Banker, Can You Spare a Dime?

Given all the headlines about the struggling economy over the last couple years, it feels remarkably timely to be transcribing documents from the early months of the Great Depression as part of the Greenfield Digital Project.

Recently, I’ve been working on letters from depositors of Bankers Trust Company, which became one of the first large banks to fail in Philadelphia when it closed on December 22, 1930.

Though the bank’s leaders claimed that it would reorganize shortly, their optimism was misplaced. The bank never reopened for business.

I can only imagine how devastating that closure was for the 100,000+ depositors of the bank, who lost all access to their accounts the day Bankers Trust failed to open. (FDIC protections did not exist until 1933.)

Philadelphians faced about 30 bank closures during the Great Depression. Here, depositors waited to try to withdraw their money from Erie National Bank at 6th and Erie Ave. in 1931. (Philadelphia Record Photo Morgue collection, collection V7)

For some of those customers, Albert M. Greenfield became a lightning rod for both their anger and despair. Greenfield was a prominent personality in Philadelphia and a highly visible member of the bank’s board of directors.

This anonymous group threatened to kill Greenfield if he did not immediately pay Bankers Trust depositors.

According to one scholar, Greenfield hired a police officer to protect himself and his family for a time.

But he also received letters from Bankers Trust customers pleading for his help to get their money back. Those letters are heart-breaking not only because of the hardships they describe, but also because we know that the correspondents likely did not receive the relief they sought (at least not from the bank itself).

This nurse wrote to Greenfield and his wife asking for help getting her $2,000 before Christmas. She'd had five operations and had been saving the money for a rainy day.

This correspondent offered a brief business proposition to Greenfield: buy out a frozen savings account for a potential $200 profit.

This writer did some name-dropping while appealing to Greenfield's religious side. (He was a member of the church of Greenfield's friend, Cardinal Dougherty.)

Greenfield’s secretary dutifully responded to each letter, explaining that the situation was out of Greenfield’s hands and that he had no control over who could receive payments from the closed bank.

In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Banking oversaw a lengthy legal process that returned to depositors about 59 cents on each dollar on deposit there. Depositors received their sixth and final payment from the liquidation process in May 1946 – more than 15 years after the bank closed.

You can read more about HSP’s Greenfield Digital Project, part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation, in these past blog posts.

Getting from paper pages to digital texts

Now that we’re elbow-deep in encoding the 300 or so documents for the Greenfield Digital Project, my colleague Faith Charlton and I are spending a lot of time at the keyboard.

As I’ve explained in past posts, we are digitizing, transcribing, and annotating primary source documents to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company, a large Philadelphia bank that failed in December 1930. This project is part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation.

We’ve selected our documents and passed them to HSP’s digital imaging team, and we are now focused on creating our XML text-encoded files.

Step one is getting the text from paper to a digital file.

One obvious method is simply to retype the text on a computer. That works great for brief documents and is essentially the only option for handwritten documents, where each author’s writing must be carefully deciphered. But we have another tool in our toolbox for longer typescript and print documents: optical character recognition, or OCR.

Software programs like ABBYY FineReader or OmniPage can perform sophisticated transformations of digital images into editable text files. For a variety of reasons, I decided it didn’t make sense to invest in that type of software for our project.

Instead, when we encounter longer typescript or printed documents in our project, we are using a free tool: Google Documents, or Google docs for short. You can upload .jpg, .gif, .png, or .pdf files to a private storage area, and the system will do its best to translate that digital image file into an editable text file. You can then copy and paste the text into any other software you’d like, including the software we’re using for text encoding, oXygen XML Editor.

The crucial check-box in the Google docs uploading process is near the bottom: "Convert text from PDF or image files to Google Docs documents."

Depending on your perspective, the Google results are either amazingly accurate or frustratingly imperfect. (I fall into the “amazingly accurate” camp.)

For example, the following four-page letter has about 1300 words total. I could type it from scratch in about 15-20 minutes; Google docs can do the same work in less than a minute.

The first page of the digitized letter, in which Bankers Trust Co. President Samuel Barker proposed a new business venture, Bankers Securities Corp.

