complex than originally assumed.  In claiming that accounting manipulators were used as a major force in setting these wages, Toms shows how the considerations governing the decisions about wages were based on a range of accounting methods, although these methods at this time were not well-developed.  Furthermore, he claims convincingly that accountancy was poorly practiced in the nineteenth century, primarily owing to the apparent paucity of regulations governing the profession.   In adopting this approach, Toms highlights the two sides of the debate suggested by historians so far concerning the role of accountancy, that being: that it did not have an important role at all; or that it played a role that was sufficient to encourage competition.  By doing so, he has lucidly integrated the laissez faire ideology to elucidate the role of accountants in the policymaking process.

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Pressures on workers and the arduous hours did result in greater pressure on government to develop measures to regulate working hours

Much of the debates concerning workplace rights have adopted either a policy history perspective (examining the efforts of the government to regulate the economy) or a social history perspective (examining the perceived improvement in rights for workers).  Yet a detailed analysis of the implications of company accounting on government policy decisions has not yet been undertaken.  While economic historians such as Nicholas Crafts have used econometrics as a method to try and explain the causes of the industrial revolution, (Crafts, 2012) little attention has been given to the implications of these changes in terms of workplace legislation on not only the workers themselves, but on the calculations affecting industrial output and their response to government intervention.  Through examining the role of prominent socialists such as Robert Owen, this paper highlights the complex nature of the debates concerning profits, loss and its correlation with productivity to show that while the pro-regulation movement sought to protect the rights of individual workers, the anti-regulation movement created an inextricable link between the reduction of profit and the justification for longer working days. Locating this argument within the debate concerning fixed costs, it demonstrates how the definitions and arbiters of profits, loss and value was a moveable feast.

Robert Owen's ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

Robert Owen’s ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

This approach to the data has led to a different account of the costs faced by businesses than has hitherto been suggested by historians, and while Toms is careful to claim that this does not resolve the conceptual disputes surrounding the practice of accounting in the nineteenth century, it does provide a platform for further debate and a re-examination of the figures.  For example, in the analysis of the Ashworth accounts, Toms claims that the adoption of a variable approach to costing of volume-based products shows an annual running cost of £2500 per year, £3800 less than Boyson concluded in his 1970 study.  In his analysis of profit, Toms concludes that there could be a 3 hour variable that would not have detrimentally affected the profitability of companies.  Claiming that profitability would be at last 10 percent with 58 hour or 55 hour working week, this challenges previous assumptions those longer working hours would yield greater profits.  However, he highlights that the only significant difference would be that if these figures were compared to the onerous 69 hour week, where the profit margins could be expected to rise by a further 5 percent, although the pro-regulation body, for the purposes of strengthening their argument, presented this variable as high as 15 percent.

The final part of the paper lucidly examines the impact of foreign competition.  Citing the increased costs of British production when compared with European counterparts, with Manchester reported to be 50 percent higher in terms of spinning production costs than Switzerland, Toms shows how superficially the justification for maintaining the British market was now becoming even more difficult.  However, a deeper analysis of the figures reveals a different story, and to illustrate the point, evidence from Mulhausen is juxtaposed with Lancashire to show how wages were on average 18 d per day higher in Lancashire, although their productivity was almost double that of their German counterpart, and concludes that in effect, the overseas threat to the British market was as substantial as originally assumed.


This paper is extremely ambitious in its scope and development, and has covered significant ground in its analysis.  Its conclusions are convincing and are based on deep theoretical and conceptual understandings of the accountancy process.  My only suggestion is that the final section of the paper examining the ideological theories of profit could be fleshed out more so as to fully contextualise the political, legislative and business developments at this time.  It may also be possible to connect these issues with the contemporary debates concerning ‘thrift’, and the development of commercial banking.  For example, the idea of thrift was widely debated with the growth of friendly societies, and the decision of the government to open a Post Office Savings Bank to enable workers to deposit their savings.  Therefore, was there any connection between contemporary ideas of profit and thrift, and if so, was there a common ideological strand that linked people together in terms of their perceptions of money and its role in the wider society?



Crafts, NFR., “British Relative Economic Decline Revisited: the Role of Competition”, Explorations in Economic History (2012), 49, 17-29

Reid, Alastair J., United We Stand: A History of Britain’s Trade Unions (London: Penguin, 2005).


