A local bank turns 200 this year

(Courtesy image)

LYNN  — Eastern Bank celebrates its bicentennial anniversary this year.

It was founded in Salem in 1818 as Salem Savings bank, at a time when women weren’t allowed to open an account or enter a branch.

“It wasn’t a federal rule, it was custom,” said Eastern CEO Robert F. Rivers. “It just wasn’t something women did back then.”

The bank’s first deposit, for $119.40, was made by Nathan Robinson on behalf of the bank’s first customer, Rebecca Sutton. He was her late husband’s attorney, Rivers said.

“We assumed because she was a recent widow, it was natural that her husband’s lawyer took care of everything and transact business on her behalf,” he said. “But it turns out, she was prohibited from doing business at her husband’s bank where only men were allowed to have accounts and make transactions.”

But when Salem Savings opened, the new bank allowed women to have accounts, but they still couldn’t enter the branch.

“It was still 100 years before women could vote,” Rivers said.

Today, Eastern calls itself the largest and oldest mutual bank in the country with $11 billion in assets and more than 120 locations in eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

They call Boston their corporate headquarters. In the 1970s, they merged with the Lynn Institution for Savings to become First East Bank of Lynn. By 1981, First East Bank and Salem Savings become Eastern.

“Most of our more than 500 employees are located just off the Lynnway,” he said. “That’s our real headquarters. The heart of our franchise is still the North Shore.”

Eastern has more than 1,900 employees.

Rivers, a Stoughton native, began his career in banking 36 years ago. He came up through the ranks, starting as a branch cleaner and later worked his way through Stonehill College as a teller.

While banks have dwindled since Eastern was formed, they still face competition from traditional and online banks, including giants such as Bank of America, and local lenders such as Century Bank, Middlesex Savings Bank, Rockland Trust Co., East Boston Savings Bank, Cambridge Savings Bank, and Brookline Bank. Capital One is also using massive advertising to reach into the Bay State with its virtual branches.

“The business had changed a lot since I’ve been here,” Rivers said. “Regulatorily, the pendulum has swung from one end to the other and back again. Technology and the internet are driving less of a need for multiple banks.”

He likened banking to retail.

“The digital realm is changing everything,” he said. “Toys “R” Us is going out of business because they don’t need physical locations anymore. At the same time, the number of branches are dwindling and those that remain are getting smaller.”

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