Among the most often-asked questions about early Albany relate to the community economy, its business, or how this early American city actually worked! This basic yet complex part of the early Albany story is at the heart of the inquiry of the Colonial Albany Social History Project. We think about the community economy virtually every day! This page begins to address the concept and provides basic access to what we have found and think we understand. It is very much in-progress!
Generally, the community economy is a term of convenience describing how the associated people of a particular place provided for themselves, produced and marketed products to gain access to external goods and services, and made their community an attractive destination for new customers and new community members.
Again for convenience, we can divide the community economy into three basic elements. These are defined as commerce, production, and service. Without much difficulty, most economic activities can be grouped under these three headings.
The Commercial Economy: At the top of the pyramid are the community's buyers and sellers. These business people were called merchants, traders, vendors, and contractors. In control of Albany's municipal government, they were able to structure the flow of goods and services in and out of the community. In the process, they employed members of the production and service economies. In early Albany, these descendants of the fur traders invested profits in land and sold country products and imported items to the settlers of an expanding countryside. Sometimes they owned mills, processing facilities, storehouses, and ships. Some of these businessmen had direct connections to overseas markets and resources. Those who offered manufactured and finely crafted goods from Europe and more exotic spices, foods, and fabrics were often called import merchants. But most Albany merchants were more closely tied to the business community in New York City. It was in their interest to take charge of community development. They were early Albany's city fathers. These elite citizens ranked in the top quarter of the community's wealth with the real power brokers in the top 5%. Merchants included native sons as well as talented and ambitious newcomers.
The Production Economy: These
were the community's makers and fixers.
For most of the eighteenth century, the artisans and tradesmen contstituted
the largest part of the community economy. They varied widely in terms
of their wealth. Many owned their own homes, shops, and storage facilities.
Others rented a room in someone's house. For many, their goal was to
move up to the commercial class! Although numerous, their numbers were
eroded by the importation of manufactured goods from the European Industrial
The Service Economy: Includes all transporters, those providing food and lodging, storage and docking facilities, professional (legal and medical) and human services. Those who derived their livlihood from service to/of government, the courts, or religion also can be considered in this sector.
Family or Domestic Economy: Refers to those goods and services produced within a household to subsist and empower household members. This work usually involved spouses and dependants and took place within the home.
Grocers sold fresh food products. By the end of the eighteenth century, they were licenced by the Albany Council and some lists of licencees appear in the city records. The first city directory in 1813, listed grocers on virtually every page - a total of at least 120 individuals with addresses spread around the city but mostly beyond the central core. Unlike the 27 shopkeepers whose shops (some services but more often preparation and repair places) and the 91 storekeepers (sales) were separate from their residences, most grocers were not listed with multiple addresses.
The more I learn about the community economy,
posted: 5/1/02; updated 9/6/09