Abstract: Strategies of Information Acquisition: Evidence from Nineteenth-Century U.S. Credit Reports

Claire Brennecke


Until now, scholarship on nineteenth-century American mercantile credit reporting agencies has implicitly assumed that agency subscribers primarily used credit reports to screen all potential trading partners. However, the study of how and why subscribers used the reports remains to be undertaken. I argue that the R. G. Dun Credit Report Collection at the Harvard Business School, the primary source for the study of mercantile credit reports, allows scholars not only to read the credit reports that subscribers may have used, but also to determine which subscribers accessed each report. In this paper, I study the credit reports that the Mercantile Agency wrote between 1850 and 1860 on mercantile concerns in New Orleans. I conclude that it is unlikely that subscribers obtained reports for all potential trading partners. Further, while subscribers may have used reports to screen some potential partners, they also used reports to monitor existing trading partners. I argue this lack of screening implies that mercantile concerns in the mid-nineteenth century had broader access to credit than has been previously acknowledged.