New York and Chicago stand front of mind when most historians discuss the American financial sector during the Gilded Age. It may come as a surprise to learn that 130 years ago the sleepy town of Washington D.C. had its own fledgeling exchange, right across the street from the Treasury Department.
The Washington Stock Exchange operated at less than one-five hundredth the size of the NYSE. And in its later years local papers like the Evening Star put the size of business into perspective when they waxed optimistic for the return of “the good old days of 20 or 30 daily transactions.”
The exchange was active as early as 1884, and it served as a way for companies in the gilded age to raise capital and for their investors to spread risk. Unlike New York, which operated a on nationwide scale, the Washington Exchange never expanded beyond the quiet capital city. It traded in local securities with local institutions like Riggs Bank, The Potomac Electric Power Company (predecessor to the modern PEPCO utility), Washington Gas Light, and Washington Railroad and Electric.
The Washington Stock Exchange was controlled, like so much the District, by a small recurring set of characters. Founder and President George M. Ferris also pops up in the historical record for his role in seeing the National Cathedral to completion. His colleague at the Stock Exchange Charles Glover also had a connection to the Cathedral, and his name lives on in the nearby Glover Park neighborhood.
After limping along into the 20th century, the Washington Stock Exchange saw its demise as the Post World War II economy transitioned into a more complex iteration. The locally focused Washington Stock Exchange was a relic of a bygone era, and its clearing house was particularly outdated. In the early 1950s its president, Fenton Cramer led 22 month negotiations for a merger with the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stock Exchange. After this merger, which was formally approved on July 21, 1953, the Washington Exchange became a branch of the Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington Stock Exchange, and vacated its iconic headquarters across from Treasury.
Know Before You Go
The Stock Exchange is no longer in operation, but its lovely headquarters at the Washington Building remains.