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Usher, Abbott P.

Usher, Abbott P.

Studies in economic history



Over a period of more than half a century, Abbott Payson Usher (1883-1965) made contributions to scientific inquiry in the field of economic history that covered a wide range of subject matter. His work dealt mainly with European subjects, but his research was so well designed that his particular projects yielded insights with direct significance for the whole body of social thought and science. Perhaps because a certain awkwardness in literary expression tends to mask the exciting qualities of his thought, his work is less well known beyond the confines of economic history than it deserves to be. Within his own field, however, the high quality of his published work—its range, its depth, and, above all, its unfailing sense of proportion— won him international recognition as one of the world’s foremost economic historians. The Festschrift, Architects and Craftsmen in History, was an intercontinental tribute to him: it was edited at Boston, published at Tubingen by the List Society, and composed of essays written by economic historians from several European countries as well as the United States.

Usher was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. He took all his academic degrees at Harvard and lived within commuting distance of the Harvard libraries almost continuously from 1920 on. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1904 and master’s degree in 1905, he spent a year in France, studying and gathering data for his work on early grain markets. He completed his doctorate in 1910 and accepted an appointment at Cornell University, where he taught for ten years. He moved to Boston University in 1920 and in 1922 was appointed to the faculty at Harvard, where he taught economics until his retirement in 1949.

Although in its continuity of environment Usher’s career was perhaps characteristic of an age that is passing, his work itself is essentially modern. “Interdisciplinary” is one of the bywords of contemporary research, and Usher never hesitated to cross boundaries; his work on invention is grounded in the literature of psychology, and his wide reading in legal history in connection with his banking studies convinced him that the “link between credit and lawful money is … a creation of civil law; it is not a spontaneous outcome of economic relations” (1943, p. 12). Again, the current tendency in writing economic history is to emphasize theoretical and statistical approaches to the subject, and in this respect, too, Usher’s work is fully modern. In The History of the Grain Trade in France, 1400-1710, published in 1913, his interest lies in the formation and operation of markets, a dominant concept in economic theory; his Early History of Deposit Banking in Mediterranean Europe, published 30 years later, is firmly anchored in money and banking theory, and in the latter work his treatment of banking in Barcelona is organized according to the main divisions of that theory—interbank relations, banks and the public, and debt management.

Theory of inventions. Usher’s thought gained its widest currency following the publication of A History of Mechanical Inventions in 1929. The inventing process is represented as a succession of phases. The process starts with recognition of the need for a new production technique, proceeds through a period of partial solutions to the problem, leads to an imaginative synthesis and extension of these partial solutions by someone whose mind is thoroughly conditioned to the problem, and ends with a period of “critical revision” during which the solution is embodied in increasingly elegant and efficient machinery. [See Innovation.] This view of inventive activity is, thus, in part a blend of two extreme theories about invention, the “great man” theory, which in its popular form Usher considered to be romantic nonsense, and the deterministic theory that necessity is the mother of invention. But Usher’s eclectic approach goes well beyond these oversimplified theories and provides an analytical description of the process of invention whose usefulness as a means of organizing a wide range of historical material on the subject is evidenced throughout the rest of the book. Usher’s “theory” has no predictive power, and he made no such claim for it. It is surely a contradiction in terms to speak of predicting novelty; thus, insofar as inventions are defined in terms of novelty it becomes impossible to devise a theoretical “model” of the inventing process. The body of Usher’s work on invention includes discussions of scientific thought and achievement in antiquity and during the Middle Ages, an appraisal of da Vinci’s work, and chapters on the history of machinery in various industries, including printing and textile manufacturing. Major emphasis, however, is accorded to the development of fine tools and precision machinery, on the one hand, and to the harnessing of ever larger amounts of inanimate power, on the other. The work as a whole is an unusual and highly successful amalgam of engineering knowledge and historical method.

