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Assembling the Property Market in Imperial Britain, c. 1750-1925


“Assembling the Property Market in Imperial Britain, c. 1750-1925” examines how the market for British property was made over the course of a long nineteenth century. I argue that while land had long been subject to commercial interests, the institutions and practices configuring its exchange changed over time and in ways that reflected larger cultural transformations in the meaning of marketable property. The very idea of a "property market" did not enter common discourse until the second half of the nineteenth century, and, rather than see this as simply a new way of representing already existing practices, I suggest that, in fact, the concept of a coherent property market was entirely new and that it had arisen over the previous century and within the context of Britain's broader social, commercial and imperial transformations. This property market depended, moreover, upon a variety of new spatial, cultural and material practices that brought the buying and selling of land into greater public view.

One way it became possible to see the market, for example, was through the practice of market agents, such as auctioneers and estate agents, whose ranks swelled throughout the nineteenth century and whose newfound knowledge of the market bolstered their claims to professional status. These professionals and other property interests built new facilities modeled on other commodity exchanges that made it possible to imagine a single national market and that provided a venue for negotiating the cultural meaning and social relations of marketable property. They designed new methods for gathering, analyzing and reporting market information and for communicating to the wider public the coherency of the market and its relationship to society and politics. Finally, they conceived new legal and bureaucratic mechanisms, such title registration, for securing more efficient real property transactions. In each of these developments the status of property as a commodity was always in question and depended as much upon the coordination of people, places and things as it did on any single idea of what it meant to buy and sell land and houses.

Finally, this dissertation seeks to broaden historical understanding about what it means to speak of a market for property in Britain and more generally. It proposes a more contingent notion of markets and explores some of the multiple ways in which they have evolved out of and been sustained by the local coordination of space, people and things. In this way, it opens an agenda for considering how cultural histories of the economic might contribute to larger inquiries into the relationship between economy and society in the modern world.

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