The Savings of Ordinary Americans: The Philidelphia Saving Fund Society in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

George Alter, Claudia Goldin, Elyce Rotella

NBER Working Paper No. 4126
Issued in July 1992
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

We explore the savings behavior and saving rates of ordinary Americans through their accounts at the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society. the oldest mutual savings bank in the United States founded in 1816 to encourage thrift among the working poor. Our sample contains the 2.374 accounts opened in 1850. of which one-quarter were linked to the 1850 census manuscripts. Savings accounts were generally brief affairs; only 30 percent lasted more than 5 years. But median balances mounted to about three-quarters of annual income in about three to four years. Deposits and withdrawals were infrequent. but substantial. The median deposit was about 1 to 2 months of gross income whereas the median withdrawal represented about 2 to 3 months but occurred far less often. Account holders. then. did not generally use their accounts for the short-run fluctuations in income we suspect they experienced. Only female servants. as a group. used their accounts for life-cycle savings eventually amassing large nest eggs through steady but slow accumulation. Men often used their accounts to hold funds on route to acquiring physical property. Estimated saving rates range from a low of 12 percent to a more sensible one of 21 percent among only active accounts.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w4126

Published: Journal of Economic History, December 1994. citation courtesy of

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