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Life Insurance in the United States through World War I

Sharon Ann Murphy

The first American life insurance enterprises can be traced back to the late colonial period.  The Presbyterian Synods in Philadelphia and New York set up the Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers in 1759; the Episcopalian ministers organized a similar fund in 1769.  In the half century from 1787 to 1837, twenty-six companies offering life insurance to the general public opened their doors, but they rarely survived more than a couple of years and sold few policies [Figures 1 and 2].  The only early companies to experience much success in this line of business were the Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities (chartered 1812), the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company (1818), the Baltimore Life Insurance Company (1830), the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company (1830), and the Girard Life Insurance, Annuity and Trust Company of Pennsylvania (1836). [See Table 1.]

Despite this tentative start, the life insurance industry did make some significant strides beginning in the 1830s [Figure 2].  Life insurance in force (the total death benefit payable on all existing policies) grew steadily from about $600,000 in 1830 to just under $5 million a decade later, with New York Life and Trust policies accounting for more than half of this latter amount.  Over the next five years insurance in force almost tripled to $14.5 million before surging by 1850 to just under $100 million of life insurance spread among 48 companies. The top three companies – the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York (1842), the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of New Jersey (1845), and the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company (1846) – accounted for more than half of this amount.  The sudden success of life insurance during the 1840s can be attributed to two main developments – changes in legislation impacting life insurance and a shift in the corporate structure of companies towards mutualization. 

Married Women’s Acts

Life insurance companies targeted women and children as the main beneficiaries of insurance, despite the fact that the majority of women were prevented by law from gaining the protection offered in the unfortunate event of their husband’s death.  The first problem was that companies strictly adhered to the common law idea of insurable interest which required that any person taking out insurance on the life of another have a specific monetary interest in that person’s continued life; “affection” (i.e. the relationship of husband and wife or parent and child) was not considered adequate evidence of insurable interest.  Additionally, married women could not enter into contracts on their own and therefore could not take out life insurance policies either on themselves (for the benefit of their children or husband) or directly on their husbands (for their own benefit).  One way around this problem was for the husband to take out the policy on his own life and assign his wife or children as the beneficiaries.  This arrangement proved to be flawed, however, since the policy was considered part of the husband’s estate and therefore could be claimed by any creditors of the insured.

New York’s 1840 Law

This dilemma did not pass unnoticed by promoters of life insurance who viewed it as one of the main stumbling blocks to the growth of the industry.  The New York Life and Trust stood at the forefront of a campaign to pass a state law enabling women to procure life insurance policies protected from the claims of creditors.  The law, which passed the New York state legislature on April 1, 1840, accomplished four important tasks.  First, it established the right of a woman to enter into a contract of insurance on the life of her husband “by herself and in her name, or in the name of any third person, with his assent, as her trustee.”  Second, that insurance would be “free from the claims of the representatives of her husband, or of any of his creditors” unless the annual premiums on the policy exceeded $300 (approximately the premium required to take out the maximum $10,000 policy on the life of a 40 year old).  Third, in the event of the wife predeceasing the husband, the policy reverted to the children who were granted the same protection from creditors.  Finally, as the law was interpreted by both companies and the courts, wives were not required to prove their monetary interest in the life of the insured, establishing for the first time an instance of insurable interest independent of pecuniary interest in the life of another.

By December of 1840, Maryland had enacted an identical law – copied word for word from the New York statute.  The Massachusetts legislation of 1844 went one step further by protecting from the claims of creditors all policies procured “for the benefit of a married woman, whether effected by her, her husband, or any other person.”  The 1851 New Jersey law was the most stringent, limiting annual premiums to only $100.  In those states where a general law did not exist, new companies often had the New York law inserted into their charter, with these provisions being upheld by the state courts.  For example, the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company (1846), the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (1849), and the Jefferson Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati, Ohio (1850) all provided this protection in their charters despite the silence of their respective states on the issue.

