Archival Follies, Beginning the "Businessman", History and Historians

Practically “Actual” Business

Or, What Value Did Role-Playing Have in 19th-Century Business School?

AKA Improv Everywhere, Even the Counting House

#BizManBook Research Note #4

Author’s note: this piece is an abstract draft for a proposed paper; that’s why the style at the end gets a bit formal and academic – or more so than usual. Space and time allowing, I’d rewrite it to be less so…but, well, space and time haven’t allowed.

Imagine you’re young, ambitious, and living in the hinterland of Gilded Age Chicago. Once burned (but never shy), Nature’s Metropolis is booming beyond a booster’s wildest dreams. It’s a gigantic, thudding piston, pumping the heart of North America’s capitalist machine. Every day the buildings are getting taller, the sky’s getting blacker with smoke, and the bellows from the stockyards louder and more baleful. It’s a city on the rise, figuratively and literally, and you want to get in on the action – but how?

Metropolitan Business College (1883), Chicago History Museum, MBC – Misc Pamphlets

Enter the Metropolitan Business College. Maybe you spot one of the school’s lavishly illustrated pamphlets in the mail piled high on the shabby entryway table at your boarding house; or maybe a relative eager to foster your independence – and limit your drain on family expenses – pressed it into your hands at the last potluck. However it got to you, what catches your eye – beyond the arresting graphic design, all ornate capital letters and naturalistic vignettes – is what the college promises: a “thorough, practical business training and education” in “the shortest possible time and at a moderate expense.” It’s an opportunity, the proprietors claim, that “every young man who is ambitious to rise in the world to distinction, independence, and wealth” should look to, valuable not just for would-be clerks and bookkeepers, but merchants, lawyers, legislators, teachers, editors – even widows! In a nation that buzzes like “one vast busy hive,” where “commerce is king,” every young man or woman needs a “knowledge of business matters, and the ability to keep accounts correctly.” Exciting, certainly; but what does that mean in practice? 

Metropolitan Business College, Annual Prospectus (1888)
Chicago History Museum

The Metropolitan’s circulars and handbills were peppered with claims about the institution’s many virtues: an accessible location, an affordable price, an able and experienced faculty, etc., etc. But the for-profit private business college’s core pitch – and the subject depicted in finely illustrated detail in much of its advertising – was the “PRACTICAL DEPARTMENT.” A “business world in itself,” the “practical department” was both place and pedagogy. Physically, the department was a “great counting room” on the second floor of the college’s main building, where “Banking, Manufacturing, Importing, Commission and Wholesale Houses, Real Estate, Insurance, and Transportation Offices” could be found. Each “business” in the Department was defined by its proper teller windows and office furniture, and fully supplied with “everything necessary to conduct the business as it is conducted in the large business houses of Chicago.” 

Metropolitan Business College (1883), Chicago History Museum, MBC – Misc Pamphlets

“Everything necessary” included pens and ink as well as blank ledgers, blank day books, blank journals, blank bills, blank sales slips, blank insurance contracts, blank partnership agreements – the whole specialized apparatus of modern commercial paperwork. These expensive, extensive fixtures set the stage for accelerated learning through creative improvisational acting. (Yes, the Metropolitan Business College wasn’t just in the Second City, it anticipated The Second City’s methods, too.)

Assigned to an office with a role and a desk to match, Metropolitan students learned white collar work first-hand by doing deals and organizing transactions between and among themselves, running their “firms” to model the operations of the real industrial economy. Under expert game master, er, faculty guidance, students mastered business skills in a fraction of the time required by an old-style apprenticeship; and paired with the college’s other lectures and classes, their knowledge was more thorough, too. Critically, the “practical department” produced real, useful feelings. Role-playing as business men and women, the Metropolitan’s proprietors claimed, filled students with a “zest and determination” for knowledge that was “unseen and unknown in the history of Business Colleges in this country.”

