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  • From Rumor to Written RecordCredit Reporting and the Invention of Financial Identity in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Josh Lauer (bio)

A thousand folios include a page or two or more about you and your affairs, without your knowledge or your consent. Go where you may to purchase goods, a character has preceded you, either for your benefit or your destruction.

Hunt's Merchant's Magazine and Commercial Review (New York), 1853

The textualizing of bodies for the purpose of social control is intimately connected to the rise of the modern nation-state. Passports, identity cards, anthropometry, and rationalized systems of criminal identification all brought citizens under the purview of state authority as visible subjects. Not surprisingly, then, emerging scholarly interest in the historical development of surveillance is largely devoted to state practices.1 This perspective, however, overlooks one of the most totalizing and invasive systems of surveillance to emerge anywhere in the nineteenth-century world: the American commercial credit-reporting agency, or "mercantile agency."2 Beginning [End Page 301] in the 1840s, these private-sector agencies brought thousands of U.S. citizens—merchants, traders, manufacturers, and artisans—into a massive network of social monitoring designed to facilitate safe business relationships in a world increasingly inhabited by strangers.

This article describes the development and operation of the nineteenth century mercantile agency in the interest of illuminating a pivotal though neglected chapter in the history of modern surveillance practice. As the author of a 386-page diatribe against these agencies fumed in 1896, "The history has not yet been written of the American Inquisition."3 In addition to challenging the primacy of the nation-state in the evolution of American mass surveillance, this article also underscores one of the mercantile agency's most consequential effects: the invention of disembodied financial identity.

The model for these early credit-reporting agencies was established in 1841 by Lewis Tappan, an evangelical Christian and noted abolitionist who ran a silk wholesaling business in New York City with his brother Arthur.4 Emerging nearly bankrupt from the panic of 1837, an economic crisis precipitated by a cascade of defaulted debt, Tappan launched the Mercantile Agency—a name that became generic for such institutions—to implement a national system of credit checking. "This Agency," he announced in an 1843 advertisement, "was established . . . for the purpose of procuring by [End Page 302] resident and special agents, information respecting the standing, responsibility, &c., of country merchants. . . . It is not a system of espionage, but the same as merchants usually employ—only on an extended plan—to ascertain whether persons applying for credit are worthy of the same and to what extent."5 As one agency advocate explained in 1858: "False and fraudulent representations by a purchaser are mercilessly exposed by the Agency; plausible swindlers are detected; the weak and incompetent trader described, and the extravagant checked."6

The mercantile agency, like the nineteenth-century nation-state, sought to render the individual legible.7 Such legibility centered upon texts: handwritten reports, correspondence, ledgers, notes, and, later, printed reference volumes and newsletters that compressed an individual life into a brief statement of creditworthiness, ultimately represented by a numerical value. At the core of Tappan's reporting system was a library of imposing ledgers in which all known businesses in the United States were documented, along with detailed reports on the personal character, financial means, and local reputations of their proprietors.8 This information was tightly controlled. Until coded reference books appeared in the late 1850s, subscribers—wholesalers, merchants, bankers, and insurance companies—received it only in the offices of the Mercantile Agency, and only as read by discreet clerks who summarized the contents of the ledgers; copies were not available, and no written traces other than the subscribers' notes could leave the premises.

After Tappan relinquished his stake in the agency in 1854, his system was continued by several associates, including Robert Graham Dun, who took over in 1859 and ran the firm as R.G. Dun and Company. Tappan's agency was the first to achieve wide success, but it was not the only one in existence. Its chief rival was the Bradstreet Company, founded in 1849 by John M. Bradstreet...