Mutuality

The second important development of the 1840s was the emergence of mutual life insurance companies in which any annual profits were redistributed to the policyholders rather than to stockholders.  Although mutual insurance was not a new concept – the Society for Equitable Assurances on Lives and Survivorships of London had been operating under the mutual plan since its establishment in 1762 and American marine and fire companies were commonly organized as mutuals – the first American mutual life companies did not begin issuing policies until the early 1840s.  The main impetus for this shift to mutualization was the panic of 1837 and the resulting financial crisis, which combined to dampen the enthusiasm of investors for projects ranging from canals and railroads to banks and insurance companies.  Between 1838 and 1846, only one life insurance company was able to raise the capital essential for organization on a stock basis. On the other hand, mutuals required little initial capital, relying instead on the premium payments from high-volume sales to pay any death claims. The New England Mutual Life Insurance Company (1835) issued its first policy in 1844 and the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York (1842) began operation in 1843; at least fifteen more mutuals were chartered by 1849.

Aggressive Marketing

In order to achieve the necessary sales volume, mutual companies began to aggressively promote life insurance through advertisements, editorials, pamphlets, and soliciting agents.  These marketing tactics broke with the traditionally staid practices of banks and insurance companies whereby advertisements generally had provided only the location of the local office and agents passively had accepted applications from customers who inquired directly at their office. 

Advantages of Mutuality

The mutual marketing campaigns not only advanced life insurance in general but mutuality in particular, which held widespread appeal for the public at large.  Policyholders who could not afford to own stock in a proprietary insurance company could now share in the financial success of the mutual companies, with any annual profits (the excess of invested premium income over death payments) being redistributed to the policyholders, often in the form of reduced premium payments.  The rapid success of life insurance during the late 1840s, as seen in Figure 3, thus can be attributed both to this active marketing as well as to the appeal of mutual insurance itself.

Regulation and Stagnation after 1849

While many of these companies operated on a sound financial basis, the ease of formation opened the field to several fraudulent or fiscally unsound companies.  Stock institutions, concerned both for the reputation of life insurance in general as well as with self-preservation, lobbied the New York state legislature for a law to limit the operation of mutual companies. On April 10, 1849 the legislature passed a law requiring all new insurance companies either incorporating or planning to do business in New York to possess $100,000 of capital stock. Two years later, the legislature passed a more stringent law obligating all life insurance companies to deposit $100,000 with the Comptroller of New York. While this capital requirement was readily met by most stock companies and by the more established New York-based mutual companies, it effectively dampened the movement toward mutualization until the 1890s.  Additionally, twelve out-of-state companies ceased doing business in New York altogether, leaving only the New England Mutual and the Mutual Benefit of New Jersey to compete with the New York companies in one of the largest markets.  These laws were also largely responsible for the decade-long stagnation in insurance sales beginning in 1849 [Figure 3].

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

By the end of the 1850s life insurance sales again began to increase, climbing to almost $200 million by 1862 before tripling to just under $600 million by the end of the Civil War; life insurance in force peaked at $2 billion in 1871 [Figures 3 and 4].  Several factors contributed to this renewed success.  First, the establishment of insurance departments in Massachusetts (1856) and New York (1859) to oversee the operation of fire, marine, and life insurance companies stimulated public confidence in the financial soundness of the industry.  Additionally, in 1861 the Massachusetts legislature passed a non-forfeiture law, which forbade companies from terminating policies for lack of premium payment.  Instead, the law stipulated that policies be converted to term life policies and that companies pay any death claims that occurred during this term period [term policies are issued only for a stipulated number of years, require reapplication on a regular basis, and consequently command significantly lower annual premiums which rise rapidly with age].  This law was further strengthened in 1880 when Massachusetts mandated that policyholders have the additional option of receiving a cash surrender value for a forfeited policy.

The Civil War was another factor in this resurgence.  Although the industry had no experience with mortality during war – particularly a war on American soil – and most policies contained clauses that voided them in the case of military service, several major companies decided to ensure war risks for an additional premium rate of 2% to 5%.  While most companies just about broke even on these soldiers’ policies, the goodwill and publicity engendered with the payment of each death claim combined with a generally heightened awareness of mortality to greatly increase interest in life insurance.  In the immediate postbellum period, investment in most industries increased dramatically and life insurance was no exception.  Whereas only 43 companies existed on the eve of the war, the newfound popularity of life insurance resulted in the establishment of 107 companies between 1865 and 1870 [Figure 1].

