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        The dataset represented in the picture is one in a series of detailed volumes taken from the ledgers of M. Rosenbaum and Co, an immigrant bank from Philadelphia that also acted as a steamship ticket agent. These datasets document the purchases of steamship tickets. The first section of the ledger contain an index of all the names of ticket purchasers and, as the ledger’s pages are numbered, includes the page number that contains the full record. The records make a distinction between the ticket purchaser and the passenger, meticulously noting down the names and addresses of both.  The passenger’s age is recorded, most often numerically. There are also few instances where the age column is non-numerical; infants are frequently included without an age and symbols “@” and “ad” most likely refer to adults. The passenger information are coupled with details about the travel; the origin, destination and the particular steamship line selected for the journey. The flat rate for the ticket is recorded in US dollars. A column called “Terms” is also included, and its contents are a chaotic mix of the specific ways in which the customer intends to pay the owed amount. There is no consistent pattern here; some payments are due within a few days, while others are staggered for weekly payments fully due in a few months. The specificity of the payment procedure is also noted in this field: settlements by notes and payments by vouchers are included in rare circumstances. Finally, a column is reserved in the end for general remarks and seems to be employed for noting the name of the ship name and the date of the journey. The choices of data and the particular ways in which it is recorded in the ledger provides a reflection of the unique relationship between the immigrant population and the banking system at the turn of the twentieth century.

M. Rosenbaum and Co. was established in 1885 and would exist until 1934[1]. The Rosenbaum bank was a small part of a wider immigrant banking culture that extended throughout the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The popularity of immigrant banks resulted in part due to the inadequacy and sometimes outright refusal of traditional banks to service immigrants; the insistence of English as the only language for banking as well as the significance placed on formality and professionalism did not fit in with the largely working-class immigrant culture.[2] These banks were embedded within the increasingly vibrant immigrant communities and had a significant presence in the ethnic enclaves of major American cities, extending beyond the traditional financial roles of a bank to provide services specific to the immigrant experience. Steamship services were an integral part of the bank’s role in an immigrant community. As a 1911 report of a congressional investigation on immigrant banks notes: “To him [an immigrant] the steamship agent is the sole connecting link with the fatherland. As the representative of well- known lines, he ascribes to the agent a standing and responsibility such as he has no cause to assign to any American institution. Nothing is more natural than that the immigrant should take his savings to the agent and ask that the agent send them home for him.”[3] In selling steamship tickets, the bank is not just performing a solitary financial transaction, but creating a powerful social connection with the purchaser, which most likely resulted in the utilization of other services offered by the bank.

The particular way in which the ledger is organized, and the forms of data the bank chooses to store information, reflect its ubiquitous role in the lives of immigrants. Firstly, the detailed index of the names included in the ledger at the start of  every volume and the extreme diligence with which page numbers are noted shows that these ledgers were designed to be constantly referenced. The steamboat ticket transactions were not one-offs; the bank expected its customers to return and engage with them. Whenever, this happened, the index was likely used and the correspond record modified accordingly. Similarly, a deliberate choice to separate the ticket purchasers and the passenger details is likely a byproduct of the nature of immigration; in most circumstances the purchasers and passengers were not the same person but relatives, friends and family. It was common for migrants to invite relatives from back home after permanently settling in the US. This is reflected in the ledger ; it is surprisingly rare to find records where the purchaser and the passenger were the same person. This method of bookkeeping also allowed for the bank to capture familial as well as the social structure of the community it was serving. The expenses endured by the purchase indicates that the social link between the purchaser and the passenger was significant. As an institution that actively participates in the informal, social spaces of immigrant communities, it is likely that bankers could use these connections to their advantage.

I think a comparison with the passenger arrival list from the immigration facility at Ellis Island[4] shows a contrast in the way the state-instituted formalized system of data differed from the one used by the Rosenbaum bank. The Ellis Island lists record information on the passenger, along with the person who paid for their travel and their contact in the States. The data in these records are vague and contain generalized terms, such as “cousin/brother/relative”. In contrast to the detailed delineation in recording passenger/purchaser information along with full names for both in Rosenbaum’s ledgers, there are no full names in the Ellis Island records except for the passengers, Despite essentially attempting to capture the same information, the disparate priorities in terms of what aspect of the information is valued, most likely influenced by the difference in institutional ideology between a governmental agency and an immigrant bank, leads to different outcomes in recording the dataset.