It’s possible Metropolitan students’ zeal might be “unseen and unknown” in the annals of business history, but the “practical department” was a common feature of late nineteenth-century private for-profit business colleges. Bryant & Stratton’s national chain of fifty colleges featured “business departments” that combined “office and stationery store, fitted throughout in solid walnut, richly carved,” while branches of the Eastman National Business College provided students with a dizzying array of blank printed forms (articles of copartnership, ledgers, and shipping receipts) all stamped with the logo of their “Actual Business Department.”[2] But despite their apparent ubiquity – and abundant material culture – “practical departments” seem not to have merited inclusion in narratives about the historical development of business education, or to have entered into debates about the balance modern business schools should strike between “theory” and “practice.” They are almost as overlooked as for-profit schools are generally in business education history. [3] 

Eastman National Business College records, 1865-1866, Chicago History Museum

Yet careful consideration of “practical departments,” and the private for-profit business colleges to which they were attached, can open new questions about the early development of American business education, as well the intellectual and physical infrastructures of industrializing America. Too, they can potentially shed new light on what’s novel – or not – in modern business education. The materials for such a study are plentiful: common institutions with often surprising durability (several Bryant & Stratton branch colleges are still operating today), the advertisements, curricula, and textbooks produced by for-profit private business colleges are held in digital and physical libraries in virtually every major city in the United States; and while manuscript materials are less common, collections of notes, correspondence, and personal papers from educators and students exist in significant numbers, and are readily available.[4] 

While this research is as-yet-ongoing, I see three questions where “practical departments” may be particularly useful as objects of study for business history and the history of business education:

  • 1) How did for-profit business colleges model the economy for students – and what role did material culture play in that instruction?

    Divided into firms linked together through paper transactions, “practical departments” were intentionally-designed working models of the economy, and as such provide new insights into how Gilded Age business people sought to apprehend and manage it using accounting methods and other technologies. The specific furniture and material culture of “Practice Departments” reveals the long-standing importance of physical environments to business education, anticipating later lauded trends in business education that also depended on specific arrangements in space, like the case method’s “horseshoe-shaped classrooms.”[4] Comparing different schools’ approach to “practical departments” could reveal the role that material culture and spatial arrangements played in affording or structuring economic models, and vice versa.
  • 2) How did for-profit business colleges produce knowledge – and what were the consequences? 

    Exploring materials related to “practical departments” can help uncover the processes of knowledge-creation. As students rotated through the different firms in this Potemkin business world, they apprehended its multiple angles and interrelationships; a shipping office’s books revealed a different set of operations than a bank’s, and understanding their connections was greater than the sum of understanding either, separately. In promotional materials, business colleges highlighted the benefits of this gestalt: a year of preparation at Bryant & Stratton fitted a student out not just for a specific business, like an apprenticeship or work experience would, but for the world as a whole – present and future. Business colleges collectively trained hundreds of thousands of students – and graduates not infrequently made up a significant portion of a given city’s white collar workforce. The influence of the “practical department” was thus potentially significant – and explorable, through students’ correspondence and reflections on their experiences, as well as through more public discussion of different schools curricula and benefits.
  • 3) What can “practical departments” reveal about the purpose(s) of business education – and its intended role for individuals, and in society? 

    That institutions commonly understood as narrow vocational operations sought to develop a broad perspective is perhaps surprising from a contemporary position – but is perfectly consonant with Gilded Age for-profit business colleges’ own claims, as well as those of supporters. Editor and politician Horace Greeley, for example, claimed that “Business Colleges will find their greatest sphere of utility” in “developing a larger capacity to apprehend and to seize the opportunities that so abundantly exist on every side, for giving new activity and new power to the creation of material wealth.” Facing the challenge of adapting the American nation in a post-slavery, globalized, and industrializing world, Greeley argued young people needed to develop “a many-sided-ness,” through an “education that teaches men to look in various directions”  – a capacity that for-profit business colleges employed “practical departments” to provide. [5] In contrast to the higher education industry today, where disciplinary and professional knowledge is valued primarily for its capacity to secure students’ individual future earnings in specific occupations, supporters of Gilded Age business education organizations championed values aligned – at least rhetorically – with the broader social and intellectual goals of the “liberal arts.” 
DALL*E Image (AI-generated), from prompt “Watercolor, Businessman and Businesswoman Working at a Desk on a Stage in Black Box Theater”

