How did Hartford become known as the Insurance Capital of the World

Hartford, Connecticut is one of the oldest cities in the United States. Originally called Newtown, the settlement was founded in 1635 by Pastor Thomas Hooker who led about 100 people to the area from Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the early years, its economy was mainly based on agriculture. It soon became an important trading center and developed a thriving port on the Connecticut River. Produce such as molasses, coffee, spices, and rum were shipped to England, the Far East, and the West Indies.

Merchants were increasingly worried about the risks associated with their trade. Fires, storms, and accidents had always been a concern, but it was the piracy threat that was perhaps the biggest problem for many operators. After piracy in the New World had been more or less contained for many years, it increased again along the US eastern and gulf coasts and in the Caribbean by the early nineteenth century. Barbary pirates were still active along the northern and western coasts of Africa. In the Far East, powerful Chinese pirate fleets were flourishing by this time.

Informal insurance arrangements began in 1794 when Hartford merchant Jeremiah Wadsworth and some associates started providing fire insurance. When many of the city’s merchants met at a local inn one day in 1810, fire at their warehouses was their main immediate concern, and they formed the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. They agreed to set up the firm with working capital contributions of $15,000, a very substantial amount of money in those days.

Other insurance companies soon followed. The Aetna Insurance Company was set up in Hartford in 1819 and the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company started in 1846. Phoenix Insurance was founded as the American Temperance Life Insurance Company by business, civic, and religious leaders in the city in 1851. Travelers Insurance Company was established in 1864 and the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company started in 1866.

Hartford grew strongly in the nineteenth century and soon became the country’s leading center for insurance. Policies were taken out with the city’s insurance companies by organizations and individuals far and wide. Abraham Lincoln insured his home in Illinois with the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. When fire raged through New York’s financial district in 1835, Hartford Fire Insurance Company president Eliphalet Terry traveled to the scene and assured policyholders that claims would be met. He had to use his personal wealth to do so. The company also paid out in the New York fire of 1845 and the Chicago fire in 1871.

With actions like this, strong growth in Hartford’s insurance industry was assured, especially with insurance companies in other cities often failing to pay out. The city’s insurance industry expanded nationally and internationally and the city eventually became known as the Insurance Capital of the World. Assisted by its insurance industry, Hartford became the wealthiest US city after the Civil War, an honor previously held by New Orleans. Hartford also became a leading manufacturing and publishing city in the nineteenth century.

Its reputation as the insurance capital was enhanced over coming decades as its major insurance companies continued to grow and diversify. The Hartford Fire Insurance Company launched the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1913, and took over the Columbian National Life Insurance Company in 1959 and the ITT Corporation in 1970. Now known as the Hartford Financial Services Group, or the Hartford, it has become one of the largest insurance and investment companies in the US with revenue of $9.2 billion in 2008 and with operations around the world. It still has its headquarters in Hartford.

Other early insurance companies in Hartford have also grown enormously. Aetna has a range of health insurance products and is a Fortune 100 company with revenue of $31 billion in 2008 and investments worldwide. Phoenix offers life insurance and annuities and has nearly $14 billion in reserves. The Travelers Companies is now America’s largest insurance company with a market value of $23.3 billion in 2008. The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company provides property insurance and was taken over by Munich Re in April 2009. Most of these companies remain headquartered in Hartford or nearby and insurance is still the city’s largest industry.

With the recent tough economic times, some of Hartford’s insurance companies have left the city for suburban areas to take advantage of cheaper rents and better parking, while some have reduced their workforce. Going against the trend is Aetna, who is moving 3,500 staff from Middletown, 16 miles from the city, to Asylum Hill adjacent to the downtown area. Today, there are 106 insurance companies in Connecticut. Nevertheless, with takeovers and cutbacks affecting the industry, some analysts no longer regard Hartford as the insurance capital of the world. It seems other cities are now vying for this title, such as London and Iowa.