Business history deals with the history of business organizations, methods, government regulation, labor relations, and impact on society. It also includes biographies of individual companies, executives, and entrepreneurs. It is related to economic history.
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. 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-date). N.S.B. Grass and Henrietta M. Larson, Casebook in American business history (1939) defined the field for a generation.
Business history in the U.S. took off in the 1960s with a high volume of product and innovative methodologies. Scholars worked to develop theoretical explanations of the growth of business enterprise, the study of strategy and structure by Alfred Chandler 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.
After 1960 the most influential scholar was Alfred D. Chandler (1918-2007) at the Harvard Business School. In a career that spanned over sixty years, Chandler produced numerous groundbreaking monographs, articles, and reviews. Intensely focused on only a few areas of the discipline, Chandler nonetheless succeeded in establishing and developing an entirely new realm of business history.
Chandler's masterwork was The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977). His first two chapters looked at traditional owner-operated small business operations in commerce and production, including the largest among them, the slave plantations in the South. Chapters 3-5 summarize the history of railroad management, with stress on innovations not just in technology but also in accounting, finance and statistics. He then turned to the new business operations made possible by the rail system in mass distribution, such as jobbers, department stores and mail order. A quick survey (ch 8) review mass innovation in mass production.The integration of mass distribution and mass production (ch 9-11) led to many mergers and the emergence of giant industrial corporations by 1900. Management for Chandler was much more than the CEO, it was the whole system of techniques and included middle management (ch 11) as well as the corporate structure of the biggest firms, Standard Oil, General Electric, US Steel, and DuPont (ch 13-14). Chandler argued that modern large-scale firms arose to take advantage of the national markets and productive techniques available after the rail network was in place. He found that they prospered because they had higher productivity, lower costs, and higher profits. The firms created the "managerial class" in America because they needed to coordinate the increasingly complex and interdependent system. This ability to achieve efficiency through coordination, not some anti-competitive monopolistic greed by robber barons, explained the high levels of concentration in modern American industry.
Chandler's work was somewhat ignored in history departments, but proved influential business, economics, and sociology. In sociology, for example, prior to Chandler's research, sociologists assumed there were no differences between governmental, corporate, and nonprofit organizations. Chandler's focus on corporations clearly demonstrated that there were differences, and this thesis has guided organizational sociologists' work since the 1970s. It also motivated sociologists to investigate and critique Chandler's work more closely, turning up instances in which Chandler assumed American corporations acted for reasons of efficiency when they actually operated in a context of politics or conflict. Other historians, such as Gabriel Kolko, challenged the very notion of "efficiency through coordination", arguing instead that big business had, for reasons of inefficiency and a dislike of market discipline, openly sought government assistance to keep market forces at bay.
Lamoreaux et al. (2003)offers 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 Chandler, the authors highlight the great variety of coordination mechanisms in use 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 as a result of changing economic circumstances. One advantage of this perspective is that it avoids the teleology 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.
Understanding the development of business history as a discipline meriting its own aims, theories and methods is often understood as a transition from dominating themes of 'company biography', toward more analytical 'comparative' approaches. This 'comparative' trend enabled practitioners to underline their work with 'generalist' potential. Questions of comparative business performance have become a staple, featuring into the wider economic histories of nations, regions and communities. For many this transition was first achieved by Alfred D. Chandler. Chandler’s successors as Isidor Straus Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School continued to emphasize the importance of comparative research and course development. In 1995 Thomas K. McCraw published Creating Modern Capitalism (Cambridge, MA 1995)  This book compared the business histories of Britain, Germany, Japan and the United States since the Industrial Revolution, and was used as the text of a new year MBA course at Harvard Business School. Geoffrey Jones, who was McCraw’s successor as Isidor Straus Professor of Business History, also pursued a comparative research agenda. He published a comparative study of the history of globalization called Multinationals and Global Capitalism (Oxford, 2005). In 2010, Jones also published a comparative history of the global beauty industry entitled Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry (Oxford, 2010). More recently, Jones and the Business History Initiative at the Harvard Business School has sought to facilitate research and teaching on African, Asian and Latin American business history in a project called Creating Emerging Markets, which includes interviews with long-time leaders of firms and NGOs in those regions.