Here is how Google docs transcribed the first page of the letter:

June 11, 1927
Mr. Albert Pi. Greenfield, Bankers Trust Building, Philadelphia.
Dear A 0
Let me give you more concretely than I did in brief conversation a few days ago my thoughts cmcerning a Bankers Securities Corporation and the much that can be accomplished through such an organization. I s11:’;ll try to put the proposition, as I vision it, with the strong conviction that the time has come to act in the matter.
When I first proposed it, immediately upon organization of Bankers Trust Company you and others thought the time premature. You were right. Since then the way has cleared and been opened in many and important ways for Bankers Securities Corporation to be brought into life. There is ready for it a largely advance prepared and very profitable field, with real things at hand for it to do-—things of creative as well as money-making character. What I see is this:
1. Bankers Trust Company is now safely and surely established. Already it holds recognized position in Philadelphia. Important financial interests elsewhere, as in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, are glad to do business with it. From now forward there is pretty sure promise of earnings which will give increasing net income for the stock. There are about 500 stockholders. Without support the stock is much above both issue price and book value. The premium is one measure of the belief which exists that the Company has a large future.
2. Resources of Bankers Trust Company have more than doubled; its deposits have increased 60% in five months. Directly, some 12,000 people are banking with it. Already, with a securities department only in swaddling clothes, Bankers Trust Company has been welcomed to the table with grown-ups and taken into the inner circle by big financial groups. I fill in this picture as follows:
a. It enjoys full syndicate position with Kuhn,
Loeb and Company, so getting securities which that banking house issues at bottom issue price.

If you compare the original and the transcription carefully, you’ll see that Google skipped the printed letterhead at the top of the page and had problems with the recipient address, salutation, and first paragraph. But overall, it made relatively few mistakes.

Of course, both my typing and the Google docs transformation require careful proofreading. Google often skips over text that confuses it, and it seems to do worse if there are multiple styles of text on a page (like the letterhead and typescript above). It also has a hard time distinguishing between typescript 3s and 5s, among other issues. But for our purposes, these shortcomings are a fair tradeoff for the price.

Untangling text encoding

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of my time focused on a fairly technical topic: text encoding.

Basically, text encoding is a method for representing text in a digital form. It allows you to record information about text — for example, whether it is handwritten, or mentions someone’s name, or is the salutation of a letter — right alongside the text itself.

And it’s a key component of our new Greenfield digital history project, part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation.

As I’ve described in previous blog posts, we are digitizing, transcribing, and annotating approximately 300 primary source documents from the Albert M. Greenfield papers (collection 1959) and other collections to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company, a large Philadelphia bank that failed in December 1930.

We will be coding each document in XML following the encoding guidelines set out by the international Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). We will present these documents, contextual essays, and teacher resources online in the fall of 2012.

So what does text encoding look like?

To give one small example, if I were transcribing a letter from 1928 in which the author wrote “Meet me on June 13!”, my encoded transcription would look like this:

<p>Meet me on <date when=”1928-06-13″>June 13</date>!</p>

The added coding allows a computer to recognize that the string of characters “June 13” represents a specific date, and it would allow a computer to recognize the same date whether it was written as “June thirteenth” or “6/13/28” or even “today.”

We will be encoding much more information than just dates in our Bankers Trust documents, from the physical appearance of the text to its structure to its intellectual content. Once we have completed coding, web users will be able to tackle sophisticated searching and analysis of the digital documents. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

A New Digital Project About 20th-Century History

I recently began work on a new digital history project here at HSP that will highlight one of our flagship collections related to the history of Philadelphia in the 20th-century: the Albert M. Greenfield papers (collection 1959).

Greenfield (1887-1967) was a prominent Philadelphia businessman involved in real estate, banking and mortgages, retail, and politics. His extensive connections to many civic, political, business, and social affairs make the collection one of the most heavily referenced when discussing 20th-century Philadelphia.

Albert M. Greenfield circa 1936

Our new Greenfield digital project will interpret a historical theme from Greenfield’s papers through a selection of primary source documents, contextual essays, and teacher resources. And given Greenfield’s involvement in so many different things, one of my first tasks has been to narrow our focus to just one topic.

One leading choice is to focus on the early years of the Great Depression and the story of a large Philadelphia bank called Bankers Trust Company that failed in 1930. At that time, no governmental safety net protected people or institutions if the bank where they kept their money failed. So when Bankers Trust failed to open its doors on December 22, 1930, approximately 135,000 depositors despaired that their money was gone for good.

Cover of advertising pamphlet about a Bankers Trust Co. branch in Germantown

Greenfield was a member of the Bankers Trust board of directors and heavily involved in the bank’s activities. His papers include Bankers Trust financial statements and ephemera, correspondence with bank executives, and after the bank’s failure, letters from angry depositors who thought he should help them get their money back.

This writer told Greenfield "all this bank trouble is at your door."

The same writer alleged that Greenfield removed his own money from the bank before it failed. Greenfield strongly denied those accusations for years to come.

We will select several hundred of those documents to digitize, transcribe, and annotate using the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines, which allow sophisticated searching and analysis of digital documents.

This two-year project is part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation to highlight HSP’s 20th-century holdings. We will also be awarding a new research fellowship in 20th-century history, creating a web portal focusing on HSP’s 20th-century collections, and completing additional archival processing work on the Greenfield papers. You can read a bit more about how these efforts relate to our Civic Engagement Collections project in Matthew Lyons’ blog post from September.

I look forward to keeping you updated on our progress in the weeks and months ahead.