- "The Middle Class" as Ideology
The history of life insurance, Sharon Murphy explains in her important book, offers us a prism through which to comprehend the history of capitalism and its culture. Her evidence reveals that, during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, insurance company presidents and policyholders created a market for life insurance and the ideologies to justify that market. Life insurance companies financed the ambitions of company proprietors who examined mortality tables and applicants in search of safe economic risks, agents in distant cities who served their employers' interests (and their own) by assessing the risks posed by those applicants, and policyholders who sought to protect their wives and children from want in the event of their untimely death.
Life insurance companies, Murphy contends, developed innovative business practices to prop up the hopes and dreams of a group that historians have labeled an "emerging middle class." To tell this story, she researched exhaustively in an impressive array of sources, ranging from the applications and letters that policyholders sent to insurance companies, company directors' correspondence, advertisements, newspapers, commercial publications, sermons, court cases, fiction, and cartoons. Murphy's key historiographical contribution lies in her argument that members of this "middle class" should be defined by their "financial sophistication" as much as by their experiences as nonmanual workers, shrewd consumers, and devotees of respectable domesticity (p. 183).1 Merchants, clergymen, military officers, clerks, and artisans increasingly depended on life insurance policies to limit their exposure to the risks attending economic activity in an age of panics. And yet an attempt to limit risk was simultaneously an opportunity to assume risk, illustrating the ways in which life insurance mirrored the opportunities and dangers of capitalism. Policyholders were savvy capitalists, balancing the desire to exploit opportunity and protect themselves from catastrophe with "a safe return" on investment (p. 154). [End Page 259]
Murphy's evidence also suggests something even more interesting: that the story of class in nineteenth-century America was not entirely about the traditional narrative of formation and consciousness. For it is clear in Investing in Life that insurance company proprietors and policyholders were present at the creation of "the middle class"—in fact, they repeatedly called it into being for ideological and economic reasons. The writings of company directors, agents, and policyholders reveal not that a middle class existed or was emerging so much as they illuminate how "the middle class" became a useful ideological construct for fulfilling ambitions and justifying social and economic inequalities. Murphy's evidence shows that the history of life insurance is important because it helps us to explore the multiple meanings of class.
The middle decades of the nineteenth century saw competition among insurance companies become more intense, and insurance company directors sought new practices and ideologies that would both entice consumers to pay for their product and "mitigate [their own] risk" as sellers (p. 5). New entrants into the life insurance market helped to pioneer the techniques of salesmanship often associated with the "hawkers and walkers" of the early republic.2 William Bard, the forward-thinking president of New York Life Insurance and Trust Company (NYL&T), was among those who believed that a broader pool of policyholders would augment profits and protect his company from economic failure. He exploited Americans' faith in statistics by inaugurating actuarial reform, advocating the careful tabulation and description of deaths and the creation of accurate mortality tables that would account for American climatic and social conditions. Even though the numbers remained unreliable, Bard used them as a pretext to lower rates and add policyholders to his company's rolls. Agents of the firm who resided in distant towns and cities helped Bard evaluate risks and turn away disease-ridden or intemperate applicants, much like credit-reporting agents did at the same time for Lewis Tappan's Mercantile Agency.3 Bard's progressive reforms paid off for his stockholders: by the mid-1830s, NYL&T had cornered half of the nation's life...