The present day reality might be a grotesque ziggurat of data storage sitting in the middle of Utah, but its spiritual ancestor is the 19th-century credit bureau.
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Lewis Tappan might have resented being accused of “espionage,” but the Mercantile Agency did, after all, employ people all over the country to report on others.
In the early days, correspondents tended to be young, unpaid lawyers, who wrote out reports based on opinion, hearsay, and gossip. Small wonder that the credit reports sometimes read like the Burn Book from Mean Girls: “a worthless cuss never was wor[th] any thing.”
The credit-reporting agencies’ most rabid critic, Thomas F. Meagher, was withering in his contempt for the correspondents, saying that “substantial men” never took on that kind of job. According to Meagher, the correspondents were “ill-at-ease, struggling, acrid spirits” and “meddlesome, mischief-making busy bodies, whose moving springs are envy, greed, uncharitableness, or disappointed ambition.” (President Abraham Lincoln, at one point, was a correspondent for an agency; so were Presidents Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley). Eventually the agencies would move on from such unreliable sources and resort to full-time credit reporters and financial data like company balance sheets.
When Tappan defended his Mercantile Agency from public outrage, he focused less on the actual collection of information and more on how well guarded it was once he collected it. And in all fairness, the Mercantile Agency made it difficult for even their subscribers to access the information. Subscribers were already sworn to confidentiality, but in order to get a credit report, they had to show up in person while a clerk read out loud from the ledger—which was laid at a 45 degree angle, to make it difficult for the subscriber to peer over the edge.
Later, agencies printed coded reference books (abridged portions of the larger database held by the agency) for their subscribers to have and to hold. When Dun—one of Tappan’s eventual successors at the Agency—came out with his own reference book, the volumes came equipped with locks.
Secrecy extended to other parts of the process. One correspondent asked the agency for preprinted return envelopes, to avoid having his handwriting recognized at the post office.
The Mercantile Agency took the anonymity of its correspondents seriously. When reports were compiled in the ledgers, correspondents were identified by numbers or initials, not by name.
During a libel lawsuit against the Mercantile Agency, Benjamin Douglass, then head of the agency, was thrown in jail for contempt after refusing to identify an agency correspondent. For a while, he was celebrated as a martyr for the noble cause of protecting his sources.
But Douglass was making his heroic stand in a case where a credit report had aired the private marital troubles of John and Mary Beardsley. John Beardsley sued the Mercantile Agency when a credit report claimed that the two were about to be divorced—and in doing so, was forced to air even more of his dirty laundry. A few years after Beardsley brought his suit, another man named Waterman Ormsley sued over a credit report that falsely stated that he had left his wife for a prostitute.