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A Culture of Credit

A Culture of Credit

Embedding Trust and Transparency in American Business

Rowena Olegario

ISBN 9780674023406

Publication date: 10/31/2006

In the growing and dynamic economy of nineteenth-century America, businesses sold vast quantities of goods to one another, mostly on credit. This book explains how business people solved the problem of whom to trust--how they determined who was deserving of credit, and for how much. In the process, a business system based largely on information circulating through personal networks became dependent on more formalized methods and institutions. First to appear in the 1830s was the credit reporting agency, whose pioneers included the abolitionist Lewis Tappan, and businessmen John Bradstreet and Robert G. Dun (whose firms merged in 1933 to form Dun & Bradstreet). Later, groups of business creditors formed interchanges and bureaus to share information on their customers' payment records. In 1896, the National Association of Credit Men was established, and by 1920, credit men had established both a national credit information clearinghouse and a bureau for American exporters.

These developments forced American businesses, large and small, to make their financial situations more transparent to creditors and credit reporting firms. Rowena Olegario traces the way resistance, mutual suspicion, skepticism, and legal challenges were overcome in the relentless quest to make information on business borrowers more accurate and available.


  • Rowena Olegario has filled an important gap in American business history. A Culture of Credit is a straightforward, clearly written study of an important and understudied question: how did creditworthiness come to be determined in American mercantile trade? In this fascinating and informative history, Olegario illuminates much that was unknown about the workings of nineteenth-century commercial credit. Even more interestingly, she draws our attention to a difficult cultural problem that is often taken for granted by people with little business experience but is always of immense importance to creditors—the problem of "trust" and "transparency" in business dealings.

    —Lendol Calder, Augustana College


  • Rowena Olegario is Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 0-11/16 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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