Travis E. Ross

Historian of capitalism, knowledge, and the Pacific World


Cover illustration from the April 18, 1885 edition of The Wasp

Hubert Howe Bancroft, depicted in The Wasp, April 18, 1885.

My research asserts continuity in the history of knowledge across the watershed decades that witnessed the rise of the American research university and the rapid professionalization of knowledge within ostensibly new academic disciplines thereafter.

Titled History, Inc., my monograph will trace the rise and fall of the California bookseller Hubert Howe Bancroft’s for-profit History Company between roughly 1870 and 1890. Bancroft used the capital, network, and methods from his print empire on the Pacific to muster a transnational intellectual network that collaboratively produced the core collection of what became UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library as well as the foundational 39-volume history of the North American West. Bancroft’s application of his company’s economies of scope and scale to an important intellectual project have long been a curiosity for historians of the American West, but this monograph will use Bancroft’s operation to explore the final decades of the nineteenth century as a moment of rapid innovation and experimentation in the history of knowledge. In place of the familiar story of the creation of the American research university, History, Inc. will explore Bancroft’s company as one among several enterprises—including at least two distinct academic operations—that all promised sustainable models for the production of serious knowledge at an unprecedented scope and scale.

This is a story with surprising contemporary resonance. It captures a moment of hopeful and fearful uncertainty in which the revolutionary potential of new technologies, business models, and platforms promised to revolutionize who could create, distribute, access, and curate the overflow of knowledge that constantly fed a burgeoning the relentless appetite of a rapidly growing section of the public.

In a few complementary articles, I will examine how academic professionalization restructured popular and elite expectations regarding serious historical writing, remaking the subfield of western history in the process.