Tontines

The other major innovation in life insurance occurred in 1867 when the Equitable Life Assurance Society (1859) began issuing tontine or deferred dividend policies.  While a portion of each premium payment went directly towards an ordinary insurance policy, another portion was deposited in an investment fund with a set maturity date (usually 10, 15, or 20 years) and a restricted group of participants.  The beneficiaries of deceased policyholders received only the face value of the standard life component while participants who allowed their policy to lapse either received nothing or only a small cash surrender value.  At the end of the stipulated period, the dividends that had accumulated in the fund were divided among the remaining participants.  Agents often promoted these policies with inflated estimates of future returns – and always assured the potential investor that he would be a beneficiary of the high lapse rate and not one of the lapsing participants.  Estimates indicate that approximately two-thirds of all life insurance policies in force in 1905 – at the height of the industry’s power – were deferred dividend plans.

Reorganization and Innovation

The success and profitability of life insurance companies bred stiff competition during the 1860s; the resulting market saturation and a general economic downtown combined to push the industry into a severe depression during the 1870s.  While the more well-established companies such as the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, the New York Life Insurance Company (1843), and the Equitable Life Assurance Society were strong enough to weather the depression with few problems, most of the new corporations organized during the 1860s were unable to survive the downturn.   All told, 98 life insurance companies went out of business between 1868 and 1877, with 46 ceasing operations during the depression years of 1871 to 1874 [Figure 1].  Of these, 32 failed outright, resulting in $35 million of losses for policyholders.  It was 1888 before the amount of insurance in force surpassed that of its peak in 1870 [Figure 4]. 

 

Assessment and Fraternal Insurance Companies

Taking advantage of these problems within the industry were numerous assessment and fraternal benefit societies.  Assessment or cooperative companies, as they were sometimes called, were associations in which each member was assessed a flat fee to provide the death benefit when another member died rather than paying an annual premium.  The two main problems with these organizations were the uncertain number of assessments each year and the difficulty of maintaining membership levels.  As members aged and death rates rose, the assessment societies found it difficult to recruit younger members willing to take on the increasing risks of assessments.  By the turn of the century, most assessment companies had collapsed or reorganized as mutual companies. 

 

Fraternal organizations were voluntary associations of people affiliated through ethnicity, religion, profession, or some other tie. Although fraternal societies had existed throughout the history of the United States, it was only in the postbellum era that they mushroomed in number and emerged as a major provider of life insurance, mainly for working-class Americans.   While many fraternal societies initially issued insurance on an assessment basis, most soon switched to mutual insurance.  By the turn of the century, the approximately 600 fraternal societies in existence provided over $5 billion in life insurance to their members, making them direct competitors of the major stock and mutual companies.  Just 5 years later, membership was over 6 million with $8 billion of insurance in force [Figure 4].

 

Industrial Life Insurance

For the few successful life insurance companies organized during the 1860s and 1870s, innovation was the only means of avoiding failure.  Aware that they could not compete with the major companies in a tight market, these emerging companies concentrated on markets previously ignored by the larger life insurance organizations – looking instead to the example of the fraternal benefit societies. Beginning in the mid-1870s, companies such as the John Hancock Company (1862), the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (1868), and the Prudential Insurance Company of America (1875) started issuing industrial life insurance.  Industrial insurance, which began in England in the late 1840s, targeted lower income families by providing policies in amounts as small as $100, as opposed to the thousands of dollars normally required for ordinary insurance.  Premiums ranging from $0.05 to $0.65 were collected on a weekly basis, often by agents coming door-to-door, instead of on an annual, semi-annual, or quarterly basis by direct remittance to the company.  Additionally, medical examinations were often not required and policies could be written to cover all members of the family instead of just the main breadwinner.  While the number of policies written skyrocketed to over 51 million by 1919, industrial insurance remained only a fraction of the amount of life insurance in force throughout the period [Figures 4 and 5].

