Desjardins Influenced Development Of U.S. S&L Cooperatives

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Recent research by the Société historique Alphonse-Desjardins[i] turned up a little-known U.S. publication in which Alphonse Desjardins played a discreet but important role.

Published in 1914 by the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City, A Credit Union Primer explains how a savings and loan cooperative operates. The guide describes the steps and procedures to follow in setting up such an institution, with an emphasis on the state of New York. 

The guide’s authors, Arthur H. Ham and Leonard G. Robinson, were among the pioneering promoters of savings and loan cooperatives in the United States. On July 9, 1912, the director of the Russell Sage Foundation, Arthur H. Ham, visited Alphonse Desjardins in Lévis to get a first-hand look at the Desjardins caisse model. Clearly pleased with his experience, he invited Alphonse Desjardins to visit New York later that fall.[ii]

Pierre Poulin and fellow historians in the U.S. have quite rightly asserted that these meetings in New York and Lévis strongly influenced the strategy used to develop savings and loans cooperatives in this key state south of the border.[iii]

Drawing on the cooperative experience in Lévis, Quebec, and the rest of Canada, New Yorkers worked methodically to create solid foundations for cooperatives in the state. In addition to lobbying for state legislation in 1913, the Russell Sage Foundation, with Alphonse Desjardins’s help, published in rapid succession The Cooperative People’s Bank in August 1914, authored by Alphonse Desjardins himself, and A Credit Union Primer later the same year, which clearly bears the stamp of Desjardins Group’s founder.

Painstakingly organized, A Credit Union Primer was very closely modeled on Catéchisme des caisses populaires, published in French-speaking Canada in 1910 by one of Alphonse Desjardins’s associates, Philibert Grondin.

Like Catéchisme des caisses populaires, the first section of the primer is presented as a series of questions and answers that explain the nature, objectives, and operation of a savings and loan cooperative. The second section is devoted to the various forms and account books required to set up a credit union.

The primer also includes sample bylaws and the entire text of the New York Credit Union Law. In short, it contains everything that was necessary to set up a savings and loan cooperative.

As a North American authority on the subject, Alphonse Desjardins helped edit A Credit Union Primer. He received the manuscript on August 4, 1914, and sent it back just three days later with his comments. His contribution is mentioned by the general manager of the Russell Sage Foundation, John M. Glenn, who wrote the introduction to the primer.

In it he describes Alphonse Desjardins as the founder of the Canadian cooperative banking system. Thanks to the magic of digital technology, a copy of A Credit Union Primer has been printed and archived at Maison Alphonse-Desjardins in Lévis, where it all began.

Claude Genest  is the historian with the Société historique Alphonse-Desjardins in Levis, Quebec, Canada.

[i] Thanks to Pierre-Olivier Maheux, whose research enabled us to track down a digital copy of A Credit Union Primer. The original paperedition is kept in the Cornell University Library.

[ii] Pierre Poulin, Histoire du Mouvement Desjardins, Volume 1, Montreal, Québec Amérique, 1990, p. 276-277.

[iii] J. Carroll Moody and Gilbert C. Fite, The Credit Union Movement: Origins and Development 1850 to 1980, second edition, Dubuque, Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 1984, p. 30.


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