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Trading Spaces

The Colonial Marketplace and the Foundations of American Capitalism

When we talk about the economy, “the market” is often just an abstraction. While the exchange of goods was historically tied to a particular place, capitalism has gradually eroded this connection to create our current global trading systems. In Trading Spaces, Emma Hart argues that Britain’s colonization of North America was a key moment in the market’s shift from place to idea, with major consequences for the character of the American economy.

Hart’s booktakes in the shops, auction sites, wharves, taverns, fairs, and homes of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America—places where new mechanisms and conventions of trade arose as Europeans re-created or adapted continental methods to new surroundings. Since those earlier conventions tended to rely on regulation more than their colonial offspring did, what emerged in early America was a less fettered brand of capitalism. By the nineteenth century this had evolved into a market economy that would not look too foreign to contemporary Americans. To tell this complex transnational story of how our markets came to be, Hart looks back farther than most historians of US capitalism, rooting these markets in the norms of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. Perhaps most important, this is not a story of specific commodity markets over time but rather is a history of the trading spaces themselves: the physical sites in which the grubby work of commerce occurred and where the market itself was born.

Author Information

Emma Hart is a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of St. Andrews.


“Fascinating and insightful, Trading Spacesis a major contribution. Hart provides an important corrective to recent scholarship, reminding us that though capitalism may be a global system, it is enacted and effected locally. I can see no other book that makes clear the significance of market practice to the evolution of economic relations, political economy, and imperial politics in the way that Trading Spacesdoes.”
— Joanna Cohen, author of Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America

“Original and innovative. No other workbrings early American economic experience into direct comparison with contemporary British practices and simultaneously explores the racial and ethnic dimensions of colonial marketplaces. Trading Spacesis well-reasoned and even-handed,but its argument should prove provocative in that it will ask early Americanists to reconsider their preconceptions. This will be an indispensable book.”
— Christopher Clark, author of The Roots of Rural Capitalism

“A compelling addition to the history of capitalism, Trading Spaces reminds us that globalization’s current realities have deep roots in the early modern era. Hart explores the shift from marketplaces to markets through the lens of colonization, revealing how the explosion of global trade gave rise to clashing visions about people’s interactions with markets, with consequences for both America’s independence and its capitalist future.”
— Margaret Newell, author of Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery

Audience: Professional and scholarly;