Business of Banking

Although Wells Fargo’s express operations have long captivated the public imagination, from its beginning Wells Fargo was also known for extending reliable banking across the continent.

In the early years in the California gold rush, Wells Fargo’s banking business focused primarily on buying gold dust and assaying, or valuing, gold. As prospectors turned to farming, manufacturing, and other professions, Wells Fargo supported their endeavors by offering traditional commercial banking services. Customers needing deposits, loans, and letters of credit turned to Wells Fargo.
Customers at the Wells Fargo Banking Department in San Francisco in the 1860s.
The bank’s ability to serve customers was tested on April 18, 1906, when the Great Earthquake rocked San Francisco, setting off an inferno that destroyed much of the city and left thousands homeless and unemployed. For a month, the bank had to operate out of a private home and from the U.S. Mint, where a Wells Fargo teller accepted deposits and paid out cash. Nevertheless, service to customers continued almost uninterrupted.
This Wells Fargo check allowed a customer to easily transfer money from his account in Folsom to pay Hung Wha in San Francisco in 1864.
In other parts of the country, companies that would later join Wells Fargo were being formed. Key among them was Wachovia National Bank, which opened its doors in Winston, North Carolina, in 1879 — a time when the South was regaining its economic footing and becoming the center for major industries such as textiles, timber, furniture manufacturing, and tobacco.
In 1905, Wells Fargo merged with Nevada National Bank, and moved into this elegant building at Pine and Montgomery Streets, San Francisco.
On April 18, 1906, Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank was reduced to ruins following the devastating earthquake and fire. It took three weeks for the bank’s vaults to cool enough to open.
Wachovia National Bank had been in business for ten years when this photo of the bank’s lobby was taken in 1889. Bank president William A. Lemly serves customers behind the teller window in the center, while future bank president James A. Gray stands ready in the window at the right.
Wachovia was one of the pioneer banks organized under the National Bank Act of 1863. Before the establishment of a national banking system, the U.S. had nearly 1,500 state chartered banks, and no two states followed the same banking practices. Under the new system, nationally chartered banks were required to maintain cash reserves equal to a percentage of its notes and deposits. In return, they were permitted to issue bank notes, providing a uniform and trustworthy currency that helped to fuel private enterprise.
Charter 1. Photo courtesy: Rob Prideaux.
In the early 1860s, the federal government addressed the chaos caused by unregulated banks and currency. Treasury officials proposed a system of federally chartered national banks, each with the power to issue bank notes backed by funds invested in government bonds. On June 20, 1863, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued the very first national bank charter, Number 1, to the First National Bank of Philadelphia. Although it was not the largest Philadelphia bank, First National proudly embraced the distinction it held as the first bank chartered under the National Currency Act, later known as the National Bank Act.
This bank is today part of Wells Fargo, which now operates under historic charter number one.
The Philadelphia Bank issued this ten-dollar note. In 1863, the federal government forced these notes from circulation by levying a tax on them, and later banning privately-issued currency by constitutional amendment. Photo courtesy of Bernard Carpenter.
From 1863 to 1935, chartered national banks, such as First National Bank of Denver, issued national bank notes with their charter numbers, and signed by the president and cashier of the bank.
This also enabled the expansion of a range of convenient services including checking accounts for the average customer and laid the groundwork for diversified banking institutions offering everything from trust services to savings accounts. Moving into the 1900s, banks were no longer focused only on the needs of wealthy investors and successful businessmen, they sought to serve the average banking customer.
In the 1890s, a new type of financial institution, the Trust Company, brought many banking and trust services together under one roof. Wachovia Loan & Trust Company opened in Winston on June 15, 1893, the first financial company of its type in North Carolina, and within a decade grew to become North Carolina’s largest financial institution.
The Minnesota Loan & Trust Company took advantage of new communication technologies in the 1920s, broadcasting financial information to the Twin Cities via radio.
Passbooks held by women customers at San Francisco Savings Union. Unlike other institutions at the time, it allowed women to make deposits and withdraws in their own name, without needing permission from a husband or father. San Francisco Savings Union was founded on June 18, 1862. Two months later, the directors approved the first loan to a woman customer.
Wachovia Bank and Trust’s “Ladies’ Room” catered to the comfort of women customers, furnishing the space with chairs, desks, phones, and a dedicated banker ― often a woman ― who put female customers at ease while helping them manage their finances.
Special checks identified customers of Northwestern National Bank’s Women’s Department.
In 1937, Mary G. Roebling became president of Trenton Trust Company, the first woman president of a major commercial bank in the United States. Roebling led Trenton Trust for nearly 50 years, introducing innovative marketing and customer service techniques. Photo courtesy of Rutgers University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives.
Despite the increased uniformity provided by the national banking system, America’s currency still lacked elasticity as witnessed by the severe Panic of 1907, which caused a run on banks by worried depositors. It was after this panic that the Union National Bank was formed in 1908 by H. M. Victor, a conservative banker who set up his office in the main lobby of a hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina. To assure depositors that it did not engage in the kinds of speculative loans that caused the Panic of 1907, Union National enforced a strict standard of creditworthiness — with Victor withholding the key and title to new Model T car until the buyer paid off the loan.

“So many women have deposits in banks, so many women are interested in retail and wholesale business… it is only natural that women are being elevated to positions of an executive nature.”

