05 Jan 2011

Baker Library I Bloomberg Center Exhibit Examines the History of Personal Credit

Photo: Baker Library Historical Collections

BOSTON—A new exhibit, "Buy Now, Pay Later: A History of Personal Credit," opened recently in the Baker Library | Bloomberg Center lobby on the Harvard Business School campus in Boston. The exhibit was organized by the Baker Library Historical Collections, part of the School's Knowledge and Library Services. The exhibit will run until June 3, 2011.

"Buy Now, Pay Later" demonstrates that although the instruments and institutions of 21st century credit—the installment plan, the credit card, and the home finance industry—are less than a century old, credit itself is as old as commerce. The exhibition draws materials from Baker Library's extensive Historical Collections to show how previous generations devised creative ways of lending and borrowing.

The exhibit depicts how the credit industry has evolved over time in several stages, including:

  • Credit in Pre-Industrial Society

    As far back as the 16th century, society viewed using credit as a sign of moral weakness. Conventional wisdom then held that businesses built on credit were only for the greedy. Many images in the collection (commonly reproduced in periodicals) depict creditors as people with the power to upset the established order of society.
  • Credit and the Market Economy: The Rise of Credit Reporting

    In the first half of the 1800s, the market economy emerged, creating problems for the credit practices in use, because traders were not able to evaluate the credit-worthiness of an individual over a long distance. The solution to this was the establishment of the Mercantile Agency, the first credit-reporting service. Its ledgers, which comprise one of Baker Library's most used collections, illustrate the often rocky transition to providing credit in a market economy.
  • Credit in a Consumer Society

    In the mid-19th century, the mature industrial economy was growing, thanks to the wider availability of consumer goods such as farm equipment, sewing machines, and a variety of appliances. New credit practices were devised to accommodate the needs of factory production.

Among the materials on display in the exhibit, the records of colonial American merchants and storekeepers make clear the importance of credit in a society where hard cash was scarce. In the modern era, credit has become the business of major corporations and the subject of consumer protection regulation that seeks to expand access to credit as well as protect the borrower. "Buy Now, Pay Later" shows in vivid and interesting fashion how credit has moved from the fringes of the economy to its very center.

The exhibit is open to the public Monday-Friday from 9:00 a.m.to 5:00 p.m.

Visit the Baker Library Historical Collections Web site to learn more about the history of personal credit and to view some of the items featured in the exhibit.

About Baker Library Historical Collections
Baker Library Historical Collections is a rich resource for scholarship in business and economic history and cross-disciplinary studies. Thousands of items - including business records, diaries and correspondence, research papers, rare books, ephemera, and visual materials - provide the documentary evidence that allows scholars to investigate firsthand the important business theories, organizations, movements, and individuals that have shaped our nation's history and globally influenced progress and developments today. For more information about Baker Library Historical Collections visit www.library.hbs.edu/hc/.

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.