Business history is the branch of economic history that deals with the history of business organizations, methods, entrepreneurship, leadership, corporate organization, government regulation, labor relations, and impact on society. It also includes biographies of individual companies and entrepreneurs.
Business history was founded by Professor N. S. B. Gras, at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, starting in 1927. He defined the field's subject matter and approach, wrote the first general treatise in the field, and helped Harvard build a tradition of scholarship as well as the leading library in the field (the Baker Library). He edited a series of monographs, the Harvard Studies in Business History. He also served as editor of the Bulletin of the Business Historical Society (1926-1953), a journal which later became the Business History Review (1954-present).
Business history in the U.S. in the 1960s differed from earlier decades in the sheer volume of monographs produced and in the variety of methodologies used. Scholars were also more interested in developing abstract or theoretical explanations of the growth of business enterprise, the study of strategy and structure by Alfred D. Chandler Jr. being a prime example. The relationship between business and the federal government became a focal point of study. On the whole, the 1960s affirmed the conclusions of the earlier decades regarding the close interrelationship between government and business enterprise.
Naomi R. Lamoreaux et al (2003) offered a new synthesis of American business history during the 19th-20th centuries. Moving beyond the markets-versus-hierarchies framework that underlies the previously dominant interpretation of Alfred D. Chandler Jr., the authors highlight the great variety of coordination mechanisms in the economy at any given time. Drawing on late-20th-century theoretical work in economics, they show how the relative advantages and disadvantages of these different mechanisms have shifted in complex and often unpredictable ways. One advantage of this perspective is that it avoids the teleology and determinism that has characterized so much writing in the field. As a result, the authors can situate the "New Economy" of the late 20th century in broad historical context without succumbing to the temptation to view it as a climactic stage in the process of economic development. They thus provide a particularly persuasive example of the importance of business history to the understanding of national and international history.
American historians working in French business history discovered that most of the business enterprises in France were family-owned, small in scale, and managed conservatively. By contrast, French business historians emphasized the success of national economic planning since the end of World War II and tried to make it clear that the economic development in this period stemmed from various phenomena of the late 19th century: the corporation system, the joint-stock deposit and investment banks, and the technological innovations in the steel industry. To clarify the contributions of 19th-century entrepreneurs to the economic development in France, French scholars support two journals, Histoire des Enterprises and Revue d'Histoire de la Siderurgie.
Some of the leading scholars include:
- Business History Conference which publishes Enterprise & Society: The International Journal of Business History.
- The Business Historical Society which publishes The Business Historical Review.
- Naomi R. Lamoreaux et al, "Beyond Markets and Hierarchies: Toward a New Synthesis of American Business History." American Historical Review 2003 108(2): 404-433.