By Evan Sparks
On a chilly November day in Philadelphia in 1816, Condy Raguet was walking down Chestnut Street, mulling over reports he had read about the then-novel savings bank model in Great Britain for helping the poor. Raguet—a rakishly handsome 32-year-old merchant, Caribbean traveler and literary man—ran into a few friends along the way and asked them if they had heard of the concept. Without stopping for a reply, he implored them: “Would you unite with me in the endeavor to establish one?” They agreed, and not a month later, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society was open for business. With five dollars, Raguet’s African-American manservant, Curtis Roberts, became the bank’s first depositor.
Like Raguet, Bostonian James Savage was also 32 and had cut his teeth in Caribbean trade—this time selling blocks of New England pond ice to cool-craving islanders. Savage read a report from the London Provident Institution for Savings, and he decided a similar savings bank would be of great benefit to Boston. Savage spread the word among his peers, and barely two weeks after the Philadelphia bank opened, 48 of Boston’s leading men incorporated the Provident Institution for Savings on similar principles. It opened for business early in 1817.
A savings bank wave swept through the cities and towns of the young republic. Savings banks were established in Baltimore and Salem, Mass., in 1818; in New York City, Hartford, Conn., and Providence and Newport, R.I., in 1819; and Albany, N.Y., in 1820. The Baltimore bank founders essentially copied the founding documents of the Philadelphia bank.
That the savings banks in Philadelphia and Boston were launched virtually simultaneously seems like dumb luck—and thus both cities are credited with kick-starting the American savings bank movement. But Raguet and Savage were singing from the same sheet of music. The savings bank was a perfect fit for the America of its time, and it would fundamentally transform the way Americans thought about their money.