The chart that best captures the ups and downs in the financial history of the United States doesn't track economic growth or unemployment. It instead tracks annual bank failures.

Almost every major financial event has caused banks to fail over the past century and a half -- i.e., since the Civil War, which is when the modern American banking system was born out of a need to finance the conflict.

A bar chart showing annual bank failures since 1865.

Data source: FDIC. Chart by author.

There were the frequent financial panics and depressions of the Gilded Age, spanning the late 1860s to the early 1900s. Then there was a severe agricultural depression through the 1920s, followed immediately by the Great Depression.

Later, thousands of banks were forced into insolvency in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the savings and loan crisis, as well as the less-developed country crisis (the latter consisted of loans to governments in Central and South America that weren't being paid back).

And most recently, there was the financial crisis of 2008-2009, in the wake of which more than 500 banks went under.

While bank failures are just one piece of a bigger economic puzzle, a chart of them reads like a table of contents in a book about the history of the U.S. financial system.