 

 

International Expansion

The major life insurance companies also quickly expanded into the global market.  While numerous firms ventured abroad as early as the 1860s and 1870s, the most rapid international growth occurred between 1885 and 1905.  By 1900, the Equitable was providing insurance in almost 100 nations and territories, the New York Life in almost 50 and the Mutual in about 20.  The international premium income (excluding Canada) of these Big Three life insurance companies amounted to almost $50 million in 1905, covering over $1 billion of insurance in force.

 

The Armstrong Committee Investigation

In response to a multitude of newspaper articles portraying extravagant spending and political payoffs by executives at the Equitable Life Assurance Society – all at the expense of their policyholders – Superintendent Francis Hendricks of the New York Insurance Department reluctantly conducted an investigation of the company in 1905.  His report substantiated these allegations and prompted the New York legislature to create a special committee, known as the Armstrong Committee, to examine the conduct of all life insurance companies operating within the state.  Appointed chief counsel of the investigation was future United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes.  Among the abuses uncovered by the committee were interlocking directorates, the creation of subsidiary financial institutions to evade restrictions on investments, the use of proxy voting to frustrate policyholder control of mutuals, unlimited company expenses, tremendous spending for lobbying activities, rebating (the practice of returning to a new client a portion of their first premium payment as an incentive to take out a policy), the encouragement of policy lapses, and the condoning of “twisting” (a practice whereby agents misrepresented and libeled rival firms in order to convince a policyholder to sacrifice their existing policy and replace it with one from that agent).  Additionally, the committee severely chastised the New York Insurance Department for permitting such malpractice to occur and recommended the enactment of a wide array of reform measures.  These revelations induced numerous other states to conduct their own investigations, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Nebraska.

New Regulations

In 1907, the New York legislature responded to the committee’s report by issuing a series of strict regulations specifying acceptable investments, limiting lobbying practices and campaign contributions, democratizing management through the elimination of proxy voting, standardizing policy forms, and limiting agent activities including rebating and twisting.  Most devastating to the industry, however, were the prohibition of deferred dividend policies and the requirement of regular dividend payments to policyholders.  Nineteen other states followed New York’s lead in adopting similar legislation but the dominance of New York in the insurance industry enabled it to assert considerable influence over a large percentage of the industry.  The state invoked the Appleton Rule, a 1901 administrative rule devised by New York Deputy Superintendent of Insurance Henry D. Appleton that required life insurance companies to comply with New York legislation both in New York and in all other states in which they conducted business, as a condition of doing business in New York.  As the Massachusetts insurance commissioner immediately recognized, “In a certain sense [New York’s] supervision will be a national supervision, as its companies do business in all the states.”  The rule was officially incorporated into New York’s insurance laws in 1939 and remained both in effect and highly effective until the 1970s.

 

Continued Growth in the Early Twentieth Century

 

The Armstrong hearings and the ensuing legislation renewed public confidence in the safety of life insurance, resulting in a surge of new company organizations not seen since the 1860s. Whereas only 106 companies existed in 1904, another 288 were established in the ten years from 1905 to 1914 [Figure 1].  Life insurance in force likewise rose rapidly, increasing from $20 billion on the eve of the hearings to almost $46 billion by the end of World War I, with the share insured by the fraternal and assessment societies decreasing from 40% to less than a quarter [Figure 5]. 

 

Group Insurance

One major innovation to occur during these decades was the development of group insurance.  In 1911 the Equitable Life Assurance Society wrote a policy covering the 125 employees of the Pantasote Leather Company, requiring neither individual applications nor medical examinations.  The following year, the Equitable organized a group department to promote this new product and soon was insuring the employees of Montgomery Ward Company.  By 1919, 29 companies wrote group policies, which amounted to over a half billion dollars worth of life insurance in force. 

