What Can an Insurance Policy Register Tell Us About Life in Post–Civil War Virginia?
When VHS staff developed a funding proposal to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) in 2010, we were seeking support for archivists to work with fourteen collections of records relating to modern businesses in Virginia, all of which had a national or global reach during their existences.
On the surface, the chance to make these records accessible to researchers suggested great opportunity for advancing our understanding of Virginia’s economic and commercial history. Beyond that, we had long been saying that “business history is more than the history of business,” so we likewise anticipated insights into the society and culture of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Little did we know what a much closer look at these records might reveal.
Processing thirteen volumes that make up records from the formative years of the Life Insurance Company of Virginia was my first task on this project. Exploring these apparently routine books became an extraordinary experience for this veteran archivist. The evidence they disclose about a broad cross-section of Virginians dealing with the aftermath of a huge and devastating conflict is both unexpected and invaluable.
The majority of the volumes are registers, indicating to whom life insurance policies were sold and for what premium and benefit amounts. The Life Insurance Company of Virginia, founded in Petersburg in 1871 and known familiarly as “Life of Virginia” in the twentieth century, recorded an extraordinary amount of information about its policyholders here besides just names and policy amounts—date and place of birth, race, occupation, age, and beneficiaries, for instance.
I was frankly amazed to see the range of policyholders. I had expected the strong showing of Petersburg and Richmond merchants and professionals; I found, too, a liberal smattering of artisans, laborers, domestics, and householders. Judy Batte of Hicksford, Virginia, a “house servant,” was the first African American to secure a policy, in February 1872, and she was followed by a fairly steady stream of men and women of her race. In fact, as the company grew and its client base became more national in scope, women made up an increasing percentage of policyholders.
So, what does all this raise in the archivist’s mind? Well, to me it challenges some of our ideas about Virginia’s economy in the immediate postwar period. Did the end of Reconstruction have a direct economic benefit? Was there sufficient expendable income across Virginia society to encourage investment in life insurance when necessities might exercise an equally strong draw on limited funds? Did the experience of war make people even more aware of the fragility of life and spur them to make arrangements in the event of an unexpected demise?
Archivists work with volumes like these with great regularity. We try to understand them, place them in context, call attention to them so they can be used. But we leave it to our researchers to interpret the evidence they so wonderfully provide to us.
With these Life Insurance Company of Virginia records, I believe we have a resource that promises much, and I am anxious to see what researchers make of it all.
We are grateful to Genworth Financial of North America, successor to the Life Insurance Company of Virginia, for placing the above-referenced collection with the VHS in 2010. It was processed through a grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission of the U.S. National Archives.
E. Lee Shepard is the Vice President for Collections and Sallie and William B. Thalhimer III Senior Archivist at the Virginia Historical Society.