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Spotlight on Historical Collections

Infamous Financial Bubble Attracts Diverse Set of Researchers to Historical Collections

Published: 10/15/2005

Even smart people like Sir Isaac Newton may have been tempted by the South Sea Company in 1720. The company's elaborate scheme to relieve the British government of public debt attracted investors in droves. And if Newton and prominent individuals such as the poet and dramatist John Gay could have been lured into the speculative frenzy of this joint-stock effort, the common man didn't stand a chance.

Newton, who is rumored to have forfeited 20,000, would have been just one of the many investors who lost their shirts in this dramatic and influential financial bubble. Dramatic because share prices zoomed from 128 to 1,050 and plummeted to 175 in a single year; influential because the subsequent pall on investing may have stifled economic progress for years to come, though this remains hotly debated. The South Sea era also marked an important time of widespread private investment, when ordinary people could get involved, and burned, in the stock market.

Researchers from within and outside Harvard are diving into Baker Library Historical Collections' rich array of resources on the South Sea Bubble. A number of them, including all of the visual materials, have been digitized in an online Web guide. The collection yields a wide range of material that can improve our understanding of everything from investor psychology to high finance. Just a few of the researchers who've pored through the collection include:

  • A Harvard University graduate student in the history of art and architecture, who used the set of South Sea playing cards to investigate the connection between gambling and capitalism. She also examined scenes on the playing cards to study cultural change.
  • Playing Cards
  • A University of Hamburg graduate student, who sought information in the collection to shed light on the involvement of Handel in the South Sea Bubble. As it turned out, Handel was not mentioned in Baker's manuscript resources, but the researcher uncovered other leads to pursue.
  • A Brown University professor, who used multiple items from the collection in her class "Money and Society: An Introduction to Economic Sociology."

The South Sea Collection index lists over 300 items of financial, social, and cultural interest; 26 titles and the collection's 74 images plus all 52 playing cards have been digitized to date. Wonderfully detailed historical resources trace the evolution of finance. Pamphlet literature documents the excitement of the time. Among the collection's subject areas are Commerce and Trade, Companies, Crime and Law, Finance, Government and Politics, and Recreation and Arts. Alexander Pope wrote a poem to deride the swindle; Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe also penned commentary.

"This is our first step toward making the South Sea Bubble Collection truly a virtual collection," says project manager Karen Bailey. While the online guide assists researchers in connecting with resources, researchers are encouraged to view the collection in person. "We welcome and encourage use of the original material," says Bailey. "The digital versions are not replacements for materials in their original state."

An accompanying exhibit in the lobby of Baker Library will continue through January 29, 2006.

Contact: Historical Collections

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