The news that New York's Bowery Savings Bank was changing its name to Home Savings of America for the sake of uniformity with its parent company signified the end of an era.

The Bowery, of course, is New York's traditional skid row, historic home of the Bowery bum.

It wasn't always so. In 1834, when the thrift was founded, the street was a fashionable shopping boulevard.

The decline came later, but the thrift still carried the name proudly, just as others still struct such unusual names as Emigrant, Dime, and Boston Five Cents.

What did these names signify?

Dime -- almost anyone could save that much, and it was enough to open an account. Emigrant -- for the newly arrived, at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Notice, these are not banks. You have never heard of a Paupers Trust Co., a Five-and-Ten National Bank, an Indigents State Bank.

Founded to Do Good

Bowery, Emigrant, Dime, and the like were not founded to make money; they were self-perpetuating mutual organizations formed to help the poor. The directors were the same public-spirited citizens who set up charity hospitals and other nonprofit ventures for the public good.

The mutual savings institutions did their job well. They encouraged school kids to save, provided home mortgages, and were pillars of their communities. Their big, solid offices testified to trustworthiness.

But this type of institution is disappearing fast from the American landscape, just as the names like Bowery are being retired.

What happened?

Of course the first thing was that the commercial banks woke up to the fact that there are good profits to be made by serving the consumer.

Gone are the days when a commercial bank would routinely send a potential mortgage borrower to the savings institution across the street -- and would not seven offer consumer loans.

Commercial banks started offering the same services as thrifts -- and were providing much more, to boot. For the thrifts, the choice was to change or to atrophy.

Grass Seemed Greener

Equally important was the great wave of conversions, when mutual savings institutions switched to stock form.

What caused this? In some cases it was because the thrifts needed new capital and this was the only way to raise it.

But in far more cases, thrift executives fell victim to the investment banker's siren song "convert and grow rich." They saw stock companies offering profitable employee stock options and giving savers a chance for capital appreciation through investment in the institution's new stock.

The grass just seemed greener on the other side.

These programs were great -- when they worked. But sometimes, when the stock collapsed, the bank's officers and customers suffered dearly.

Furthermore, a stock price collapse would quickly tarnish an image of dependability built up, in some cases, for well over a hundred years. And dependability was the thrift's great attraction.

So a tradition dating back to the mid-1800s has died. Most thrifts today are indistinguishable from small commercial banks, with the same strengths and weaknesses, the same diversified products and opportunities for loss as well as profit.

The Personal Touch

A few traditional thrifts are left. But most are gone. And with them have gone the unhurried platform people -- usually underpaid -- who had time to handle the smallest problem of a disparity in the passbook.

These were people who would visit local schools and persuade children that saving is a patriotic obligation, like saluting the flag or singing the national anthem.

Sure, in many ways the change has been for the better. The new, more aggressive savings institution pays higher rates and offers far more services than the traditional one did. And the new thrift gives its employees opportunities to move up and take on new challenges. (At the traditional thrift, the CEO made all the decisions; everyone else was a bit player.)

But a part of the banking scene with a personal touch has pretty much been lost. It has gone the way of the local grocer and the doctor who made house calls.

True, shopping around is cheaper than getting all your groceries from a mom-and-pop store. And today we would hesitate to put money in traditional savings banks; they often felt it was enough to pay a low, safe return and let you bank in a beautiful domed, heated lobby.

Still, we can miss the old tradition.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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