With Wall Street buckling under the weight of a series of accounting scandals, and consumers questioning corporate ethics, the United States appears to be entering a new chapter in its financial history.
In the 1960s, John Herzog, a stock broker specializing in obscure and inactive stocks, came across a New York and Harlem Railroad document signed by railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt. The discovery marked the beginning of his transformation into a collector of antique financial documents and artifacts.
Over the years, he often found himself in conversations about publicly exhibiting his growing cache of treasures. But it took a financial catastrophe to bring the idea to fruition. "The real motivating factor came after the crash of 1987 when the media and the commentators said, 'It is a shame that no one is studying financial history in America, because if somebody was, we would have the ability to get perspective on what has just happened.' And I said, 'Hey, wait a minute! I am. I am collecting this stuff. I see what happened before.' And, by that time, I had a meaningful collection," Mr. Herzog said.
In 1988, The Museum of American Financial History officially opened in Lower Manhattan, in a building steeped in financial history. The United States' first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, the man who set up the U.S. financial system, kept his law office on the site and the building served as the headquarters of Standard Oil, where chief executive John D. Rockefeller maintained his office until 1897.
A ticker tape machine is one of the featured items in the museum's permanent exhibit. It is an exact replica of the one invented in 1870 by Thomas Edison, except that it is connected not to a telegraph wire, but a computer. And it does not churn out up to the minute stock quotes it taps out personal messages based on visitor commands.
Just above the ticker tape machine hangs a yellowed length of ticker tape, cut up into 30-centimeter segments and framed. The museum's Kristin Aguilera explained that the tape was saved by a Boston stock broker on October 29, 1929 the day of the stock market crash that marked the beginning of the Great Depression in the United States.
"While everyone else was yelling about losing their shirts and businesses failed and people lost their own money, he realized what a historic event this had been. So he reached back into his garbage can, found the first strip of tape and mounted it and kept it hanging in his office as a warning to his employees of what could happen in the stock market," Ms. Aguilera explained.
The very act of fishing documents out of the trash is central what the financial museum is all about, says museum chairman and founder John Herzog.
"There is a tremendous resource of information and experience that these little pieces of paper and other similar objects give us. To throw them away is to throw away our culture, because our culture is a result of having achieved these tremendous accomplishments in industry and agriculture and society," Mr. Herzog said.
Visitors will also find blocks of gold recovered from the sunken ship the S.S. Central America, and a computer game that allows them to play the stock market just as the brokers on the floor of the Stock Exchange do.
The Museum of American Financial History receives 35,000 visitors a year, including tourists from around the world and, of course, scores of students. Visitor John Sorrentino is a local businessman. He said that the museum gives him perspective on his life in the business world.
"It is very helpful to see how companies start off as simple operations and develop and grow, and the problems that ensue as part of the growing process. So, that is an education," Mr. Sorrentino said.
The "Wells Fargo: 150 Years of Entrepreneurial Spirit" exhibition at the museum eloquently speaks to Mr. Sorrentino's point. Henry Wells and William Fargo founded the American Express Company on March 18, 1850. Two-years later they founded the Wells Fargo bank and express mail company on Wall Street in New York City, after their board of directors at American Express voted against nationwide expansion. Wells Fargo went on to become the country's first national brand.