Archival Collections
Rare Book & Manuscript Library

New York Clearing House Association records, 1853-2006 

Creator: 
New York Clearing House Association
Phys. Desc: 
151 linear feet (85 record cartons, 43 document boxes, 5 flat boxes, 3 card files, and 84 ledgers in custom boxes)
Call Number: 
MS#1464
Location: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Biographical Note

The New York Clearing House Association was the first and largest bank clearing house in the United States. Established before the Civil War, this entity was intended by its founders to systematize and rationalize previously disorganized exchanges and settlements between New York City's banks. These institutions which established the Clearing House became the very heart of American finance in the late nineteenth century as the nation developed a financial system increasingly autonomous from the English and European banks on which Americans had previously depended for credit and capital investment. During the American Civil War, the federal government intervened in a growing financial sector and developed fiscal and monetary policies adequate to the Union's military and industrial needs. In the war's aftermath, New York's banks, and the credit the banks made available, financed a rapid expansion of American industry and transportation infrastructure which made the United States a global economic power and conquered the American West by the end of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, some of the New York Clearing House's member banks, symbolized in American society, politics, and culture by "Wall Street" came to represent both the awesome power of a robust American financial sector and the greed and irresponsibility which many believed precipitated the disastrous stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The California Gold Rush and an explosion in railroad construction marked the four years before 1853, when the Clearing House was founded. In this same period the number of New York City's banks more than doubled, from 24 to 57. Before the Clearing House, banks had settled their accounts in a laborious manner, employing porters to travel from bank to bank to exchange checks for gold specie. This process became a daily event as the number of banks multiplied. However, the actual reckoning of accounts between banks typically occurred on Fridays in front of a Wall Street bank, in what came to be called the "Porter's Exchange." This practice necessarily led to errors in records and abuse. Several bankers looked to London's Clearing House system as a model for resolving the cumbersome weekly settlement process as others expressed frustration with the current system. In 1831, Albert Gallatin, previously the Secretary of the Treasury for the United States and President of the National Bank of New York, wrote that the lack of a daily exchange of drafts among banks "produces relaxations, favors improper expansions and is attended with serious inconveniences.". In 1851, George D. Lyman, a New York bank's bookkeeper, suggested in an anonymous article that banks should consider sending and receiving checks through a central office. On August 18, 1853, he repeated his proposal in another article to which he affixed his name, and asked interested cashiers to contact him if they endorsed his plan. The city's banks responded enthusiastically. On October 4, 1853, the New York Clearing House was officially established by a group of cashiers led by Francis E. Edmonds of the Mechanics Bank. On October 11, in the basement of 14 Wall Street, 52 banks participated in the first transaction, exchanging checks worth $22.6 million. Two decades later, the average daily clearing approached $100 million. At the new Clearing House, specie certificates replaced gold as the means of settling balances. Porters exchanging certificates for gold deposited at the Clearing House's member banks now no longer exchanged specie, thus experiencing fewer errors and risks. The use of specie certificates also relieved the strain of the banks' cash flows and reduced the potential for runs on deposits. Requirements for all member banks, such as weekly audits, minimum reserve levels, and a daily settlement of all balances, ensured increasingly efficient and regularized exchanges. Lyman retired from his position as manager of the Clearing House in 1864, and was succeeded by William A. Camp. Camp had previously been appointed in 1855 as a discount clerk in the Importers and Traders' Bank of New York. Appointed first teller of the Artisans' Bank the next year, Camp in 1857 was hired as the assistant manager at the Clearing House. He was manager for the Clearing House for the years in which the first volumes of these records began to be kept. "To executive ability of a high order" Albert S. Bolles wrote of Camp and his Clearing House in Practical Banking (1884), Camp "unites unusual accuracy and promptness in the dispatch[sic] of business, as well as a wide acquaintance, both theoretical and practical, with financial subjects..". "It speaks volumes for the care and scrupulous accuracy with which the business has been conducted, that in the entire history of the Clearing-house, extending over nearly thirty-one years, its transactions have always balanced to a cent. The only instance on record of an error in any statement emanating from it occurred a few years ago in the weekly bank statement, and this was due to an error of one of the clerks in transcribing the figures. In making the entries, the officials at the Clearing-house and their subordinates use ink only. The clerks sent by the banks may at their option make their entries in pencil.". The New York Clearing House naturally became an instrument of financial self-regulation in the numerous economic downturns and financial panics that occurred on average every five-and-a-half years between 1853 and 1913, in a rapidly expanding American economy. Leading Clearing House member banks first attempted to stabilize a tottering financial system in the 1857 panic. When specie payments were suspended, Clearing House banks, in an effort to shorten the panic's duration and increase public confidence, started to issue "Clearing House Loan Certificates." Effectively a kind of currency, these certificates were backed not by gold but by discounted county and state bank notes held by member banks. Printed with the words "Payable Through the Clearing House" these loan certificates were the joint liability of all Clearing House member banks, making them a far more secure form of payment. They were issued in smaller denominations in the 1873 panic, and were maintained by member banks as a substitute currency in later financial crises, including the depression which began in 1893-1894. Though it has been argued that these certificates violated federal laws against privately-issued currencies, a contemporary once wrote that the Clearing House's loan certificates "performed so valuable a service..in moving the crops and keeping business machinery in motion, that the government..wisely forbore to prosecute.". Because of their stability during financial panics, the Clearing House Loan Certificate's value became a reliable measure of the financial health of the American economy as a whole. Bolstered by discounted collateral, each Loan Certificate was worth more than its dollar equivalent. The currency premium, or exchange rate, between Clearing House money and greenbacks (or gold specie) thus operated as an indicator of the gradual restoration in bank money. When the premium dropped to zero, a one-to-one relationship obtained between certificates and currency, making substitution unnecessary. In 1913, the passage of the Federal Reserve Act by the U.S. Congress established a clearing house system at the federal government level, modeled after the private New York Clearing House and other similar financial exchange institutions across the nation. The Federal Reserve system subsequently and effectively assumed the role which private clearing houses had played in stabilizing and regularizing exchanges and mitigating financial panics.

Scope and Contents

New York Clearing House Association (now The Clearing House Association) was founded in 1853 as the first banking clearing house in the United States. The records include amicus briefs, constitutions and amendments, letter books, meeting minutes, financial ledgers and statements, photographs, publications, and reports. The collection includes documentation of the organization’s governance, decision and policy making, membership, and advocacy work on banking and financial issues. These records include meeting minutes and files from the Clearing House Association, Clearing House Committee, Steering Committee, and other committees, such as the Bank Officers, Committee on Admissions and Loan Committees, as well as documentation of who served on these committees. In addition, the records include amicus briefs, annual reports, constitutions and amendments, exchange agreements, letter books, and publications. The records also document the organization’s daily work as a banking clearing house. For decades, daily exchanges were documented in the settlement statements in the collection’s proof ledgers. The records include documentation of daily transactions for most of 1868-1972, as well as annual figures for 1853-1883. The records also include information on the health of both member and non-member banks, documented in the weekly and quarterly statements of member banks, state banks, national banks, commercial banks, and trust companies in the metropolitan area of New York City. Lastly, the records include articles, photographs, publications, and general historical records that speak to the history of the organization, and document persons, buildings, and events associated with that history. New York Clearing House Association (now The Clearing House Association) was founded in 1853 as the first banking clearing house in the United States. The records include amicus briefs, constitutions and amendments, letter books, meeting minutes, financial ledgers and statements, photographs, publications, and reports.