200 Years of Partnership

A history of innovation, transformation, and dedication to our clients, our employees, and the communities we operate in.

Through our long history, BBH has navigated every challenge of the global economy—boom and bust, recessions and depressions, inflation and deflation, war and peace. Our legacy is one of agility, resilience, creativity, and a singular focus on service.

The story of BBH also mirrors the financial history of the United States, where mercantile enterprises evolved into America’s first financial services firms and eventually into today’s diversified global financial institutions.

We are proud of our history and the perspective it offers—the generations of BBHers, and their families, who contribute to what we are today, the continuity of service to clients we have collaborated with for decades, and even centuries, and the innovations large and small that changed the face of financial services. As we reflect on more than 200 years of continuous operations, there are also aspects of our history that we are not proud of and reflect on with deep regret, among them Brown Brothers & Co.’s active participation in the global cotton trade of the early 19th century that relied on the abhorrent practice of slavery and in U.S. foreign policy of “Dollar Diplomacy” in the early 20th century.

We are a living, evolving organization, deeply introspective and ethical. We believe in learning from the past, living in the present, and preparing for the future. Indeed, the BBH story is still being written every day by nearly 6,000 BBHers across the globe. Discover the leaders, strategies, events, and innovations that have shaped our firm and our world over the last 200 years.

November 17, 1764

Our founder, Alexander Brown, is born in Ballymena, Ireland on November 17, 1764
A gifted entrepreneur who valued his reputation with clients above all, Alexander Brown would go on to become a respected linen merchant in Belfast.

1790

America’s First Stock Exchange Opens
The United States’ first permanent stock exchange opens in Philadelphia, the nation’s second-largest city and a leading port city in transatlantic trade.

1796

Adventure #1

His sights set on the United States, Alexander joins his brother, Stewart, as an investor in Falls & Brown, a Philadelphia merchant. Together, they enter into numerous global trading deals they appropriately call “adventures.”

1800

Alexander Brown & Co. Is Formed
Determined to make a fresh start in America after the bloody Irish Rebellion of 1798, Alexander Brown arrives in Baltimore with his wife, Grace, and their eldest son, William. He establishes a thriving linen import business under the name Alexander Brown & Co.

1805-1811

A Private Partnership Is Born

In the tradition of 19th-century family trading enterprises, Alexander admits each of his four sons into the business as partners, modifying the name of the various interlocking partnerships as he brings them in. The sons joined in this order: William in 1805, George in 1808, John in 1810, and James in 1811. The firm has remained a private partnership ever since.

1806

A Philadelphia Branch Opens
The firm becomes central to the linen trade in and around Baltimore, yet this is hardly the limit of their ambition. Seeking to expand their mercantile enterprise in linen and dry goods, Alexander opens a branch in Philadelphia with 21-year old William at the helm, but this venture folds within a year due to the U.S. embargo against Britain.

1809

The Age of Sail
With the construction of their first sailing ship, the Atalanta, the Browns demonstrate their interest in the fast and efficient transport of news and commodities.

1810

A Liverpool Branch Opens
After plans to open a Brazil office fall through, the Browns open a branch in Liverpool under the name William Brown & Co. There, William coordinates linen exports to the United States and receives imports of cotton, tobacco, and other valuable American cash crops in return, all carried on the Browns’ growing fleet of sailing ships.

1812

War of 1812
Though the war disrupts transatlantic trade and triggers a recession in the United States, the Browns suffer little compared with other merchants, tripling their total capital by the end of the war in 1815.

1818

A New Philadelphia Office Opens, and “Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.” is Founded
John Brown opens John A. Brown & Co. in Philadelphia, another branch of the family firm. A century later, the partners of Brown Brothers & Co. would take 1818 for the founding date of the firm.

1819

The Panic of 1819
The United States suffers its first major peacetime financial crisis. By unleashing populist rage against government and financial elites, the Panic eventually leads to the demise of the Second Bank of the United States, setting the stage for an even greater crisis in 1837.

