The period from the close of the Civil War to the early 1900s, often described as the Gilded Age, was a time of great turmoil for banks. Eight panics, from 1884 to 1908, began in New York, the financial system’s center, and some of these crises spread to neighboring states. Fearful depositors sometimes cleared their accounts.
Trust in banking institutions was difficult to secure—in addition to the multiple panics of the age, people of modest means, struggling to meet their rent or mortgages, might find in their daily newspapers accounts of bank scandals, often alongside stories about new railroad tycoons or the bottomless appetites of the recently rich. A thin layer of fabulous wealth seemed a mask on the hardships and social problems below.
By the early part of the next century, the Hoboken Bank for Savings was part of an established cluster of downtown banks. A similar institution did not appear uptown until development of the northern end of Washington Street accelerated in the 1890s, and then it emerged in grand style. Later known as “The Uptown Bank,” the limestone-clad Beaux-Arts style Hoboken Trust Company opened its doors at 14th and Washington Streets in 1903. It could easily find customers among residents of the nearby, and recently constructed, Elysian Apartments. Commonly known as the “Yellow Flats,” the apartment complex was designed by local architect Charles Fall, who was also the president of the Hoboken Trust Company.
In 1873, Hoboken residents learned that they were not immune to the avarice that seemed to characterize the age: a local official had stolen their money. The secretary at the Hoboken Bank for Savings, on the corner of Washington and First Streets, had committed forgery and embezzlement and fled to England. While the remaining bank officials pleaded with depositors to maintain their accounts, others set forth to retrieve the embezzler, who was holed up in a hotel drinking as many as nine bottles of wine a day. He was later tried and imprisoned.
The bank faltered, then righted itself. A photograph from the 1890s shows the image the institution wished to convey in the years after the crisis: a customer lobby that might offer a sense of stability and assurance that depositors’ savings were secure.