A History of the Pittsburgh Branch

             In the nineteenth century, decades before Social Security, workmen’s compensation, and pension plans, about the only way for a family to arrange for financial protection was to buy an insurance or annuity policy from an insurer like The Equitable Life Assurance Society, which was founded in New York in 1859.  The Equitable grew rapidly and placed agencies in many cities, but for twenty years it was represented in Pittsburgh only by traveling agents and lawyers or accountants who sold insurance part-time.  (Photo at right..."The Goddess of Protection"  This reproduced lithograph was made from an engraving copyrighted 1872 by Sidney Ashmore, editor of The Protector, an Equitable publication.  The representation of life insurance as the protector of the widow and orphan was adapted from the marble statue group designed by the renowned sculptor, John Quincy Adams Ward.  It was placed above the entrance to Equitable's home office building in New York City at 120 Broadway.  Picture courtesy of The Equitable Archives)

             The Society’s founder and President, Henry Baldwin Hyde, often traveled through Pittsburgh.  Watching the city develop into the steel capital of the world, he became determined to build a permanent agency there if he could only find somebody to run it who had the right mix of abilities and contacts, or what we today would call “networking skills.”  Hyde came upon George Woods, an educator, attorney, and businessman.  For twenty-one years Woods had been Chancellor of Western University of Pennsylvania, which later was renamed the University of Pittsburgh.    In 1879 he was forced to resign during a bitter dispute with a timid board of trustees over his plans to enlarge the university.  This incident only encouraged Hyde, who himself was forceful and expansion-minded, and he made Woods an offer.

             Woods rented two desks in the one Pittsburgh office building that had an elevator, appointed his fifteen-year-old son, Edward, as office manager, and travelled out into the city and Western Pennsylvania to sell insurance – or, as it was known in the nineteenth century, to “preach the gospel of protection.”

             As the new agency thrived, so did the intense, thoughtful young office manager.  Soon a high Equitable official wrote George Woods, “I have found your son in all respects fulfilling the opinion expressed of him.”   When George Woods retired in 1890 (the year the Equitable became the largest insurance company in the world), there was some discussion in New York as to whether his twenty-five year old son was too green to deal with Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the other steel and coal tycoons of Pittsburgh, but in the end Edward got the job.  It was a wise decision.  As one historian of insurance has written, Edward A. Woods “probably originated or stimulated the development of more ideas for selling life insurance and training agents than any other man in the history of the business.”

             Within only ten years, the Equitable’s Western Pennsylvania Agency, universally known as the Edward A. Woods General Agency, was the largest of the Equitable’s agencies and, probably, knew no equal among agencies of other insurers.   At the turn of the century, it annually was responsible for 5 percent of the Equitable’s sales and took in $1,500,000 in premiums (the equivalent of about $24,000,000 in 1993 dollars).   Wood’s vast territory stretched through sixty-one counties and 55,000 square miles in three states:  alThe Woods Brothersl of Pennsylvania east to Lancaster; west through the West Virginia panhandle almost to Columbus, Ohio; and north to Lake Erie.  Covering this enormous, variegated territory, with its mix of factories and farms, was a battalion of agents – 300 by 1910 and as many at 500 in the 1920’s.  Back at agency headquarters in Pittsburgh, the Woods Agency occupied an entire floor in the Frick Building, built by the powerful coke and steel magnate, Henry Clay Frick, who also was a director of the Equitable. (The photo at left is of the Woods Brothers.  Left to right:  Charles A., Vice-President and Treasurer (Edward A. Woods Co.), Edward A, General Agent and Lawrence C., Chief Assistant.)

             In order to cover this huge territory capably and professionally, Woods took some bold, pioneering steps.  The Woods agency was the first to have its own advertising department, which besides placing advertisements in local newspapers, produced dozens of pocket-sized pamphlets to assist agents and policyholders.  He established a thorough training program, established performance inducements (among them, the first Century Club for high-producing agents), and hired agents to target specific communities and ethnic groups.  In 1893 he hired one of the first female insurance agents, Bertha Straus, who quickly became one of the Equitable’s most successful agents.  Inspired by one of his favorite rules of thumb, “He gives twice who gives quickly,” he assigned an agent exclusively to expedite death claims in order to ease the load on families in mourning.