Early 1800's

Financing Anglo-American Trade
Even as the Browns ramp up their merchandising activities, they begin to master the complex financial instruments that will prove indispensable to the growth of Anglo-American trade—none more powerful than the “bill of exchange.”

Early 1800's

The Cotton Trade
Cotton begins to displace linen, flour, coffee and tobacco and becomes the largest commodity traded and financed by the Brown’s. In the early 19th century, cotton dominated the global economy, joining tens of millions of people in a sprawling network of economic relationships. Brown Brothers, like many other firms in the antebellum era, are part of a complex system that helps perpetuate the Southern plantation economy and its use of slave labor, a source of profound regret today.

October 1825

New York Office Opens
James Brown opens an office in New York, which had eclipsed Philadelphia as the leading port of transatlantic commerce. He trades under the name Brown Brothers & Co., by which the American firm would come to be known.

November 1825

Erie Canal Opens
By connecting markets in the American interior to New York and the transatlantic economy, the Erie Canal would cement New York’s role as the premier financial center in the United States.

1827

The Browns Raise Capital for the B&O Railroad
Alexander Brown and his son, George, lead the way in financing construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, one of the nation’s first passenger railroads. By connecting Baltimore to the American interior, the B&O aims to recover economic ground lost to New York and Philadelphia.

1834

Alexander Brown Dies, and the Browns Shift to Merchant Banking
With the death of their father, William, George, John, and James (the “Brown brothers”) begin to phase out their mercantile activities in favor of merchant banking services such as letters of credit and foreign exchange.

1837

Panic of 1837
Another catastrophic financial crisis shutters merchant banks on both sides of the Atlantic and plunges the United States into a long and painful economic depression.

1837

The Browns Survive the Panic of 1837
For the Browns, the Panic of 1837 is a crisis not of asset quality but of liquidity, one with the potential to sink their reputation and even the firm itself. With William Brown in ill health, Joseph Shipley, a junior, nonfamily partner in the Liverpool office, negotiates loan guarantees from the Bank of England, staving off bankruptcy. The Browns promptly repay their loans and return to profitability the following year.


In recognition of Shipley’s role in saving the firm, the Browns rename the Liverpool office Brown Shipley & Co., a firm that still exists today.

1839

A Strategic Realignment
Two of the Brown brothers, George and John, withdraw from the firm, leaving James (New York) and William (Liverpool) in control. This was more than a change in leadership. It was a strategic realignment, with the Browns now focused on trade finance in the two centers of the 19th century commercial world.

1840's

The Age of Steam
Recognizing steam as the future of transoceanic commerce, William, James, and nonfamily Brown Brothers and Brown Shipley partners invest in rival shipping lines—the Cunard Line and the Collins line, both vying for transatlantic supremacy.

1844

Boston Office Opens
Brown Brothers opens an agency office in Boston, another major port city whose imports of wool and leather from India, Australia, and China feed New England’s fast-growing manufacturing industry.

1857

The Panic of 1857
Still another financial crisis in the United States has worldwide repercussions. The Browns, through conservative credit policies implemented after the Panic of 1837, remain largely unaffected.

1857

Brown Brothers Begins Managing Investments for Private Clients
A mill owner from Bolton, England asks Brown Brothers to invest his wealth in U.S. securities, the origin of what would become Brown Brothers Harriman’s Private Banking business.

1860's and 1870's

Culture of Service
Long before Andrew Carnegie pens his famous essay “The Gospel of Wealth” (1889), imploring wealthy entrepreneurs to distribute their fortunes for the benefit of others, the Browns establish a family tradition of active support for the welfare of their communities.

1861-1865

The American Civil War
The bonds of partnership bend but do not break, as Brown Brothers forges a compromise between American partners (many with staunch Unionist sentiments) and their British counterparts, who remain bound by the United Kingdom’s official policy of neutrality in the conflict.

1863

London Office Opens
Brown Shipley opens a London office, dealing mainly in foreign exchange. After the United States temporarily abandons the gold standard in 1862, foreign exchange becomes riskier, forcing out marginal competitors and opening the way to firms like the Browns with the experience to balance purchases and sales.

