Documenting The Other Canon in the History of Economic Thought

A large part of the most influential economics books in history, and their authors, are not mentioned in today’s textbooks in the history of economic thought. In fact, these textbooks tend to focus as if economics originated in 18th century physiocracy, a tradition that was very short-lived in terms of actual policy influence. The anti-physiocrats, who established the policies that made Europe into a wealthy continent during the decades and centuries to follow, are hardly ever mentioned. Our research shows that an emphasis on manufacturing dominated the economic discourse at least since the late 1500s.

The Kress Collection at Harvard Business School contains the world’s most famous collection of economics books. This collection was formed by the collecting efforts of the British economist Herbert Somerton Foxwell (1849-1936). At the suggestion of professor and head librarian Arthur Cole, the former curator of the Kress collection – Kenneth Carpenter – worked for decades collecting data on the translations of economics books, thus documenting how ideas moved across Europe. The sheer volume of translations is indicated by the fact that only from and into Swedish there were more than 200 translations of economics literature before 1850. In the mid-1970s Fernanda Reinert worked as a librarian in The Kress Collection when – in 1975 – Kenneth Carpenter published ‘The Economic Bestsellers Before 1850’ listing 40 bestselling economic books before 1850.

Carpenter later put the material on the economic bestsellers at the disposal of The Other Canon Foundation, and – partly in cooperation with Carpenter – Erik, Fernanda, and Sophus Reinert have published on the economic bestsellers. The number of economics books published in 10 editions or more before 1850 has now reached 90, of which 33 were published before 1750 and reached 10 editions or more before 1850.  

The article looking at the 33 economics bestsellers that were published before 1750 covers a period before physiocracy and before the works of Adam Smith, a period which has been largely neglected in the history of economic thought. The article sheds new light on the early bestselling contributions of German and Italian economists, and on an internationally famous Spanish economist at the time. Also of interest is that three of the bestselling English economists of the period are so forgotten that they do not even have an entry in Wikipedia (as of July 1, 2018).