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.

I engage the economic and cultural histories of private support for the arts and humanities before the rise of the American research university. My work recovers the nineteenth-century precursor to more recent crowdsourcing and crowdfunding movement. It investigates how the California bookseller Huber Howe Bancroft’s company and other private enterprises used subscriptions—broadly construed—to raise capital and to elicit cultural support for their works.

As public funding for the arts and humanities has receded in recent decades, anxieties have grown concerning the influence and dependability of private support. Corporate subscription services have gained massive power to shape content even as crowdsource services have provided new opportunities for common people to support works they consider important beyond the traditional marketplace. My research historicizes those ostensibly new phenomena, examining the business models that made knowledge before the increasingly corporate university.

I am currently working on a book manuscript and a few supporting articles, all of which examine how capitalism structured humanistic knowledge production before and after academic professionalization. My monograph will examine the private, for-profit historical enterprise operated in San Francisco by the bookseller Hubert Howe Bancroft. Between roughly 1870 and 1890, Bancroft assembled a vast and diverse intellectual network to research, write, and promote a grand history of Pacific North America to a diverse international audience. By adapting canvassing techniques from its subscription publishing department, Bancroft’s company created nineteenth-century predecessors to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in order to produce Pacific history on an industrial scale.

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.