THE PRODUCT WAS perfectly legal. Many prominent clergymen endorsed it, including celebrity preacher Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Pennsylvania House declared in 1811 that it "would be highly beneficial to many descriptions of citizens throughout the state." The need was clear, and the businesses that sold it were untainted by scandal, bankruptcy, or fraud. They delivered what they promised.
But in the early 19th century, Americans just wouldn't buy life insurance.
The problem wasn't mere procrastination. Many people deemed the very idea immoral. "Has a man the right to make the continuance of his life the basis of a bargain? Is it not turning a very solemn thing into a mere commercial transaction?" wrote a typical critic. Religious traditionalists believed they should trust in God's providence, not a financial contract, to care for their loved ones after death. Others, pointing to arson to collect fire insurance, worried that it might encourage murder.
Paternalists--and competitors-warned that beneficiaries wouldn't know how to manage a sudden windfall. The New York Times opined that life insurance eroded the work ethic and discouraged steady savings. It was, the paper editorialized, "calculated to encourage reliance upon something besides economy and industry and to lead accordingly to the relaxation and decay of those cardinal virtues of society." Taking a similar line, the president of a savings bank voiced concern that the "anodyne of security" defied God's plan, in which fear of poverty, which he called the "pressure of wants," encouraged thrift and hard work. (The right kind of thrift, of course, included a savings bank account.)
Then there were the women. Life insurance was supposed to protect widows from destitution if their husbands died, but wives were among its biggest opponents. "It is almost incredible that one of the obstacles to the universal practice of life insurance is found in the opposition of wives and mothers," complained a proinsurance writer. Wives were often afraid that placing a bet on death would tempt fate. Many viewed a life insurance payout as untouchable "blood money."
Then something changed.
"Not until the 1840s did life insurance begin selling in any significant degree. Then, suddenly, in the span of a few years, its rate of growth became astonishingly high," writes the economic sociologist Viviana Zelizer in her landmark 1979 study...