Abstract: R. G. Dun’s Man in Charleston: Professional Agents in the Anonymous Credit Reporting Networks of Antebellum America
Using credit reports from antebellum South Carolina as a case study, this paper proposes a new way of analyzing the early reports of the R.G. Dun & Company credit rating agency. It focuses on the previously anonymous correspondents themselves to provide insight into emerging institutional challenges and practices. Critical to the expansion of business culture in the nineteenth-century United States was the development of commercial credit agencies. For historians today, their reports provide crucial information on contemporary enterprise as well as the values that shaped American commercial culture. Yet important information embedded in these records remains only partially understood. Reports disseminated by R. G. Dun & Company, predecessor of the present-day Dun & Bradstreet and one of the most prominent of the new firms, begin and end with numerical codes. These codes noted, while concealing, the identities of agency correspondents and the subscribers who received reports. Although a few of the subscribers have been identified, no key to the correspondents is known to exist, and scholars have tended to treat their reports monolithically.
This paper examines the activities of early professional agents as they built the company’s intelligence-gathering capacity in hinterland communities. By analyzing reports submitted by these agents, as well as the Dun lawyer volume for South Carolina, it discusses how agents cultivated sources and gathered intelligence in local communities. It begins the process of identifying local correspondents, and, finally, compares agent reports with those submitted by local correspondents, demonstrating both the utility and shortcomings of using branch employees to fill gaps in intelligence-gathering. In the process, it underscores the highly personal nature of early credit reporting, even within an industry that was in the process of standardizing and commodifying credit and reputation.