Abstract: Terms of Endearment: Informal Borrowing Networks among Northern California Businesswomen, 1870-1920

Edie Sparks


In 1898, Martha Herriman, proprietor of a millinery business in San Jose, California, declared bankruptcy in federal district court, listing five people from whom she had borrowed a total of $976. While all of the lenders held promissory notes for their loans, only two secured endorsements and only two charged her interest. Such lenient terms were typical of the loans northern California businesswomen contracted between 1870 and 1920. The vast majority turned to personal acquaintances for their loans rather than institutions or professional moneylenders, borrowing money free of charge, often with no set rules for repayment. A diverse array of colleagues, customers, and suppliers offered female proprietors the "terms of endearment" they sought, sometimes extending the loans even when they themselves owed money to the borrowers. Such convoluted relationships equally involved male and female lenders. However, women found female lenders were more likely than males to revert to practical financial terms rather than endearing ones, charging interest and pursuing defaulters in court. A sample of federal bankruptcy court records is the basis for this evaluation of the informal borrowing networks of northern California businesswomen between 1870 and 1920.

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