Constructing Contemporary (Mexican Banking) History

Bank Nationalisation, Privatisation, Crisis and Financial Rescue: Using Testimonials to Write Contemporary Mexican Banking History

By Enrique Cárdenas (Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias)

Abstract – The Mexican banking system has experienced a large number of transformations during the last 30 years. Although important regulatory changes were introduced in the 1970s, all but a couple of the commercial banks were nationalized in 1982, consolidated into 18 institutions and these were re-privatized in 1992. Shortly after, a balance of payments crisis in 1995 (i.e. Tequila effect) led the government to mount a financial rescue of the banking system which, in turn, resulted in foreign capital controlling all but a couple of institutions. Each and every one of these events was highly disruptive for Mexico’s productive capacity and society as a whole as their consequences have had long lasting effects on politics, regulation and supervision of the financial sector as well as polarising society. Not surprisingly the contemporary narrative accompanying these events has been highly controversial and full of conflicting accounts, with competing versions of events resulting in a long list of misconceptions and “urban legends”.

URL (Podcast: 07 April 2014, 1 hr and 38 min)

Review by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This entry departs from our usual as it fails to discuss a specific paper circulated by NEP-HIS. Instead I comment and reflect on a public lecture, that is, another common medium we use to communicate our research. The lecture build around two multi volume books and three DVD’s, and was delivered by Enrique Cárdenas (Executive Director of Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias or CEEY) at Bangor Business School’s London campus on 2014-04-07. The actual publications are available, by the way, in hard copy from CEEY’s book store and in electronic version from, as well as following the links to videos below and the link to the full podcast of the presentation above.

The chief aim of this project is to offer new evidence on the process of nationalisation (1982) and privatisation (1991-1992) of Mexican commercial banks. These two episodes of contemporary financial history had important rippling effect on Mexican society, politics and macroeconomic performance. They also had global consequences, first, as they mark the start of the so-called “International Debt Crisis” after Mexico informed of a payment moratorium of sovereign debt in August 1982. Secondly, the ratification of Robert Rubin as the 70th US Treasury Secretary (1995-1999) together with Ernesto Zedillo taking office as 54th President of Mexico (1994-2000), led to a political power vacuum and impasse in economic policy making between the Autumn of 1994 and early Winter of 1995. Known in the vernacular as the “Tequila Crisis”, in December 1994 Mexico devalued its currency and this led to instability in international foreign exchange markets and accelerated the exit of portfolio investments from a number of other countries (most notably Argentina and Brazil). By this point in time, Mexicans had fought hard during negotiations with the US and Canada to keep the banking system out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But this exception was lost in the aftermath of the “Tequila Crisis” while the subsequent bailout of the newly privatised banks represented a precedent missed by US and British regulators of what would happen, on a much bigger scale, during the 2007-9 financial debacle.

José López-Portillo y Pacheco (Last presidential address to the Nation, 1982; The president broke into tears after announcing the nationalisation of the banks).  Courtesy of Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias

José López-Portillo y Pacheco (1920-2004) (Last presidential address to the Nation, 1982; The president brakes into tears). Courtesy of Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias

Cárdenas’ analytical framework is based on Stephen Haber’s ideas of co-dependence between political and financial spheres. Cardenas’ evidence-based approach is certainly welcomed. But more so as he tackles head on with the issue of periodicity and method. Specifically whether and how to write accurate and meaningful economic history using of oral sources in the recent past. Revisiting and unpacking method and methodology are topics not far from current debates in business history, as has been portrayed in previous posting in the NEP-HIS blog (click here); the forthcoming panel on oral histories and World War I at theEuropean Association for Banking and Financial History (EABH) meeting in Rüschlikon, Switzerland; recent and forthcoming publications in refereed journal articles by Stephanie Decker and colleagues (see full references below); and JoAnne Yates’s contribution to the edited book by Bucheli and Wadhwani (2014) (as well as their panel on the latter publication during the recent World Business History Conference in Frankfurt). Indeed, one of Cárdenas’ and CEEY trustees’ chief motivations to engage in this research was to listen to what major players had to say while they were still alive.