             In the insurance industry at large, Woods was an effective reformer and educator.  He attacked sloppy, unethical behavior by agents and, to end it, promoted professional training.  Woods helped finance the publication of the first university insurance textbook, written by Professor Solomon Stephen Huebner of the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania.   In 1927, soon before his death, he was elected founding President of the American College of Life Underwriters, which, with Huebner as dean, awarded the industry’s first professional designation, Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU).  The first class of CLU’s consisted almost entirely of agents from the Woods Agency, including his nephew, Lawrence C. Woods, Jr., whose father had long been Edward Wood’s chief assistant.

             Woods and his agency had enormous influence in Pittsburgh.  His published lists of his large policyholders could have served as a “who’s who” of the city and for the middle and working classes, the agency provided thousands of low-cost mortgages for homeowners as well as large group insurance policies for labor unions and corporations.  At the peak of Pittsburgh’s industrial period, in the late 1920’s, U.S. Steel bought thirty-nine Equitable group contracts covering 58,000 workers and with a face value of $90,000,000.

             Wood’s success in Pittsburgh helped bring about the Equitable’s most visible connection with the city.  This was the first large urban renewal project in American history – the nine-building Gateway Center project that the Equitable built at a cost of approximately $150,000,000 between 1950 and 1969.

             What is now called the Golden Triangle was at mid-century, in the words of a journalist for the Post-Gazette, “an unmanageable assortment of railroad trestles, freight yards, warehouses, manufacturing and secondary businesses, third-class taverns and rooming houses, and ‘skid row’ streets” – all this blackened with industrial soot and occasionally knee-deep in mud from floods sweeping down the rivers.

             Anti-pollution laws and dams addressed the soot and floods.  The physical reconstruction of downtown Pittsburgh was more complicated.  To supervise it, businessmen and politicians in the city’s establishment formed a steering group called the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.  On the Conference’s Executive Committee served Lawrence C. Woods, Jr., now the head of the Equitable Agency that had been founded by his grandfather and headed for thirty-seven years by his uncle.  (Woods also was a Director of the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association.)

             The Conference sent a delegation to New York to seek a developer.  After being turned down by one insurance company, they visited Equitable President Thomas I. Parkinson.  A Pennsylvanian and fully aware of the long, close relationship between the Equitable and Pittsburgh, Parkinson expressed keen interest in the proposal.  People in Pittsburgh later would speak admiringly of several “leaps of faith” by Parkinson and the Equitable that kept the project on track through four years of trying negotiations and legal attacks on the redevelopment plan.   When the groundbreaking finally came in 1950, the chief guest of honor at the celebration banquet was Parkinson, whose photograph was reproduced on the cover of the printed program over the words, “A Great Project Needs a Great Builder”.

             When the first Gateway Building was ready for occupancy in 1953, the Equitable agency departed the Frick Building to join many of Pittsburgh’s leading companies in the migration into what only three years earlier had been the site of an abandoned railroad yard.

             As the great Gateway Center project neared completion in 1969, the Equitable and Pittsburgh were undergoing radical transformations.  The Society was changing from a pure insurance company into a broad-based financial institution, whose agents could continue to “preach the gospel of protection” but in new ways for a new America.  Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s historic industrial foundation was trembling.   When the foundation broke up, it was replaced by a new and unfamiliar one – the service economy.  The city’s largest employer no longer was a steel company but the University of Pittsburgh.  There is symbolic justice that Pitt also was the Equitable’s largest client, thanks to the group policies placed with it by the successors to the old Woods Agency, whose founder, George Woods, had once presided over that very same university.


This piece was originally written by Equitable Historian John Rousmaniere (1994).  

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