The Bonds That Sparked New York’s Transportation History

Sonia Huang

A few days ago, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced it is selling a “catastrophe” bond worth $125 million, in order to cover the damage from future natural disasters.

The New York City transportation system has a 109-year-old history, but it has “never faced a disaster as devastating” as Hurricane Sandy, the chairman of the MTA, Joseph J. Lhota, said in a statement. After Sandy smashed the city in October 2012, the “Metro-North Railroad lost power from 59th Street to Croton-Harmon on the Hudson Line and to New Haven on the New Haven Line. The Long Island Rail Road evacuated its West Side Yards and suffered flooding in one East River tunnel. The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel is flooded from end to end, and the Queens Midtown Tunnel also took on water and was closed.”

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Stock Trading Then and Now

Technology has strongly changed the way stocks are traded from a decade ago to today. Historically, stock markets like the NYSE are a physical location for buyers and sellers to meet and negotiate trades. However, in the 20th Century technological improvements in stock trading have made the physical location to meet irrelevant, giving rise to electronic trading.

Before the telegraph arrived in the 1950s, brokers would place agents on top of hills and buildings between Philadelphia and New York City with signal flags and telescopes to rely stock prices between cities in about half-an-hour. Homing pigeons were also used to transmit information.

Later on, “runners” in the 1860s would carry stock prices handwritten on large chalkboards from the exchange to brokerage offices, so that the brokerages would be aware of a stock’s price. The NYSE was referred to as the “Big Board” supposedly because of these large chalkboards.

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State Level Deposit Insurance Before the FDIC

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has been the government agency responsible for providing deposit insurance to banks since its creation in the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. While the establishment of the FDIC was an important event in the history of government regulation of the economy, it was not the first instance of deposit insurance in the United States. Several states had previously had state level institutions of deposit insurance in the 1800s and early 1900s.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Banking Act of 1933 (Glass-Steagall Act), which established the FDIC.

At various times before the Civil War, Vermont, Michigan, Indiana, and New York insured both banknotes and deposits, while Iowa and Ohio insured only banknotes. Most of these systems operated successfully up to the Civil War, with the notable exception of Michigan’s which had been established immediately before the Panic of 1837 and had failed rather quickly. These state deposit insurance systems generally required participating banks (and participation was voluntary) to pay for insurance to pay off deposit returns from failed banks.

Such systems did not survive the Civil War and nationalization of the banking system. However, interest in state level deposit insurance systems was increasing again by the end of the 1800s, though it was not until 1907 that Oklahoma became the first state since the Civil War to establish a state deposit insurance system. Seven more states followed suit in the following ten years. The deposit insurance systems of the early 20th century had less positive results and unintended consequences. A common observation of banks insured by state deposit insurance in the 1920s was that in spite of nominal regulations against risky behavior by banks, the state deposit insurance actually encouraged risky behavior by banks, increasing the proportion of bank failures and thus insurance burden. By the end of the 1920s the state deposit insurance schemes had largely failed. In some states voluntary participation left banks the option to simply opt out, and most did, while in other states high insurance costs led to deposit insurance being repealed. Yet while state level deposit insurance appeared to be a failure, it was a model that would pave the way for the establishment of the FDIC, deposit insurance on the federal level and subject to stricter regulation.

Vaughn Rennie  is a summer museum intern at the Museum of American Finance.

 

The Anthropology of the Banker: MoAF’s Warren Miller “New Yorker” Cartoon

Published in the “New Yorker” on 8/3/92
2012.01.094

The Museum of American Finance has humble beginnings. In 1988, founder John Herzog set up an experimental, freestanding exhibit in the historic New York City Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian). He was inspired to teach economic and financial history after experiencing firsthand the chaos and confusion of the 1987 stock market crash. The trial museum was a success; over 6,000 visitors visited the display of historic financial documents.

It was only after 1989 that MoAF became a tax-exempt organization. In 1992, the Museum moved into its first home at 24 Broadway. The city noticed the new kid on the block and famous New Yorker cartoonist W. Miller honored MoAF with a cartoon on August 3, 1992. The picture is drawn in the signature style of Miller, who was a famous New Yorker mainstay and published his first piece in the magazine in 1961. In the cartoon, a humorless butler announces to his financier boss, “A field anthropologist from the new Museum of American Financial History, sir.”

The Museum has the original cartoon by Miller in its collection. The picture shown above is a direct scan of the cartoon’s print, signed by Miller. The Museum has grown by leaps and bounds since 1992 and financial history is proving to be just as important as ever. It’s only a matter of time until another cartoonist has a go at portraying our beloved MoAF.

Lily Goodspeed is a summer museum intern at the Museum of American Finance and a History major at Brown University. Her twitter handle is @lilygoodspeed. Julia Yeung is also a summer museum intern and attends Pace University studying Business Economics. Her twitter handle is @YeungJulia.

Fractional Currency: Spencer Clark “Five Cents”

Original scan of “Five Cents” fractional currency note featuring Spencer Clark. On loan from the collection of Mark D. Tomasko.

Fractional currency notes were issued by the US federal government from 1862 to 1876 in denominations of 3, 5, 10, 15, 25 and 50 cents to combat the shortage and hoarding of coins, which contained metals more valuable than the money the coins represented during the Civil War. The currency notes were originally called “postage currency,” but they officially became  “fractional currency” after the passing of the Congressional Act of March 3, 1863.

Several fractional currency notes are on display in the Museum’s “Money: A History” exhibit. One particularly fascinating currency note is the “five cents” issue, lent to the Museum by collector and honorary curator of engraving Mark D. Tomasko. This particular “five cents” issue is the third version of the fractional currency note, and the first issue to contain signatures in order to prevent counterfeiting that had occurred with the previous issues. The currency note features the face of little-known Spencer Morton Clark, who served as the first Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau, which is now the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). The BEP was in charge of the production of these notes, and a large sensation erupted when Clark’s face appeared on the new print of “five cents” notes.

It is said that Congress initially intended the currency to honor William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but they failed to specify which “Clark.” Spencer M. Clark took the opportunity to instead make himself the model of the portrait on the bill. A much less famous Clark, Spencer Clark was already under investigation for embezzlement, fraud and sexual harassment. By the time the government began to take action, Clark had already printed the notes in significant quantities.

Nineteen days after the new bills went into circulation, an outraged Congress passed a law forbidding the portrait of anyone living to be used on US currency, stamps or coins. Interestingly, Francis E. Spinner, the US Treasurer at the time, didn’t make much of a fuss when Clark placed him on the 50 cent note without his consent. Although he had the authority to select portraits on new notes, Spinner was pleasantly surprised by the choice.

Clark was able to keep his job only because of the interference of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. These notes still remain in legal tender today, as the law did not null notes with living portraits if the bills had already been printed before the passing of the law.

Julia Yeung is a summer museum intern at the Museum of American Finance and attends Pace University studying Business Economics. Her twitter handle is @YeungJulia.

Lily Goodspeed is a summer museum intern at the Museum of American Finance and a History major at Brown University. Her twitter handle is @lilygoodspeed.

 

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