Cárdenas was not limited to oral sources. He endeavoured to gather surviving but uncatalogued documents as well as the construction and reconstruction of statistical data series to complement historical analysis. Actors were of the highest standing in society including former Presidents, Mexican and foreign Treasury ministers, senior staff at multinational financial bodies, past and present senior bank executives, regulators, economic academic advisors, etc. To deal with historians mistrust of recollection and potential bias, Cárdenas sent in advance a questionnaire split in two sections: one aimed at enabling a 360 degree perspective on key moments; and the second, made out of questions tailored to the participant’s office and status during the event. All participants were informed of who else would take part of the discussions but none were shown others’ responses until all were collected and ready for publication. The risk of being “outed” thus resulted in only a handful of contradictions as participants preferred to declined answering “painful” topics than stretching the “truth”. Meetings were recorded, transcribed, and compared against statistical data. The latter would either strengthen the participant’s argument or was returned to him with further queries. Several iterations resulted in each participant embracing full ownership of individual texts and thus effectively becoming an author of his entry. It’s this process of iterations and guided discussion to which Cárdenas refers to as “testimonials”.


As mentioned, the result of the CEEY’s sponsored research by Cárdenas was two multi book volumes and three documentary videos all of which, as illustrated by the links below to trailers and video documentaries below, have been edited but have no narrators. All views are expressed by the main actors “so that viewers can draw their own conclusions” said Cárdenas during his lecture. By publishing a large number inconclusive outputs based on “testimonials” the CEEY, and Cádernas as his Executive Director, aim to offer a new empirical source for others to include in their own analytical work and come to their own conclusions. Indeed, CEEY’s publications also include a number single author monographs and the commissioning of edited collections by academic authors who have used the testimonials as part of their evidentiary repertoire.

But does Cárdenas have any conclusions of his own? For one, he believes the effort to generate and document events through testimonials and new statistical material results in a much more balanced approach to assess the limited options President López-Portillo had at the end of his term in office. For starters in 1981 he was to nominate on his successor ahead of elections (“el dedazo”). The events that followed were to become the beginning of the end for the one party rule that characterised Mexico during most of the 20th century. At this point in time, Mexico had experienced four record years of strong economic growth. Never seen before and never to be seen since. Its oil production was doubling each year but its international debt was skyrocketing (particularly that of short-term maturity in 1981-2).

But as international oil prices begin to drop, Mexico followed an erratic behaviour (reducing and then raising its oil price) while oil revenues generated 35% of fiscal income and 75% of exports. Moreover, prices for other Mexican exports also fell while a practically fixed-rate parity with the US dollar meant a strongly overvalued peso. A devaluation was followed by a massive increase in salaries. And in the midst of political jockeying and an accelerating worsening of public finance, the President (a lawyer by training) was, according to Cárdenas, to receive conflicting and contradicting information (Cárdenas calls it “deceiving”) on the actual size of the public deficit (which was to double from 7% of GDP in 1981 to 14% of GDP in 1982) as well as the merits of defending the Mexican peso vs US dollar exchange rate (which he publicly claim to “defend like a dog [would defend his master]“.

2014-04-07 13.42.25

This conclusion sheds a significant amount of light on the decisions of late former President López-Portillo. As much as also help to better understand the end of some otherwise promising political careers. The narrative of actors bring fresh light to understand the break up between Mexican political and business elites, which eventually results in the end of the one party rule in the presidential election of 2000. It also helps to explain the break up of the rule of law during the next 15 to 20 years in Mexico as well as the loss of the moral authority of its government.

Cárdenas and CEEY have certainly produced a piece that will resist the test of time. They offer a unique effort in creating contemporary financial history while building from oral sources, privileged access to main actors and in this process, developing an interesting method to deal with concerns around potential bias. Given the passion that the topics of nationalisation and privatisation still generate amongst Mexicans and scholars of modern day Mexico, it is understandable that the analysis has emphasised idiosyncratic elements of these events. But somehow links with wider issues have been lost. For one, nationalisation or sequestration of assets (whether of local or foreign ownership) characterised the “short” 20th century. Nationalisation is one side of the coin. The other is public deficit reduction through the sale of government assets. Indeed, the privatisation of Mexican banks between 1991 and 1992 enabled to finance about half of the reduction of Mexican sovereign debt (though the massive rescue that followed practically annulled that reduction). Mexicans were not inmune to Thatcherism to the same extent that a reduction of the state in economic activity (whether real or not) was and is part and parcel of the “second” globalisation.

In summary and in Enrique Cárdenas own words: “Writing current (economic) history is not only possible, but highly desirable!”. We welcome his contributions to enhance empirical evidence around such important events as well as offering a way to systematically deal with oral sources.


