Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Social History and Credit Unions

For much of its long existence, the primary focus of the field of history was on the "great men" who were believed to be the driving force behind historical change. Little could be gained, it was thought, by understanding the life of a French peasant in 1780 or a fisherman in Nova Scotia in 1890. Instead, the idea was that good history should be populated by world-changing geniuses, powerful princes, cunning statesmen, and intrepid explorers.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, this view was challenged by the emerging field of social history. Though its practitioners have trod enormously varied paths since the birth of the discipline, the core agenda of social history was powerfully summarized by E.P. Thompson in the introduction to his seminal 1961 book, The Making of the English Working Class. "I am seeking," he declared, "to rescue the poor stockinger the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' handloom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan, and even the delude follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity ... they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties."

This declaration of the importance understanding the historical realities of everyday people had a powerful effect on the discipline of history, and countless projects have been undertaken since Thompson's writing that have shed enormous light on previously darkened historical corners. However, with this new focus came new challenges for historians. One of the benefits of studying "great men" is that they tended to leave voluminous paper trails in the form of journals, writings, correspondence, etc. By contrast, written accounts and records of the lives of women in colonial America, slaves on 19th century cotton plantations, or semi-literate immigrant factory workers in 1920s New York are few and far between. To fill the gaps, social historians have turned to a wide variety of alternative sources of information, from judicial records to material culture to folk-lore.

However, one exceedingly rich vein of information that has been hardly tapped by social historians of the early to mid-20th century is the credit union. Early credit unions were usually formed by tight-knight communities, and many groups of interest to social historians, such as urban immigrants and African-American farmers in the rural South, founded many such institutions from the 1910s to the 1960s. Staffed by volunteers and relying upon the social knowledge of their democratically elected credit committees to determine whether or not to make loans, the minutes of early credit unions offer a fascinating view into the lives of many communities that have otherwise left behind few records. By looking at what members needed loans for, what kinds of requests were approved or denied, what sorts of people assumed leadership roles, the topics of debate at annual meetings, etc., investigating credit union archives can contribute new perspectives on a community's history.

A recent example of the effective historical use of credit union records can be found in Mark Richard's excellent book Loyal But French: The Negotiation of Identity by French-Canadian Descendants in the United States. An investigation of the changing identities of successive generations of Franco-American in the mill town of Lewiston, Maine, the book uses credit union records as evidence of the decline of the importance of spoken French to community life in the 1970s. Recounting debates at annual meetings over the language, Richard shows how the institutions slowly succumbed to the Franco-American community's new reality over the course of the decade, first allowing for some committee reports to be published in English before converting entirely over to the language by 1980.

The use that Richard got out of credit union records in his book is one of truly countless ways in which credit union records could be used to enrich scholarship on 20th century American social history. Such records exist half-forgotten in the back rooms of credit unions all across America, just waiting to be unearthed and put to good use by scholars and graduate students seeking new ways of understanding the past.

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