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David Roodman's Microfinance Open Book Blog


In the history chapter of my book, I document how ancient is the practice of joint liability---especially if that term includes any time one person cosigns another's promissory note. Jonathan Swift made small loans in the 1720s to "industrious trademen" who could produce two co-signers to vouch for them. No collateral was needed. Starting around 1910, Arthur Morris applied the same formula to build a banking empire in the southeast and midwest of the United States, with loans starting at $100.

So imagine my surprise when I recently opened an envelope of photos and clippings from my grandmother and found among them this advertisement for the Security Finance Corporation. It probably appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light in 1926:

Security Finance Corp ad

Across the top you see the faces of the men who directed the company, and I assume put up the capital. Beneath is the guy they entrusted to run the operation on a daily basis, my great-grandfather Louis Levy. (We called him Daddy Lou.) All were friends, and my father remembers many of them from his childhood. Starting at $500 (more like $5,000 in today's money), the loans should probably not be considered microfinance. Yet the two-cosigner formula is there, as is the down-market aim. I suspect that Arthur Morris's success helped inspire the founding of the company in 1923. Since Morris carefully studied the example of the German credit cooperatives, to which the Grameen Bank can also trace a lineage, it seems that the Security Finance Corporation and Grameen are distant cousins.

To give you a glimpse of the arc of a lifetime, and the cycle of generations, here are some more pictures.

This was taken in front of my great-great-grandfather Sussman Levy's picture frame shop at 907 E. Baltimore St. (can you see the 907?) in Baltimore, in 1900. Sussman stands with his two boys, Louis (left) and Herman (right). I believe the business did not last long. According to his birth certificate, Louis was born at home, just around the corner. The house and the storefront are both long gone.

Daddy Lou, Herman, and Sussman Levy in front of frame shop, 907 E. Baltimore St., 1900.

From Baltimore city directories of the time, it appears that Daddy Lou's family, the first of my antecedents to emigrate, started out their American lives in the 1870s, living in tenements and working in sweatshops near Baltimore's Inner Harbor. They came from Lithuania. The Inner Harbor is now a tourist playground but was then a major manufacturing and transportation hub, where the Baltimore & Ohio railroad reached the Atlantic.

Here's Daddy Lou at 20, working as a mailman, probably in St. Louis by this time:

Daddy Lou as mail man

Five years later, probably on the day he wed Mommy Rose, in 1918:

Mommy Rose was born Rifke Gelman, in Western Ukraine, and emigrated with her siblings and her mother Feige (Fanny) through Ellis Island on January 3, 1906 (lines 1--5).

Here are the grown children of Lou and Rose---Paula and Harvey---on the day Harvey left to enter the service in World War II. (Both are still alive.) With them is the first of the next generation, Paula's son Gary---my father:

This clip was published on my 10th birthday in the same St. Louis newspaper as that ad for loans. It marked Daddy Lou and Mommy Rose's 60th anniversary:

Here's the latest couple of generations:

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