Economic Personae: The Making of Financial Identity in America

In 1936, actor Ian Keith petitioned a Los Angeles court to change his legal name. Born in Boston as Ian Macaulay Ross in 1899, Keith had honed his skills on Broadway stages before transitioning to the silver screen. By the mid-1930s, he was a familiar face in dozens of Hollywood films. He played the assassin John Wilkes Booth in Abraham Lincoln (1930), D. W. Griffith’s first “talkie,” and appeared in several Cecil B. DeMille epics, including The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934). Audiences knew him as Ian Keith, the stage name he had settled on in the early 1920s. Keith’s petition sought to make this public identity official.

Ian Keith and Greta Lovisa Gustafsson (aka Greta Garbo)
Ian Keith with Greta Lovisa Gustafsson (aka Greta Garbo) in Queen Christina, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, 1933 (cropped screen grab).

In a city filled with manufactured personalities, Keith’s metamorphosis should not have raised an eyebrow. His contemporaries, after all, included Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman (aka Douglas Fairbanks) and Gladys Louise Smith (aka Mary Pickford). Despite ample precedent, however, the Los Angeles judge rejected Keith’s petition. Several years earlier, Keith had declared bankruptcy in New York. His accumulated debts were discharged and he was given a fresh start. The problem, in the judge’s view, was that these bad debts had been contracted in the name of Ian Macaulay Ross. By changing his name, Keith’s reckless past would be hidden from future creditors. In denying a subsequent appeal, a superior court judge asserted that the name change would unfairly conceal Keith’s true “financial identity.”[1]

Keith’s case illustrates a key issue in the history of bureaucratic knowledge: the problem of personal identification. Though the problem is ancient, it is commonly associated with the development of early modern administration and, in particular, the rise of the modern nation-state.[2] The evolution of passports, identification papers and badges, fingerprinting, and police files all attest to the state’s effort to pin down the individual, to make each member of the faceless mass recognizable, accountable, and retrievable. This, in James Scott’s evocative metaphor, is how the state made its subjects “legible.”[3] The citizen, the taxpayer, the conscript, the vagrant, the deviant, the criminal—all emerged through the epistemological lens of the state and its medico-legal handmaidens, as Foucault and others have demonstrated.[4]

Yet the state was not the only force behind the textualization of modern identity. So was the market. In United States, one of the most striking examples of private-sector identity-making involved credit.[5] As American markets expanded and cities swelled with unfamiliar customers, creditors could no longer rely upon direct interpersonal experience or community knowledge when judging the creditworthiness of new clients. Without reliable information from trusted sources, creditors had no way to assess the honesty, responsibility, or past business dealings of prospective borrowers. In short, creditors did not know with whom they were dealing.

During the 1840s, a new business institution—the credit reporting agency—emerged to address this problem. These early organizations identified all known businesspeople, from bank presidents to bootblacks, and compiled detailed reports about their local reputations, their relationships, and their past financial behavior. No commercial actor was too marginal to be recorded in the agency’s ledgers, and no personal detail was too insignificant to be documented. Such agencies sold this information—the first credit reports—to their subscribers. The two leading commercial credit reporting agencies, R.G. Dun (est. 1841) and Bradstreet (est. 1849), merged in 1933 and remain among the world’s most important business rating firms today.

Shortly after the Civil War, a new type of credit reporting agency emerged to track a different kind of borrower: consumers. This was the origin of the modern consumer credit bureau. The same pressures that spurred commercial credit reporting agencies into existence during the 1840s—most notably, anonymity—also triggered the formation of the first consumer credit bureaus during the 1870s. Local retailers, especially new high-volume department stores and installment dealers, could no longer rely on their own personal knowledge when judging the creditworthiness of the strangers who crowded into their shops. By 1900, there were dozens of local consumer credit bureaus throughout the United States, from New York to California. By 1920, there were hundreds.

Together, these early credit bureaus formed sophisticated intelligence-gathering networks. While the state sought to make its citizens legible, credit bureaus made consumers legible in the marketplace. Their records did more than just identify consumers and enumerate their outstanding debts. They also included information about each individual’s personality and domestic arrangements, the opinions of employers and landlords, and trivia culled from newspapers, court records, and police logs. Many early credit bureaus also published credit rating books, which condensed the moral and financial reputations of local consumers into brief alphanumeric codes.

