Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

Two centuries of dirty dealings, death, and design all on your ATM card

Department of Almost Useful Information

I have my own business cards each with one of ten different ridiculous titles. One card simply lists my name and states “Department of Almost Useful Information.” You, dear reader, are about to learn why. And, be warned, I intend to do more of these posts in the future.

This is an actual business card of mine. Seriously. 

This is an actual business card of mine. Seriously. 

Since moving to New York City, I have come to see that this place is built as much of history as it is of steel and concrete. Very recently I came upon a narrative better found in a soap opera story arc than in a history book. It has it all: scheming characters, money, scandal, conspiracy, and death. And you may very well be carrying around in your wallet a piece of the story that all took place over two centuries just miles from where I now live.

So You Think You Know Logo Trivia

Sure. There’s the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo. Once you see it, you can never not see it again. And the “smile” in the Amazon.com logo is actually an arrow suggesting that they sell everything from ‘A’ to ‘Z’. But that’s kid stuff. We about to get all historical up in here.

Two Competing Visions for a Nation

Alexander Hamilton, first United States Secretary of the Treasury, as depicted on the $10 bill [image source].

Alexander Hamilton, first United States Secretary of the Treasury, as depicted on the $10 bill [image source].

Alexander Hamilton is generally recognized as the architect of the the U.S. financial system. We might argue that Hamilton is indirectly responsible for what is now thought of as the American way of life. Back in the 1700s, however, this idea was far from a settled matter. Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson represented two different views — very much in tension — as to the future of our fledgling nation. Hamilton envisioned the United States as an industrial and financial powerhouse. Jefferson saw a pastoral countryside dotted with self-sufficient farms. (This contention ultimately led to the U.S. capital moving from New York City to the Virginia coast in a political negotiation. But that’s another story for another time.)

A Bank Charter That Never Quite Held Water

Aaron Burr, third Vice President of the United States [image source].

Aaron Burr, third Vice President of the United States [image source].

Out of his vision for the future of the U.S. (and in service to his own mighty ambitions) Hamilton founded the Bank of New York in Manhattan in 1784. To put this in historical perspective, the Bank of New York was founded before the modern United States. Recall that the Articles of Confederation were not replaced with the U.S. Constitution until 1789. In part because of his own policy making influence, Hamilton enjoyed a near monopoly on banking in Manhattan. However, Aaron Burr wanted in on the action. So Burr founded the Manhattan Company in 1799, ostensibly as a private water utility to supply clean water to the growing metropolis. Burr, being a rather cunning businessman, sneaked a clause into his water company’s charter allowing him to start a bank with excess water company capital.

Burr collected investment far exceeding that needed for a water company and was thus able to legally start a new and rival bank. Revealing his true intentions, Burr’s water company was largely a fraud. It never sourced a truly pure water supply and was assembled in shoddy fashion. The poor design of the system actually contributed to the diseases it might have otherwise alleviated. All the while, Burr’s bank continued to grow. (You won’t be surprised to learn that Burr’s Manhattan Company maneuver contributed to Burr and Hamilton’s increasingly bad blood and ultimately to the duel that took Hamilton’s life. But, again, that’s another story for another time.) Key to our present story is that the Manhattan Company’s water pipes were hollowed-out logs and wood planks—not at all uncommon for the time period.

Thanks to a number of mergers over many decades, Burr’s Manhattan Company became the direct forebear of today’s JP Morgan Chase. In fact, Burr’s bank kept up regular water committee meetings until at least 1899 (reportedly with a pitcher of their system’s water in the room). To maintain their good standing as a chartered water utility — lest their financial services be undone by legal action — the company continued pumping water from a well in lower Manhattan until the 1920s.

…Our Fathers Brought Forth… A New Logo

Two centuries of history in your ATM card logo (as of 2007) [image source]. See the logo inspiration.

Two centuries of history in your ATM card logo (as of 2007) [image source]. See the logo inspiration.

In 1961, Chase Manhattan Bank contracted new branding and was presented with one of the very first abstract logos ever developed for such a prominent institution. You likely see that same mark every day as it is still in use by Chase Bank over forty years later. So what’s the story behind the logo? It’s a stylized version of a cross-section of the wooden water pipes originally used by the Manhattan Company over two hundred and ten years ago.

The logo on your Chase ATM card, then, represents the pipes of a two hundred year old swindling water utility that’s still in business today and long ago played some small role in Alexander Hamilton’s death. And yet every swipe of your ATM card is also the fruition of Alexander Hamilton’s grand vision for the United States of America.

Epilogue

In a twist of fate two hundred years in the making, in 2006 the modern day descendent of Burr’s bank purchased a portion of the modern day descendent of Hamilton’s bank.

Today, JP Morgan Chase owns the pistols used in Burr and Hamilton’s deadly duel! [photo]

In 2004, a backhoe came upon perhaps the finest specimens of wholly intact thirteen foot long hollowed out log pipes originally laid by the Manhattan Company [see article for photos].