Most immigrant banks, including the Rosenbaum bank, operated outside the government-regulated banking system, and as a result, used bank assets and personal assets interchangeably and even engaged in speculative investment.[5] Trust was a key element of the banking system; the bank’s trust for investing in its immigrant customers was rewarded by the immigrant’s willingness to deposit their savings in the bank. The seasonal nature of migrant labor meant that the banks needed to tailor its operations towards its customers, which often resulted in acceptance of irregular payment procedures and schedules. I think the messy and somewhat confusing text in the “Terms” column perfectly represents the process of conducting business in an unregulated and informal financial space occupied by immigrant banks. Detailed descriptions of the payment method and date are incorporated into this column. Signs of additions to the initial terms can be frequently seen here: sometimes it is small line-like markings possibly indicating the fraction of the amount that has been paid, other times it is a large “PAID” or “CANCELLED” stamped over the text. The contextual nature of the proposed payment procedure required not only textual descriptions, but possibly required additional ledgers and journals to account for the payment. A sign “D.L.” followed by a number is a common occurrence for records that do not have the paid or cancelled stamped on them, which is most likely a reference to another ledger that records the payments with more details. Thinking about the peculiarities of the contents in the “Terms” column and the absence of such disorganization in modern banking data leads to the consideration of James Scott’s concept of legibility[6]. In particular, one of the main issues raised against the immigrant banks by Progressive-era critics was the informality of their lending procedures. In response, governmental regulation would be enacted to standardize certain financial procedures and deliberately excluded many practices commonplace in immigrant banks.[7] The state’s necessity for a rational and easily legible form of financial transactions, one that did not contextualize the unique circumstances of the immigrant experience, would eventually be a part of the downfalls of immigrant banks.

Digitizing this dataset, particularly the passenger and travel information, should be relatively straightforward. The letters are generally legible, and the tabular structure would work well in a modern database. The General Remarks column, while generally containing the specific ship name and travel date, can be inconsistent in cases of transits or return tickets. There are also rare occurrences of transcriptions mentioning brief details of the planned stay, cabin/room number etc. I think the most appropriate procedure would be to construct new columns for steamboat names and date, and transcribe these rare occurrences in a separate column. The Terms column, with its inherent lack of structure, is the most problematic aspect of digitization. It is possible to create a field that represents the date until which the payment must be done and the nature of this payment (weekly, daily etc.). But, doing so would fail to encapsulate the full context as described in the ledger. Cases where the payment schedules were not regular, for instance when half the payment was to be done within the next week and the rest staggered weekly for a month, cannot be neatly integrated into the proposed schema. Since acceptance of such idiosyncratic practices was an integral principle of immigrant banks, and a proper contextualization of these procedures in the steamship ticket purchases would be lost in digitalization.

The steamship purchase ledgers from M. Rosenbaum and Co were acquired by HIAS Pennsylvania, an organization dedicated to providing legal and supportive services to immigrants and refugees, in the 1940s, and eventually they were passed to Temple University Libraries in 2009. These volumes have been digitized by external genealogical organizations like Ancestry and JewishGen, however, the access to these datasets require paid subscriptions. Any process for digitization with open access in mind would possibly need to redo the work done by these agencies. However, I think doing so would open up multiple opportunities for interesting analyses. Firstly, these ledgers span a period of 30 years from the start of 1890s to 1920s. It would be intriguing to note the specific migration pattern from each European country throughout this period, and correlate it with the political policies as well as the wider immigration trends of that era. If there is a subsequent break in the pattern, what would have likely caused it? How does the bank’s clientele comprising Jewish migrants from Eastern European cities relate to this discrepancy? A previous study has looked at the trends in steamship purchases from M.L. Blitzstein and Co, another immigrant bank based in Philadelphia tailored towards Jewish immigrants, and shown the trends in steamship purchases with the policies and politics of the Russian Empire.[8] I think an animated visualization of the travel source and destinations would lead to interesting observations. It could note how travel to some cities are consistent throughout the time period, while there is a rise and fall for some. I can imagine a seasonal trend in certain tourist-centric cities; people who are traveling as tourists would most likely visit Europe in the summer than in the winter. Finally, the trends in ticket prices would allow for observations regarding the market forces that were driving the ticket rates. How did the fare post WWI compare to from the pre-war era? What effect did war taxes have on the fare rate? I think digitizing the dataset would allow any interested party to contextualize the specific patterns of the fiscal and social operations of the bank within the larger socio-economic trends.

[1] “M. Rosenbaum and Co. - Digital Collections.” https://digital.library.temple.edu/digital/custom/rosenbaum

[2] Day, Jared N. “Credit, Capital and Community: Informal Banking in Immigrant Communities in the United States, 1880–1924.” Financial History Review 9 pp 70

[3] United States. Immigration Commission (1907-1910). Steerage Conditions, Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Purposes, Immigrant Homes and Aid Societies, Immigrant Banks, pp. 212

[4] “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924.” FamilySearch, 23 Feb. 2018,

[5] Day, 68

[6] James Scott, Seeing Like a State, Chapter 1, 1999

[7] Day, 73

[8] Moskoff and Gayle, “An Immigrant Bank in Philadelphia Serving Russian Jews.”