’Fortune 500’ of 1812 Shows U.S. Banks’ Early Influence
Fortune magazine began publishing annual rankings of U.S. corporations by revenue in 1955. Ever since, scholars and forecasters have analyzed changes in the Fortune 500 to help inform their judgments about industry concentration and the relative importance of different sectors of the economy.
Historians would love to have snapshots of the nation’s largest corporations at earlier dates. Unfortunately data are scarce, especially before the Civil War. Based on our research, however, it is now possible to create a sort of historical “Fortune 500” ranked by corporate capitalization — the total sum stockholders were supposed to pay for their shares.
Conveniently for us, states regulated corporate equity capital, sometimes by specifying a precise amount of capital but other times indicating an acceptable range. They usually published the figure or range as part of the laws that incorporated each company. We have compiled that data here to provide a snapshot of the U.S. economy in 1812. (See graphic.)