The President’s Decision (1982) – Trailer (with English subtitles)

The President’s Decision (1982) – Full length (in Spanish)

From Nationalisation to Privatisation of Mexican Banks (1982-1991) – Trailer (with English subtitles)

Privatization of Mexican Banks (The President’s Decision Ex Post: Bank Privatization [Tequila effect – 1991-1995] – Trailer (with English subtitles)


Yates, J. (2014) “Understanding Historical Methods in Organizational Studies” in M. Bucheli and R. D. Wadhwani (eds.) Organizations in Time : History, Theory, Methods Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 265-283.

Decker, S. (forthcoming) “Solid Intentions: An Archival Ethnography of Corporate Architecture and Organizational Remembering”, Organization.

Decker (2013) “The Silence of the Archives: Postcolonialism and Business History”, Management and Organisational History 8(2): 155-173.

Rowlinson, M. Hassard, J. and Decker, S. (forthcoming) “Research Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue between Organization Theory and Historical Theory”, Academy of Management Review.

Note: with special thanks for helpful comments to Sergio Negrete (ITESO) and Gustavo del Angel (CIDE).

Does educational stratification put toffs at the top?

Social mobility at the top: Why are elites self-reproducing?

by Elise S. Brezis (Azrieli Center for Economic Policy, Israel) & Joël Hellier (EQUIPPE, Univ. de Lille, Bar-Ilan University, Israel and LEMNA, Univ. de Nantes, France)


This paper proposes an explanation for the decrease in social mobility that has occurred in the last two decades in number of advanced economies, as well as for the divergence in mobility dynamics across countries. Within an intergenerational framework, we show that a two-tier higher education system with standard and elite universities generates social stratification, high social immobility and self-reproduction of the elite. Moreover, we show that the higher the relative funding for elite universities, the higher the elite self-reproduction, and the lower social mobility. We also analyse the impacts of changes in the weight of the elite and of the middle class upon social mobility. Our findings provide theoretical bases for the inverted-U profile of social mobility experienced in several countries since World War II and to the ‘Great Gatsby Curve’ relating social mobility to inequality.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-01-10, and was of particular interest to me, primarily since I spent my formative years attending primary and secondary school in an area of the South Wales valleys prioritised by the European Union for what was then termed as ‘Objective One funding’ in recognition of its lack of social inclusion and opportunity – a position precipitated by the closure of the coalmines in the 1980s, which deprived thousands of their livelihoods. It stored up numerous social problems for the future, primarily owing to the absence of a cogent plan to replace and maintain the community’s employment following the completion of the area’s pit closures in the late 1980s, but was exacerbated, following the removal of these employment opportunities, by the deeply-embedded mindset of the coalfield communities vis-à-vis academic and/or cultural education, symptomatic of that seen in the movie ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000). Although disliked, inequality was largely accepted almost as a fait-accompli. For the Conservative Party of the 1980s, as Peter Dorey has argued, it was regarded as inherently necessary and positive in contemporary Thatcherite political thought (Dorey, 2010).Economic inequality became deeply clear from the 1908s in Britain


Citing the fact that society has been ‘constructed’ since medieval times, enforcing people’s ‘place’, whether it be as a member of the Feudal society or as a designated member of a particular ‘social class’, scholars have traditionally argued that inequalities have primarily been enforced according the socially-assigned opportunities during childhood. In the UK, the frequent use of the vernacular such as ‘toff’ and ‘poshboy’ by those of the opposition Labour Party (despite many of them, too, having received an elite education) in response to the perception of the British government’s inability to connect with the grassroots, picks up on the main concerns of this paper, that being that the current social and educational construct in many advanced European economies helps to perpetuate the development of an elite social class who, despite forming the smallest percentage of the nation’s overall population, receive the greatest power and highest chances of success.

This paper claims that the stratification of universities according to ‘elite’ and ‘secondary’ categories propagates an inequality that helps nurture the protection and development of an ‘elite’ through better resources afforded to those universities according to their finances and staffing. The transition of graduates to a higher social class, facilitated by their better education, and affording them with the skills maybe not available to their parents to secure a middle-class, white collar job enforces, at least superficially, the so-called ‘New right’ rhetoric of an ‘upwardly mobile’ society, but one which is fundamentally and inherently contradictory.

