• Harvard University
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  • Library Notes
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  • December 2010
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  • No. 1357
Buy Now, Pay Later: A History of Personal Credit Print
"Debtor and Creditor." Boston: M. T. Sheahan, late 19th c. Bleichroeder Print Collection, Baker Library Historical Collections. Harvard Business School.

Knowledge and Library Services at Harvard Business School has opened “Buy Now, Pay Later: A History of Personal Credit,” an exhibition organized by Baker Library Historical Collections. The exhibition will run through June 3, 2011 in the North Lobby, Baker Library/Bloomberg Center, Harvard Business School.

According to exhibition curator Caitlin E. Anderson, "There is a myth of a lost golden age of economic virtue. Once upon a time, the story goes, people lived within their means and borrowed only under the direst of circumstances. Debt was shameful, and credit financed only 'productive' purchases like homes or farm machinery. Although nostalgia seldom makes good history, writers mourned this lost age through the Roaring Twenties, the rise of the credit card in the 1960s, and the home mortgage boom and bust of 2005–2008."

“Buy Now, Pay Later: A History of Personal Credit” demonstrates that while the instruments and institutions of 21st-century credit—the installment plan, the credit card, and the home finance industry—are less than a century old, credit itself is as old as commerce. The exhibition draws from Baker Library’s Historical Collections materials to show how previous generations devised creative ways of lending and borrowing long before credit cards or mortgage backed securities.

This exhibition also shows how the credit industry evolved over time. Though credit is not new, it is newly visible. The materials displayed reveal how credit practices and ideologies have been transformed from the 16th to the 20th century, when personal borrowing—once private, often secretive, and sometimes even illegal—has become decidedly public. Rare prints reveal a rich vein of ideas about lending and borrowing in pre-modern societies. The records of colonial American merchants and storekeepers make clear the importance of credit in a society where hard cash was scarce. Materials from one of Baker Library’s most used collections, the ledgers of America’s first credit ratings agency, illustrate the often rocky transition to providing credit in a market economy. Credit has become the business of major corporations and the subject of consumer protection regulation that seeks to expand access to credit as well as to protect the borrower. “Buy Now, Pay Later” shows how credit moved from the fringes of the economy to its very center.

Visit http://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/credit to learn more about the history of personal credit, to find materials that could support further research, and to view some of the items featured in the exhibition. This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it , Baker Library Historical Collections