An entangled affair: How merchants incorporated the household into the business, or the case of the Scots-Dutch merchant house Hope & Co., ca 1730–1830

Lilla Sparbanksfoajén Session 6: Pre-Industrial Households and Markets organized by Marcus Falk


Patrick van der Geest


Merchant banks have been a continuous source of speculation and conspiracy since their emergence in eleventh-century Italy. This especially applies to the great merchant houses the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as Barings, Morgan, and Rothschild. Indeed, these banks played a crucial (yet volatile) role in creating and sustaining the early-modern and modern financial system that first spanned much of Europe and later the globe. Research concerning merchant banks has until recently been dominated by studies that portray these banks as homogenous economic actors, or even pure financial institutions. Human agents affiliated with the merchant banks, from individual partners to clerks, but also merchants’ wives and relatives from the extended family, have consequently received less to no attention. These characters seem to only become relevant once they directly serve the continuation or success of the company. Great strides have been made since to fill in these gaps and enrich the mosaic of early-modern finance. Yet surprisingly little is still known about how these merchants banks were entangled with “familial” finances at the household level. Did this analytical distinction exist to contemporaries at all? And if it did, was the household subservient to the business or vice versa? In other words, how autonomous was a household from its merchant bank, and did the household perform any key financial functions in tandem with or separately from the bank? In this paper, I intend to re-centre the household in the study of the merchant bank by examining how the Scots-Dutch merchant bank Hope & Co. related to its partners’ household(s) between ca 1730 and 1830. This period of approximately a century witnessed great social, economic, political, and technological changes that profoundly affected the role and behaviour of merchant houses. Given these far-reaching changes, it is worthwhile studying now only how the household related to the merchant bank, but also how the household(s) of Hope & Co. developed alongside the company. The case of Hope & Co. can reveal the hitherto unexplored relationship between merchant banks and the “private”, “familial” household, and shed light on how these entangled entities performed multiple, sometimes overlapping financial and non-financial functions. The household is here defined as the immediate physical residence that (initially) also housed the merchant bank, but the analysis will also include the financial entanglements of the partners who had their own, separate households—belonging to the “extended” family and the kinship network, whose lives and finances were all interconnected. I hypothesise that, over the course of the nineteenth century, once familial partners died and heirs forfeited a future in the business, the “household” of the merchant bank and the “household” of the family became separate entities with different financial priorities and behaviour. This, I argue, explains why the household was initially weft into the finances of the merchant bank, but would be severed from the merchant bank once partners from “outside” took over and the merchant bank “professionalised”.


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