 

War Risk Insurance

Not included in Figure 5 is the War Risk insurance issued by the United States government during World War I.  Beginning in April 1917, all active military personnel received a $4,500 insurance policy payable by the federal government in the case of death or disability.  In October of the same year, the government began selling low-cost term life and disability insurance, without medical examination, to all active members of the military.  War Risk insurance proved to be extremely popular during the war, reaching over $40 billion of life insurance in force by 1919.  In the aftermath of the war, these term policies quickly declined to under $3 billion of life insurance in force, with many servicemen turning instead to the whole life policies offered by the stock and mutual companies.  As was the case after the Civil War, life insurance sales rose dramatically after World War I, peaking at $117 billion of insurance in force in 1930.  By the eve of the Great Depression there existed over 120 million life insurance policies – approximately equivalent to one policy for every man, woman, and child living in the United States at that time.

 

(Sharon Ann Murphy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia.)

References and Further Reading

Buley, R. Carlyle. The American Life Convention, 1906-1952: A Study in the History of Life Insurance.  New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1953.

Grant, H. Roger. Insurance Reform: Consumer Action in the Progressive Era.  Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1988.

Keller, Morton. The Life Insurance Enterprise, 1885-1910: A Study in the Limits of Corporate Power. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1963.

Kimball, Spencer L. Insurance and Public Policy: A Study in the Legal Implications of Social and Economic Public Policy, Based on Wisconsin Records 1835-1959.  Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

Merkel, Philip L. “Going National: The Life Insurance Industry’s Campaign for Federal Regulation after the Civil War.” Business History Review 65 (Autumn 1991): 528-553.

North, Douglass. “Capital Accumulation in Life Insurance between the Civil War and the Investigation of 1905.”  In Men in Business: Essays on the Historical Role of the Entrepreneur, edited by William Miller, 238-253.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1952.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch. “Tontine Insurance and the Armstrong Investigation: A Case of Stifled Innovation, 1868-1905.”  Journal of Economic History 47, no. 2 (June 1987): 379-390.

Stalson, J. Owen. Marketing Life Insurance: Its History in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Table 1

Early American Life Insurance Companies, 1759-1844

Company Year Chartered Terminated Insurance in Force in 1840
Corp. for the Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers (Presbyterian Ministers Fund) 1759    
Corporation for the Relief of the Widows and Children of Clergymen in the Communion of the Church of England in America (Episcopal Ministers Fund) 1769    
Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania 1794 1798  
Insurance Company of North America, PA 1794        1798  
United Insurance Company, NY 1798 1802  
New York Insurance Company 1798 1802  
Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities 1812 1872* 691,000
New York Mechanics Life & Fire 1812 1813  
Dutchess County Fire, Marine & Life, NY 1814 1818  
Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company 1818 1867* 342,000
Union Insurance Company, NY 1818 1840  
Aetna Insurance Company (mainly fire insurance; separate life company chartered in 1853) 1820 1853  
Farmers Loan & Trust Company, NY 1822 1843  
Baltimore Life Insurance Company 1830 1867 750,000 (est.)
New York Life Insurance & Trust Company 1830 1865* 2,880,000
Lawrenceburg Insurance Company 1832 1836  
Mississippi Insurance Company 1833 1837  
Protection Insurance Company, Mississippi 1833 1837  
Ohio Life Ins. & Trust Co. (life policies appear to have been reinsured with New York Life & Trust in the late 1840s) 1834 1857 54,000
New England Mutual Life Insurance Company, Massachusetts (did not begin issuing policies until 1844) 1835   0
Ocean Mutual, Louisiana 1835 1839  
Southern Life & Trust, Alabama 1836 1840  
American Life Insurance & Trust Company, Baltimore 1836 1840  
Girard Life Insurance, Annuity & Trust Company, Pennsylvania 1836 1894 723,000
Missouri Life & Trust 1837 1841  
Missouri Mutual 1837 1841  
Globe Life Insurance, Trust & Annuity Company, Pennsylvania 1837 1857  
Odd Fellow Life Insurance and Trust Company, Pennsylvania 1840 1857  
National of Pennsylvania 1841 1852  
Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York 1842    
New York Life Insurance Company 1843    
State Mutual Life Assurance Company, Massachusetts 1844    

*Date company ceased writing life insurance.

Citation: Murphy, Sharon. "Life Insurance in the United States through World War I". EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2002. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/murphy.life.insurance.us



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