“For every dollar I pay for information, I save
one hundred.”

" Letter to The New York Times on “Mercantile Agencies,” Nov. 7, 1851

The Panic of 1837, in which thousands of merchant houses failed to pay their debts, exposed the dangers of doing business in a modernizing market economy without a modern system of credit rating. In its aftermath, Manhattan merchant and abolitionist Lewis Tappan founded the first successful credit reporting service—the Mercantile Agency—to provide merchants with information on distant trading partners.11

Recent acquisitions by Baker Library’s Historical Collections shed new light on the structure of the early credit reporting industry. In its first years, the Mercantile Agency dedicated itself to protecting Eastern merchants from unscrupulous Western businessmen who relied on distance to shield them from prosecution. New York and Boston merchants would subscribe to Tappan’s service, which entitled them to visit his “reporting room” where a clerk read aloud the information contained in the report on a prospective business associate.

In the 1860s, the Agency followed the lead of its chief rival, Bradstreet & Co., in circulating a printed volume of readily usable reports among its subscribers. The structure of the business changed little in the twentieth century, though the Mercantile Agency—now called R. G. Dun & Co.—merged with its chief rival in 1933 to form Dun & Bradstreet.12

11 James D. Norris, R. G. Dun & Co., 1841–1900: The Development of Credit-Reporting in the Nineteenth Century (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978).

12 Dun & Bradstreet Corporation, Dun & Bradstreet and the Rise of Modern Business: A History of the Dun & Bradstreet Corporation (New York: Dun & Bradstreet, 1991).