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Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America

Author(s):Murphy, Sharon Ann
Reviewer(s):Hilt, Eric

Published by EH.Net (March 2012)

Sharon Ann Murphy, Investing in Life:  Insurance in Antebellum America.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2010.  xii + 395 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8018-9624-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Hilt, Department of Economics, Wellesley College.

The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a transformation of the American economy that some historians have termed the “market revolution.”  Financial markets and institutions played a central role in this process, as banks proliferated and securities markets deepened.  In addition, beginning in the 1820s, insurance companies began to offer American households life insurance policies.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, the business expanded rapidly, and by 1870 more than $2 billion in life insurance was in force in the United States.  The companies that underwrote these policies became important intermediaries within the financial system.

Sharon Ann Murphy’s Investing in Life tells the story of the development of the American life insurance industry through the 1870s.  Best characterized as a business history of antebellum life insurance, Murphy utilizes a rich variety of archival records from early companies, as well as newspapers and printed sources, in presenting her narrative.  The book focuses on the strategies employed by the industry’s entrepreneurs to surmount the challenges they faced in establishing and expanding the business.

And the industry faced a great many challenges in its early history. During the first half of the nineteenth century, no tables of mortality or life expectancy existed for the American population, and the vital statistics data necessary for the computations to produce such a table were generally not collected.  Rate-setting was therefore initially based on tables utilized by the English industry, combined with a fair amount of guesswork.  Also legal issues, such as common law restrictions on the ability of married women to enter into contracts, and uncertainty over the claims of a deceased person’s creditors on the payouts of life insurance policies to their families, impeded the industry’s efforts to market their products.  In response to these challenges, prominent figures in the industry worked with both the federal government and state governments to begin collecting mortality data, and to reshape the law in ways more friendly to the industry.

Cultural barriers were important as well.  Murphy persuasively refutes the notion that Americans’ religious beliefs were somehow incompatible with purchasing life insurance, as some scholars have suggested.  Nonetheless, the European experience with using life insurance policies to gamble on the duration of other people’s lives (or worse) made the American population initially reluctant to utilize the industry’s services.  The industry therefore adhered to strict standards regarding “insurable interest” – one could only insure the life of another if a financial interest in that person’s life, such as a debt owed from that person, could be documented.  And the industry emphasized the benefits of safety and security that a life insurance policy could offer to the growing ranks of salaried, middle-class household heads in their advertising campaigns.  As the composition of the population changed, the industry began to change the products it offered as well, for example creating low-cost “industrial” policies for working-class employees in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Although the earliest life insurance corporations were organized as stock companies, starting in the mid-1830s mutuals were created, and quickly dominated the industry.  Murphy argues that the success of the mutual model was not due to the lower rates they initially charged, or to other organizational advantages, but rather to a marketing advantage: the contracts of mutuals offered the appeal of a long-term investment, since the policy holders were entitled to a share of the accumulated profits from their premium payments.  The mutuals thus advertised themselves as “savings institutions” to the middle class, offering something more than insurance to households who might have considered an account with a savings bank. The stock companies responded in the 1850s by offering policies on mutual plans, and by offering tontine or “deferred dividend” plans.

Murphy argues that the Civil War was a watershed event in the industry’s development.  It profoundly disrupted the operations of Northern companies that had underwritten policies on the lives of people residing in Southern states, including some that had insured the lives of slaves on behalf of their masters.  But more importantly, it created an opportunity for the industry to market its services to the men who served in the War, and associate itself with the Union’s cause.  In the end the extremely high rates charged for these policies made them relatively unattractive, and few were sold.  But Murphy argues the industry benefitted from the war because “it revealed to Americans the benefits of insurance” (p. 274), while raising awareness of mortality.  New civilian policies did indeed grow rapidly during the War.

The Civil War created considerable uncertainty over rate-setting, and the industry’s trade association responded by setting an industry standard for war rates.  At least since the 1850s, prominent firms in the industry had attempted to coordinate rate-setting policies in order to reduce the competition they faced from new entrants.  The American states had also established a tradition of imposing high fees on out-of-state companies, in order to protect the underwriters located within their borders.  The industry sought to replace these state regulations with a system of federal regulation, and also challenged state laws that discriminated against out-of-state companies on constitutional grounds.  But in 1869, the Supreme Court ruled in Paul v. Virginia that insurance contracts underwritten by companies across state lines were not “interstate commerce,” and therefore fell within the legitimate purview of state law.

The book’s treatment of the managerial strategies employed in the industry, such as the development of the agency system, the content of the companies’ marketing campaigns, and the details of how different insurance products worked, are particularly strong.  This book makes a fine contribution to the study of the history of the insurance business.  My only criticism of the book is that its focus on management comes at the cost of excluding other questions of potentially great interest.  For example, insurance companies became enormously important financial intermediaries over the nineteenth century, but there is very little analysis or data on the firms’ investments or their role in the financial system.  And although some detail is provided on the content of state regulations of insurance companies, the political economy of these regulations is not explored, nor is much of a comparative perspective on these regulations presented.  Finally, the book mentions that waves of failures occurred in the 1870s, but relatively little attention is given to those events or to other collapses from earlier periods in the industry’s history, which to this reader seem as important as the successes.

Eric Hilt is Associate Professor of Economics at Wellesley College.  He is the author of “Rogue Finance: The Life and Fire Insurance Company and the Panic of 1826” (Business History Review, Spring 2009). Email:

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Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century