We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Investing in Life

Insurance in Antebellum America

Sharon Ann Murphy

Publication Year: 2010

Investing in Life considers the creation and expansion of the American life insurance industry from its early origins in the 1810s through the 1860s and examines how its growth paralleled and influenced the emergence of the middle class. Using the economic instability of the period as her backdrop, Sharon Ann Murphy also analyzes changing roles for women; the attempts to adapt slavery to an urban, industrialized setting; the rise of statistical thinking; and efforts to regulate the business environment. Her research directly challenges the conclusions of previous scholars who have dismissed the importance of the earliest industry innovators while exaggerating clerical opposition to life insurance. Murphy examines insurance as both a business and a social phenomenon. She looks at how insurance companies positioned themselves within the marketplace, calculated risks associated with disease, intemperance, occupational hazard, and war, and battled fraud, murder, and suicide. She also discusses the role of consumers—their reasons for purchasing life insurance, their perceptions of the industry, and how their desires and demands shaped the ultimate product.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF (68.3 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (54.5 KB)
pp. vii-viii

read more

Series Editor’s Foreword

pdf iconDownload PDF (46.9 KB)
pp. ix-x

Studies in Early American Economy and Society, a collaborative effort between the Johns Hopkins University Press and the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in Early American Economy and Society (PEAES), promotes discussions and gatherings of scholars who wish to advance our understanding of the early American economy under the umbrella of numerous disciplines, methodologies, and subjects ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (64.4 KB)
pp. xi-xii

This project would not have been possible without the financial support of numerous groups including the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Economic History Association, the Harvard Business School, the State Farm Companies Foundation, the University of Illinois Foundation, the University of Virginia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the University of Virginia Office of Research and Public ...

read more

Introduction. New Risks in a Changing World

pdf iconDownload PDF (102.6 KB)
pp. 1-10

In December of 1809, a group of prominent businessmen gathered at the Merchants’ Coffee House in Philadelphia and decided to create the first for-profit life insurance company in America.1 When the Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities finally received a charter more than two years later, its incorporation marked the birth of an industry that by the postbellum era would ...

Part I. The Creation of an Industry

pdf iconDownload PDF (43.9 KB)
pp. 11-12

read more

Chapter 1. Understanding Mortality in Antebellum America: The Search for a Stable Business Model

pdf iconDownload PDF (209.0 KB)
pp. 13-46

In the late 1820s, William Bard of Hyde Park, New York, decided to move his wife and eight surviving children to New York City.1 A graduate of Columbia College and a lawyer by training, the 50- year- old Bard had spent the majority of his adult life living comfortably on his family’s estate in the Hudson River valley as a country gentleman and man of letters. He was a descendant of prominent French Huguenots ...

read more

Chapter 2. Selecting Risks in an Anonymous World: The Development of the Agency System

pdf iconDownload PDF (182.3 KB)
pp. 47-76

In the summer of 1832, Levi A. Ward Jr. of Rochester, New York, wrote to President William Bard of New York Life Insurance and Trust Company in New York City requesting an appointment as local agent for the company.1 The firm’s two older rivals—Pennsylvania Company and Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company—rarely sold policies outside their respective home bases of Philadelphia ...

read more

Chapter 3. Lying, Cheating, and Stealing versus The Court of Public Opinion: Preventing Moral Hazard and Insurance Fraud

pdf iconDownload PDF (136.8 KB)
pp. 77-96

In the summer of 1836, New York Life and Trust received a letter from Gardner Lawrence, one of its new agents in Syracuse, New York, regarding the death of Nathaniel Knowles. Knowles had applied for a life insurance policy with the company earlier that summer before allegedly committing suicide, and Lawrence sought the company’s advice about how to handle the case. President Bard was initially unconcerned ...

read more

Chapter 4. The Public Interest in a Private Industry: Life Insurance and the Regulatory- Promotional State

pdf iconDownload PDF (179.6 KB)
pp. 97-122

Following the Panic of 1837, the American economy sank into a deep depression that lasted from 1839 to 1843. Yet even as unemployment rose and countless businesses declared bankruptcy, contemporaries believed New York Life Insurance and Trust “to be above the common ills of our condition,” with its stock “quite above par, and accounted better than old gold.”1 NYL&T had accumulated substantial ...

