Paper Empire: Literature, the Travelers Cheque, and the Redescription of American Imperialism, 1891-1958
University of Manchester
Dr Gordon Fraser
Professor Peter Knight
While the American Express company shaped early twentieth-century culture, few scholars have considered this company outside of business history. For instance, Peter Grossman’s American Express (1987) was solely an economic history. The other exception is Merve Emre, though her consideration of the role of American Express is brief and limited to expatriate literary productions. My project builds upon this work by considering how American Express shaped early twentieth-century culture.
I argue that the launch of the American Express Travelers cheque in 1891 marked a new era, particularly for black Americans. While escaping the racial tensions at home, black artists in early twentieth-century Europe engaged with American Express in ways that influenced their cultural experiences but also shaped the role of American Express globally. I will demonstrate how black American newspapers, such as The Chicago Defender, were instrumental in romanticising Europe as an idyll for black Americans. The continuous referral to the American Express office also symbolises a freedom and neutrality alongside facilitating non-discriminatory travel and communication. The contrast to American life also functions as a critique of the racial intolerance in America.
Ultimately, this project reveals how the culture of empire is produced through the relationship between marginalised individuals and powerful institutions. The US would in the twentieth century evolve into a new kind of empire—a global financial empire. And American Express would become both an instrument for and a cultural symbol of that new regime.
My research interests span across the relationships between finance and imperialism in late nineteenth and early twentieth century American literature. My current focus is on mobility during the 1920s Black French Renaissance.
“American Express and Color-Blindness: The Alternative Stories of Black Mobility.” Presented at The Archives of Economic Life: A Researching Event for Historians of Capitalism and Corporate (University of Manchester, June 2023)
“Race and the American Express company in Europe in the inter-war years,” Presented at the British Association for American Studies Annual Conference (BAAS, April 2023)