What happened in the mid-19th century that led to this historically unprecedented pricing of progress? The short answer is straightforward enough: Capitalism happened. In the first few decades of the Republic, the United States developed into a commercial society, but not yet a fully capitalist one. One of the main elements that distinguishes capitalism from other forms of social and cultural organization is not just the existence of markets but also of capitalized investment, the act through which basic elements of society and life—including natural resources, technological discoveries, works of art, urban spaces, educational institutions, human beings, and nations—are transformed (or “capitalized”) into income-generating assets that are valued and allocated in accordance with their capacity to make money and yield future returns. Save for a smattering of government-issued bonds and insurance companies, such a capitalization of everyday life was mostly absent until the mid-19th century. There existed few assets in early America through which one could invest wealth and earn an annual return.
Capitalization, then, was crucial to the rise of economic indicators. As upper-class Americans in both the North and South began to plow their wealth into novel financial assets, they began to imagine not only their portfolio but their entire society as a capitalized investment and its inhabitants (free or enslaved) as inputs of human capital that could be plugged into output-maximizing equations of monetized growth.
The science of eggs is called “oology” (from the Greek “oion”) and not, as one might have guessed, “ovology.” Is interest in the outer covering of an egg an expression of the joy the observer feels as they anticipate the new life forming, unseen, inside? That is doubtful, because the act of collecting blown eggshells and storing them in boxes, drawers, and cupboards — taking them out from time to time to dust them off — pretty much shoots that theory down. Is there any connection at all between marveling at the object and appreciating the bird? It hardly seems possible that the urges to collect eggs and to delight in birdwatching could coexist in the mind of one person. Perhaps it is only the egg in all its flawless perfection that fascinates, and what the observer experiences is an appreciation for the object in and of itself?
In 1879 a group of British soldiers at the battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa struggled to defend themselves against thousands of Zulu warriors. For shelter they threw up an improvised barricade. And the material they chose? Bricks of biscuit tins made by Carr’s of Carlisle.
It is an image that nicely sums up “The Taste of Empire”, in which Lizzie Collingham, a British historian of curry and of the Raj, argues that food was not an adjunct to Britain’s imperial might but fundamental to it. Usually it is assumed that Britain’s empire appeared and then Britain’s food trade—that vast tonnage of tea, flour, sugar, bully beef and Crosse & Blackwell pickle that swept across the seven seas—appeared to feed it. Ms Collingham turns that idea neatly on its head. It was not so much the empire that began the trade, but trade that began the empire.