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Abstract

This paper discusses the origins of rating in the second half of the 19th century. We review and criticize existing business and cultural history narratives, which have, consistently with a story told by lawyers favorable to (or employed by) the agencies, emphasized an alleged cultural shift in normative views that would have provided legal protections permitting the development and spread of printed credit reports. Such a view is inconsistent with evidence from actual judicial decisions and from our exploration of archival material. Looking at both litigated and settled cases, we show that the successful expansion of the “commercial public sphere” in the late 19th century was made possible by the Mercantile Agencies’ organization of a creditor-supported surveillance system that rewarded a vast network of local lawyers.

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