Fear at the Beginning of American Independence: Approaching the Spatial History of Insurance

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 2:10 PM
Room 501 (Colorado Convention Center)
Elisabeth Engel, German Historical Institute
North American concepts of insurance emerged in tandem with notions of “risk” that captured the fears and anxieties American people entertained during and in the aftermath of the American Revolution. A core practice of the nascent business was to define “risk” as a contingency that lurked in various quotidian activities and environments of the early American nation. By offering to defy “risk” in exchange for payments, insurers gradually marked an ever increasing range of locations, bodies, occupations, and possessions as hazardous. This established a new market for security. While business historians consider the economic impact of this market as negligible before the 1840s, my research aims to highlight that its social and cultural ramifications profoundly impacted early American society.

To further develop this argument, my presentation will focus on the spatial development of the nascent American insurance business between 1752 – the year that is commonly acknowledged as the founding year of the first domestically American insurance company – and 1840, the time in which scholars consider insurance as “established.” The discussion will include a new database I am compiling of early insurance companies regarding their spatial distribution, as well as the locally diverse “risks” these companies turned to. To visualize these findings, the project uses digital tools that help to merge distinct sets of data, and to transform them into a single interactive map that reveals the state of insurance at different points in time. By revealing local and temporal particulars of the insurance industry, the map historicizes concepts of “risk” as related to cultural and social trends that emerged in various corners of the young American nation, and hence challenges the notion that risk is simply inherent to the human condition.

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