The Birth of the Modern American Debt Collector


Color reproduction of an engraving from an original circa-1842 watercolor of a scene looking up State Street toward the old Statehouse. (©Boston Public Library/Flickr, Creative Commons)

In the 19th century, farm loans changed from a matter between associates into an impersonal, bureaucratic exchange.


By Livia Gershon


The consequences for borrowing money and failing to repay it are clear, certain, and often devastating. But historian Tamara Plakins Thornton writes that it wasn’t always this way. Thornton focuses on an early nineteenth-century Massachusetts lending company that helped create the debt system we know today.

The Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company (MHLIC) was created in 1823 and quickly became the largest financial institution in New England. Despite its name, its main business during its first two decades was investing Boston elites’ wealth in mortgages on farms west of the city.

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