Laura Phillips Sawyer

Harvard-Newcomen Fellow

Laura D. Phillips Sawyer is the Newcomen Fellow in Business History. She received her PhD in American History from the University of Virginia in 2011, and subsequently held a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. Her research focuses on the history of capitalism in the United States. She exploits legal theory, the history of economic thought, and business history to explain how the emergence of various types of regulation – both seen and unseen – shaped trends in American consumerism and business culture. Dr. Sawyer is currently finishing a book entitled American Fair Trade: Proprietary Capitalism, Networks, and the New Competition, 1890-1940, which is under contract with Cambridge University Press. American Fair Trade explains how a loose combination of small proprietors were able to coordinate a national movement in the United States to reform antitrust laws and institute codes of fair competition. The focus is on the business and politics of changing distribution networks in the retail drug industry. Her next research project explores how the history of American capitalism has been shaped by trends in legal and economic theory, emphasizing the influence of legal realists and institutional economists on interwar social and economic regulation.

  1. Contested Meanings of Freedom

    In 1886, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited employers from paying wages in company store scrip and mandated monthly wage payments. The court held that the legislature could not pre-scribe mandatory wage contracts for legally competent workingmen. The decision quashed over two decades of efforts to end the “truck system.”Although legislators had agreed that wage payments redeemable only in company store goods appeared antithetical to the free labor wage system, two obstacles complicated legislative action. Any law meant to enhance laborers’ rights could neither favor one class over another nor infringe any workingman’s ability to make voluntary contracts. These distinctions, however, were not as rigid and laissez faire-oriented as depicted by conventional history. Labor reformers argued that principles of equity must supplement these categories of class legislation and contract freedom. This essay explores how legal doctrine helped both sides of the anti-truck debatearticulate the contested meanings of liberty.