With very few exceptions, existing scholarship on public memory in America has tended to script commercial-industrial “development” as the implacable adversary of legitimate collective remembering. Indeed, it has become a virtual article of faith that any attempt at commercially underwritten historical reconstruction involves, by definition, an act of historical falsification. This essay sets about to revise this longstanding conceit by pondering some of the specific ways that industrial and commercial development practices came during the early twentieth century to be imagined as technologies for producing new and viable models of a specifically white-collar history. To make this argument, I focus on the phenomenon of historical tourism, a movement that gained popularity in the 1920s and 30s (typified by such ventures as Henry Ford's Greenfield Village and John D. Rockefeller's Colonial Williamsburg), which dedicated itself to reconstructing vestiges of America's “bygone” past. Using Colonial Williamsburg as my case study, I explore how the planners and promoters behind this movement forged a discourse of historical reconstruction designed to make the tactics of industrial-commercial development compatible with the vaunted ideals of historical recovery and cultural conservation. More specifically, I show how this discourse labored to imagine the past itself as a useful and fungible resource: a raw material to be taken up, managed, and improved by the agents of the modern corporate-capitalist order.

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