The methods used by the authors to convey their point are very persuasive.  The use of the intergenerational earnings elasticity model, with the use of gender and parental income as the variable helps to demonstrate the extent of the ‘elite construction’ which is the main theme of this paper, and is used as a method to measure intergenerational social mobility. Their findings suggest a constant increase in intergenerational social mobility in the countries where the so-called ‘dual’ (i.e. elite and secondary) education exists, namely France, the UK and the USA, but are contrasted with Nordic countries that do not have this system to show that such a trend does not exist here.  However, they are also keen to emphasise that a range of factors could have contributed to these changes, with sociological factors after the Second World War being cited as a major example of changes to the demographic of society in the post-1945 period, such as the number of blue collar workers entering the elite class in the USA during the 1960s being double that of countries such as Britain, France and Germany, although after the 1980s, the extent of their social mobility was severely decreasing. (Brezis & Hellier, 2013:6)

Yet the authors believe that the growth of tertiary education is possibly one of the largest reasons to explain this shift, with this form of education accounting for 60% of students in the present period, compared with 10% in the post-war period, representing an increase of 525% in enrolment to the ‘non-elitist colleges’ in the USA between 1959-2008, and an increase of 250% in elite colleges for the same period.  (Brezis & Hellier, 2013: 7)  Coupled with this of course is the fact that elite universities (Ivy League), particularly in the USA, have become more selective in their recruitment, recruiting only those with the highest grades and thus creating a small student body, and in turn spending treble the money per head  compared to secondary universities.  On the other hand,  recruitment to secondary universities has increased, largely, according to what the authors believe to be a more lenient admissions policy, but one that has led to a larger student body, and less money per head being spent on students.( Brezis & Hellier, 2013, 8)

However, the authors are also keen to correlate educational attainment with family background.  Citing the fact that at its highest, children of upper class families were 40 times more likely to enter an elite educational institution compared to those from lower social classes clearly demonstrates this class divide, and that, to a large extent, this divide is possibly ever-increasing.  (Brezis & Hellier, 2013, 8)

Using the idea that a two-tier education system prevailing in many advanced economies could be considered as a major source pertaining to rising inequality and reduced social mobility, this paper asserts that stratification of universities has also affected the level of spending per head on students, and thus influenced their educational opportunities and attainment. Declaring that the so-called ‘elite universities’ tend to recruit students from the higher social classes, it implicitly suggests that those from the lower social orders are disadvantaged at the recruitment stage, despite possessing requisite, identical and in some cases better evidence of academic attainment. Although the latter issue remains controversial, the authors have certainly identified a phenomenon that the universities concerned attempt to rebuff, and policymakers try to ‘level out’, but one that remains virtually impossible to eradicate, especially in view of the fact that many of the elite universities are in receipt of significant funds from rich benefactors, many of whom are alumni.

Those with the most power in society have appeared to be in the minority - a position influenced by growing affluence in the higher classes


The authors have engaged in a very deep analysis of the social class and its impact on entry into elite universities, and have also clearly shown the divergence between social class and educational attainment at university level. Drawing on a large range of quantitative methods and materials, this research clearly attests to the ‘Gatsby Curve’ pertaining to social mobility and inequality, demonstrating that this is relevant across several nations in developed economies.

To further amplify the impact of this research, perhaps the authors could consider exploring the difficulties faced by universities today in terms of marketing themselves to students? In the UK, and also in the US, this has become especially pertinent over recent years, and has, superficially at least, made the distinction of ‘elite universities’ more blurred, particularly in view of the spike in tuition fees implemented in the UK by the Conservative-Liberal coalition. Tied with these was the option for universities to level fees within a prescribed range, leaving many universities, even those considered among the ‘secondary’ level, to charge higher fees to avoid enforcing, or indeed accepting a position both statistically and in the public mind, as a lower-level institution. In fact, this position does raise deeper questions concerning the definition of ‘elite’ institutions. Is it based on its historical tradition, research output (as is often used as the arbiter of much government funding), student satisfaction, quality of teaching, or student attainment after graduation?

Additionally, in an age where having staff whose capabilities extend beyond the traditional realms of research and teaching has become ever-more necessary in view of the growing commercialisation of universities in the twenty-first century, with its leaders becoming more financially-savvy, and turning more towards international outreach to attract large external funding, perhaps the authors could explore whether they think the growing commercialisation of universities has deepened the class divide, thus forcing many away from pursuing a university education on the grounds of cost, or whether the growing competition among educational institutions, much of which now has a strong business-orientated approach, especially with the creation, in some universities, of the position of ‘Chief Executive’, will work to level out the ubiquitous class divide.


