Bank names hide colorful history

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It’s easy to bash banks these days, what with the mortgage mess … and the credit card mess … and the bailout mess, and the outrageous bonuses mess and the no-loans-for-you mess.

If banks were a contestant on “American Idol,” they’d be William Hung. Or the knee-socks guy. Or Sanjaya.

But how well do you really know your bank?

Sure, you might have a favorite teller or greeter or pneumatic drive-thru tube. But do you know the sacrifices that were made by the earnest bankers of yore who put your branch in that peculiar strip mall between the spray-tan/dog groomer and the questionable sushi restaurant?

Did you know, for example, that Bank of America started out as the Bank of Italy?

“I’ve long had a fascination with the name Fifth Third, which sounds like the extra-credit question on a fifth-grade math quiz.”

That’s right, BofA was originally BofI, founded as the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904 by Amadeo Giannini to serve immigrants who were unwelcome at other banks (unless they were packing a mean cioppino).

His timing proved providential: When the 1906 earthquake smote the Bay Area, Giannini was able to gather his deposits, flee the ensuing inferno and cobble together a makeshift lending business while his competitors watched their assets turn to ashes.

Giannini went on to establish the first BofA — in Italy! Actually, it was called the Bank of America and Italy, and only lasted a few years. Giannini eventually acquired and merged with other banks to form Bank of America in 1930.

Immigrants and counts

Banking giant Wachovia also has its roots in an immigrant tale, but theirs involves a European count. I know what you’re thinking — and who can blame you for free-associating “banking giants” with visions of blood-thirsty vampires? But no, not that Count.

In 1753, Moravian settlers bought 100,000 acres of North Carolina Piedmont and called it Wachau (wah-KOH, roughly translated: stream in the meadow) in honor of their benefactor, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, presumably a non-biter.

We know that Moravian settlement today as Winston-Salem. Where the heck is Moravia? It’s now part of the Czech Republic, a wholly owned subsidiary of Wachovia. Just kidding. I think.

Out west, Zions Bank was founded by a Vermont visionary pioneer named Brigham Young, a Moses-like figure who led a group of Mormons across the desert to settle in what is now Salt Lake City. In 1873, Zions Bank became Utah’s first chartered savings and trust company.

Excuse me, but I have to take this call.

(Kimmel?! I’m working here, bud. Yes, I know Brigham Young had 55 wives. Yes, with that many wives, what else was he going to found, a deli counter? No, look, I’m not gonna hit ’em with that. Yeah, you’re free to use it. Yeah, you too. Get a haircut.)

OK. So. Banks have rich and sometimes colorful histories. Case in point, Fifth Third Bank.

Zen banking

I’ve long had a fascination with the name Fifth Third, which sounds like the extra-credit question on a fifth-grade math quiz. Sanjaya has Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert over for pie, Sanjaya cuts the pie in thirds — end of pie, right? You want a fourth or fifth third, here are the keys to the Ford Focus, the pie store is that direction.

Upon further reflection (driving to and from the pie store, actually), I came to view the Fifth Third name as a Zen koan, a metaphysical puzzler along the lines of, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I mean, why a fifth third? And a third of what? My trust? My portfolio? My patience?

Here’s the 411. What began as the Bank of the Ohio Valley in 1858 was sold to the Third National Bank in 1871, which then merged with the Fifth National Bank in 1908. According to company lore, the name Fifth Third was chosen over Third Fifth out of deference to the growing temperance movement at the time. No one wants to see a banker on their third fifth, believe me.

Fifth Third has since embraced its greater-than-zero status with special employee recognition and customer promotions on May 3 and its Zen-like URL:

I don’t know about you, but learning a little bit more about the history of banks has helped me cut them a little slack. Rather than seeing them as some ominous disembodied force like the gamine Big Giant Head on the reconstituted TV series “V,” I now view them more like a bratty little brother.

One who’s a branch manager at Sanjaya Trust & Savings.

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