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Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914

Author(s):Alborn, Timothy
Reviewer(s):Murphy, Sharon Ann

Published by EH.NET (January 2010)

Timothy Alborn, Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. xi + 439 pp. $80 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-4426-3996-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sharon Ann Murphy, Department of History, Providence College.

Despite being one of the largest and most successful industries of the nineteenth century, life insurance has been woefully understudied by economic and business historians on both sides of the Atlantic. In Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914, history professor Timothy Alborn of Lehman College, City University of New York, fills this gaping void with a carefully argued and immensely readable monograph on the British industry. As the title suggests, Alborn?s work is much more than a straightforward narrative history of British life insurance. Rather, he couples a general overview of the industry with a detailed examination of how life insurance concurrently shaped and reflected the complicated Victorian understanding of human life; for insurers, the individuality of life and the tragedy of death (a sympathetic view of life) coexisted with the more detached, scientific evaluation of an individual?s risk for premature death (a medical view of life), the statistical calculation of the chances of death according to unfeeling mortality tables (a numerical view of life), and the somewhat disquieting process of placing a money value on those lives (a commodified view of life). Although British life insurers sought to balance these four conceptions of life by carefully controlling how agents, actuaries, and doctors presented life insurance to the consuming public, as Alborn concludes, ?the regulated lives who bought insurance policies always resisted complete commodification, enumeration, or medicalization, by holding life insurance offices to their initial promise of sympathy and by playing these different manifestations of modernity against one another? (p. 7).

The first third of the book is devoted to providing a brief sketch of the British life insurance industry over the course of the long nineteenth century. Chapter 1 details the geographic spread of insurance from the London core out to the English countryside and into Scotland, and then its export both to the British Empire and into foreign countries. Whereas these firms began by concentrating on an aristocratic clientele, new competitors emerged to target first the middle class and then eventually a working-class pool, with some offices further segmenting the market by profession, religious denomination, or other definable group characteristic. Finally, this chapter describes the basic business structure of life firms. Chapter 2 charts the growth of the industry, the government?s various attempts to regulate the conduct of companies (mainly in response to failing firms), and the industry?s efforts at self-regulation. In chapter 3, the internal structure of insurers is broken down, with detailed descriptions of the key personnel: shareholders, directors, actuaries, and salesmen. Of particular interest in these chapters is the contrast in conduct between English and Scottish life offices. Alborn readily admits that this overview is not comprehensive; he has carefully selected those aspects of the history most pertinent to his wider story, and future researchers should use this sketch as the starting-point for deeper analysis of the industry.

For the remainder of the book, Alborn focuses on his main theme of how insurers and the insuring public reconciled their understanding of the meaning of human life with the depersonalized and sometimes cold-hearted process of obtaining a life policy. Through a series of topically-themed chapters, Alborn moves from the problems of accurately calculating and using mortality tables (Chapter 4), and the marketing of insurance through melodramatic pleas for the protection of widows and orphans, more dispassionate appeals to the needs of debtors, or the capitalistic desires for investment opportunities (Chapters 5 and 6), to the development of new insurance products (e.g., endowment and paid-up policies, or loans and non-forfeiture clauses) in response to consumer demands (Chapter 7), and the numerous contradictions involved in medically selecting lives and preventing adverse selection (Chapters 8, 9, and 10). Along the way, Victorian views of women, marriage, domesticity, class, health, and death are all brought into sharp relief. In these chapters, Alborn is at his best when connecting the various aspects of the insuring process with wider themes of display, discipline/accountability, fairness, altruism, and gatekeeping. For example, he provides a wonderful description of how companies mastered the art of spectacle in preparing and presenting dividends to their shareholders or mutual customers. Part of this section includes a fascinating vignette on the complicated process of preparing the bonus, providing the reader with a rare detailed glimpse at the internal functioning of a business office (pp. 182-84).

The shortcomings of this book are relatively minor. One of the tradeoffs of dividing the chapters by topic is a loss of chronological structure. While most chapters provide a sense of change over time, it is difficult for the reader to overlap these chapters to obtain a dynamic understanding of the evolution of the industry as a whole. While Alborn perhaps intended for the first three chapters to provide this structure, they do not create a sufficient superstructure for this purpose. Second, while the views of actuaries, agents, and doctors are well-documented, the voice of the insuring consumer is largely absent, appearing only as reflected by the firms themselves. More direct evidence of the applicant?s perspective on life, death, the insuring process, medical selection, fairness, etc., certainly would have strengthened Alborn?s overall argument.

As Alborn concludes, ?an emblem of Victorian domesticity, life insurance took its place at the middle-class hearthside next to the dog-eared Dickens novel and the purring Persian cat? (p. 306). By interweaving business with the wider social context of Victorian Britain, Alborn successfully captures the centrality of life insurance over the long nineteenth century. While it is certainly invaluable for its insights into British life insurance (especially when read alongside Geoffrey Clark?s Betting on Lives: The Culture of Life Insurance in England, 1695-1775. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), Regulated Lives should be read by anyone interested in the business culture of nineteenth-century Britain.

Sharon Ann Murphy is the author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press in 2010.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII