The Good Consumer: Credit Reporting and the Invention of Financial Identity in the United States, 1840-1940

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Lauer, Josh

The modern consumer credit bureau is a powerful institution that has received much attention with regard to database surveillance and identity theft, but little scholarly inquiry into its origins and cultural significance. This study offers an historical account of consumer credit reporting in the United States, from its nineteenth-century antecedents in commercial credit reporting through its professionalization and transformation into a key communication infrastructure during the first half of the twentieth century. Like the nineteenth-century nation-state, which pioneered its own rationalized systems of textual identification in the form of passports and criminal registries, early credit reporting organizations sought to impose protocols of legibility in the marketplace. This study describes the development and information processip.g techniques of these private firms and merchant associations, the work of retail cre.dit managers in extracting and classifying customer information, and the role of the Retail Credit Men's National Association (formed in 1912) in laying the foundation for a national consumer credit reporting apparatus. In addition, this study also draws special attention to one of the most consequential effects of credit reporting: the invention of financial identity. Formalized systems of credit assessment translated personal knowledge and local opinion (traditional sources of credit information) into disembodied textual representations of individual responsibility-first in narrative reports and later alphanumeric ratings. Within this totalizing system of disciplinary surveillance, the concept of financial identity circulated as a surrogate self, producing its own category of social reality and fostering new forms of economic objectification. Moreover, the centrality of character-one's reputation for honesty and respectability-in the determination of creditworthiness reveals the moral underpinnings of financial identity and indeed all systems of credit assessment despite their claims to objectivity and technical neutrality. Financial identity, it is argued, is a form of moral identity. The title of this study refers to the goodness of credit consumers in several contexts: as prompt paying customers, as trustworthy and morally upright citizens, and as profitable target markets, and collectively as a vital force behind the growth of the twentieth-century American economy and an ideological vindication of consumer credit itself.

Carolyn Marvin
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