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The No. 1 Ladies’ Defrauding Agency

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Sarah Howe’s early life is mostly a mystery. There are no surviving photographs or sketches of her, so it’s impossible to know what she looked like. She may, at one point, have been married, but by 1877 she was single and working as a fortune-teller in Boston. It was a time of boom and invention in the United States. The country was rebuilding after the Civil War, industrial development was starting to take off, and immigration and urbanization were both increasing steadily. Money was flowing freely (to white people anyway), and men and women alike were putting that money into the nation’s burgeoning banks. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and in 1879 Thomas Edison created the lightbulb. In between those innovations, Sarah Howe opened the Ladies’ Deposit Company, a bank run by women, for women. 

The company’s mission was simple: help white women gain access to the booming world of banking. The bank only accepted deposits from so-called “unprotected females,” women who did not have a husband or guardian handling their money. These women were largely overlooked by banks who saw them — and their smaller pots of money — as a waste of time. In return for their investment, Howe promised incredible results: an 8 percent interest rate. Deposit $100 now, and she promised an additional $96 back by the end of the year. And to sweeten the deal, new depositors got their first three months interest in advance. When skeptics expressed doubts that Howe could really guarantee such high returns, she offered an explanation: The Ladies’ Deposit Company was no ordinary bank, but instead was a charity for women, bankrolled by Quaker philanthropists. 

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The No. 1 Ladies’ Defrauding Agency

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