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Jane Kamensky
President and Fellows of Harvard College (Waltham, MA 02453-2728)

Fellowships for University Teachers
Research Programs

$40,000 (approved)
$40,000 (awarded)

Grant period:
7/1/2004 – 6/30/2005

The Exchange Artist: A Story of Paper, Bricks, and Ash in Early National America

On the night of 3 November 1818, the Boston Exchange Coffee House (or BECH)--a seven-story, 102,000 square foot architectural wonder--burned to the ground. Like the building itself--which was among the largest in North America while it stood from 1809 to 1818--the fire was outsized, a spectacle visible fifty miles away. More important, its observers saw a moral in the smoldering ruin. One witness offered a biblical reading of the scene: the Coffee House, he said, "was conceived in sin, brought forth in iniquity," and "is now purified by fire." The life and death of the BECH was an Icarus tale: a parable for an ambitious people about the dangers of reaching too high. In a book that seeks to combine graceful narrative and probing analysis, THE EXCHANGE ARTIST tells the story of the BECH from its birth in "sin and iniquity" in the early years of the 19th century through its destruction by fire on the eve of the Jacksonian era. The "sinner" behind the building was Andrew Dexter, Junior (1779-1837), a visionary schemer who financed the Coffee House through a chain of speculation that stretched from Boston to the Michigan woods. The 1809 collapse of Dexter's house of cards--the BECH's paper doppelganger--precipitated one of the largest bankruptcies in American history. The impact of what was called "Dexter's consummate folly" (a phrase that referred to both the banking scheme and the building) was ethical as well as economic. As Dexter's banks shuttered, countless New Englanders were "ruined, . . . their families in poverty." The ethical fall out, if less tangible, reached farther and lasted longer. The looming BECH and the ruined fortunes it left behind forced Americans to wrestle with the meaning of exchange in all its economic, social, and cultural manifestations. This book, then, is at once a study of place, a biography, and the history of an idea: of the contested and evolving notion of exchange during the difficult birth of modern money culture in America.