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May 18, 2012

Historical Echoes: Our Checking Accounts, Ourselves – Or, Say Good Night, Gracie’s Checking Account

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

An extensive 2009 exhibit, “Women Making Financial History,” chronicles the history of the relationship of women to finance. The section “Women as Customers” describes how U.S. women gradually gained legal control over their finances:

In 1862 California passed legislation which began the savings and loan industry in the state, and established financial independence of women no matter what their marital status.

[The San Francisco Savings Union’s] early published pamphlets confirmed the rights of women depositors, advertising that “Married women and minors, making deposits in their own name, can withdraw them themselves.” Less than two months after its incorporation and shortly after opening its doors, Saving Union directors approved the first loan to a woman customer.

    The exhibit also describes “stocking rooms” (see below), where women at the turn of the century, inclined to avoid banking due to its perceived untrustworthiness and overly masculine environment, could remove their money and valuables hidden in their stockings and conduct their financial business without distraction:

Producing cash for deposit from a coin purse tucked into a stocking, or another undergarment posed a delicate problem for ladies standing opposite a male teller at the bank counter. Savvy banks began adapting their facilities to fit the particular needs of female customers. One banker at the National Bank of Commerce in Kansas City noted that half the woman customers carried their cash in either their stocking or bosom. He came up with the idea of creating a private “stocking room,” where woman customers could retire to remove their cash.

    A 1909 advertisement for the Old Colony Trust Company (page 248 for users of IE7 or earlier) encourages women specifically to open accounts there because of the company’s history of catering to woman customers. The ad concludes:
“A call at the Temple Office at any time during banking hours will convince you beyond possible doubt as to the popularity of bank accounts for women.”

    In 1975, the first woman-owned commercial bank, First Women’s Bank, opened in New York City. In a television news broadcast, one learns that the opening of the bank was stalled for two years because of the recession, that Betty Friedan opened an account there, and that the Federal Reserve had just made a set of rulings regarding the unlawfulness of discrimination on the basis of sex against people applying for loans.

    Of course, women should be entitled to equality under the law with respect to money and property, but there is one fictional character about whom one might reasonably ask: Should she have a bank account? This is Gracie Allen of Burns and Allen, the famous comedy team whose television show, “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” aired from 1950 to 1958.

    In one 1950 episode, “Gracie’s Checking Account,” a banker (named
Mr. Vanderlip [1]) visits George to complain about Gracie’s behavior (10 min.,
25 sec. into clip, or watch here starting five lines into the dialogue):

Mr. Vanderlip: Charming woman, Gracie. One of my favorites. Really crazy about her. Do me a favor, will you George?

George: Certainly.

Mr. V: Keep her out of my bank.

George: What, uh, what seems to be the trouble?

Mr. V: Well, it’s that checking account you opened for her. First of all, our bookkeeping never quite agrees with hers. Now last week, for example, we computed her balance to be twelve hundred dollars.

George: What did Gracie figure it was?

Mr. V: Two million, eight-hundred thousand.

George: I wish she was right.

Mr. V: And then we come to the matter of the checks Gracie has written. Tell her that a check is intended only as a means of transferring MONEY from one person to another, not recipes, song lyrics, the latest gossip, or ten-day diets.

George: She writes all that on the checks?

Mr. V: Not only that, she signs them “Guess who?”

George: Well, I’ll see that she stays out of the bank.

Mr. V: The bank is definitely not the place for Gracie. In fact, as I listen to her conversation with my teller, I always get the feeling that the wrong person is inside the cage.

    Later, after much agonizing on the part of George about how he will break the news to her that he must close her account, Gracie volunteers her desire to close it:

George: Mr. Vanderlip …

Gracie: Oh, don’t mention that man to me again. I’m never going in his bank again!

George: Why not?

Gracie: Well, because it’s dishonest. I was there yesterday to make a deposit and as fast as I put money in one window, somebody was taking it out of another.

[1] An earlier “Historical Echoes” post, “Money and the Art of War,” focused on
F. A. Vanderlip, an early proponent of central banking and participant in the founding of the Federal Reserve System.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

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