A brief history of life insurance

In the 21st century, many people have life insurance policies in place to protect their loved ones if they were to die unexpectedly. But where did it all begin?

The Roman question

The earliest example of what we might understand as life insurance can be traced back to a Roman military leader named Caius Marius, who formed a ‘burial club’ amongst his fellow soldiers to help fund the cost of a dignified funeral if they died in battle1.

Bet your life

The very first English life insurance policy was taken out in June 1583; however, this type of insurance was largely restricted to the elite. Interestingly, up until the 1770s, life insurance policies were also used for something else entirely: gambling!

In the 1700s you could take out insurance on somebody else’s life – not just your own. Gamblers took to purchasing policies on the lives of contemporary celebrities, on the off chance they might die unexpectedly and provide the policyholder with a nice payout. In one gentleman’s club in the 1770s, gambling on the life of another person accounted for 25% of all ‘bets’ placed. The practice only stopped in 1774 with the passage of the Gambling Act, which “requir[ed] claimants to have a legitimate financial interest in the life of the insured.”2

Life insurance as we know it

Contemporary marketing materials show us that life insurance came to resemble the financial product we are familiar with today in the early 1800s. One Norwich Union prospectus advertised it as “affording a means of providing for the widow and the orphan, the aged and infirm.”3

It was in the 1900s that the marketing and advertising of life insurance really took off. As you may expect, 20th century advertising very much focused on the man as the breadwinner, with one Norwich Union advertisement from 1923 sternly asking working men: “What provision will you make for your wife?”

And now?

The life insurance market is now more diverse and inclusive than ever before. As families and gender roles have evolved, life insurance has become understood as a product that is suitable for men and women of all ages and from all walks of life. To discuss your own life insurance needs, please get in touch.

1Family Money, 2017

2Connecticut Insurance Law Journal, 2008

3Aviva, 2015

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