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© 2011 New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the Records of Brown Brothers Harriman
1696 -1973, 1995 (bulk 1820-1968)
 MS 78

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Celia Hartmann. Machine readable finding aid created by Celia Hartmann.

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on April 09, 2014
Description is in English.
using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical Note

Belfast linen merchant Alexander Brown emigrated to the United States in 1800 and in 1818 founded Alex. Brown & Sons to import and export commodities, including Irish linen and American tobacco and cotton. The firm later established offices in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. In 1810, Alexander's eldest son William returned to England and established the trading firm William Brown & Co. in Liverpool. This became Brown Shipley & Co. in 1839 and relocated to London. It separated from Brown Brothers as a distinct business entity in 1918. The extending of credit and other banking-related opportunities that stemmed from international trade gradually became more profitable than the physical moving and sale of actual goods, and these solely financial endeavors became and remained the firm's focus. It originated travelers' letters of credits, later known as travelers checks, which allowed both individuals and corporations to access credit worldwide, through a network of international correspondent banks.

As financing opportunities and cash availability were diminished by the Depression, in 1931 Brown Brothers merged with the Harriman interests, to become Brown Brothers Harriman. The Harriman ventures included widespread investment and other financial holdings organized from Edward R. Harriman's vast fortunes, gained initially through successive mergers into what became the Union Pacific Railroad, and later by extensive and prudent investment.

In 1964 John A. Kouwenhoven, professor of English at Barnard College and the author of The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York, among other works, was hired by Brown Brothers Harriman to identify and amass records of historical value to the firm. His title was Director of the Historical Files, which were to serve, among other purposes, as the research materials for the writing of  Partners in Banking, commissioned by Doubleday & Co. publishers to celebrate the firm's 150th anniversary in 1968. Kouwenhoven was assisted by researcher Sarah B. Brown, a former history teacher at the Brearley School and wife of partner Thatcher M. Brown III; and by Patricia Hoban. Mr. and Mrs. Brown were both direct descendants of Brown Brothers founder, Alexander Brown.