Business History Review


Kindling a Flame under Federalism: Progressive Reformers, Corporate Elites, and the Phosphorus Match Campaign of 1909–1912

David A. Mossa1

a1 David A. Moss is assistant professor of business administration at Harvard University.


In 1909, the leaders of the American Association for Labor Legislation launched a campaign to eradicate phosphorus matches from the American market. Because phosphorus match workers often contracted a hideous disease called phosphorus necrosis (or “phossy jaw”), many European countries had already prohibited the poison matches from their markets. In the United States, nearly all interested parties supported legal abolition but found that the nation's federal system constituted a formidable obstacle. No state wanted to be the first to act (for fear of driving industry from its borders), and the federal government lacked the power to regulate intrastate economic activity. This article examines how, in order to circumvent the federalism obstacle, an alliance of academic reformers and business leaders worked to tax phosphorus matches out of existence—that is, to use the federal taxing power as a regulatory instrument.

David A. Moss is assistant professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, where he teaches in the Business, Government, and Competition area. He graduated from Cornell University (B.A., 1986) and earned an M.A. in economics (1988) and a Ph.D. in history (1992) from Yale University. In 1992 and 1993, he served as a senior economist at Abt Associates, a public policy consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His first book, tentatively titled “Regulating Risk: American Economists and Their Crusade for Worker Security, 1900–1920,” will be published by Harvard University Press in 1995.