Thus, while the state’s documentary regime brought into being new categories of citizenship and criminality, the late-nineteenth-century credit bureau produced its own bureaucratic knowledge: the concept of financial identity. Long before digital commerce and the problem of “identity theft,” millions of Americans already had a second self, a financial identity, in the meticulous files of local credit bureaus. These disembodied identities circulated in the form of credit reports and credit ratings, which credit bureaus communicated to businesses and lenders upon request, but also to insurers, prospective employers, and landlords. Unlike financial identities today, which are limited to commercial contexts and aspire to objectivity, financial identities of the past were expansive and highly moralistic. Until the 1960s, creditworthiness was explicitly tied to notions of personal character, and credit reports were case studies in moral judgment.

woman in credit bureau with credit files representing an assortment of businessmen
By the 1930s, millions of American consumers had financial identities. These disembodied commercial selves were produced in the archives of local credit bureaus throughout the nation. Source: “Your Name is in this Who’s Who,” Credit World (July 1933), cited in Lauer, Creditworthy, 124.

While the modern subject emerged in the “ignoble archives” of the state and science, as Foucault argued, modern financial identities were born in a parallel archive of private-sector surveillance. By the time Keith filed his name change petition in 1936, Americans were under the watchful eyes of more than a thousand consumer credit bureaus, each linked to the others through a national association. A Time magazine story published that year attested to the credit bureau’s extraordinary reach. If a Chicago woman moved to Los Angeles, the magazine explained, retailers in Los Angeles would have instant access to her past. A call to the local credit bureau might reveal the woman to be “a widow of 40 with no children, enjoyed no visible means of support, lived in swank apartments, entertained unsavory characters, was late with her rent, lived in Chicago for only two years and left with $500 of unpaid bills.”[6] (Time’s hypothetical deadbeat also reveals how financial identity doubled as a category of moral knowledge.)

The judge in Keith’s case had exactly such a scenario in mind when he rejected the actor’s petition. If a retailer in Los Angeles called a credit bureau in New York for information about Ian Keith, he would learn nothing of Ian Macaulay Ross, the bankrupt. That man would disappear in a cloud of court filings, only to reemerge unblemished and poised to victimize new creditors. By forcing Keith to retain his birth name, the judge sought to put a legal tourniquet around the leaky problem of identity. Keith’s bid to erase his former self was not a threat to the state but to the marketplace. Hollywood actors were free to shift between personae in their professional lives, but economic actors were required to have a singular, fixed biography, as defined and policed by the credit reporting industry.

In the end, Keith would get his new name. The Supreme Court of California overruled the lower court’s decision, arguing that an official name change in the legal record would make it easier, rather than harder, for future creditors to discover his discarded identity as a bankrupt. This was probably true. Local credit bureaus were voracious compilers of public records. Their clerks regularly descended upon municipal buildings to extract legal, tax, and real estate information. Decades before the first computers were installed in credit bureaus, before the rise of big data or data brokers, credit bureaus were information fusion centers ahead of their time.

Keith married his fourth wife in 1936 and went on to appear in numerous film, television, and theater productions until his death in 1960. His last high-profile role was Ramses I, the infanticidal pharaoh in The Ten Commandments (1956), DeMille’s Academy Award-winning blockbuster. Keith’s celebrity has since faded, and his career has receded into the annals of film history. The story of his name change, however, is a milestone in the history of financial identity. According to Westlaw’s databases, his case includes the first appearance of the term “financial identity” in American jurisprudence. Though this term would not enter popular discourse until the 1990s, Keith’s case illustrates its institutional reality before World War II. A California judge, serving as a representative of the state, may have given this peculiar identity a name, but the private sector conjured it into existence decades earlier.

Josh Lauer is Associate Professor of Communication at University of New Hampshire and author of Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America.

  1. In re Ross, District Court of Appeals, Second District, Division 1, California, 59 P.2d 439, July 8, 1936.  ↩
  2. See Valentin Groebner, Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe, trans. Mark Kyburz and John Peck Jane (New York: Zone, 2007); and Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds., Documenting the Individual: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); For revisionary perspectives, see Keith Breckenridge and Simon Szreter, eds., Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). For the American context, see Pamela Sankar, “State Power and Recordkeeping: The History of Individualized Surveillance in the United States, 1790–1935,” Ph.D. diss. University of Pennsylvania, 1992; and Craig Robertson, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).  ↩
  3. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).  ↩
  4. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1996); Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); and Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).  ↩
  5. See Josh Lauer, Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), from which I draw pertinent details here. See also Rowena Olegario, A Culture of Credit: Embedding Trust and Transparency in American Business (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); and Scott Sandage, Born Losers: A Short History of Failure in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).  ↩
  6. “Credit Men,” Time, June 22, 1936, 74.  ↩
Suggested citation: Josh Lauer, “Economic Personae: The Making of Financial Identity in America,” History of Knowledge, February 12, 2018,