The savings bank concept is a European idea with ideological roots that date back to the “Age of Enlightenment”. When the “principle of self-help” made its breakthrough during the 18th century, an intellectual elite called the “Enlightened” found it their mission to pass on the light of knowledge to the masses and to communicate to them what was later called a “new awareness”.
The “Enlightened” thought it was of utmost importance for the individual to be responsible for organising their life and they therefore found it their task to communicate and educate the deeply middle-class virtue of thrift to the lower classes. These endeavours were not limited to missionary work; they were also put into practice.
In the 18th century several initiatives were taken to carry out this task. For example, joint savings schemes were created in Great Britain by the “box clubs” and the “local friendly societies”.
The first initiatives to establish savings banks were private. According to present research, the first real savings bank was founded in Germany. The "Erparungsklasse” of the Hamburger Allgemeine Versorgungsanstalt, established in 1778, takes its title from and was created by the local “Patriotische Gesellschaft". The next savings banks were established in the United Kingdom. There, Priscilla Wakefield founded a benefit society in 1798 in Tottenham, to which a savings bank was added in 1801. In 1810, Ruthwell Savings Bank was established in Scotland by the Rev. Henry Duncan.
Although this thinking in principle remained valid for a long time, it changed in the 19th century, the Age of Industrialisation. The social elite became aware of the economic and social problems resulting from the proletarian process. They tried to cultivate a new economic “morality” of work, thrift and virtue. The idea gained ground that saving could contribute to stabilising the social order. This explains the growing interest of government agencies in savings banks.
These ideas also stimulated government activity at a very early stage. The first savings banks in Italy and Spain came into being through the combination of government and private action. Also, in Belgium in 1832 an initiative was taken by a commercial bank, the "Société Générale de Belgique", to create a savings bank. In some countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, local municipalities also took part in the savings banks movement. Social organisations, too, such as trade unions and farmers’ associations, participated in the establishment of savings banks, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Today, the European savings banks are characterised by their wide variety, but they share a common historical identity comprised of socio-political commitment, regional ties and business relations, especially with people earning lower incomes, small and medium-sized enterprises, and regional and local authorities.
If you want to learn more about the foundation, evolution and history of the savings banks in the different European countries, click here:
Austria - Germany - Spain - Sweden - United Kingdom
The Financial History Workshop was held in Vienna on 27 September 2019 at the ocassion of the 200th anniversary of the Erste Osterreichische Sparcasse.
This edition focused on the role that savings banks played and are playing in the spreading of financial knowledge.