Mary Roebling, President of Trenton Trust Company, January 25, 1937

A new marble façade modernized the Union National Bank building, which later became First Union, located at the corner of 4th and Tryon Streets in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1947.
Congress too moved to counteract the conditions that led to the Panic of 1907 by passing the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 to provide a ready reserve of liquid assets. In the throes of the Great Depression that started in 1929, Congress went a step further by establishing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1933, guaranteeing the safety of customer deposits in member banks. The FDIC was created as part of the Emergency Banking Act passed during a week-long bank holiday proclaimed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to stem a run on the nation’s banks. The deposit insurance provision restored public confidence, and when banks reopened on March 13, 1933, Americans deposited more than half of their hoarded cash back into the banks within the first two weeks.

“No sound bank is a dollar worse off than it was when it closed its doors last Monday.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, fireside chat, March 12, 1933

Wachovia Bank & Trust Company printed its 1931 Statement of Condition on cotton cloth, showing support for North Carolina’s cotton mills during the Great Depression. Photo courtesy Bernard Carpenter.
Like other sound banks, Wachovia impatiently waited for permission to reopen following the national bank holiday ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 5, 1933.
The Great Depression brought challenges for many banks, but First Security Corporation prospered thanks to skillful management by George and Marriner Eccles, and Elbert G. Bennett. Bennett left Utah in 1933 to help found the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Marriner Eccles steered federal economic policy as head of the Federal Reserve Board from 1934 to 1948. This bank is today part of Wells Fargo.
Northwestern National Bank opened for business in this handsome building in downtown Minneapolis in 1872.
In the agricultural Midwest, many farmers did not enjoy the free-spending Roaring Twenties for long before the Depression struck. Many smaller banks that had overextended credit to farmers found themselves in serious difficulty. In the Upper Midwest alone, more than 1,500 small banks became insolvent from 1920 to 1929. Ten months before the stock market crash of 1929, Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis, today part of Wells Fargo, led a group banking initiative to strengthen and stabilize banks throughout the region. By year’s end, ninety banks had joined under the Northwest Bancorporation, or “Banco,” name. During the Great Depression, no Banco-affiliated banks failed and no depositors lost any savings.
Banks in Midwestern cities and small towns joined together during the Great Depression. First National Bank and Trust Company of Fargo, North Dakota, joined Banco in 1929.
In 1910, men held 95% of bank teller and cashier jobs. Most male bank managers believed women lacked both financial acumen and the physical strength needed to lift heavy ledger books and coin bags. These two female tellers at Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis proved them wrong.
Conservative bank management kept Wells Fargo on a steady course as well during the Great Depression. With bank runs putting pressure even on healthy banks, Wells Fargo placed a newspaper notice appealing for calm: “During these ups-and-downs it is the duty of banking to exert a stabilizing influence — in boom times a restraining conservatism, in panic years the balanced judgment warranted by the basic wealth of our country and the character of its citizens.” Throughout the Great Depression, Wells Fargo paid out regular dividends — one of the few banks able to do so. “We shall function as usual, meeting all demands under any circumstances,” Frederick Lipman, bank president, promised shareholders in 1933. This stay-the-course philosophy has served Wells Fargo well in good times and bad, in times of war and peace.
Loans to World War I veterans helped boost America out of the Great Depression. Here, veterans line up outside the Wells Fargo Bank & Union Trust Company in San Francisco.
Since Wells Fargo was founded in 1852, many financial institutions have been folded into Wells Fargo. Many were community banks, often established by the builders of a town or city. Some had roots that extended as far back as Wells Fargo or further. Still others specialized in consumer finance, leasing, mortgages, capital management, and other banking enterprises.

“Our ambition is not to be the largest bank in San Francisco, but to be the soundest and the best.”

I.W. Hellman, President, Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank, 1920

Handwritten checks were the norm for early banking customers of the Bank of North America. Just five months after the bank’s founding in December 1781, Philadelphia merchant Owen Biddle drew on his account for payment to his brother, Clement. Photo courtesy: Rob Prideaux.
Customers and staff proudly pose on the doorstep of Bank of Alaska on the bank’s first day of business in Skagway, March 20, 1916.
By 1910, banks operated in a quickly changing world. Automobiles competed with horse-drawn carriages for parking space outside the local bank in Oak Harbor, Washington.
A century ago, ledger books and mechanical adding machines were tools of the trade for bank tellers such as this group at First National Bank of Red Wing, Minnesota.
The elegant lobby of the Union Trust Company in San Francisco was furnished with the latest modern conveniences to make banking comfortable for customers and staff.
What seems most noteworthy about the many companies that now compose present-day Wells Fargo is that, for the most part, they were founded to meet people’s need for sophisticated financial services in all parts of America.
Prior to automated and computerized bookkeeping, bank clerks meticulously recorded customer transactions and balances in pen and ink in heavy leather-bound ledger books.
By the 1930s, banks relied on automated machine technology to keep track of customer accounts. Women frequently operated these machines, including these three working in Wachovia’s Trust Department in 1944.
Banks such as Bank of Sheboygan, in Wisconsin, provided many wartime services. The bank financed defense contracts, handled ration coupons, issued war bonds and stamps, and provided banking facilities for men and women in uniform as well as civilian customers.
Wachovia, Wells Fargo, and the nation’s bank sold savings bonds to finance America’s war effort. At this patriotic booth in Winston-Salem, Wachovia customers purchased $2 million in war bonds in the year following Pearl Harbor. Banks themselves subscribed to billions more in bonds to help out Uncle Sam.
Employees at First National Bank of Atlanta helped put the “V” in Victory by donating safes and surplus fixtures to wartime scrap metal drives.
On the home front, University National Bank of Seattle customers did their part, lining up to buy Victory Bonds in 1944.
The SS Henry Wells was part of the large fleet of “liberty ships” used to supply Allied troops. During the war, banks helped finance shipyards which turned out liberty ships in record time.

“Let’s all back the attack. Your bonds buy ships.”

Poster slogans for 4th War Loan Drive, 1944