Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“What was it like to get a mortgage in 1875?”

One of the ways I’ve been keeping myself amused during this pandemic is by finally going through the old family journals I inherited from my grandparents back in late 1990s.

My great-grandfather Charles was quite strict about only using his accounting ledgers for accounting. His books meticulously record every cent spent on or earned from his farming and sheep breeding activities. They also include several pages of loans he made to various people, including his father, and whether, when, and how much they had paid him back.

My great-grandfather, Charles A. Phillips, may have kept meticulous accounting books, but his father, Nathaniel Phillips, kept getting distracted by life. If he kept a list of accounts due, they were invariably short. Nathaniel often relapsed into something approaching money management, but he rarely kept it up for long. What accounts he kept are constantly interrupted by emotional comments about his life. Sometimes, these notes are just a couple of lines dropped into a page of numbers.

On a typical page, my great-great-grandfather Nathaniel Phillips records both the sale of 1 1/2 bushels of corn and 3 lbs of pork and the fact that it has been almost nine months since his beloved wife Emily died. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The above excerpt is a typical example. While recording a sale of 1 1/2 bushels of corn ($0.90) and 3 lbs of pork ($0.24), Nathaniel is invariably reminded of the woman who used to cook said corn and pork for him.

“April 4th: Nearly nine months since Emily died. Oh how I wish that I might call her back.”

On the next line he’s back to recording sales to various customers. (Or maybe debts he owes them? The context isn’t exactly clear. The page itself is labeled “Apple Accounts,” but it has relatively few mentions of apples actually on it.)

Other times, those complaints come in the form of page after page of close writing, such as the two pages near the end of one ledger in which Nathaniel recalls what happened when he was forced to go to Rochester, New York to take out a second mortgage on his farm.

Having taken out mortgages on a couple of houses over the years, I was fascinated by this particular entry. At first, I was pretty jealous of how little paperwork was involved. Of course that was before I got to the bit about the bribery and back-room dealing.

What happened when a relatively poor farmer from upstate New York asked a banker in Rochester, NY for a loan in 1875

Image of a page from my great-great-grandfather's diary / accounting ledger. I won't retype the words here, because I transcribe the entry in the blog entry.
The first few lines of my great-great-grandfather’s entry describing his trip to Rochester, NY in search of a loan. (Photo: Shala Howell)

His handwriting is much neater than mine, but I’ll transcribe the entry for you anyway. (Note: Nathaniel consistently writes morgage instead of mortgage. Because that word appears frequently, I’ve corrected it in the following entry. The rest of the errors I left in place.)

“I went to Rochester to get money. I went to Powers Bank. I saw the Cashier and asked him if they had money to loan on a Bond & Mortgage – and he told me that they did not let money in that way – But said that he could refer me to a Party who had money to loan on a Bond & Mortgage. I ask him who it was and he refered [sic] me to Geo. H. Humphrey. I went to Mr. Humphrey’s Office, and found him, told him my business, and who sent me there. He asked about the security. I told him that it would be a second mortgage – and he said he thought that he could not induce the party to take such security. I told him that I would pay him well if he would get it for me. He inquired of me if I knew anyone in Rochester. I refered [sic] him to W. H. Bowman. He said that he would go and see Mr. Bowman. He went away and was gone awhile. Came back and said that he had seen Mr. Bowman – And that he thought if I was willing they could get it for me – But said that I must not expect to get the face of the mortgage as nobody would give the face of a second mortgage — His plan was this – To make a Bond & Mortgage out to W. H. Bowman & Bowman & Humphrey were to take the mortgage and go & sell it to their party for what they could get for it. And I was to have the proceeds – and I agreed to it – and was to pay them well for doing it if they could do it. This was about the 7th of March 1875. On the tenth day of March my wife & I went to Rochester … to W. H. Bowman’s Office. Mr. Bowman made out the Bond & Mortgage. My wife and I signed it. Mr. Bowman wrote out his check on the Bank of Monroe for thirty five hundred Dollars and gave it to me & I gave him the Bond & Mortgage. When Bowman gave me his check he told me to put it in my Pocket and keep it there. Not to go to the Bank with it for he had no money to buy it with. He & Humphrey could take the mortgage and go & sell it if they could. And if they sold it I was to have the proceeds of the sale – and I was to give him back his check. If they did not succeed in selling the Bond & Mortgage I was to give Bowman up his check and he was to give me up the Bond & Mortgage. For he said to me I have no money to buy a Bond & Mortgage. Mr. Bowman & Humphrey went away – were gone perhaps two hours and they came back. I was in Bowman’s Office waiting for them to return. Bowman said they had sold it. I asked him how much they got and he said they got thirty three hundred Dollars. And he thought they had sold it well. I then gave him his check and he gave me a check on Powers Bank for thirty three hundred Dollars. He told me to go and get it cashed and then I must settle with Humphrey & him for they had done a good thing for me. I went down and got it cashed – went up to G. H. Humphrey’s office and asked him how much I should pay him for his trouble – and he said he had done a good thing for me and he thought that I ought to pay him one hundred Dollars which I did pay him. I then went to Wm. H. Bowman’s Office and asked him how I should pay him and he said fifty Dollars. I paid Wm. H. Bowman fifty Dollars. I then had left, for my mortgage of thirty five hundred Dollars, thirty one hundred & fifty Dollars. This was all that I ever received for it.”

That last line gets me every time. It so clearly paints a picture of a man who knows he’s supposed to be stoic, but is nonetheless a bit of an emotional mess. Aggrieved, convinced he’d been swindled, and acutely aware that he was in no position to do anything about it except make a careful log of events in his diary in case his circumstances changed. Having done my share of documenting events as they happen in case I need a reliable account of them later, I recognize this behavior in someone else.

Bonus: Bank letters calling in mortgages looked a little different then too

Given the bank, Rochester Savings, and the date, 1894, I assume that this note refers to the first mortgage on Nathaniel’s farm, not the second mortgage he eventually obtained from Powers Bank, thanks to the “good thing” Humphrey and Bowman did for him in 1875.

Handwritten letter from the Bank of Rochester calling in the note on my great-great-grandfather's mortgage. Presumably this is his first mortgage and not the mortgage in the story. Again, I've transcribed the letter in the main text of the post.
Handwritten letter dated September 24, 1894 from the Bank of Rochester telling my great-great-grandfather that his mortgage is due.

In case you have trouble reading it, the note reads:

Rochester, N.Y. September 24, 1894

Mr. Nathaniel Phillips
Dear Sir,

The Bank has made a call on your mortgage for $500 payable November 1, 1894.

Truly Yours
James Brachett
Pres

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