A trend in recent years has been to compare the business histories of individual countries. Geoffrey Jones (academic) and Andrea Lluch have published a comparative study of the historical impact of globalization on Argentina and Chile.  In 2011 Jones and his co-editor Walter A. Friedman published an editorial in Business History Review which identified comparative research as essential for the future of business history as a discipline.
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, Enterprises et Histoire and Revue d'Histoire de la Siderurgie.
Barbero (2008) examines the development of the field of Latin American business history, from the 1960s to 2007. Latin American business history developed in the 1960s, but until the 1980s it was dominated by either highly politicized debates over Latin American underdevelopment or biographies of Latin American entrepreneurs. Since the 1980s, Latin American business history has become a much more professionalized and an integrated part of Latin American academia. It is much less politicized and has moved beyond entrepreneurial biography to histories of companies and industries. However, Latin American business historians have still not devoted enough attention to agricultural enterprises or comparative histories between the many countries. Probably most importantly, Latin American business historians have to become much more versed in business history theory and methodology so as to get beyond mere summation of the region's economic past.
Business History in Britain emerged in the 1950s following the publication of a series of influential company histories and the establishment of the journal Business History in 1958 at the University of Liverpool. The most influential of these early company histories was Charles Wilson (historian)’s History of Unilever, the first volume of which was published in 1954. Other examples included Coleman’s work on Courtaulds and artificial fibres, Alford on Wills and the tobacco industry, Barker on Pilkington’s and glass manufacture. These early studies were conducted by primarily by economic historians interested in the role of leading firms in the development of the wider industry, and therefore went beyond mere corporate histories. Although some work examined the successful industries of the industrial revolution and the role of the key entrepreneurs, in the 1970s scholarly debate in British business history became increasingly focused on economic decline. For economic historians, the loss of British competitive advantage after 1870 could at least in part be explained by entrepreneurial failure, prompting further business history research into individual industry and corporate cases. The Lancashire cotton textile industry, which had been the leading take-off sector in the industrial revolution, but which was slow to invest in subsequent technical developments, became an important topic of debate on this subject. William Lazonick for example argued that cotton textile entrepreneurs in Britain failed to develop larger integrated plants on the American model; a conclusion similar to Chandler’s synthesis of a number of comparative case studies.
British business history began to widen its scope in the 1980s, with research work conducted at the LSE's Business History Unit, led first by Leslie Hannah, then by Terry Gourvish. Other research centres followed, notably at Glasgow and Reading, reflecting an increasing involvement in the discipline by Business and Management School academics. More recent editors of Business History, Geoffrey Jones (academic)(Harvard Business School), Charles Harvey (University of Newcastle Business School), John Wilson (Liverpool University Management School) and Steven Toms (Leeds University Business School) have promoted management strategy themes such as networks, family capitalism, corporate governance, human resource management, marketing and brands, and multi-national organisations in their international as well as merely British context. Employing these new themes has allowed business historians to challenge and adapt the earlier conclusions of Chandler and others about the performance of the British economy.
- See N.S.B. Grass and Henrietta M. Larson, Casebook in American business history (1939)
- Richard R. John, "Elaborations, Revisions, Dissents:Alfred D. Chandler Jr.'s The Visible Hand aftr Twenty Years," Business History Review (1997) 7#1 pp 151-200
- Steven W. Usselman, "Still Visible: Alfred D. Chandler's The Visible Hand," Technology and Culture vol 47 #3 (2006) 584-596
- Thomas K. McCraw, "Alfred Chandler: His Vision and Achievement," Business History Review, Summer 2008, Vol. 82 Issue 2, pp 207-226
- Neil Fligstein, "Chandler and the Sociology of Organizations," Business History Review, Summer 2008, Vol. 82 Issue 2, pp 241-250
- 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.
- Thomas K. McCraw (1995). Creating Modern Capitalism. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-17555-7.
- Geoffrey Jones (2005). Multinationals and Global Capitalism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-927210-7.
- Geoffrey Jones (2010). Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199556496.