Learning through role-playing is not an unusual pedagogical technique; arguably, it’s the oldest there is. But in their widespread “practical departments,” Gilded Age for-profit American business colleges made playing at bookkeeper into a serious, significant experience – one, indeed, which usually formed the capstone of a business education. A closer examination of how these “practical departments” modeled the business world in paper, how they functioned to produce knowledge, and how and why they served as the foundation for business college advocates’ claims about their contribution to individual lives and national projects has the potential to add a new chapter to the history of business education, illuminate the infrastructures and assumptions supporting 19th-century business practice, and better contextualize ongoing debates in modern business schools. 



[1] Metropolitan Business College, 77 & 79 Madison Street, Chicago, Howe & Powers, Proprietors (1883), Chicago History Museum, MBC – Misc Pamphlets, F38QH .M5Z

[2] H. B. Bryant’s Chicago Business College (1875), 24; Eastman National Business College records, 1865-1866, Chicago History Museum

[3] While for-profit business colleges, like other kinds of “lower ed,” have received less attention than their more prestigious counterparts, graduate schools at major research universities, they do appear in some standard narratives about business education – but primarily for their role in transmitting and popularizing new kinds of technology, like typewriters, shorthand, or filing systems. E.g. Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). On “lower ed”: Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (New York: The New Press, 2017). 

[4] However, these materials are often not cataloged or identified as specifically pertaining to business colleges, or their “practical departments,” but rather left in generic categories; discovery is somewhat difficult as a result. This is a familiar problem in business history; see the discussion of “account books” as sources in Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[5] “The Case Method Classroom,” From Inquiry to Action: Harvard Business School & the Case Method, Online Exhibit, HBS Baker Library, accessed December 27, 2022, 

[6] Horace Greeley, An Address on Success in Business, Delivered before the Students of Packard’s Bryant & Stratton New York Business College by Hon. Horace Greeley at the Large Hall of the Cooper Union, Nov. 11, 1867, (New York: S. S. Packard, Publisher, 1867),, 21, 29.

Found Historiography, History and Historians

Hope and the Worldly Historian


And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
     For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” (1)

The last few days, I’ve been turning Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent post about the place of hope in the practice of history – or rather, his contention that the latter leads to a lack of the former – over in my mind.

Continue reading “Hope and the Worldly Historian”
Corrupting the Youth, History and Historians

Hunting Snark – and History

 Or, <eye roll> Primary Documents </eye roll>

Tom Scocca’s recent snarking on smarm has got me thinking about the connections between history, as it is written and pursued, and one of the defining literary styles of our time. But before I bloviate over a blog post, here’s the essay: go have a look.

I’ll wait.

Continue reading “Hunting Snark – and History”

Golden Ghetto, History and Historians, Knowledge Droppings, Now in Actual Work

A Slaughter-Bench, Explained

Or, Thoughts on Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Knopf, 2012).

Odd as it is to say, it’s been a long time since a history book completely captivated my attention; and even longer since I lost a night of sleep to stay up reading one. I read history all day, everyday, but rarely for pleasure – one likes to escape, you know? But sometimes something special intervenes. Stephen Platt’s excellent account of the Taiping Rebellion is one such. While by no means an escape – the civil war he takes as his subject was one of the most brutal the world has ever seen – his book is as gripping and analytically sophisticated a piece of historical scholarship as I have ever read.

