Mercantile (or Commercial) agencies, is the name given in United States to organizations designed to collect, record and distribute to regular clients information relative to the standing of commercial firms. That is, they act as a sort of clearing house of information about customers' reliability.
In Great Britain and some European countries trade protective societies, composed of merchants and tradesmen, have been formed for the promotion of trade, and members exchange information regarding the standing of business houses. These societies had their origin in the associations formed in the middle of the 18th century for the purpose of disseminating information regarding bankruptcies, assignments and bills of sale.
The mercantile agency in the United States is a much more comprehensive organization. It came into existence after the financial crisis of 1837. Trade in the United States had become scattered over a wide territory. Communication was slow, and the town merchant was without adequate information as to the standing of many businessmen seeking credit. Undoubtedly the severity of the collapse of 1837 was due in part to the insufficiency of this information. New York City merchants, who had suffered so severely, determined to organize a headquarters where reports regarding the standing of customers could be exchanged. Lewis Tappan (1788–1873), founder of the Journal of Commerce (1828) and a prominent anti-slavery leader, undertook the work, and established in New York, in 1841, the Mercantile Agency, later Dun & Bradstreet Corporation, the first organization of its kind. The system has been developed and extended since.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Mercantile Agencies". Encyclopædia Britannica. 18 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 148.