The Business History Conference offers extensive support to emerging (or early-career) scholars, including a doctoral colloquium, a mentoring program, and, crucially, a much-loved free breakfast at the BHC. But when, exactly, do you emerge? And what happens after that? That’s what I hope to illuminate with this series of interviews with emerging scholars on their state of mind, the state of the field, and everything in between.
Today’s interviewee is Dr. Ann Daly, Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University.
AM: How did you get interested in business history?
AD: I knew very little about business history when I attended my first business history conference in Baltimore. I found myself there because another graduate student had invited me to be on a panel. No one had ever asked me to join a panel before, so of course I said yes. But I didn't know very much about business history or the conference itself, other than that other graduate students have told me that it was a very welcoming place to give a first paper. When I attended the conference, I was thrilled to find a vibrant intellectual community full of people who were interested in the kind of topics that I was, (but that makes the other graduate students in my program groan) like banking and the vagaries of financial regulations. As I went from one fascinating panel to another at that first conference, I realized that business history is for me.
AM: I love that. Do you have a favorite memory of the BHC?
AD: My favorite memory (or really memories), is of all of the BHC cocktail hours—especially in Cartagena! The community at the BHC is really what keeps me coming back, and getting to catch up with old friends, see new faces, and argue about historical questions is always a real high point.
AM: I know what you mean! I’m glad that people will be able to gather again in Mexico City this year, although obviously I had some serious FOMO since I couldn’t be there in person. While we could probably just talk about how great the BHC is, this is an interview about you. So tell our readers more about your dissertation research.
AD: My research examines the history of money and coinage in the early United States. I am particularly interested in the material processes of making money, the cultural construction of value, and the role that currency played in mediating the relationship between the early US federal state and development of American capitalism. To understand where money came from and how it shaped the early US, I begin with coins’ origins in gold mines worked by enslaved miners in the southeastern United States. I also follow coinage to the US Mint, where the social conventions of scientific and business credibility gave them value. What I find is that enslaved and free men and women helped produce coins, but coins’ value partially hinged on the perceived whiteness and masculinity of the scientists who turned metal into coin.
I also look at the evolution of how the antebellum U.S. Mint made coins and which coins it chose to make. In the 1830s, the Democratic Party rose to power on a platform of currency reform and set about completely altering the nation’s mints and coinage. Within their reforms, I find a surprisingly sophisticated set of federal financial regulations running through the details of machinery, denominations, and the weight of a particular coin.
Over the past year, I have been a post dissertation fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. There, I have been exploring the culture of monetary value in the early United States. Most recently, I've been working on a chapter that asks how Americans used all five of their senses to assess the coins value while in circulation. They didn't just look at a coin to tell how much it was worth – they also listened to their coins, gave them a good sniff, felt them to see if they seemed like they were made out of the right kind of metal, and on occasion, even licked them to see if a potentially counterfeit coin gave off the telltale taste of copper that indicated debased metal.
AM: Wow! That’s really interesting. I’ll be intrigued to see where that research lead takes you. So, you mentioned your work at the AAS, which reminds me that you earned your PhD in 2021. I think it’s safe to say that your transition from “graduate student” to “academic” has been affected by the pandemic in pretty significant ways. Can you reflect a bit on the last year or so of your PhD, and to what extent that affected your overall career trajectory?
AD: I am very lucky in that I had completed most archival research before the pandemic began because I had my sources together when archives began shutting down and unlike so many emerging scholars only a year or two behind me, I was able to complete my dissertation with very little COVID-induced delays. However, I find that the way I experience our professional community has changed in fairly significant ways. In the past, it felt like I got to spend time with the community of historians all together for a few days every year at various conferences. Now, it feels as though my connections to the profession are both more scattered and more frequent.
With so many workshops and conferences shifting online, it has actually become easier to stay engaged in these professional spaces on a more regular basis. On the other hand, it can also sometimes feel like the community has become more fragmented. Instead of talking to and learning from people working far outside of my area of expertise through chance encounters at a cocktail hour, I see far more of people in my specific subfields. I wonder how this kind of fragmentation is going to affect my generation of historians. Will we become more tight knit and inclusive as historians and far-flung places are better able to meet in the same virtual room? Or are we going to go further and further into our subfields as it remains difficult to gather in larger communal spaces?
AM: That’s an excellent question. My immediate response is that this tension between seeing one another in person less frequently, but being able to build these far-flung networks through virtual spaces, is really something of an existential question for conferences and scholarly communities. (Maybe this interview is just secretly about cocktail receptions after all...)
So, what are you reading these days? What work is the most exciting to you right now?
AD: I just finished reading Hannah Farber’s Underwriters of the United States, on the history of marine insurance in the early US. It is a real model of political economy, and she manages to do justice to both sides —truly marrying the political to the economic—by contextualizing her incredible command of the insurance industry into the trajectory of the early US state. It’s also beautifully written, making it an excellent model of how to write about business and the economy in a way that can engage an audience that might otherwise be scared away by these kinds of topics.
AM: Hmm, sounds like I’ll have to put that one on my list! To close out the interview, I’ve been asking all the interviewees for advice. Do you have any advice for emerging scholars entering the field?
AD: Absolutely! I cannot recommend the doctoral colloquium at the Business History Conference highly enough. I participated in it shortly after completing my prospectus, and it was an invaluable experience. Not only did I get incredibly useful feedback on my research from senior scholars, but I got to meet other graduate students working on a wide variety of very interesting topics. It was one of the first times that I felt like I was part of a larger professional community, and the connections I made during the colloquium have continued for years since.
AM: What about advanced/mid-career/"emerged" scholars? What do you wish you could tell them?
AD: I hope that in the coming years and as life becomes more normal, advanced and mid-career scholars remember that our generation of scholarship will be indelibly shaped by the pandemic. The impact of closed archives and the delays induced by two years in which we all stayed home are going to leave their mark on research. I expect that we are going to see a large quantity of work written out of digitized and printed sources, and that is going to shape the direction of scholarly conversations going over the next decade. And I hope that in three or five years, when our books and articles begin to come out, that it’s remembered that there is a great deal of research we simply were unable to do. As others evaluate our scholarship and evaluate our sources and methods, remember that much of this depended not just by our own intellectual agendas, but by the very material limitations that the pandemic imposed.
AM: I think that’s an important point for everyone to keep in mind. Thanks again for taking the time to chat with me, Ann.
This is part of a series of interviews with Emerging Scholars on H-Business.
Because I’m away and not able to update these interviews in real time, some of their contents, particularly peoples’ current roles or positions, may be slightly outdated. In some cases, I may check back in for an update when I return, in August or September.
- Ashton Merck, H-Business Associate Editor