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Women as customers

The same year gold was discovered in California, women gathered for the nation’s first women’s civil rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. There, Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the convention’s Declaration of Rights and Sentiments demanded voting rights for women, and also addressed the “absolute tyranny” of men over women financially and legally.

Most state laws at the time made a woman the legal dependent of her husband after marriage. No matter what a woman’s age or education, a wife had limited rights to property, child custody, the ability to enter into contracts, and financial decisions.

While Stanton did not live to see the battle for universal suffrage won (women did not gain the right to vote until 1920), women did gradually see improvements in their rights to control property and wealth.

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 first institution organized under this law was the San Francisco Savings Union, incorporated June 18, 1862, and part of Wells Fargo’s family of banks.

Its 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.


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As women gained economic power managing personal and family finances, banks developed advertising and products aimed specifically at female customers who valued efficiency, safety and convenience. Banks also advertised directly to women.

“Does Beauty Attract Women Rather Than Reason?” asked The Solicitor, Wachovia Bank & Trust Company’s magazineIn the eyes of women, stated the editor, “the inside appearance of this bank must be pleasing and satisfying.” But  more important than nice amenities, the most important thing was provide a safe place for financial affairs:

    Will you bank with us because we afford more protection, more complete methods, more different means of helping you in handling money matters, or will you be governed by the appearance of the bank building?

The Solicitor included regular items encouraging women to open and maintain bank accounts, whether they earned wages or managed household funds. It also ran items encouraging husbands to “allow” their wives to open savings accounts. “Many women are our bank customers because of our habit of taking pains to make banking transactions easy and pleasant for them” said one item in The Solicitor in 1912.

Assuring prospective woman customers that Wachovia could meet all their banking needs, The Solicitor made its point:

    We want women depositors. We have the beauty to attract attention in our building, but we believe to best reach the women we must appeal to their reason, showing them that greater strength, more varied service, more experience and a greater desire to serve them will induce them to use this bank in the handling of household and other matters calling for the use of money.

The Stocking Room

In 1903, pioneer lawyer and writer Clara Foltz estimated that the women of San Francisco, on any given day, carried around $2 million tucked into their stockings. Ladies trusted no one — not even a bank — to keep their life-savings secure.

Banks, including Wachovia Loan and Trust Company, warned of the folly of stocking safe-deposit. Articles and ads urged customers to bring money and other valuables to the bank for safekeeping. Wachovia’s magazine The Solicitor gave one example of the peril of not heeding this advice:

    Mrs. R.H. Shore, wife of a Pittsburgh commission merchant, used one of her stockings as a safety deposit vault and is now mourning the loss of jewels valued at $2,150.  She was waiting for a street car and stepped on a rotten board and her stocking was ripped.  When she reached a department store she discovered that a bag containing her jewels had fallen through the rent in her stocking.

The jewel-less Mrs. Shore had a particularly bad run of luck, but her dilemma was shared by many women — where to stash their valuables. Even women who had bank accounts had to enter a masculine mahogany or marble banking hall, dodging spittoons in their long skirts, and wading through cigar smoke on their way to the teller window.

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.

The stocking room featured satin upholstered chairs with matching footstools. There were writing desks, and tastefully appointed lavatory and reception room — all for the exclusive use of female customers. Soon banks across the country began to furnish similar rooms.

By 1913, evolutions in female fashion decreased the necessity of stocking rooms. Hemlines rose, and wads of cash tucked in stockings became harder to hide. Women acceded to a new accessory — the handbag.