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My teaching and research interests include the history of consumer culture, material culture, visual culture, secondary economies, and capitalism, particularly in 19th-century America, and I am especially interested in better understanding the lives of ordinary people. I have written on subjects as wide-ranging as the history of child criminals, free give-aways, and representations of time in visual imagery. My most recent book is Crap. A History of Cheap Stuff in America (Chicago, 2020, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Criticism, and a finalist for the Hagley Prize for best book in business history. It has been translated into Korean and will also soon be published in Chinese. I also wrote In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (Chicago, 2009), and Refined Tastes: Sugar, Consumers, and Confectionery in 19th-Century America (Johns Hopkins, 2002); and I co-edited the collection Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of 19th-Century America (2015). My current project is on the history of novelty.

I am also an artist, with an MFA in printmaking, who has taught studio art courses in silkscreen, etching, and non-traditional printmaking techniques.