Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 November 2018
This article discusses the relational and rhetorical foundations of more than 300 first letters sent in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by merchant or banking houses based in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Americas to two prominent French firms: Roux Brothers and Greffulhe Montz & Cie. We used a quantitative analysis of qualitative aspects of first letters to go beyond the standard opposition between premodern personal exchanges and modern impersonal transactions. The expansion of commercial networks during the period under analysis is often believed to have relied on families and ethnic networks and on explicit recommendations worded in the formulas prescribed in merchant manuals. However, most first letters did not use such resources. In many cases, commercial operations began thanks to a mutual acquaintance but without a formal recommendation. This was in fact the norm in the eighteenth century—and an underestimated foundation of the expansion of European commercial networks. In the early nineteenth century, this norm became less prevalent: it was replaced by diverse relational and rhetorical strategies, from recommendations to prospective letters dispensing with any mention of relationships. Whether before or after 1800, the relational and rhetorical resources displayed in letters did not systematically influence the sender’s chances of becoming a correspondent; instead, they depended on the receiving firm’s commercial strategy.
This article is part of a wider research project, Fiduciae, funded by the French National Agency for Research, and led by Arnaud Bartolomei (see http://cmmc-nice.fr/recherches-2/programmes-finances-2/fiduciae/). Other members of the Fiduciae team, along with the authors, directly participated in the collection of the data from archival material. The authors thank Thierry Allain, Marguerite Martin, Thomas Mollanger, Matthieu de Oliveira, and Sylvie Vabre for this contribution. The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers; as well as the participants of Fiduciae workshops in Paris, Lille, and Nice; in the Center for the Sociology of Organizations and Laboratoire de recherche historique Rhône-Alpes/Triangle seminars; and in the Toulouse Business School conference, “Networks and Finance in the Long Term”; and especially Guillaume Calafat, Veronica Aoki Santarosa, Alina Surubaru, and Francesca Trivellato for helpful comments. Valentine Leys-Legoupil provided excellent English editing.