On The Problems Of Credit In The 19th Century New England Economy


I don’t expect a letter of gratitude from Josh Lauer, author of Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, for being the first person to take his new book of that identity out from the library, but I wouldn’t turn it down either. Anyway, what’s got me is this mention about early credit reports:

The Merchants’ Protective Union in Norwich, Connecticut employed an even more baroque scheme. In addition to eleven uppercase alphabetical ratings, from A (“considered honest but unable to pay”) to K (“is paying on bills formerly reported”), another eighteen lowercase letters were used to indicate the type of retailer to whom debts were owed, from bakers and butchers to furniture dealers and undertakers.

So, first thought. There were enough people burying folks on credit in 19th century Norwich, Connecticut, that undertakers needed to check on who was behind on their debts to other area undertakers? I suppose that’s fair. This was an era when childhood mortality was something like 1.8 children for every child born, with the average New England wife having something like 12 pregnancies every ten years and the family only propagating by kidnapping Canadians who stood a little too close to the edge of Maine. And that’s before you factor in lives lost to cholera, malaria, more cholera, yellow fever, malnutrition, extra-cholera, train derailments, factory accidents, more yellow fever, and striking factory workers being shot by Federal troops before being run over by a cholera-bearing yellow-fever train. There was a lot of undertaking to, uh, undertake.

Second. There were eighteen kinds of retailers back then? I’ve done some reading on 19th Century American commerce. Not enough to get my Masters or anything, you know, but enough to not panic if I wandered into an academic conference about the thing. But if you asked me to list what retail establishments existed in that era I would have come up with this:

  1. General store selling loose, stale crackers and/or soap or possibly grain scooped out of the same wooden barrels.
  2. Department store where women point out lengths of ribbons they wanted to buy, which were then wrapped up and delivered to their homes, without the customer ever being allowed within ten feet of an actual product.
  3. Dentist who does “painless” extractions by letting the patient suckle a while on a chilled glass pacifier soaked in whiskey and arsenic.
  4. Yes, undertaker.
  5. Shoe cobbler who’s angry at all these shenanigans.
  6. Other, less successful, general store selling tinned items, with the clerk played by Harold Lloyd.

Yes, I know Harold Lloyd is too young to have clerked at a 19th Century general store. I am talking about how the store was portrayed in the movie about how he went from humble general store clerk to becoming the love of Mildred Davis’s life. Anyway that still leaves me short of twelve different kinds of establishment that could be owed money by creditors. I know what you’re thinking: what about the drayage industry? Won’t do. Why would the Merchants’ Protective Union have anything of interest to say to them? They’re not merchants, they’re people who have the ability to haul things from one location to another. Something is clearly missing. Oh, I guess there’s “sweets vendor who sells a lick on a ring of `ice cream’ that’s a wad of cotton glued to a metal post kept in ice water so people think they tasted something for their three cents”, but that’s still eleven more kinds of merchant to go.

Anyway the book’s interesting and I hope to read it sometime.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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