Dorey, Peter (2010) British Conservatism : The Philosophy and Politics of Inequality , London : I.B. Tauris.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson in the livery of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club (crica 1986)

David Cameron and Boris Johnson in the livery of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club (crica 1986)

La Deutsche Vida

Foreign family business and capital flight. The case for a fraud to fail

By Giovanni Favero, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia (

The research here proposed is a micro-analysis of a business ending in bankruptcy in the aftermaths of the first oil shock, concerning the Italian subsidiary of a German wareenamelling group established in the town of Bassano in 1925. Following the budget reports and the interviews with the former entrepreurs, the company flourished until the 1960s, when managerial and entrepreneurial successions emphasized the growing difficulties deriving from growing labour costs. A tentative reorganization of the company was hindered in 1968 by union resistance and political pressures for the preservation of employment levels. In 1975 the board of directors decided to declare bankruptcy as a consequence of the huge budget losses. However, a subsequent inquiry of the Italian tax authority discovered an accounting fraud concerning hidden profits in 1974 and 1975. The fraud disclosure shows how historical conditions could create the convenience for performance understatement not only for fiscal purposes, but also in order to make divestment possible. However, it is also used here as an element to argue that business sources and the story they tell should not be taken at their face value, and that a different reconstruction of the company’s path to failure is possible. The literature concerning the missed recognition of opportunities is then mobilised in order to interpret the inconsistencies that emerge from the triangulation of business archives, press columns and interviews with union representatives and politicians. This allows to put back into perspective what results as an obsession of company management with labour costs, concealing the importance of other competitive elements, such as the increasing specialisation of the producers of home appliances. This ‘refractive error’ may be typical of businesses operating in (presumed) mature industries at international level, where wage differentials offer the opportunity to pursue quite literally exploitation much further.


Reviewed by Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-12-15 and offers an interesting combination of business and accounting history around the long-term performance of the Italian assets of an Austrian family business (named Westens). The investment relates to a enamelling plant in the town of Bassano in 1925 (called Smalteria Metallurgica Veneta or SMV, today part of BDR Thermea). The Bassano plant was one of the largest factories of glazed products (for use in electric water heaters, bathtubs and heating products like radiators). Favero’s story takes us from its origins until the Westens leave the company in 1975. Activities, however, continued and by “the end of the 1970s the company focused its production in the heating sector… In the mid-eighties the company expanded into foreign markets. “[see further here].

Air photo of original factory (Source:

Air photo of original factory (Source:

The narrative gyrates around the Bassano plant, some three generations of Westens and an equal number of internal grown talent at the helm of SMV. Favero argues that the reason behind the origins of SMV and other similar investments in Central and Easter Europe by the Westens was to overcome growing protectionism and the end of Empire. However, the number of secondary references suggests the SMV case is relevant for Italian business history and perhaps, more could have been said about this. Nevertheless, we can follow the changes in corporate governance, the attitude of the family to foreign investments, the changing relationship between national branches and SMV’s “strategy” (a term used rather loosely by the author) as the 20th century progresses. Also how the plant was established on the basis of a then unique process of enamelling, a source of competitive advantage that also erodes as time goes by. Some discussion about the role of Chandler’s “first mover advantage” within family business would have been desirable here.

It is evident that Favero has had access to a large number of source material (including oral histories and fiscal authority memoranda and investigative papers). Yet the case is rather short and this result in the narrative progressing some time in jumps rather than a smooth flow. For instance, it is only until the end that we learn why the fraud was discovered five years after the original owners declared bankruptcy. Namely the intervention of the Italian government to maintain employment kept the plant (or the company, its not clear) afloat. There is also reference to some “bad blood” between the Westens and the Italians but we are not totally sure why and when. There are indications of growing tensions with unions and Favero tries to make a case about “management’s “obsession with labour costs”. We could also benefit from learning about the inconsistencies Favero between different sources. Perhaps an idea would be to add a timeline where one side maps changes in strategy, corporate governance or in the ruling family and the other side maps changes in the environment.