Studies in economic history

Because A History of Mechanical Inventions became Usher’s most widely known work, his other studies have often been interpreted in terms of his theory of invention, and the development of wholesale grain markets and negotiable bills of exchange, the main themes of his other monographs, have been considered social analogues of mechanical inventions. This interpretation of Usher’s work certainly has some validity and is supported, by implication at least, by his own long discussion of “emergent novelty” in history that appeared in 1954 in the revised edition of A History of Mechanical Inventions. But an author is not necessarily the best interpreter of his own work, and to view Usher’s total output through the aperture of his theory of invention gives entirely too restricted an impression both of his philosophical status and of his research findings. It would have been unlike Usher (W. N. Parker Architects and Craftsmen 1956, pp. 157-166) to study history from only one point of view. According to Usher, the Marxists, the “ideal-type sociologists” like Max Weber, and historians like Gustav Schmoller, Karl Biicher, and Werner Sombart, who saw historical development as a series of stages, were all insufficiently aware of the complexity of historical processes. He was also opposed to Clapham’s narrative-descriptive approach to history. Economic history, Usher believed, should consist of carefully executed studies of special topics, which would produce both limited causal relationships directly related to the topic and suggestions for wider-ranging historical themes.

Markets. The title of Usher’s first book, The History of the Grain Trade in France, is slightly misleading, for the study is more than a history in the narrow sense. It is, rather, a historical approach to certain questions concerning the social value of markets. The development of wholesale grain markets is seen as a solution to a major problem of long standing in early modern France, namely, the provision of a reliable food supply for large urban populations. Usher’s interest in the operation of markets was probably stimulated by the widespread discussion that took place in the United States during the early part of this century about the alleged malfunctioning of markets in which monopoly elements are apparent, and by academic discussions about the function of organized speculation in commodity markets. Two of his early articles (1915; 1916) dealt specifically with the problem of speculation in both early and modern grain markets. His treatment of the subject is at once lively and theoretically sound. Underlying the argument are two basic propositions: first, that to own is to speculate, and, second, that the more perfect the market, the less the risk of ownership and thus the smaller the component of involuntary speculation in ownership. Accordingly, a comparison of early and modern arrangements shows that while speculation in modern produce markets is more highly specialized and thus more visible, transactions in the very imperfect markets of early modern Europe necessarily involved a much larger speculative element. Moreover, the paucity of commercial intelligence that characterized early markets led speculators to adopt highly predatory tactics based on deception of the consuming public, despite severe laws against engrossing and forestalling. Thus the paradox noted in his 1915 article: “Increased freedom to speculate has in fact narrowed the range of speculation” (p. 371). [See Speculation, hedging, and arbitrage.]

Usher gave the controversy of his own day about public control of markets a nice twist by changing the setting to France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and by arguing that an efficient distribution of grain, especially in years of dearth, had necessitated the abandonment of detailed administrative regulation of supply and the development of organized wholesale markets. The History of the Grain Trade in France is a fascinating study of the slow and halting development of an understanding of, and confidence in, a market mechanism. It took a surprising amount of time to arrive at the market solution—to realize that “higgling and bargaining” between individual buyers and sellers is not a sufficient condition for the formation of organized markets. What is necessary is the creation of markets by deliberate decisions and the operation of these markets according to explicit rules. Thus, it was through a series of enlightened regulations that the central authorities created the first wholesale grain markets in France in certain towns near Paris early in the eighteenth century.

Banking. In the preface to his first work Usher referred to the history of the grain trade as being only a chapter in the larger history of commerce and commented that “changes in the mechanism of the general trade of Europe can best be appreciated in terms of the growth of financial machinery for the handling of commercial credit” (1913, p. viii). To understand this growth was his second research task, and he stuck to it through many unavoidable delays for thirty years, until The Early History of Deposit Banking in Mediterranean Europe appeared in 1943. Again his subject was a topical one in both theoretical and historical circles, especially during the 1920s, when theorists had to deal with the new Federal Reserve System and historians were trying to make sense of the controversy about the relationship, if any, between religion and capitalism. Characteristically, Usher seized on certain fundamental issues in the theoretical controversy and studied them empirically. One of his main purposes was “to provide decisive evidence of …credit creation in …early banks of deposit” (1943, p. x); having done so, he permitted himself an uncharacteristically sharp sentence: “Just as French diplomats ’discovered’ the Pyrenees in the diplomatic crisis of the eighteenth century, so banking theorists ’discovered’ deposits in the mid-nineteenth century” (ibid., p. 192).

