Research: Thrift in America

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

I received a one-week Hagley Exploratory grant to conduct research in January 2016 on the history of saving and investing. I am researching a book on the history of thrift, provisionally entitled Thrift in America: From Franklin to the Great Recession. I plan to cover four themes in the history of thrift: savings banks from 1820 to the mid-20th century, war bonds in the Civil War and world wars, the shift from relatively safe forms of saving into riskier vehicles like stocks in the mid and late 20th century, and home ownership as a means of saving.

Early in my visit, both Roger Horowitz and Erik Rau gave me excellent advice: since you’re only here for a week, research broadly and don’t spend too much time in any one collection. And be sure to use the wonderful collection of trade catalogs and employee magazines.

I took their advice to heart. I researched in collections small and large, ranging from the Artisans’ Savings Bank of Wilmington to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce records. Of the manuscript sources I looked at, I found these to be the most useful: Wharton School’s Industrial Research Unit, National Association of Manufacturers, and the Chamber of Commerce. These collections helped me make sense of the employer’s perspective on issues like workplace savings plans, employee stock ownership plans, and employee pensions.

Toward the end of my visit, I integrated manuscript sources with employee magazines, using the World War II bond drives of the Philadelphia department store Strawbridge & Clothier as my subject. This gave me a great view of what a bond drive looked like at a specific place, and will fit well with my National Archives research which gives a much broader national and policy perspective. One interesting tidbit was the department store’s hosting of a traveling exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s famous Four Freedoms paintings.

Quite simply, the Hagley is an indispensable resource for anyone studying the history of American capitalism. I look forward to a longer return visit.

David Hochfelder is an Associate Professor at the University at Albany-SUNY.