February 2014

Poem, from 1894

Peter Linenthal

Agnes Corrigan was a seventh grader at Mission Grammar School— between 15th and 16th streets, on Mission—when her poem was published in Original Thoughts, Essays and Stanzas Written by the Pupils of the San Francisco Public Schools in 1894. She was living at 2307 Mariposa, just off Potrero Avenue, with her mother and five siblings. Getting to Mission Grammar was easier for Agnes than walking to the Potrero School at Minnesota and 21st street.

Agnes’ “Benefits of the Installment Plan” looks at the changing world of personal credit in the 1890s, seen through the eyes of a child. Although people have always borrowed money, it was often seen as a sign of moral weakness. During the 19th century, the industrial revolution made a wide variety of products available. Pianos became fashionable, there was bicycle craze, and suites of the latest furniture were shipped across the country.

In the 1880s, immigrants started coming to cities in gigantic waves, and were eager for the fruits of American prosperity: “three new rooms with brand new furniture.” Installment buying plans became commonplace by 1910.

“Loan sharks” were the darker side of late 20th century lending, charging exorbitant rates to an estimated 20 percent of American households. Lending regulations wouldn’t be implemented until the 1930s. The Userer’s Grip, a vivid silent movie by Thomas Edison on the subject, can be seen at www.library.hbs.edu/hc/credit/credit4f.html.  As the Harvard Business School’s website points out, the film may be melodramatic, “...but its plot and the plight of its protagonists are eerily modern. Nearly one hundred years ago, unwary borrowing from unscrupulous lenders had the power to drive a family to the brink of disaster.”  

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