Platt’s book marries the deft use of “novelistic” tricks of popular historians with a serious and important new analysis of the Taiping civil war to construct a gripping narrative. The careful use of a judiciously chosen cast of characters – drawing from all factions in the war – allows Platt to draw the reader in to personal stories. But these are not just historical excursions for history’s sake, loosely connected. Rather, Platt makes a consistent, and convincing argument that the war should be seen as intimately connected to the other great civil conflict of the period – the American Civil War – by way of British foreign and economic policy. (Basically, he argues that the Brits got involved in the war – decisively, as it happened, on the side of the Qing – to protect their economic interests, partly out of pressure put on them by the loss of the American market).

In what I think is his greatest accomplishment, Platt makes all of these events make sense.*  That might sound like the first task of an historian – but believe me when I say that it is quite a feat, especially in this case. The caprice of the British public and the arrogance of some of their officials is paired nicely with the internal politicking of the Qing and Taiping courts. Each on its own is complex enough, but Platt is able to draw out the links between them, to explain the unfolding of events through these wavering intersections (which is not to say that events were rational; like all wars, this one was model of chaos). As someone who has mainly confronted the Taiping war through the garbled accounts of contemporary American observers, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to finally have some glimpse of the Taiping war as a coherent whole. (Okay, well I can: and just did).

I think part of the secret here is that, unlike other books on the war which analyze the particular cultural characteristics that motivated actors  – say, Jonathan Spence’s – this book concentrates on making the strange familiar, and not on delineating just how strange the the strange was. Thus we get a portrait of Zeng Guofan, commanding general of the Hunan army (the main Qing force), that depicts him as a deeply conflicted, even tortured scholar trying to follow duty wherever it led. The foreignness of Zeng’s worldview (from our contemporary, Western perspective) is only partially revealed in the denouement, when glimpses of Zeng through the eyes of Western and Chinese observers reveal a brutal, calculating man, working to protect his image and his family’s power from the still-smoking and blood-stained ruins of the rebel capital, Nanjing.

I’m no expert in the Chinese historiography, so I can’t comment on how Platt’s work succeeds of fails in that regard; certainly his pedigree as a China expert is impeccable, and Sinologists who’ve reviewed the book seem pleased. From my perspective as an Americanist with more than a passing knowledge of British and American sources relating to the period, nothing rang false. Sections of the book dealing with British perspectives on the war, or maneuvering in Parliament, or even American reactions to the Taiping all seemed judiciously written, and did not a make any claims that stepped beyond the evidence. The Chinese sections…well, Chinese history, in English, always seems lightly sourced to me – but I think that is an artifact of the available archives and my footnote fetish, not any sort of real criticism.

(If I have one criticism, it is that I wish Platt had refrained from including a poorly-argued NYT op-ed as part of his book publicity efforts. Affecting a Tom Friedman-level of rhetorical analysis is not only historical malpractice – really, is the Taiping rebellion in any way like China today? really? – it does his scholarly reputation no favors. Indeed, had I not already bought the book before I read that article, I would have never cracked the cover).

But if we judged all scholars purely by their malpractice on the op-ed page, then we’d read no one, ever. So, my recommendation is simple: whatever your speciality or your interests, go read Stephen Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, and have your understanding of 19th-century history, the global economy – and perhaps even your ideas about human nature – helpfully revised. And maybe your sleep disturbed, too.


*The petulant jerk who reviewed the book for the NYT seems to lack any sense of how complex this war was – how many people were involved, how difficult the sources are, how much violence deranges neat narratives. His complaints about how difficult his finely-tuned flâneur’s mind found the book reveal more about him, I think, than about the work under review.

History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage

Nasty, Brutish, Short — and Not Worth Commemorating

Or, A Modest (But Friendly!) Rebuttal

Joe Adelman raised an interesting point on Twitter today: should we commemorate the War of 1812? And if so, on what grounds? Joe’s ably summarized and commented on the conversation that ensued  in a blog post here. Take a look!

Now, from that you’ll see that I placed myself firmly in the “War of 1812 isn’t worth commemorating” camp. It’s been a solitary experience.

Continue reading “Nasty, Brutish, Short — and Not Worth Commemorating”