Probably because Usher thought in terms of theoretical questions he always had a happy knack of dissolving time and space and confronting his readers with daring comparisons—as in his juxtaposition of medieval and modern speculation. To drive home his point about credit creation he made rough calculations from his own data and from published data for the United States to show that in Barcelona in the fifteenth century the credit liabilities of the banks were “not less than 3.5 times the reserve. Such reserve ratios and the coefficients of expansion they imply are not widely different from ratios to be found in sections of the United States in the early nineteenth century” (ibid., pp. 181-182). Throughout the volume, indeed, he showed that often what are assumed to be highly sophisticated inventions of modern credit and banking systems have, in fact, existed, in different institutional forms, in Western economies since at least the fourteenth century. It must be emphasized that Usher was not primarily interested in displaying early examples of contemporary practices; his primary interest was to show that the history of banking is a history of gradual improvement in efficiency rather than a history of dramatic inventions of deposits, paper money, and central banks. Thus, he argued that the greatest single improvement in monetary efficiency during the past six or seven centuries was the development of full negotiability for credit instruments, a development that culminated in England during the seventeenth century, but one to which many generations of merchants, lawyers, and bankers, in many regions, had contributed. Reflecting on this long history, Usher wrote: “The more we learn of the early history of commercial paper, the more evident it becomes that the evolution of … seemingly simple concepts involved a singularly long and complex process” (ibid., p. 109). It is the story of the seemingly simple wholesale grain market all over again.

Locational problems. Usher had a sustained interest in the economics of natural resources and industrial location, subjects which are closely related to his interest in technology. While his findings were not embodied in any comprehensive synthesis, they stimulated several of his students to do a considerable amount of research on locational problems. At times Usher sounded like a geopolitician. Concerning the development of the vast iron ore deposits in Lorraine and around Lake Superior he wrote in 1920 that the “industrial prestige of England has been destroyed by the rise of Germany and the United States. The dislocations in the metal industries have occasioned real disturbances of the general political and economic equilibrium” he then administered a gentle jolt with the observation that there “is no reason to suppose that other generations may not witness dislocations fully as startling” (1920, pp. 266-268).

Throughout his work Usher emphasized the pervasive influence on human affairs of the big, impersonal facts of resource endowments, population change, technology, and geography; his knowledge of the deductive, impersonal technique of economic theory did much to give form and significance to his research. What must be accorded major emphasis in the last analysis, however, is his historical scholarship, which at all times is marked by the collation of a very wide range of evidence and by a use of historical materials that is at once skeptical and imaginative. It is a measure of his power as a historian that he used economic theory to illuminate his understanding of society rather than allowing it to dominate, and thus he was able to resist any temptation to use economic theory as a royal road to knowledge. Usher’s work has contributed much to our understanding of several of the seemingly simple problems of social science.

J. H. Dales

[See also Banking; History, article on Economic history; Markets and industries; Technology.]


1913 The History of the Grain Trade in France, 1400-1710. Harvard Economic Studies, Vol. 9. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1915 The Technique of Mediaeval and Modern Produce Markets. Journal of Political Economy 23:365-388.

1916 The Influence of Speculative Marketing Upon Prices. American Economic Review 6:49-60.

1920 An Introduction to the Industrial History of England. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

(1929) 1954 A History of Mechanical Inventions. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1959 by Beacon.

1943 The Early History of Deposit Banking in Mediterranean Europe. Vol. 1: The Structure and Functions of the Early Credit System: Banking in Catalonia, 1240-1723. Harvard Economic Studies, Vol. 75. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → Only one volume was published.

1960 The Industrialization of Modern Britain. Technology and Culture 1:109-127.


Architects and Craftsmen in History: Festschrift fur Abbott Payson Usher. Veröffentlichungen des List Gesellschaft, Vol. 2. 1956 Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

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