1866

The Telegraph Revolutionizes Merchant Banking
The completion of the first permanent transatlantic telegraphic cable in 1866 proves to be a boon to Brown Brothers’ foreign exchange business—as the Browns themselves recognized when they invested in the company responsible for laying the cable.

1876

The Boys’ Club of New York Is Founded
Founded by railroad industrialist E. H. Harriman, father of BBH Partners W. Averell and E. Roland Harriman, the Tompkins Square Boys’ Club (later renamed the Boys’ Club of New York) opens in a rented basement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. To this day, the organization empowers boys and young men by providing programs and community with the help of BBH, its Partners, and employees.

1877

John Crosby Brown Assumes Leadership of Brown Brothers
Taking over as “Senior Member” upon the death of his father, James Brown, John Crosby guides the firm in its evolution from a merchant bank focused on trade finance to an international bank fully engaged in corporate lending and investment banking.

1882

Brown Brothers Joins the NYSE
Brown Brothers purchases a seat on the New York Stock Exchange—part of the firm’s broader expansion into businesses, such as investment advisory, brokerage, and underwriting, which take advantage of the new financial opportunities available during America’s Gilded Age. For the next 120 years, Brown Brothers is known on the NYSE as “Broker 10.”

1880's-1890's

Brown Brothers Underwrites Railroad Bonds
Brown Brothers joins other Wall Street banks in the business of underwriting and distributing bonds for capital-intensive enterprises like commercial railroads, municipal railways, and utilities.

Late 1890's

“Brown's Posted Rates” Become the U.S. Dollar/British Pound Conversion Rate Standard
Updated every two to three hours and hung in the lobby of the New York office—Brown’s Posted Rates become the de facto industry standard Sterling exchange rate for the next 20 years.

1900

Montagu Collet Norman Becomes a Partner of Brown Shipley
An immensely capable banker, Norman also serves as a link between the U.S. and U.K. branches of the firm. He would go on to serve as director and later governor of the Bank of England.

1906

The San Francisco Earthquake
A powerful earthquake devastates San Francisco and deals a sharp blow to international financial markets. With characteristic prescience, the partners of Brown Brothers take extraordinary steps to prepare for a crisis they know will follow.

1907

The Panic of 1907

The Panic of 1907 brings chaos to the U.S. financial markets, with financier J. P. Morgan orchestrating an unprecedented series of interventions to contain the crisis and stabilize the U.S. banking system. Thanks to its earlier precautions, Brown Brothers emerges unscathed. A turning point in U.S. financial history, the Panic of 1907 precipitates major reforms, including the creation of the Federal Reserve and the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act.

1911

Brown Brothers in Latin America
The latest chapter in Brown Brothers’ long history in Latin America opens with a loan to the government of Nicaragua. The firm soon finds itself drawn into the US government’s policy of economic imperialism in the region, also known as “Dollar Diplomacy.” These ventures serve as a cautionary tale for Brown Brothers, never to be repeated.

1914-1918

Brown Brothers in the First World War
A third of Brown Brothers & Co. partners and staff, 69 men in all, serve in the military during the war; four give their lives.

 

The firm itself plays a prominent role in wartime financing for Allied governments as well as in efforts to stabilize foreign exchange markets. After the United States enters the war in 1917, Brown Brothers also becomes a leading participant in syndicates that place the enormous bond issues known as the “Liberty Loans.”

1914

Rescuing Stranded Clients
In the opening weeks of the First World War, Brown Brothers’ first priority is to assist clients who are stranded in Europe. At least 5,000 individuals and families had been traveling on the firm’s letters of credit when war was declared, and Brown Brothers wanted to help.

1919

W. A. Harriman & Co. Inc. is Founded
W. Averell and E. Roland Harriman, sons of railway industrialist E. H. Harriman, are still in their twenties when they begin building the banking and securities business that will establish them as serious players on Wall Street in less than a decade.

1919- Late 1920's

Rebuilding Europe
In the aftermath of the First World War, the victorious and defeated alike are exhausted and in desperate need of rebuilding. This is a situation tailor-made for financiers, like Brown Brothers and the Harriman firms, with expertise in foreign trade and investment.

