Second of two parts
By 1850, however, they realized that more needed to be done to secure the long-term well being of the Irish immigrant community. Accordingly, they met in April 1850 and established a bank fittingly named Emigrant Industrial Savings. They leased a small office at 51 Chambers St., a good location on the edge of the city’s Little Ireland district. The official opening took place on Sept. 30, 1850.
The goal of the bank’s founders was to provide a hospitable institution for immigrant workers — domestics, laborers, and skilled tradesmen — to establish savings accounts and to send money back to relatives in Ireland. Their intuition was validated on the very first day of business when 20 people opened accounts and deposited $3,009.
Many more did likewise in the days, months, and years that followed. In this way, the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, like many similar institutions in other cities, played a key role in helping Irish immigrants to participate in the American dream. The bank allowed even the poorest among them to save, a practice that gradually led to better housing, diet, and education. It also paved the way for entrepreneurship. A poor, uneducated construction worker with dreams of something bigger could stash away the savings that one day would be the start-up capital for his own contracting business. Other would-be entrepreneurs — from saloon keepers to undertakers — got their start in a similar manner.
Clients of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank also used it to send money (called remittances) back to relatives in Ireland. This proved an enormous benefit to the Irish community, because before the Emigrant was established, they faced fraud and mail theft in trying to get funds back home. The Emigrant offered this service at low cost and opened an office in Dublin to handle the transactions on the other side. Despite the widespread poverty in the Irish community, this one bank alone sent more than $30 million to Ireland from 1850-80, by far the largest portion of an astonishing transfer of an estimated $234 million by the Irish in America to their friends and families in Ireland between 1848 and 1900.
By the end of its first decade, the Emigrant had evolved from a small immigrant society credit union to a full-fledged bank in its own new building. The ledger for 1859 showed 8,487 accounts with total deposits of $2,172,873.
By the early 20th century, the Emigrant was a major New York City bank headquartered in a new office tower at 51 Chambers St. completed in 1912. The building (now landmarked) still proudly proclaims Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank in huge brick letters on its eastern side, despite the fact that it now serves as an office building for the city government. Now well into its second century of existence, the Emigrant continues to thrive as one of the city’s oldest banks operating under its original name and serving a diverse population of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
Interestingly, the old nineteenth-century Emigrant bank continues to live on and serve the Irish in America. Several years ago the bank, at the urging of several local historians and genealogists, donated dozens of account ledgers and so-called “Test Books” to the New York Public Library. The former provide extraordinary data about the efforts of the immigrant Irish to scrape and save their way out of poverty. The latter Test Books contain a trove of personal information about each account holder, including full name, place and date of birth, names of family members (including parents), occupation, address, and the name of the ship that took them to America. Genealogist Kevin Rich has recently published the first book to compile some of this data, The Irish Immigrants of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, 1850-1853 (vol. 1). Thus does the old Emigrant continue to provide the Irish in America with wealth — just of a different sort.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
March 26, 1920: The British special forces known as the Black and Tans arrive in Ireland to suppress the Irish War for Independence.
March 29, 1882: Founded by Rev. Michael J. McGivney, the Knights of Columbus is granted a charter by the state of Connecticut.
March 30, 1955: Grace Kelly wins an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in “The Country Girl.”
March 28, 1879: Nationalist martyr Terence MacSwiney is born in Cork.
March 28, 1944: NBA star Rick Barry is born in Elizabeth, N.J.
March 30, 1880: Writer Sean O’Casey is born in Dublin.