‘Sustaining trust despite rumours of war: the impact of the American Civil War on credit reporting in Canada, 1860-1865’

1 07 2011

My presentation at the Association of Business Historians Conference will be on credit reporting in Canada in the 1850s and 1860s. The paper is based on research I did using the Dun and Bradstreet Papers in the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, where I investigated the early history of the Mercantile Agency. Today, we take it for granted that moneylenders will consult the reports generated by companies such Experian. For profit-credit rating agencies, which are now ubiquitous in every wealthy country, are a nineteenth-century North American invention. More specifically, they emerged in the 1840s.

The New York-based Mercantile Agency established branches in Canada in the 1850s. In the 1850s, head office treated the Montreal and Toronto branches in much the same way as the offices in American cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, etc. The branch in Boston was responsible for generating credit reports in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In other words, the border between British North America and the United States didn’t really impinge on the company’s operations until the American Civil War. As I show in my paper, the changes in the political landscape associated with the Civil War and Canadian Confederation forced a reorganization of the branches: a semi-autonomous Canadian subsidiary headquartered in Montreal was created. Other branches in British North America ceased to report directly to New York and now reported to Montreal. The creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 was paralleled by changes in the Canadian credit rating industry.

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