With so much focus on the demise of banks of all sizes, its easy to imagine the worst doomsday scenarios and wonder if your own bank is next. However, some banks have continued operations throughout civil wars, world wars and economic depressions without going under. These are not the first banks in the world, which trace back to early lending from priests to merchants in 18th century B.C. Babylon and up through the Roman empire, but rather these are five of the oldest surviving banks in the world, and they each tell a story.
Bank of New York (now Bank of New York Mellon)
New York, New York (Founded 1784)
It began with a press release in the New York Packet, announcing the plan to form New York’s first bank in 1784. Alexander Hamilton, a respected attorney at the time, drafted the bank’s constitution and led The Bank of New York through its formation and early years. Eight years later, it was the first company to be traded publicly when the New York Stock Exchange opened in 1792. There is also an abundance of history behind Mellon Financial Corporation dating back to the Industrial Revolution, who merged with Bank of New York in 2007 to become Bank of New York Mellon. Today, it is the oldest bank in the United States, and they get to have One Wall Street as their address to prove it.
The Bank of Scotland (now Halifax Bank of Scotland)
Edinburgh, Scotland (Founded 1695)
(Photo Courtesy of HBOS plc Group Archives)
Although the concept of currency and bank notes wasn’t necessarily new to Scotland in the 17th century, the Bank of Scotland was the first to print its own paper currency. Further, it was unique in the sense that it was set up to help businesses, whereas the Bank of England, established one year earlier, existed primarily to finance government defense spending. Early on, it faced fierce rivalry from the Royal Bank of Scotland, and in one instance, RBS (the “new” bank) began hoarding the bank notes issued by Bank of Scotland (Old Bank) in order to present them at once, forcing old Bank of Scotland to call their loans and cease payments for six months. This didn’t sink them though, and this old resilient bank has remained as the only existing commercial institution created by the Parliament of Scotland. The Bank of Scotland merged with Halifax Bank to become HBOS in 2001.
C. Hoare & Co.
London, England (Founded 1672)
Before modern street numbering, people used signs to locate a shop, and Sir Richard Hoare couldn’t have chosen a much better symbol than the Sign of the Golden Bottle, as gilded bottles were a sign of luxury and wealth commonly used by the goldsmiths who shaped the precursors to more modern banking systems and paper currency. This private banking institution has proven to be remarkably resilient. Of note is the fact that their building was evacuated during World War II and saved from a fire by a few brave employees. Furthermore, the bank is still completely family-owned and managed by direct descendants of Sir Richard Hoare.
Hamburg, Germany (Founded 1590)
Formed in 1590 by Hans and Paul Berenberg, two brothers who ran a cloth trading and import/export business, the company was very lucky to be growing during a time of prosperity in Hamburg, Germany. The city quickly grew as a hub of financial and trading activity, and they were able to thrive along with other members of a small, tight-knit group of Dutch people that didn’t even have full citizenship rights in Hamburg. Berenberg Bank today has offices throughout Europe, and remains Germany’s oldest private bank today.
The Oldest Bank in the World: Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena
Siena, Italy (Founded 1472)
Originally formed as The Monte di Pietà, or Monte Pio, to make loans to the poor out of charity, this is the longest running bank in the world. “Monte,” meaning “heap” or “pile,” referred to the collection of money used for charitable distribution, and the bank truly served to benefit the city’s economy. One interesting historical note is that the citizens of Siena put up income from the land as guarantees against loans for farming and city infrastructure, which led to it being referred to as Monte dei Paschi in reference to the land. Today it stands out as the oldest existing bank in the world by far, and remains an esteemed bank that has branches throughout Italy.