- Geoffrey Jones; Andrea Lluch (2015). The Impact of Globalization on Argentina and Chile. Business Enterprises and Entrepreneurship. Edward Elgar. ISBN 978-1-78347-363-2.
- Walter A. Friedman; Geoffrey Jones (2011). "Time for Debate". Business History Review 85 (3): 1–8.
- Youssef Cassis, "Business History in France" in Franco Amatori and Geoffrey Jones, eds. Business history around the world (Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp. 192-214
- María Inés Barbero, "Business History in Latin America: A Historiographical Perspective," Business History Review, (2008) 82#3, pp 555-575
- Carlos, Marichal, "Archival Note: Banking History and Archives in Latin America," Business History Review, (2008) 82#3 pp 585-602
- see Business History
- John Wilson, and Steven Toms, J.S ‘Fifty years of Business History’, Business History (2008) 50#2 pp.125-26
- . Leslie Hannah, ‘New Issues in British Business History’, Business History Review (1983) 57# 2, pp.165-174.
- Chandler, A., Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism, Cambridge Mass.: Belknap Press (1990).
- William Mass, & William Lazonick, "The British Cotton Industry and International Competitive Advantage: the state of the debates," Business History, (1990) 32#4 pp. 9-65.
- Toms, Steven and Wilson, John F. "Scale, Scope and Accountability: Towards a New Paradigm of British Business History," Business History (2003) 45#4 pp 1-23.
Textbooks and surveys: USA
- Blackford, Mansel G. A History of Small Business in America ISBN 0-8057-9824-2) (1992)
- Blackford, Mansel G., and K. Austin Kerr. Business Enterprise in American History (ISBN 0395351553) (1990)
- Blaszczyk, Regina Lee, and Philip B. Scranton, eds. Major Problems in American Business History: Documents and Essays (2006) 521 pp.
- Bryant, Keith L. A History of American Business (1983) (ISBN 0133892476)
- Chamberlain, John. Enterprising Americans: A Business History of the United States (ISBN 0060107022) (1974) by popular journalist
- Chandler, Jr., Alfred D. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977), highly influential study
- Chandler, Jr., Alfred D. Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise (1962) online edition
- Chandler, Jr., Alfred D. Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (1990).
- Chandler, Jr., Alfred D. "The Competitive Performance of U.S. Industrial Enterprises since the Second World War," Business History Review 68 (Spring 1994): 1–72.
- Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. and James W. Cortada. A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present (2000) online edition
- Cochran, Thomas Childs. Business in American Life: A History (1976) online edition
- Dibacco, Thomas V. Made in the U.S.A.: The History of American Business (1988) (ISBN 0060914661)
- Friedman, Walter A. and Tedlow, Richard S. "Statistical Portraits of American Business Elites: a Review Essay." Business History 2003 45(4): 89-113. Issn: 0007-6791
- Groner, Alex. The American heritage history of American business & industry, (ISBN 0070011567) (1972), very well illustrated
- Krooss, Herman Edward. American Business History (ISBN 0130240834) (1972)
- Lamoreaux, Naomi R.; Raff, Daniel M. G.; and Temin, Peter. "Beyond Markets and Hierarchies: Toward a New Synthesis of American Business History." American Historical Review 2003 108(2): 404-433. online
- Lamoreaux, Naomi R., and Daniel M. G. Raff, eds. Coordination and Information: Historical Perspectives on the Organization of Enterprise (1995)
- McCraw, Thomas K. American Business, 1920-2000: How It Worked.2000. 270 pp. ISBN 0-88295-985-9.
- Porter, Glenn. The rise of big business, 1860-1910 (1973)(ISBN 0690703945)
- Schweikart, Larry. The Entrepreneurial Adventure: A History of Business in the United States (2000)
- Temin, Peter, ed. Inside the Business Enterprise: Historical Perspectives on the Transformation and Use of Information (1992)
- Walker, Juliet E. K. Encyclopedia of African American Business History Greenwood Press, 1999 online edition
- Whitten, David O. The Emergence of Giant Enterprise, 1860-1914: American Commercial Enterprise and Extractive Industries (1983) online edition
Textbooks and surveys: World
- Berghahn, Volker R. Quest for Economic Empire: European Strategies of German Big Business in the Twentieth Century 1996 online edition
- Blackford Mansel G. The Rise of Modern Business in Great Britain, the United States, and Japan (1998)
- Cassis, Youssef. Big Business: The European Experience in the Twentieth Century Oxford University Press, 1999 online edition
- Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. Shaping the Industrial Century: The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of the Modern Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries. (Harvard Studies in Business History, no. 46.) 2005.
- Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (1990)
- Chapman, Stanley. Merchant Enterprise In Britain (2003)
- Church, Roy, and Andrew Godley. The Emergence of Modern Marketing (2003) online edition
- Dávila, Carlos, Rory Miller, and Garry Mills. Business History in Latin America: The Experience of Seven Countries Liverpool University Press, 1999 online edition
- Gardella, Robert, Jane K. Leonard, Andrea McElderry; Chinese Business History: Interpretive Trends and Priorities for the Future M. E. Sharpe, 1998 online edition
- Hunt, Edwin S.. and James M. Murray. A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550 1999
- Jones, Geoffrey. The Evolution of International Business: An Introduction (1996)
- Jones, Geoffrey. Multinationals and Global Capitalism. From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century(2005)
- Jones, Geoffrey., and Jonathan Zeitlin (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Business History(2008)
- Jones, Geoffrey. Beauty Imagined. A History of the Global Beauty Industry(2010)
- Jones, Geoffrey. Entrepreneurship and Multinationals. Global Business and the Making of the Modern World(2013)
- Kirby, Maurice W. Business Enterprise in Modern Britain: From the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century (1994)
- Klassen, Henry Cornelius. Business History of Alberta 1999
- Lamoreaux, Naomi R., Daniel Raff, and Peter Temin, eds. Learning by Doing in Organizations, Markets, and Nations (1999).
- Landes, David S. Joel Mokyr and William J. Baumol, eds. The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times (2010) 566 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-14370-5
- Mokyr, Joel. ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History 4 vol (2003)
- Moss, Michael, and Philippe Jobert, eds. The Birth and Death of Companies: An Historical Perspective (1990), on Europe
- Sabel, Charles F., and Jonathan Zeitlin, eds. World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, (1997)
- Sluyterman, Keetie E. Dutch Enterprise in the Twentieth Century: Business Strategies in a Small Open Economy (2005) online edition
- Tignor, Robert L. "The Business Firm in Africa." Business History Review 2007 81(1): 87-110. Issn: 0007-6805
- Wilson, John F. British Business History, 1720-1994 (1995)
- Amatori, Franco, and Geoffrey Jones, eds. Business History Around the World (2003) online edition
- Barbero, María Inés. "Business History in Latin America: A Historiographical Perspective," Business History Review, Autumn 2008, Vol. 82 Issue 3, pp 555–575
- Decker, Stephanie, Matthias Kipping, and R. Daniel Wadhwani. "New business histories! Plurality in business history research methods." Business History (2015) 57#1 pp: 30-40.
- Engel, Von Alexander. "Die Transformation von Märkten und die Entstehung moderner Unternehmen," [The Transformation of Markets and the Emergence of Modern Enterprises] Jahrbuch fuer Wirtschaftsgeschichte (2012), Issue 2, pp 93-111
- Friedman, Walter A., and Geoffrey Jones. "Time for Debate,"Business History Review, (Autumn 2011) 85#1 pp:1-8.
- Friedman, Walter A., and Geoffrey Jones, eds. Business History (2014) 720pp; reprint of scholarly articles published 1934 to 2012
- Galambos, Louis. American Business History. Service Center for Teachers of History. 1967, historiographical pamphlet. online version
- Grafe, Regina, and Oscar Gelderblom. "The Rise and Fall of the Merchant Guilds: Re-thinking the Comparative Study of Commercial Institutions in Premodern Europe," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, (2010) 40#4 pp 477–511. online; Comparative study of the origins and development of merchant guilds in Europe, esp. their emergence during the late Middle Ages and their decline in the Early Modern era
- Gras, N.S.B. and Henrietta M. Larson. Casebook in American Business History (1939), with short biographies, company histories and outlines of the main issues
- Gras, N. S. B. "Are You Writing a Business History?" Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 1944 18(4): 73-110. detailed guide to writing one; in JSTOR
- Hansen, Per H., “Business History: A Cultural and Narrative Approach,” Business History Review, 86 (Winter 2012), 693–717.
