Abstract: Protecting Middle-Class Families: Life Insurance in Antebellum America

Sharon Ann Murphy


This paper examines how antebellum Americans addressed the most fundamental risk they would encounter—the risk of death. Generations of families had survived the economic consequences of the death of the family head by relying on extended kinship networks, community resources, land ownership, and even remarriage. But the combination of rapid urbanization, economic volatility, and the increase in salaried employment undermined many of these traditional safety nets. In particular, during the panic of 1837 and the depression of 1839-43, members of the emerging middle-class (people with economic and social aspirations but who were dependent on the existence of a regular income to maintain or improve upon their status) increasingly sought the protection that life insurance provided their families. By examining the characteristics of the people actually purchasing policies between 1830 and 1850, this paper will create a composite profile of who was insuring and how this profile changed over time. By the second half of the nineteenth century middle-income Americans would form the core of the life insurance market, and life insurance would become a defining characteristic of what it meant to be a member of the middle class.