Poverty's Capital; the Social Construction of Savings in Early New York

Anders Bright
- | Urban Studies Office, McNeil 414
Anders Bright

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McNeil Building 414
3718 Locust Walk

Speaker: Anders Bright, third-year Ph.D. student studying early American intellectual, cultural, and financial history

Discussant: Professor Domenic Vitiello, Ph.D. in History, University of Pennsylvania


When the Managers of New York’s Society for the Prevention of Pauperism first laid out their plans for “meliorating the condition of the poor and wretched” in 1817, capital accumulation was not on their mind. The eyesore of urban pauperism— and the ever-expanding burden of poor relief its alleviation demanded— is what concerned them. Intoxicated by a heady mixture of evangelical reformism and contemporary English political philosophy, these wealthy New Yorkers argued that a certain level of poverty was inherent to an industrializing economy,
and worked to dismantle a municipal safety net which, they argued, perpetuated the problem of pauperism. In place of almshouses and poor relief, these patricians advocated for the establishment of a savings bank, an institution whose operation would remold New York’s lowliest inhabitants into models of frugality and self-reliance. Once undertaken, their plan—conceived of as a salve for the city’s ailing fiscal health and their own deepening tax burdens—established a piece of the financial infrastructure necessary for New York’s nineteenth-century ascendency; in particular, it generated a pool of capital that made feasible the construction of the Erie Canal, that harbinger of the state’s participation in the “market revolution.” This chapter tracks the social construction of the concept of “savings” through the Early Republic and antebellum periods by charting the rise of voluntary saving societies, and the eventual emergence of savings banks, and argues that the latter in part emerged to mitigate against the potential radicalism of the former. Specifically, I argue that the accumulative potential represented by savings banks was an afterthought for elite New Yorkers, and that the main purpose of these institutions was to reorient the way New Yorkers thought about the relation between poverty, individual responsibility, and the duty of the state to its citizens.