Gras, N. S. B.

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Gras, N. S. B.


Norman Scott Brien Gras, pioneer business historian, was born in 1884 in Toronto of German and Irish parentage. His father was an unsuccessful general retailer and moved from place to place in search of a living. As a child, Gras had to work as a mill delivery boy and at other lowly jobs, hard beginnings which help to explain him as an adult. Endowed with extraordinary intellectual capacity, he was able to overcome economic difficulties and complete his undergraduate training at the University of Western Ontario. He went on to obtain his PH.D. in economics at Harvard University. His thesis was written under Edwin F. Gay, America’s first economic historian, whom Gras himself considered his “intellectual father.” From 1912 to 1917 Gras was an assistant professor at Clark College and in 1917/1918 an associate professor at Clark University. From there he went as a full professor to the University of Minnesota and then in 1927 to the Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, where he remained as Isidor Strauss professor of business history until 1950, when he retired. From 1949 to his death in 1956, he was president of the Business History Foundation, Inc., under whose auspices the history of the Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) was being written.

Gras’s career falls into two main periods. In the first he devoted himself chiefly to problems in English social and economic history, and he carried on most of his research in England. English scholars appreciated his work, and he was made a member of the Council of the English Economic History Society and eventually, in 1939, a vicepresident.

The second period in Gras’s career began with his appointment to the faculty of the Harvard Business School. In the 1920s and early 1930s, which constituted his most creative period, Gras had begun to focus on a new intellectual problem: he began to make business the subject of systematic historical research. Similar ideas were then being broached by leading professors at the Harvard Business School, and when the new field was established at that school, Gras’s appointment was eminently suitable.

The result of his endeavors was “business his tory,” a new concept to which Gras gave content and which he initially defined broadly. Because he was the first American teacher in this field, it was incumbent on him to collect source material. Since the Harvard Business School used the case method in its teaching, in 1939 Gras and his lifelong associate, Henrietta M. Larson, brought out a Casebook in American Business History for use in his classes. Even earlier he had begun to edit a series of company histories, the Harvard Studies in Business History. He wrote two of them himself, one on the First National Bank of Boston (1937) and another on the Harvard Co-operative Society (1942). In and outside of the school, Gras worked incessantly for the recognition of the new field. It is his merit that the use of business records has become common among economic historians.

Shortly after Gras’s arrival at Harvard, the Journal of Economic and Business History was founded. It was the first American journal to deal with economic history and the first in the world to aim at combining economic history with the new business history. Gras became its highly efficient managing editor. Unfortunately, he pushed his special interest somewhat too hard and came into conflict with the powerful Edwin F. Gay, the editor of the journal. Gay withdrew in 1931, and Gras succeeded him as editor, but his opportunity to mold the journal was short-lived, since financial reasons compelled the ceasing of publication in 1932. The conflict between Gay and Gras was ultimately to isolate Gras from the rest of the American economic historians, since most of them were Gay’s former students; worse yet, it produced a separation between business history and the better-developed older field, economic history.

Gras’s attempt to publish a synthesis and generalization of the material on business history he had accumulated for more than 15 years was hardly successful. He failed to distinguish between analytical constructs, such as his stages of capitalist development, and the economic reality which they were designed to explain.

After its auspicious beginnings, the development of business history ran into difficulties in the 1930s. Financial trouble in the wake of the depression made it necessary to abandon the original broad concept of “business history” and to concentrate on company histories. Also, Gras was now faced with that resistance which many innovators are bound to meet. Besides these problems beyond Gras’s control, his endeavors did suffer from his alienation from his colleagues. The narrowing down of the field, originally forced on Gras, became after a while a matter of his choice, and he came to identify “business history” with the study of the administration and policies of individual enterprises. His work, moreover, was empiricistic. His attempts to stimulate interest in the new area through an appeal to businessmen and his way of gaining access to business records aroused the suspicion of intellectuals and social scientists, because in this period they tended to be hostile toward business. Finally, although Gras was an inspiring teacher and a friend of students, in his later years he seemed unable to deal with his peers on the basis of intellectual give-and-take. He appeared unwilling to cooperate with other scholars who came to the new field of research on business with more refined tools and with related, yet different, goals. By the time of Gras’s death the exponents of business history had returned to the broad and fruitful conception of his earlier years and were developing the field as the social and economic history of business.

Fritz Redlich

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Gras’s ideas, seeHistory, article onBusiness History.]


1915 Evolution of the English Corn Market From the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century. Harvard Economic Studies, Vol. 13. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1918 The Early English Customs System: A Documentary Study of the Institutional and Economic History of the Customs From the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century. Harvard Economic Studies, Vol. 18. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1922 An Introduction to Economic History. New York: Harper.

(1925) 1940 A History of Agriculture in Europe and America. 2d ed. New York: Crofts.

1930 Industrial Evolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1930 Gras, NormanS. B.; and Gras, Ethel C. The Economic and Social History of an English Village (Crawley, Hampshire) A.D. 909–1928. Harvard Economic Studies, Vol. 34. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1937 The Massachusetts First National Bank of Boston: 1784–1934. Harvard Studies in Business History, No. 4. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1939 Business and Capitalism: An Introduction to Business History. New York: Crofts.

1939 Gras, Norman S. B.; and Larson, Henrietta M.Casebook in American Business History. New York: Crofts.

1942 Harvard Co-operative Society Past and Present: 1882–1942. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1962 Development of Business History up to 1950. Edited by Ethel C. Gras. New York: Lincoln Educational Foundation. → Published posthumously.