The Museum of the City of New York Exhibit: ‘Capital of Capital: New York’s Banks and the Creation of a Global Economy’

By Nicole Scholet

This past July, I went with other members of the AHA Society Executive Board to visit the Museum of the City of New York. Despite visiting the city often (I’m originally from New York), I hadn’t heard of the MCNY until recently when I began researching Alexander Hamilton statues – turns out there is one right in an alcove of the building’s façade!

It seemed fate that when The AHA Society would be in New York for CelebrateHAMILTON 2012, there would be a special exhibit called ‘Capital of Capital’ at MCNY about New York’s financial history. After all, you can’t talk about New York’s financial beginnings without talking about Alexander Hamilton.

The Museum of the City of New York building was built in the 1920’s and is a gorgeous example of Colonial Revival architecture. We had a private tour to visit the ‘Capital of Capital’ exhibit with Daniel, our fantastic and informative tour guide.

Photo Credits: Capital of Capital: New York’s Banks and the Creation of a Global Economy at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street, closing October 21st.

One of the most interesting parts of the exhibit was the layout itself – the history of New York’s banks winds through the aisles, covering the progressive stages in New York’s (and essentially our nation’s) financial history. If you look across the entire exhibit, the walls gradually rise, mimicking the growth of the New York City skyline from the small Federal buildings of the 1800s to the dominating skyscrapers that define the city today.

Alexander Hamilton and Banking

I was surprised to learn just how much the start of American banking was due to Alexander Hamilton. There was not a single bank in the US in 1780 when Alexander Hamilton first drafted a detailed outline for a bank and sent it to Robert Morris, who was known as the “Financier of the Revolutionary War.” The following year in Philadelphia, Morris established the Bank of North America based on Hamilton’s recommendations¹. (By the way, Hamilton was only 23 years old when he wrote that first letter!)

After the war, Alexander Hamilton recognized the importance of providing merchants with capital in order to build trade back up and strengthen the economy. He founded the Bank of New-York in 1784, which became the first commercial bank in the New York region – the true start of the “Capital of Capital.”

Later, as the first US Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton established the first national bank under the US Constitution. Based out of Philadelphia, it was called the Bank of the United States, and it helped serve as a regulatory force for other banks that were beginning to form in the country. Other plans that Hamilton enacted while serving as Secretary of the Treasury established credit for the young nation, created a uniform measure of currency, and even created precedent for easing financial panics. These initiatives truly enabled financial institutions to flourish in the US.

Obviously, New York in particular owes a lot to Alexander Hamilton for his early pioneering efforts in banking. The banks Hamilton created were the beginning of the “Capital of Capital” (New York City), and this is where the exhibit starts. The first section has an impressive collection of artifacts related to Alexander Hamilton – including an original Alexander Hamilton portrait painted by John Trumbull.

Trumbull, a renowned painter both during and after the Revolutionary War, painted this portrait a few years after Hamilton’s death, most likely in 1806 (Fun Fact: This portrait is used as the model for Hamilton’s image on the $10 bill today).

If you’re a Hamilton fan, the visit to see this painting alone is worth the trip. It truly is the most striking portrait I’ve seen – the condition is remarkable and the colors are incredibly bright. We all certainly spent awhile admiring it!

Other great artifacts in the Alexander Hamilton section include:

  • Bank of New-York ‘Act of Incorporation’
  • A pamphlet of “Rules Observed at the Bank,” including hours of operation, for the Bank of New-York
  • Letter from Alexander Hamilton to William Seton, cashier of the Bank of New-York, during the financial panic of 1792.
  • Receipt of Interest on the Bank of New-York’s loan to the Department of the Treasury (the loan was used to fund the Society of Establishing Useful Manufactures, also established by Hamilton)
  • Bank of New-York checks, including one signed by Robert Morris (previously mentioned as the “financier of the American Revolution”)

The rest of the exhibit: The other sections trace New York’s banking history up to the present day, covering diverse themes such as the growth of banks, trends in banking, the evolution of paper money, the stock market, the Federal Reserve, panics, reform, the advent of credit cards, and so on. It even covers current issues such as the Occupy Wall Street movement.

A few of the most interesting artifacts include original stock ticker tape from Black Friday (October 24, 1929) that led to the Great Depression and a “Savings Bank Machine” from 1922 that can be considered one of the first ATM machines.

Visit the Museum

If you are near the New York area, I highly recommend visiting the ‘Capital of Capital’ exhibit before it ends on October 21st. It’s high-quality and engaging, with an innovative layout. Plus, you can learn more about the United States’ financial history in an interactive way.

Also, make sure you visit some of the other exhibits at the beautiful Museum of the City of New York. And don’t forget the Alexander Hamilton Statue out front!

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