1926

Robert Lovett Becomes a Partner of Brown Brothers & Co.
A longtime Partner of Brown Brothers Harriman, Lovett goes on to have successful career in government. As U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Harry S. Truman, he would help to make air power the center of U.S. military strategy in the early years of the Cold War.

1927

The Traveler’s Letter of Credit
When the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh makes the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris, he carries with him a Brown Brothers & Co. traveler’s letter of credit.

1928

Brown Brothers Makes Its First Foray into Asset Servicing
The Boston office forms a fund accounting department to service Century Share Trust, of which Brown Brothers is the sponsor. The processing, safekeeping, and servicing of securities (together known as custody) would remain an ancillary service until the passage of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Banking Act of 1933, when it becomes a standalone business.

1929

Chicago Office Opens
Brown Brothers opens an office in Chicago just six months before the stock market crash.

October 1929

The Great Crash
A stock market crash ushers in the Great Depression. Though neither Brown Brothers nor the Harriman firms had engaged in margin trading or other high-risk activities that could sink other firms, partners in both enterprises see that joining forces offers the best way to navigate a historic downturn.

1931

Joining Forces: the Birth of Brown Brothers Harriman
Brown Brothers and the Harriman firms—connected by friendship, marriage, and college ties—engineer a merger that creates one of the four largest private banks in the country, with the capital and culture it needs to survive the Great Depression and the Second World War.

1931

Prescott Bush Establishes Private Wealth Management at BBH
The new fee-based investment management and advisory business drives the firm’s recovery from the Great Depression.

1933

Banking Act of 1933
The Banking Act of 1933, also known as Glass-Steagall, mandates the separation of commercial banking and securities underwriting activities. BBH is one of only two US private banks that elect to remain a commercial bank (the other is J. P. Morgan).

1934

Origins of the Modern Mutual Fund
An old idea of pooling investors’ money and spreading risk across a range of investments gains popularity with a boom in investment trusts.

1939-1945

Brown Brothers Harriman in the Second World War
W. Averell Harriman, who serves as President Franklin Roosevelt’s special envoy to Britain and the Soviet Union, is just one of many BBH partners and staff to answer the call to public service and military duty in the Allied cause.

1940

The Last “Private Bankers”
J.P. Morgan & Co. incorporates, leaving BBH as the last major US commercial bank organized as a private partnership.

1944

Leading The Red Cross

E. Roland Harriman begins a long association with the American Red Cross when he assumes management of the organization’s North Atlantic region. He would go on to become chairman in 1950.

1944

The Bretton Woods Conference
Officially known as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, “Bretton Woods” leads to a new system of foreign exchange rates and international payments, with the US dollar becoming the world’s principal reserve currency.

1945-1970's

BBH Returns to the Global Stage
In addition to rekindling its trade finance business, BBH sees its brokerage and U.S. custody businesses expand dramatically, as U.S. stocks and bonds become a safe havens for investors around the world.

1954

BBH Partner L. Parks Shipley Travels to Japan
Believing that the Japanese ought to be welcomed back in to the community of nations, Shipley becomes one of the first American bankers to travel to Japan after the end of the Second World War. Within a decade, Japan is home to BBH’s largest international correspondent banking business.

1950's-1960's

BBH Begins Lending to Fortune 500 and Other Large U.S. Corporations
As U.S. economic growth takes off, the New York office of Brown Brothers Harriman develops a domestic commercial lending business focused on large U.S. corporations.

1963

The Global Custody Business is Born
BBH takes its first non-US securities into custody. As mutual funds add Japanese and other foreign securities to their portfolios, demand for global custody services explodes. BBH, with decades of domestic custody experience and a reputation for superior client service, is uniquely suited to seize the opportunities of this burgeoning market.

1968

Zurich Office Opens
BBH opens an office in Zurich, where inflows of foreign capital into Swiss banks in the prior decade had created enormous opportunities in brokerage and U.S. custody. Zurich is the firm’s first overseas office since its split from Brown Shipley in 1918.