However, in its present form this makes a potentially useful teaching case in a world economic history, international business or globalisation course. Favero also claims the SMV case is part of a larger project looking at Westens’ investments in different countries. I certainly look forward to future instalments.

Giovanni Favero

Giovanni Favero

Do business historians need a theory of the archive?

Why business historians need a constructive theory of the archive

by Stefan Schwarzkopf (Copenhagen Business School)(


Abstract: Archival records are a constitutive element of business historical research, and such research, in turn, is fundamental for a holistic understanding of the role of enterprise in modern capitalist societies. Despite an increasing debate within business history circles about the need to theorize the historian as author and creator of narratives, a fuller reflection on the uses and limitations of the archive in business historical research has not yet taken place. This article takes its lead from theories of organisational epistemology, and asks to what extent business historians are trapped by an outdated, realist methodology and epistemology which is in danger of ignoring the multiple roles that archives play in their knowledge production.

Review by Stephanie Decker

Stefan Schwarzkopf’s paper on business archives (circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-05-11) is a welcome addition to an increasingly lively debate about the future of business history. Originally published in the Business Archives Journal, it is now also available as an MPRA working paper. Even more refreshingly, it is a theoretical and more qualitatively focused discussion, which have remained rare on lists such as NEP-HIS, which are, as the name (New Economic Papers) suggests, dominated by debates based on the methodological apparatus of economics. In business and economic history, whether historians are quantitatively or qualitatively oriented, archives are central to their research. While business historians, the majority of whom work qualitatively, usually fail to discuss their methods at all, economic historians, mostly quantitatively oriented, provide detailed accounts of their numerical data and analytical procedures. Yet many also employ analysis based on historical sources in order to construct their models or to interpret their results; this aspect of gaining historical insight is however not discussed in methodological terms. The very familiarity of historians with their main research setting – the archive – apparently breeds contempt. Or disinterest at the very least.
This is precisely what Schwarzkopf highlights in his contribution: the need for a “fuller reflection of the uses and limitations of the archive in business historical research”. For this he blames the predominantly realist epistemology of many business historians even though other historians apparently have moved away from this in a variety of turns. Business history has certainly been somewhat divorced from the major trends and theoretical developments in mainstream history, even though this is perhaps less true in some continental European countries, where business historians remain integrated in history departments. More often than not they may be located in a variety of different departments, such as departments of social science or economics, as well as business schools. If business history ought to engage more with theoretical turns, the question today has become – which one? And from which discipline?
Schwarzkopf is certainly right to argue that a theory of the archive is necessary and important for business historians. It is in fact by now a much wider debate already (Ferguson, 2008; Stoler, 2009), and again one to which business historians have not contributed. But in this epistemological debate, even he seems to take too much for granted at times, first and foremost the very object of the debate. What do we think is an archive? “[A]rchives are organisations, they require institutional support.” Are archives really a ‘thing’, something tangible, an organisation, a location? To Michel Foucault archives were first and foremost structures that shaped the material, an approach that Schwarzkopf suggests greater engagement with at the end of the paper. And whatever empiricist historians may think about abstract Foucaultian constructs, in this digital, virtual age this definition is if anything gaining in relevance and reality. Are the two physical and conceptual notions of ‘archive’ mutually exclusive? Arjun Appadurai (2003) reminds us in “Archive and Aspiration” that they might be. He is interested in a very different type of archive, which is a personal locus of memory, identity and belonging for migrant communities. Postcolonial research is faced precisely with this absence of effective organisations that span past and present, thus the kind of archive that Schwarzkopf and many other business historians take for granted.

