The oldest bank in a state isn’t necessarily the first one chartered. Banks have had their difficulties over the years and many failed or were swallowed up by other banks.
Bank of America, for example, started out as the Providence Bank in Rhode Island in 1791. It became the Industrial National Bank in the 1950s, morphed into Fleet Financial Group in the 1990s, bought Shawmut and BankBoston, and then was acquired by the Bank of America in 2004.
Here, then, are brief histories of the oldest bank in each New England state. If you know of other old banks with interesting histories, please include them in the comments section.
In 1844, a young merchant from Old Saybrook named Frederick Sheffield rode his horse to Middletown, Conn., and deposited $8 in the Liberty Bank. Six months later he deposited another $18.
That $26 grew to more than $32,000 in 1994, when Sheffield’s descendants closed the account. It was the oldest individually owned savings account in America.
Liberty Bank was founded in 1825 as a mutual savings bank to help the poor and working class become thrifty. The bank’s headquarters complex includes its original location at Samuel Southmayd’s pharmacy on the corner of Main and Williams Streets in Middletown. They are part of the Main Street Historic District, and they include the former post office built in 1916, the Middletown Savings Bank built in 1928 and the Old Banking House Block built in 1796 and 1815.
Since 2000, Liberty Bank merged with several other smaller banks and is now the third largest as well as the oldest bank in Connecticut, with 56 branches and about 700 employees. It introduced a checking account to offer rebates of other banks’ ATM surcharges and built an affordable housing complex in Norwich, Uncas Condominiums.
Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution
Maine’s oldest bank, Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution was founded in 1827 as a social good, a way to encourage low-income people to save money.
The Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution was chartered during a flurry of charters for savings institutions along the East Coast. The first was founded in Boston in 1816, and within three years savings banks were incorporated in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Hartford, Providence and Salem, Mass.
Today it has eight branches along the coast of Southern Maine, employs about 200 people and has assets of about $900 million.
State Street Bank and Trust
Massachusetts Gov. John Hancock in 1792 signed the first charter for Union Bank, the forerunner of the State Street Bank and Trust Co. It was the third bank in Boston, located at the corner of State and Exchange streets. Its first president was Hancock’s lieutenant governor, Moses Gill.
The bank was tied to Boston’s shipping industry, and has always celebrated the city’s maritime history. The bank’s offices featured ship models, prints, harpoons and figureheads, and published about two dozen monographs about Boston’s shipping past.
The monographs, wrote one collector, “hold a unique place in Boston publishing history for a number of reasons, including their high level of scholarship, the elegant printing and presentation of the volumes, the very many rare photographs and illustrations first published therein, and the magnanimity of the great financial institution which made them available to the public.”
The bank’s interior was described as looking like a New England merchant’s counting house of the late 18th century, including the period furniture.
In 1924, Massachusetts Investors Trust chose State Street Bank as custodian of the country’s first mutual fund. The importance of that development wouldn’t become clear until years later.
In the 1970s, State Street decided to move away from retail banking and commercial lending, and into the high-tech world of processing asset management, global custody, 401(k), retirement plan accounting, and trusteeship of debt securities
A series of mergers and moves resulted in the bank’s current structure. Today it is a subsidiary of the State Street Corporation, the third largest asset manager in the world with $2.45 trillion under management. State Street Corporation is responsible for the custody and administration of 11 percent of the world’s assets. It is the oldest bank in Massachusetts and the second oldest bank in the country next to the Bank of New York, founded eight years earlier.
Bank of New Hampshire
In 1832, the Meredith Bridge Savings Bank in Laconia received its first deposit: $10.50. Its charter had been signed by Franklin Pierce the previous year. Thirty-eight years later it would change its name to the Laconia Savings Bank, and so it would remain until 2012, when it became the Bank of New Hampshire.
New Hampshire’s oldest bank was founded as a mutual savings bank, owned by its depositors, and it has remained that way ever since. In 1994, the bank began acquiring other banks, and today has 24 branches throughout the state.
The Bank of New Hampshire boasts of its support for such nonprofit organizations as the Laconia Public Library, Lakes Region Childcare, the Bedford Public Library and the Children’s Museum of Portsmouth. It has $1.5 billion of assets under management.
Washington Trust Company
The Washington Trust Company was chartered by the Rhode Island legislature in 1800 to furnish loans and savings options for residents of the Westerly area. More importantly, it also had responsibility for issuing bank notes. The federal government at the time did not issue currency as we know it today, and paper notes were from time to time in short supply. This made bank currency essential to a functioning economy.
Named for President Washington, the Washington Trust Company was known as Washington Bank. It became the first bank in the nation to issue currency that bore Washington’s portrait — a full 69 years before federal currency would bear his likeness. It was just the third bank chartered in Rhode Island history.
In the earliest days of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the bank insisted that its reliance on the values of Yankee thrift and frugality made it so sound that it had no need of FDIC insurance. Congress eventually forced all banks to participate in the insurance system, regardless of the health of their balance sheets.
National Bank of Middlebury
The State of Vermont chartered the National Bank of Middlebury in 1831. It operated out of the Middlebury Hotel until 1845 when it opened its first building. The bank became a federally chartered bank in 1865.
In 1885 the bank suffered a setback when an investment in the National Bank of St. Albans failed. The National Bank of Middlebury was among a group of banks that were shareholders who were asked to contribute funds to make good the deposits and debts of the St. Albans institution. The banks sued to escape liability, maintaining that they were not responsible for losses beyond their own investments. In 1888, however, the courts ruled that the National Bank of Middlebury, in addition to the others, must contribute to paying the St. Albans bank’s debts. Middlebury was ordered to pay $19,642 in the case.
After the banking crisis of 1933, during which Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the nation’s banks, the National Bank of Middlebury reopened and was declared one of the nation’s soundest banks. Today it is the oldest bank in Vermont.
Images: Liberty Bank, By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19384631; Westerly, R.I., By English Wikipedia user Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4422975
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