Tuesday, April 17, 2012

America's First Credit Union Periodical: The Bridge

First edited together as a small newsletter in June of 1924 by Roy Bergengren, the Credit Union Bridge served as the movement's primary "journal of record" for decades before it became the present Credit Union Magazine. In that time, the Bridge was both a clearing-house for practical information about how to run a credit union in addition to being a forum in which early credit unionists in the United States and Canada debated the direction of the movement.

Needless to say, such a publication is an incredibly rich and useful primary source for anyone interested in the history of credit unions, and it had long been a dream of mine to travel to the CUNA archives in Madison, WI and spend a week or two reading as many back issues as I possibly could. Therefore, I was floored when, a few weeks ago, Jeremiah Cahill, the Associate Editor of Credit Union Magazine, sent me an email inquiring whether I'd be interested in an almost complete set of issues stretching from the mid-1930s to the end of 1962. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity, and last week I came home to two heavy boxes sitting on my front stoop filled with bound volumes of the Bridge!

Included in this amazing gift was one volume of extra-special historical significance. Written on the inside cover of the 1940 volume is the name of its former owner: one Dora Maxwell. According to Gabriel Kirkpatrick's fantastic post about women in the early credit union movement on the CUNAverse blog, Dora Maxwell was:
Dora's Signature!
The most prominent woman in the early credit union movement, she learned about credit unions through her interest in the cooperative movement. In 1920, she helped organize a community church credit union in New York. This brought her to the attention of Roy Bergengren, who was looking for talented people to help him organize credit unions in each state. He helped her to organize the Brooklyn Postal Employees Credit Union and she went on to organize more on her own. In 1931, Bergengren asked her to work as a field organizer for the Credit Union National Extension Bureau (CUNEB). She was one of the signers of the CUNA constitution and bylaws at Estes Park. When CUNA was established in Madison, she worked as a field representative and wrote a column, called “Howdy Gals”, for The Bridge. She also wrote the column, “What About it” for a time. She became the Director of the Organization and Education Department of CUNA. By 1947 she had risen to be in-line for the Assistant Manager position at CUNA. Ultimately, she resigned because other directors would not accept the idea of a woman being managing director. She returned to New York State and continued to work for the Eastern District as a credit union organizer until 1955. CUNA’s Social Responsibility Recognition Program was named after Dora Maxwell and recognizes credit union involvement in community projects and activities.
Needless to say, adding a volume that was once owned by this legendary early feminist credit unionist to my library was quite a thrill.

Working my way through the literally thousands of pages of text contained in this windfall is going to take quite some time, but I kicked off the project by looking through the issues from 1955. I picked that year because it was the year of Roy Bergengren's death, and I wanted to see how he was represented in the movement literature in his last months and after his passing. In addition to finding an essay by him decrying credit unions' expansion into mortgages at the expense of making small personal loans and a memorial page in the December issue (he'd died in November), numerous other things kept popping out at me. I found myself plastering the pages with multicolored notes signaling relevance to various potential lines of historical inquiry (gender in the movement, banker attacks on credit unions, connections (or rejections of connections) to other wings of the cooperative movement, etc.). It very quickly became clear that there is a huge amount to learn from these old issues, so expect plenty of Bridge-related CU History posts in the coming months.

To conclude, I'll leave you with a short credit union song from the September, 1955 issue, which is attributed to the "bindery girls of CUNA Supply Cooperative."
To help you with your CREDIT UNION DAY celebration.
(to the tune of Tramp, Tramp, Tramp)

Hail all hail to Credit Unions
They're life savers through and through
For the cash you lay away
To combat the rainy day
For the loans you need
To make your dreams come true.

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