For business history, this is in fact also a more common issue than one would expect, at least for those who research the history of consumption or small firms in less concentrated industries. There are more theoretical options even for those cases, as the discussion by Newton and Carnevali (2010) shows. Because business historians are frequently dependent on private collection that are not institutionalised like their public counterparts, they have perhaps more in common with postcolonial approaches to a privatised past than they realise, because they are similarly weaving a patchwork that needs to contend with many gaps in the records (Decker, 2013). These issues cannot be neatly packaged into global North and South. What about the CEOs who offer their private papers to researchers? Archives come in increasingly different shapes and sizes. Can we have a theory that does justice to this variety? Or do we need many different theories?
Some of the most recent challenges to a stable notion of ‘archive’, such as digitisation, highlight the complexity of the issues. How does digitisation affect how archives are used, and vice versa? Will it determine what the collection stands for, more so than the entire body of files? Perhaps not a new problem for libraries that contain individual high value items that eclipse the totality of their collection, but certainly a phenomenon that will spread with digitisation. Just consider decisions to digitise parts of archival collections that are of greater public interest, such as World Bank’s digitisation of the Robert McNamara’s files. Faced with the impossibility of digitising an archive as vast as theirs, files of greater relevance to present-day audiences are prioritised, negating the need for people to physically enter 1818 H Street, NW, and engage with the overall collection. Is this a manipulation by the archivists, or is this it the pressure of demand shaping organisational responses?
Clearly neither history nor memory is simply determined by what was kept in the past. Memory is much more powerfully influenced by what the present is looking for in the past. Schwarzkopf highlights the important issue of ‘falsification’ in the example of Elsevier expunging undesirable products from the collection. The artificial boundaries between our knowledge of the past and present that have been taken for granted are called into question by new approaches such as memory studies. Here, history and archives are equated with “storage memory […] an ‘amorphous mass’ of unused and unincorporated memories that surround the functional memory like a halo (Tamm, 2013: 462 citing ; Assmann, 2011: 125).” The area of social remembering ought to be far more prominent in discussions of corporate history, while the theoretical implications of ‘mnemohistory’ still await critical engagement.
So what kind of archive are we talking about? The ground is shifting beneath us as we speak, as the meaning of the word “archive” is changing inexorably. Ask your undergraduate students, who might tell you the Financial Times database is an archive. And why not? “Digital humanities” are gaining ground, and debates about how this will change methodology and theory have just begun. And with technological advances, a postcolonial loss of organisational control is never far. Recent complaints in the UK newspaper the Guardian about the variable cost of archival research do not quite address the long-term impact of historical research via digital camera – that it allows all of us to build personal digital archives, removed from the oversight of institutionalised archivists. Business historians are by no means the only ones affected by these trends. If we ask whether we need a theory of the archive, surely nowadays we must first of all talk about how we define an archive, and whether business historians may actually be dead.

Schwarzkopf is right to criticise the widespread bias towards those easier-to-research, large corporate archives. Funnily enough, so has the more theoretically self-conscious Management and Organizational History (Mills and Helms Mills, 2011). But sometimes he overstates his case, for example when he writes: “If there is no archive that for example allows us to study the involvement of a specific company in arming Nazi Germany, or in exploiting slave labour in the Caribbean, then it has no space in academic discourse.” While clearly intended to be ironic, it is difficult to ignore the massive boom in German business history of the 1990s and 2000s in uncovering the Nazi past of German firms in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding Swiss bank accounts. The history of slavery and Atlantic history more generally has certainly been more significant outside business history (see for example Childs, 2002), but there are business historians engaging with these debates all the same (Haggerty, 2010). Painting the kettle too black detracts from the valid point that we need a greater epistemological engagement with our primary locus of research, the archive.
Not only has this debate been missing, as Schwarzkopf rightly points out, but there are also new approaches to theorizing the archive that go beyond the limitations of a short piece. This paper is one of the first to raise some of these fascinating questions for the practice of business history, and will hopefully spark a debate about the status of archival work in the field.


Appadurai, A. (2003) Archive and Aspiration. In: Brouwer J (ed) Information is Alive. Rotterdam: V2 Publishing.
Assmann, J. (2011) Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Childs MD. (2002) Master-slave rituals of power at a gold mine in nineteenth-century Brazil. History Workshop Journal 53: 43-72.
Decker, S. (2013) The Silence of the Archives: Postcolonialism and Business History. Management and Organisational History 8: 155-173.
Ferguson, K.E. (2008) Theorizing Shiny Things: Archival Labors. Theory & Event 11.
Haggerty S. (2010) Risk and risk management in the Liverpool slave trade. Business History 51: 817-834.
Mills, A.J. and Helms Mills, J. (2011) Digging Archaeology: Postpositivist Theory and Archival Research in Case Study Development. In: Piekkari R and Welch C (eds) Rethinking the Case Study in International Business and Management Research. London: Edward Elgar, 342-360.
Newton, L. and Carnevali, F. (2010) Researching Consumer Durables in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of the Piano. Business Archives: Sources and History 101: 17-29.
Stoler, A.L. (2009) Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tamm, M. (2013) Beyond History and Memory: New Perspectives in Memory Studies. History Compass 11: 458-473.