by patrick j. mahoney
During the 19th century, several insurance companies established their headquarters in the city of Hartford, earning it the nickname “The Insurance Capital of the World.” Over time, the presence of the insurance giants became vital to the social, economic, and political fabric of the capital city. One of the most successful insurance companies to emerge during this period was Aetna. Over time, Aetna, still headquartered in Hartford, emerged as the nation’s largest health insurer. remains one of the top employers in the local area.
Reading: What city is the insurance capital of the world
aetna fire insurance company
In the spring of 1819, several leading Hartford businessmen and merchants at Morgan’s Exchange coffee shop became involved in a heated discussion about the efficiency and practicality of the state’s fire insurance industry. It was this exchange at the popular State Street social spot that planted the seeds of what eventually became Aetna Fire Insurance Company and later Aetna Inc.
after finding existing fire insurance companies in connecticut insufficient to meet the demands of expanding business in the state’s cities, 137 business and social leaders from the hartford area, led by thomas k. corset, drafted a petition to establish a new insurance company. The petition highlighted the fragility of the existing insurance industry in the state, noting that “it is presumed that each of the existing offices has assumed risks for an amount greater than the capital of all of them, and if a conflagration were to occur, in some of our peoples, despite the disaster that has been experienced in many places, it is very fearful that many of the victims will discover their insecurity too late.”
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The first sign that the 1819 petition had an impact on the state legislature came in a May issue of the Hartford Courant, which noted that legislators had formed a committee to consider the petition’s claims. His next public mention came in a Courant report, which announced the passage of a bill “to incorporate the insurance company Aetna” in the June 5 legislative session. he noted that the founders chose the name “aetna” in reference to the famous volcanic mountain on the eastern coast of Sicily, which “although surrounded by flames and smoke, is never consumed.”
the great fire of new york city of 1845
Almost immediately, fire insurance company Aetna challenged its competitors for supremacy in a competitive but unstable market. however, on a hot summer morning in 1845, the fortunes of the young company took a drastic turn. An unidentified sea captain arrived in Hartford from New York City and entered the Aetna offices (then located on State Street) frantically announcing that New York City was completely engulfed in flames. summing up an almost apocalyptic scene for his listeners, he noted that “the entire lower part of the city was covered with thick clouds of smoke through which we could see raging tongues of fire, apparently in a dozen places to the side. time. I never heard such a sound of fire bells; we could see at various points crowds of people running frantically through the streets; the city was in tumult; And we heard men on the docks yelling that New York was doomed this time!”
aetna president thomas k. Brace hurried down to assess the damage and estimate the losses. Upon returning to Hartford, he called a meeting of the company’s board of directors. Recognizing that the company’s resources and capital were almost completely depleted by customer losses from this catastrophic event, he quickly endorsed several notes and sent them to banks for discount. With this quick and decisive action, the company was able to pay all of its customers’ claims. Although the event almost proved disastrous for aetna’s financial future, the way aetna handled its claims cemented its reputation as a solid and reliable insurance company.
This reputation soon spread, not just across the Northeast, but across the country, made physically evident by the many small tin aetna signs posted in front of public and private buildings across the country. . The presence of these signs, in highly visible locations, not only conveyed protection from Connecticut’s emerging insurance power, but also reinforced and spread Aetna’s reputation for safety, reliability, and prompt payment.
getting into the life insurance business
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In May 1820, nearly a year after the first calls for the formation of a new fire insurance company, Aetna’s board of directors again voted to petition the state legislature, this time seeking an amendment to the statutes to allow the drafting of life insurance. the expansion was a bold move given the position of many religious leaders that assigning a monetary value to one’s life was an immoral practice. however, once approved by the legislature, the board voted to reserve an additional $50,000 in stock for the life insurance company.
As the company continued to expand (now in two directions), the unique business demands of underwriting fire and life insurance became increasingly clear. therefore, the board of directors petitioned the legislature again in 1853, this time seeking to amend the statute to separate the life insurance department from the parent company. The shareholders of the “Annuity Fund” have now formed a new corporation under the name “Aetna Life Insurance Company”, with Eliphalet A. bulkeley as its first president.
thriving in the “insurance capital of the world”
As time went on, aetna continued to adjust its areas of focus to meet consumer concerns and demands. Such innovations included the introduction of an accident and liability department to attract the increased focus on labor rights and unions in the early 20th century, and the creation of an automobile insurance company in 1913 to cater to social concern in a era of growing mobilization. furthermore, as the company’s success grew, so did its geographic reach. In 1960, Aetna entered the international arena when it acquired the Canadian company Excelsior Life Insurance. In the following decades, international expansion continued with the company investing in companies in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Today, the company that began as a small group of local entrepreneurs concerned about the state of the local fire insurance market enjoys success as a world-renowned member of the Fortune 100, which deals primarily with health insurance.
patrick j. mahoney is a researcher in history & culture at drew university and former fulbright scholar at the national university of ireland galway
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