Social capital has been seen as having a positive effect on health, and the concept of social capital has been viewed as of central importance to debates about healthy, sustainable communities. More generally, behaviour and its relationship with health has become much more central to policy-making, as illustrated in the Choosing Health White Paper (2005), and the concept of social capital has been one influence on the concept of social exclusion. Robert Putnam’s arguments, both those expressed in Making Democracy Work (1993) and the revised version seen in Bowling Alone (2000) have been taken up by numerous social scientists and policy-makers. But despite the explicitly historical perspective that Putnam employs in Bowling Alone in particular, the history of social capital remains rather neglected in the available literature. This article is concerned with providing a historical perspective on social capital, especially the ways in which social investigators have viewed the relationships between health, poverty and behaviour. The article puts social capital alongside that of ‘underclass’ concepts such as the culture of poverty thesis, and examines how the latter has been invented and reinvented in the UK and the USA over the last 120 years. It argues that there are important similarities between the culture of poverty and social capital, but also significant differences, and these have implications for current policy initiatives. One way of analysing concepts like social capital and social exclusion more rigorously is by locating them within this longer-term history of social investigation, in which debates about health, poverty, and culture have been of key significance.