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Business Environment
Commercial Paper Market
Early Years




A review of the business section of an 1849 issue of the Chicago Tribune, the first year of publication, reveals only limited advertising of "financial services." The same situation existed in the 1850, 1851, and eary 1852 issues. But by the December, 1852 issue, a large display advertisement of the firm of "R. K. Swift's," with offices at 45 Clark Street, appeared, promoting the firm's extensive "foreign and domestic exchange office" network in Europe and Canada. The list includes a range of banks and foreign exchange dealers which Swift represents in Chicago, and which in turn represent Swift in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Buffalo, Aurora (New York), Baltimore, Washington (DC)., Detroit, Hartford, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Providence, San Francisco, Sacramento, Quebec, Montreal, and Toronto, along with some thirteen European cities. The Boston representative listed is Blake Brothers, a well known trade paper broker in that city and throughout New England.

This is an impressive network of connections emanating from Chicago, which was just emerging from its reputation as a frontier town. The advertisement lists Swift's main services to include "circular drafts" for traveler's use, gold and silver coins, letters of credit on a major English bank, and offers "highest current rates paid on domestic and foreign bills of exchange" as well as "land warrants for sale."

1852 Advertisement (far right lower corner of page)

Within a few years, the trade style of the business was changed to "R. K. Swift & Co, Bankers" which firm particularly offered "exchange of credits." Then, in early 1856, apparently a companion business (not a successor) was created under the name "R. K. Swift, Johnston & Co." offering to "buy and sale on commission, Railroad Bonds and Shares, Gas and Bank Shares, and First Class Notes and Acceptances, (making) advances thereon in anticipation of sale." "Trust and legacy" services were also listed. In the modern parlance, the firm was becoming a full service domestic securities brokerage and financial services firm along with its foreign exchange and letter of credit services. It appears that these two "businesses" were operated out of separate offices, the banking business being conducted in main floor offices, and the other business -- one involving higher rate securities with higher risks -- being pursued on an upper floor.

In 1857, the firm again changed its name (and/or began to have just one name) -- "R. K. Swift, Brother, and Johnston" -- and its advertisements suggested that it was now organized in various departments offering specialized services - banking, savings, exchange, remittances (by telegraph), commission and foreign. In the "commission" department the services described include executing orders to "buy and sell . . . negotiable commercial paper." Also the firm mentions that was "investing money for Capitalists."

1857 Advertisement (far upper right corner of page)

During the fall of 1857, the money markets tightened, as in fact chronicled by R. K. Swift's own analysis printed in the Tribune in August. In the firm's late September commentary, a national panic is reported to be underway, with a number of bank failures and including a local Chicago house. At the end of the commentary, the firm reports that it is experiencing a run by depositors who were confusing R. K Swift with a bankrupt produce dealer named "W. P. Swift & Co." By the end of the day, Swift decides to close its doors. The next day, the Tribune comments on these developments.

RSK commentary, August, 1857

RSK commentary, September, 1857

RSK announces suspension

Tribune comments

All the drama of the next few days is further captured in Tribune reports and editorials. It appears that the downfall of R. K. Swift, at least in part, was due to the age old temptation of bankers to lend and invest long while borrowing short -- in this case, real estate investing was in some part R. K. Swift's Achilles heel.

Tribune editorial

RSK announcement

Lots for sale (left hand column, near bottom of page)

After the sudden demise of the R. K. Swift banking business, not much was reported in the newspapers about this quite interesting and gregarious character who was probably Chicago's earliest "financier."

R. K. prided himself in being the head (Brigadier General) of the 2nd Brigade, Sixth Division, of the Illinois Militia, often receiving public notice in that role, and was temporarily the commanding general in Cairo, Illinois early in the Civil War, although there is no evidence that subsequently he served in an active war zone.

Even with his business downfall, General Swift joined other founders (including Henry Greenebaum) in the formation of the Chicago Industrial Association, a society of Chicago businessmen fostering manufacturing development in the city and region, with a particular emphasis on recruiting immigrants to the city. The CIA was something of a predecessor of today's Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry.

Founding meeting

Organization formed

Finally, R. K. Swift attempted a come back in the lending and mortgage dealing business, and in offering advice and education in these areas, working with various colleagues, and serving as a "fiscal agent," but from what can be learned, he sadly did not achieve any particular success or prominence in any of these late in life endeavors.

With his death in 1883, a long obituary described R. K. Swift's early business career, his Chicago banking achievements, his later business efforts, and his sad death in Missouri, at age 70.


Four years later, in 1887, the Chicago Tribune printed an interesting retrospective about General Swift, his special role in the early development of Chicago as a financial center, his generous spirit, and his eclectic personality.

Look Back

Posted: March 25, 2008


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