Abstract: Domesticating the Financial Corporation: The Material Culture and Civic Practices of Marine Insurance Companies

Hannah Farber


This paper will explain how marine insurance companies, among the most powerful of early American financial corporations, reduced their own risk by stressing their American identities, and by forging and advertising their relationships with the federal government. Marine insurance companies were known to be highly capitalized, internationally active, and controlled by partisan groups of elite merchants. While corporate charters theoretically secured their property, they still faced a number of risks: if their companies seemed untrustworthy or unstable, merchants might avoid them, legislatures might revoke their charters, and investors might jettison their stock. One solution employed by corporate leaders was to spare no expense in demonstrating their companies' civic commitments and American bona fides. They made expensive, public silver gifts to ship captains who protected insured property and attempted to define the protection of insured property as a patriotic endeavor. Company leaders commissioned portraits in which they closely resembled American government leaders, and they were commemorated in biographies that celebrated their American commitments and investments. By emphasizing their affiliation with the United States, American marine insurers made their companies appear safer and more stable—and this appearance was soon indistinguishable from reality.