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@ElizaBTweetin: July 25, 1872: UnSafe Vault?

Posted on July 25, 2013

Eliza B. Wheaton's diary entry, 25 July 1872

Eliza B. Wheaton's diary entry, 25 July 1872

An entry of “I went to Un. Safe vault— + took a Box” simply demands attention! What could Eliza Wheaton possibly mean by an “unsafe vault”?  It took a bit of research to find that Boston had fifty-one banks in 1872. City directories, or “Handbooks” as they were often called, are tremendously useful sources for information about business in the 19th century.  Moses King’s Handbook of Boston, published in 1878, provided our answer:

"Boston is now amply provided with safe-deposit vaults; but there was nothing of the kind in the city ten years ago when the attention of the public was first called to The Union Safe-Deposit Vaults, which had been constructed by Henry Lee, to afford absolute protection for all kinds of valuables against loss by fire or burglary. The vaults were built in the basement of the Union Building, 40 State Street, and were of such a character, and had around them so many conveniences, that they excited the admiration and approval of the most competent judges. Henry Lee, of the banking-firm of Lee, Higginson, & Co., assumed the management, and George C. Lee was appointed sub-manager, positions that both have held ever since. The enterprise succeeded so well that other safe-deposit vaults have since been started."

Union Building at 40 State Street, Boston

Union Building at 40 State Street, Boston

Rather than placing her important papers in a bank, Eliza chose the Union Safe Deposit Vaults, at 40 State Street, operated by Henry and George C. Lee. Safe deposit boxes were a new banking concept, invented in New York City just ten years earlier.  Eliza paid $20 for her first year’s rental, and an additional $3 for the tin box itself. The Bankers’ Magazine of indicates that the vaults “afford ample safety for protection against burglars and thieves; the charge being only $1 to $2 per thousand, annually.”  The vaults would also prove impervious to fire.

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