Zelizer, Viviana A. 1978. "Human Values and the Market: The Case of Life Insurance and Death in 19th-Century America." American Journal of Sociology 84:591-610.


There is much discussion that there is something dehumanizing and unethical about placing a value on humans (either the life or the organs, blood, etc.). The issue is establishing monetary values for sacred things.

The creation of the life insurance business created many normative issues in the 19th century. The author argues that resistance to life insurance in the early part of the 19th century was largely the result of a value system that condemned the materialistic assessment of death, and of the power of magical beliefs and superstitions that view withapprehension any commercial pacts depend on death for their fulfillment." p. 287

The insurance industry started in the 18th century but floundered until it's rapid acceptance and rise after 1840. There are various explanations for it's rise (industrialization, urbanization and reliance on wages, aggressive marketing techniques, etc. However, there are strong non-economic factors in it's acceptance as well. The cultural and theological incompatability hindered it's development in the first part of the century. But liberals came to increasingly support it as an aid to widows and orphans.

Also, the "betting" aspects took a while to gain acceptability as well. As rational speculation become more prominent in American economy, so did life insurance gain favor. The new urbanized middle class had fewer family and community ties, and relied more upon the father's wages for survival.

Profane Money

There is a long history of resistance to the valuing of human life. Early life insurance was seen as the merchandizing of life. There was a magical fear that thinking or planning for death would hasten it.

Initial life insurance advertising emphasized the symbolic reasons for owning life insurance than it's investment properties. Life insurance seemed to become a secular ritual, needed for the "good death". It became important for the father to maintain responsibility to his children after death.

Early wills were more spiritual, discussing the funeral and contributions to the poor to ensure salvation. Later they became more about distribution of wealth. Personal immortality was replaced by notions of social immortality.