Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Using Primary Sources: Credit Reports

Dan Allosso

Unlike many of the records that I’ve been using so far in my research, credit reports like the R.G. Duns collection at Harvard’s Baker Library are a primary source that seems to stay much more in the background of many research projects. Partly this may be due to the Baker Library’s rules: no photography of the materials, no direct quoting of the reports without prior approval. But a much more reserved, qualified use of these credit reports probably also comes from the mediated form of the information in them.

As Christopher Clark described them in The Roots of Rural Capitalism, reports like those in the R.G. Duns books began to be used after the Panic of 1837, and became much more extensive after the Panic of 1857, to provide a way of evaluating the credit-worthiness of (mostly rural) borrowers for the benefit of (mostly urban) creditors. This geographic distance is key to the value of the reports; since the credit agencies employed local correspondents who reported facts, opinions, and rumors about their subjects that would have been common knowledge in the local business community. But we don’t know much about these reporters: the correspondents identified themselves in the bound volumes by code numbers, so the sources of these judgments are not at all transparent. This anonymity and the use of coded language (which as Clark points out, tends to apply contemporary “moral principles to business”) adds to the appearance of unanimity, authority, and consistency of judgment. But a closer look at the reports, especially those of long duration, casts some doubt on this supposition.

I’ve been to the Baker a couple of times to look at the R.G. Duns books. The librarians are very helpful; they bring the books out to your work table, one at a time, and can get additional volumes quickly, if your research takes an unexpected turn. One of my subjects, in Michigan, for example, did not turn up in the Kalamazoo book when I expected him to be there. Going back to the book for St. Joseph County (south of the city), I found reports of his business activities in his home community long after the “official story” of his life had him moving to the big city. The Duns reporters also wrote about him being involved in businesses that never came up in the other materials I’ve looked at, which gives me a whole new trail to follow in my investigation.

But while they are helpful for pointing to holes in my information, I think the Duns reports are most interesting for the way they describe changing attitudes toward the behavior (or “character”) of businessmen in these rural areas, and the expectations of urban creditors. It’s important to remember, when reading reports like these, that the correspondents were writing from the point of view of their distant clients. Tensions over the relative power of the local and distant parties to these credit relationships, as well as changing standards of personal and business conduct, are a central element of these narratives.

The contrast between the two brothers I’m studying in upstate New York is dramatic. They lived in adjacent towns, but in different counties covered by different Duns correspondents. They had been partners for decades, but later in life they became competitors. The younger of the two became the richest man in his county, and developed a reputation for credit-worthiness and stability that was amply recorded by his local Duns reporter. He set up his son as a banker, guaranteeing the young man’s credit with his own. When the son became an alcoholic and needed to be institutionalized, his father made good all the bank’s investors and depositors, and transferred the business to his younger son and two daughters. All these details are recorded, with very little personal judgment, in the Duns book.

In contrast, this man’s older brother seems to have pioneered the borders of financial respectability, by continually crossing them. The Duns reporter who covered his file for many years stressed the fact that the older brother was “fond of litigation,” tended to pay only after an “execution” by the court, and “cannot be trusted out of sight.” Like his respectable younger brother, this upstate businessman also started a bank, which he used primarily to finance his own business. This business was ultimately successful in a competitive national and international market, in part because its owner was willing to take substantial risks and go much farther out on a financial limb than his Duns correspondent was comfortable with. These conflicts of interest between the businessman’s activities and the standards of the Duns reporter suggest a changing dynamic of rural and urban financial power. As, I think, does the increasingly adversarial tone taken over time in several accounts. After a while, many of my local subjects seem to become less compliant with demands for information by their local Duns correspondents. It may even be a mark of financial success for them that some are able to completely stop cooperating with these reporters. In that case, the negative personal tone of the later entries in some of these credit narratives might be read as evidence of rural financial independence, rather than failure to conform in an increasingly urban credit regime.


Unknown said...

Correction: the collection is actually called the "R.G. Dun and Company" collection. I should have been more precise.

LD said...

What a rich trove of information -- I envy your time in the archive!

Scott Sandage makes excellent use of those documents in _Born Losers: A History of Failure in America_.

LD said...

Sorry, typed the wrong URL for my comment. Doh!


hcr said...

Eli Ricker analyzed the honesty of his interviewees when he collected information about the Indian Wars (available in a brilliant edition by Richard Jensen). Like the Dun records, they make it far easier to piece together events since you have a set of intelligent eyes on the ground, as it were.