July 2016 marks the completion of a multiyear digitization project by the FRASER team. Volumes of letters, pamphlets, and forms issued as circulars by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have been transformed into an online repository of day-to-day twentieth-century banking history.
A “circular” is a semi-public form of correspondence (also known as a “circular letter”) that each Federal Reserve Bank has used to announce to its member banks rules and regulations, changes in bank services, and developments in the District, and to pass along important information from various agencies of the federal government. Circulars have also been used since the eighteenth century by the Treasury Department and other governmental bodies in the United States and elsewhere to circulate policy to interested parties.
Circular No. 1 from the New York Fed on October 28, 1914, explains the cost and method of payment for member banks in the new Federal Reserve District to purchase their capital stock in the Bank. Circular No. 1166 covers the operations of the Fed during the nationwide emergency bank holiday of 1933. The first circular focused specifically on monetary policy (Circular No. 8853) followed the FOMC’s October 1979 surprise rate increase.
Political events are illustrated by the banking industry’s response. Circulars advertise war bonds and savings campaigns in response to World War I and World War II, and the “voluntary credit restraint program” in response to inflationary pressures related to the Korean War. A significant number of circulars document embargoes, sanctions, and assets control regulations sparked by foreign political developments through the 1990s. The focus of such circulars ranges from restrictions against the “so-called Bolshevik Government” to the early years of the Cuban embargo and beyond.
Because the Fed handles the distribution of cash to banks, a number of warnings have covered counterfeit bills and announcements of changes in currency, including the change in size of bills in the late 1920s, special currency used in Hawaii after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the redesign of the penny, the reintroduction of the $2 bill, and the introduction of the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. Circulars also document everyday complications such as the 1966 New York City transit strike and even occasionally bad weather, including blizzards and hurricanes.
Just as intriguing, however, is what isn’t included in these letters. There’s almost no evidence of the Great Depression and the Fed’s response to it. (There’s a bit more documentation in the analogous Mimeograph Letters of the Board.) Likewise, because circulars focus on day-to-day banking operations rather than a broad view of the economy, few circulars deal with fluctuations in the economy, monetary policy, inflation, and other topics commonly associated with the Fed.
This FRASER collection of more than 12,000 items covers the years 1914-1996, at which point circulars began to be published online on the New York Fed’s website. Circulars from 1996 to the present can be found at https://www.newyorkfed.org/banking/circulars/index.html.