The Bank in the Background

Here we are, three adults, sitting in toddler-sized chairs in a former church basement. High-pitched laughter and kid chatter wafts in from the next room, where snacks are about to be served. I’m in the pre-K classroom of Energy Capital Cooperative Child Care, a new daycare center in Mercer County, N.D., and I’m chatting with Dana Santini, who manages the center, and local bank leader … Continue reading The Bank in the Background

Bank City USA

Here’s a financial trivia question: What does Tupelo, Miss., have that some of America’s largest metro areas, including Atlanta, Phoenix and San Diego, don’t? The answer: at least two midsize or larger banks headquartered there. Tupelo—a town located in the gently rolling hills halfway between Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., and with a population a little shy of 40,000—is the smallest U.S. city to have … Continue reading Bank City USA

Lincoln and the Banks

It is a testament to the scale of Abraham Lincoln’s place in history that his notable accomplishments in the financial sector are little known today. Alexander Hamilton’s financial innovations are celebrated in a Broadway musical, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s banking reforms are packaged with the rest of the New Deal policies as a legacy. But Lincoln—whose policies on banks were as transformative as either Hamilton’s … Continue reading Lincoln and the Banks

Nine Young Bankers Who Changed America

Early in 2016, while tracing the history of U.S. savings banks for an article I was writing on their bicentennial, I was intrigued by the stories of two of the founders of the savings bank movement: Philadelphian Condy Raguet and Bostonian James Savage. Both were 32 when, in 1816, they founded the first American savings banks in their respective hometowns. In addition to their contributions … Continue reading Nine Young Bankers Who Changed America

Blue-Collar Banking

A cool November day in 1816 Philadelphia found Condy Raguet strolling down Chestnut Street, reflecting on ideas he had just read about the “friendly societies” and mutually owned savings banks popping up all over Great Britain to promote thrift among the poor.

A handsome, well-traveled, well-read 32-year-old merchant, Raguet bumped into a few friends and asked if they had heard of the concept. “Would you unite with me,” he asked, “to establish one?” The friends—one of them a scion of Philadelphia’s wealthy Biddle family—had indeed heard of the savings-bank concept and wanted to cooperate with Raguet. They decided to call their new institution the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society. Continue reading “Blue-Collar Banking”

The Birth of the American Bankers Association

A massive construction bubble, driven both by speculative investments and government subsidies. Investment houses with excessive leverage in that very same construction bubble. A stock market crash, a spike in unemployment, global panic, a wave of domestic bank failures and resounding political consequences.

If this scenario recalls to you the past several years, then you’ll well understand the drama into which the American Bankers Association was born in 1875.

The construction bubble had been in railroads, whose growth had been jumpstarted by the completion of the first transcontinental line in 1863 and the need for rebuilding after the Civil War. From 1868 to 1873, more than 30,000 miles of new track were laid, and speculators piled into railroad stocks.

Continue reading “The Birth of the American Bankers Association”

Imperial Might vs. Widow’s Mite

In A.D. 313, just one short decade after a massive, bloody persecution of Christians, the Emperor Constantine granted religious toleration to the small Christian churches in the Roman Empire. Flash forward two centuries. In 476, the Emperor was deposed at Ravenna, effectively ending the Roman Empire in the West. On the former date, the empire was vast and Christianity was marginal; by the latter, the empire was fractured, and Christianity had become the dominant religious and social movement in the Mediterranean world.


In his magisterial new study of this era, acclaimed classical historian Peter Brown attributes this transformation to the evolution of wealth and, in particular, philanthropy in Christian churches. Continue reading “Imperial Might vs. Widow’s Mite”

Banana Sam

The banana tycoon Samuel Zemurray is an attractive and difficult subject for biography. Attractive, because his life is a biographer’s playground: He ran the United Fruit Company for two decades, from 1933 to 1954, was an irrepressible meddler in world affairs, and came to be numbered among the American South’s most notable philanthropists. Difficult, because there are few clear accounts of Zemurray’s adventures, as he meticulously cultivated his privacy, as Rich Cohen writes in The Fish That Ate the Whale. And yet in this, the first full-length biography of Zemurray, Cohen builds a remarkable story from a life half lived in the shadows.

Schmuel Zmurri was born in 1877 in Bessarabia, modern-day Moldova, and emigrated to the United States at age 14. In 1893, he visited Mobile, Alabama, where the teenager spied his first opportunity in the banana trade. Continue reading “Banana Sam”

Duke of Carolina

As a cardinal flies, it’s only three miles from a modest tobacco farm near Ellerbe Creek to the campus of Duke University. Today, a traveler can cover the distance in about 10 minutes, entirely within the city limits of Durham, North Carolina.

That otherwise unremarkable distance marks the journey of James B. Duke. Born on a small homestead, and interred in the chapel of the university that bears his name, Duke was a man of the Carolinas.

No matter what else he became, James B. Duke remained a man of the Carolinas. Continue reading “Duke of Carolina”

Up, Up, and Away

The National Air and Space Museum seems to occupy a precarious position on the Mall in Washington. Not that it is in any danger of disappearing, but it seems to have less of an intellectual pedigree than its neighbors. Art, science, history, anthropology, and–whoa! cool planes and spacecraft! The Smithsonian’s 19 museums have over 21 million visits every year, and a quarter of them go to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s a favorite for families on vacation and school groups on field trips, and is always much more crowded than the sedate galleries nearby. But its new permanent exhibition illustrates that beautiful aircraft and a popular presentation can go hand-in-hand with intellectual rigor.

“America by Air,” which opened in November, records the story of commercial air travel in the United States, from the earliest postal pilots to the new planes just now entering the market. Continue reading “Up, Up, and Away”