Updated 5 yearss ago
Not so long ago I was in Manhattan and happened to walk by a grand old building at the corner of 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Its façade featured an array of two-story windows, majestic doorways and Greek columns, scrolled at the top in the ionic style. It seemed obvious that the structure hadn’t been built to house the private children’s school and a CVS drugstore that now occupy it.
Aside from the incongruity of the building’s design and its current tenants, what intrigued me about it was a series of inscriptions carved into the parapet above the columns:
“Save and teach all you are interested to save. Thus pave the way for moral and material success.” — Thomas Jefferson
“Teach economy. That is one of the first and highest virtues. It begins with saving money.” — Abraham Lincoln
“The habit of saving money while it stiffens the will also brightens the energies. If you would be sure that you are beginning right begin to save.” — Theodore Roosevelt
The building, it turned out, had been built in 1927 as the home of the East River Savings Bank. That name, carved into the parapet as well, was obscured by CVS signage.
The bank was founded in 1848 by an attorney, John Leveridge, who ran it out of his home on the Lower East Side near the East River — hence the name. That same year, New York enacted a law called the Married Women’s Property Act that enabled women to hold bank accounts. Until then, a woman’s property became her husband’s when she married. Leveridge’s bank was one of the first to offer women the chance to open the savings accounts the law had made legal. One of its first customers was an Irish domestic servant named Mary Linny.
The bank prospered during the late 1800s, and when it built the new headquarters for itself in 1927, it specified to the architect that the building should show strength, to leave a clear impression that it was a safe place to deposit money. The bank, in fact, did well enough after the Great Depression started in 1929 that it expanded its building in 1931.
But back to the inscriptions. They’re notable, even if you’re inclined to dismiss them as just marketing slogans from an earlier age.
Consider, for example, that none of the quotes suggests that the East River bank was a nicer place or offered better cookies or provided better service or better returns than other institutions. Consider the presence of the words “moral” and “virtue” and “right” — in particular, Jefferson’s link between “moral” success and “material” success. And Roosevelt’s association of thrift, self-discipline and happiness.
What the inscriptions tout ultimately is not the bank, but rather the very idea of saving as having a higher value, a social value, in an educational, almost quasi-religious way. It’s easy to find other evidence from that era reflecting an America striving to incorporate higher values into its thinking about economic matters. In 1922, for example, the January issue of the Journal for Education, a national publication for teachers, featured several articles focused on thrift, including one entitled “Teaching Children to Save.” One line from the article reads: “A widespread spirit of thrift is a great source of national strength.”
Some notion of saving and thrift as social virtues persisted at least up to my generation. But today, we inhabit a world in which financial matters and social values live on different blocks. The only ads in which thrift is a topic, even vaguely, are from brokerage firms soliciting business from affluent 50-somethings who already have nest eggs.
Young people, by contrast, tend to be targeted mostly with messages encouraging consumption and debt. It was completely unsurprising to read a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers that found millennials struggling with their personal finances — only 24% have basic financial literacy, and more than half are either “unsatisfied” or “not at all satisfied” with their financial situations. A third of those with incomes of more than $75,000 worry they may not be able to repay college loans; more than half have carried over a credit card balance; only about a third have retirement accounts, and many of those who do have already made emergency withdrawals or taken loans from them. Overall, personal savings rates in the U.S. have been on a downward trend for 40 years.
The absence of a sense of higher purpose in managing their financial affairs may have something to do with the millennials’ behavior. But I don’t know if it’s possible to re-create that sense of purpose. For good reasons, financial institutions don’t enjoy the most savory reputation these days, and lack the moral leverage to build idealistic messages into their marketing. And it seems almost laughable that millennials, however idealistic their generation, will ever come to see saving and investing as a virtue or Big Cause in the same way they view climate change or locally sourced food.
The East River Savings Bank, by the way, got caught up in a tangle of changed banking rules in the 1970s and was purchased by a real estate investor who changed its name. Its new incarnation lasted until the mid-1990s, when yet another bank bought its assets and sold the building to CVS’ landlord.
And so those inscriptions carved in stone now serve as monuments to a time when someone thought the values they espouse should be permanent. I hope the teachers at the school at 96th and Amsterdam point them out to the students old enough to understand. The kids won’t see those quotes on Facebook.
Young people tend to be targeted mostly with messages encouraging consumption and debt.