- Harvey, Charles. Business History: concepts and measurement (1989)
- Harvey, Charles, and John Turner. Labour and Business in Modern Britain 1989
- Hashino, Tomoko, and Osamu Saito. "Tradition and interaction: research trends in modern Japanese industrial history," Australian Economic History Review, Nov 2004, Vol. 44 Issue 3, pp 241–258
- Honeyman, Katrina. "Doing Business with Gender: Service Industries and British Business History." Business History Review 2007 81(3): 471-493.
- John, Richard R. "Elaborations, Revisions, Dissents: Alfred D. Chander, Jr.'s, The Visible Hand after Twenty Years," Business History Review 71 (Summer 1997): 151–200.
- Johnman, Lewis and Murphy, Hugh. "Maritime and Business History in Britain: Past, Present, and Future?" International Journal of Maritime History 2007 19(1): 239-270. Issn: 0843-8714
- Kirkland, Edward C. "The Robber Barons Revisited," The American Historical Review, Vol. 66, No. 1. (Oct., 1960), pp. 68–73. in JSTOR
- Klass, Lance, and Susan Kinnell. Corporate America: A Historical Bibliography 1984
- Klein, Maury. "Coming Full Circle: the Study of Big Business since 1950." Enterprise & Society: the International Journal of Business History 2001 2(3): 425-460. Issn: 1467-2227 Fulltext: OUP
- Larson, Henrietta M. "Business History: Retrospect and Prospect." Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 1947 21(6): 173-199. in Jstor
- McCarthy, Dennis M. International Business History: A Contextual and Case Approach (1994)
- McElderry, Andrea Lee, Jane Kate Leonard, and Robert Gardella. Chinese Business History: Interpretive Trends and Priorities for the Future (1998)
- Rollings, Neil. "British Business History: a Review of the Periodical Literature for 2005." Business History 2007 49(3): 271-292. Issn: 0007-6791
- Supple, Barry Emmanuel. Essays in British Business History (1977)
- Toms, Steven and Wilson, John F. "Scale, Scope and Accountability: Towards a New Paradigm of British Business History." Business History 2003 45(4): 1-23. Issn: 0007-6791
- Tucker, Kenneth Arthur. Business History: Selected Readings (1977)
Special studies: world
- Bowen, H. V. Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756-1833 (2006), 304pp
Special studies: U.S.
- Bailyn, Bernard. The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (1955);
- Cochran, Thomas C. The Pabst Brewing Company: The History of an American Business (1948) online edition
- Cole, Arthur H. The American Wool Manufacture 2 vol (1926)
- Dicke, Thomas S. Franchising in America: The Development of a Business Method, 1840-1980 (1992) online edition
- Doerflinger, Thomas M. A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia (1986)
- Friedman, Walter A. Birth of a Salesman. The Transformation of Selling in America(2005)
- Friedman, Walter A. Fortune Tellers. The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters(2013)
- Pak, Susie J. Gentlemen Bankers. The World of J.P. Morgan (2013)
- Scranton, Philip. Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800–1885 (1983)
- Scranton, Philip. Figured Tapestry: Production, Markets, and Power in Philadelphia Textiles, 1885–1941 (1989).
- Tucker, Barbara M. Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, 1790–1860 (1984)
- Weare, Walter B. Black Business in the New South: A Social History of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (1993) online edition
- Wilkins, Mira. The Emergence of Multinational Enterprise(1970)
- Wilkins, Mira. The Maturing of Multinational Enterprise (1974)
- Wilkins, Mira. The History of Foreign Investment in the United States before 1914(1989)
- Wilkins, Mira. The History of Foreign Investment in the United States 1914-1945(2004)
- Williamson, Harold F. and Arnold R. Daum. The American Petroleum Industry: The Age of Illumination, 1859-1899, (1959); online edition vol 1; vol 2, American Petroleum Industry: the Age of Energy 1899-1959, 1964. The standard history of the oil industry.