Abstract: Citizen Savers: Family Economy, Financial Institutions, and Public Policy in the Nineteenth-Century Northeast

R. Daniel Wadhwani


In the United States in the early nineteenth century, few ordinary Americans used formal financial institutions for saving and borrowing. By the early twentieth century, most American households had access to and relied on a wide array of government-stabilized financial institutions to mitigate personal risks and pursue personal opportunities in the industrial economy. Focusing on the northeastern US, this dissertation examines the ideas, policies, laws, and institutions that underlay this expansion in access to opportunities for personal saving and borrowing and explores how it reshaped the family economy. It concentrates in particular on a group of savings institutions—savings banks, building and loan associations, and the postal savings system—that were specifically established and regulated to serve the personal financial needs of people of modest means. The dissertation argues that the development of these formal opportunities for personal finance grew out of a coherent and novel set of ideas and policies designed to promote saving and discourage dependence among ordinary citizens. Promoted and stabilized by state governments and courts, savings institutions became an integral part of the personal economic strategies of a growing portion of the population and laid the foundations for the emergence of modern financial