Part II. Reaching Out to the Middle Class

pdf iconDownload PDF (151.8 KB)
pp. 138-139

read more

Chapter 5 Protecting Women and Children“in the hour of their distress”Targeting the Fears of an Emerging Middle Class

pdf iconDownload PDF (165.3 KB)
pp. 125-151

This quintessential piece of advertising copy from the 1858 brochure of New York Life Insurance Company (established 1841 as Nautilus Insurance)2 exemplifies the principal marketing technique of all antebellum life insurers: targeting the fears of an emerging urban middle class. The setting is any of the many ballooning “large towns and cities” of the mid- nineteenth...

read more

Chapter 6 Targeting the Aspirations of an Emerging Middle ClassThe Triumph of Mutual Life Insurance Companies

pdf iconDownload PDF (184.8 KB)
pp. 152-183

In all branches of business, whether manufacturing, commercial, or agricultural, success depends upon a variety of contingent circumstances. A man may profit by his investment, or he may lose . . . The caprice of fortune rules despotically over all branches of business . . . All other risks are uncertain, even after many years. But the cessation of life is certain; death is sure to come . . . But there are other ...

read more

Chapter 7 Securing Human PropertySlavery, Industrialization, and Urbanizationin the Upper South

pdf iconDownload PDF (166.5 KB)
pp. 184-206

In the fall of 1835, John Day of Chuckatuck, Virginia, inquired with the Baltimore Life agent in nearby Norfolk regarding insurance on one of his slaves, “very likely a good Carpenter sober and steady.” For Day, a farmer and the postmaster of that sleepy rural town, ownership of this slave represented an investment in capital from which he could earn a regular income. Although he had been offered $1,200 to sell ...

read more

Chapter 8 Acting “in defiance of Providence”? The Public Perception of Life Insurance

pdf iconDownload PDF (204.0 KB)
pp. 222-253

In December 1851, A. B. Johnson published an article in Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine entitled “The Relative Merits of Life Insurance and Savings Banks.” Attempting to tarnish the image of the American life industry (to the benefit of savings banks), this seven- page diatribe accused life insurers of engaging in gambling contracts and encouraging people to commit heinous crimes. Beginning with a section labeled “Life ...

read more

Part III. Cooperation, Competition, and the Quest for Stability

pdf iconDownload PDF (223.6 KB)
pp. 254-255

As heightened competition led to a relaxation in rate structure, selection criteria, and policy restrictions during the 1850s and 1860s, some people began to question the soundness of the life insurance industry as a whole. In this 1861 cartoon, the industry is represented as a horse with potentially crippling tumors on its legs (known as “splints...

read more

Chapter 9 Seeking Stability in an Increasingly Competitive IndustryThe Creation of the American Life Underwriters’ Convention

pdf iconDownload PDF (137.8 KB)
pp. 256-276

On May 25 and 26, 1859, at the Astor House on Broadway in New York City, the fi rst meeting of the American Life Underwriters’ Convention (ALUC) was held. In attendance were presidents, vice presidents, secretaries, actuaries, medical examiners, and agents representing nineteen (out of approximately thirty- nine) life insurance companies, including sixteen of the twenty largest.1 (Three of the remaining ...

read more

Chapter 10 Insuring Soldiers, Insuring CiviliansThe Civil War as a Watershed for the Life Insurance Industry

pdf iconDownload PDF (152.1 KB)
pp. 262-283

Less than a month after South Carolina seceded from the Union (but before any other southern states joined her rebellion), agent C. B. Wellford of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was already asking the home office of Baltimore Life for clarifi cation re-garding their military clause. While most policies (including those of Baltimore Life) contained stipulations that voided them in the case of active military service, ...

read more

Chapter 11 The Perils of Success during the Postbellum Years

pdf iconDownload PDF (104.2 KB)
pp. 284-296

In the fall of 1863, just as sales of life policies were on the verge of skyrocketing, the North American Review published a remarkable twenty- three- page article on life insurance. Presented as a neutral assessment of the current state of the industry, the piece was actually an extended defense of insurance as sold by the large, well-established mutual companies. It opened with a short (well- crafted but patently ...

read more

Conclusion “Have you provided for your Family an Insurance on your Life?”

pdf iconDownload PDF (285.3 KB)
pp. 297-315

In 1856, Harper’s Monthly Magazine published a sixteen-panel cartoon entitled “Life Insurance—A Dream.” The protagonist, Mr. Smythe, is sitting in his easy chair in front of the hearth, gently rocking his baby’s cradle as he reads about life insurance, an activity which inexplicably puts him to sleep. In his dreams, he heads off to the insurance office, where he is greeted enthusiastically by the upscale gentleman who ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (89.4 KB)
pp. 316-327


pdf iconDownload PDF (324.3 KB)
pp. 328-387

read more

Essay on Sources

pdf iconDownload PDF (95.3 KB)
pp. 388-397

Upon entering graduate school, I intended to focus my research on nineteenth- century financial institutions. I was particularly interested in the interaction of commercial and savings banks with both their immediate clientele and with American society at large. As I began exploring this area of inquiry, my advisor (Mark Thomas at the University of Virginia) mentioned my interests to banking historian Eugene White at Rutgers University. It was White who initially ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (940.0 KB)
pp. 398-410

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899478
E-ISBN-10: 0801899478
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801896248
Print-ISBN-10: 080189624X

Page Count: 416
Illustrations: 5 halftones, 1 line drawing
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Insurance companies -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Economic conditions -- To 1865.
  • Life insurance -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access