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Business Account Books


The University of Guelph Archives holds many account books, diaries and journals relating to rural life.


List of Business Account Books


Business account books are a valuable, often ignored, resource for the study of rural history. Historians have used account books, in conjunction with other routinely generated sources, to reveal their subjects’ worlds through the markets they operated in, the people they dealt with, and the goods they produced and consumed. Systematic studies based on account books range from trade in Atlantic fishing ports to rural commerce in Quebec and consumption patterns in Upper Canada (see some secondary source examples below).

We outline here how some historians have used account books, and we seek to encourage and assist others in using them. As our list of business account books demonstrates, there are records for many businesses and trades in most regions.

The time and resources that went into creating these documents demonstrate the importance of the daily relationships they record. With some understanding of nineteenth century bookkeeping practices, we can uncover many facets of rural life through these books.

Deciding what sort of businesses to research depends largely on what questions we wish to ask about rural history. Merchant accounts offer the clearest access to everyday consumption patterns, the credit system, spatial-commercial relationships, prosopography, genealogy, and so on. However, tradespeople and manufacturers left records that reveal a different and complementary part of rural worlds. Rural manufacturers’ accounts help reveal the commodity chains between rural consumers and producers. These and artisan account books are also useful for understanding the complicated worlds of people exchanging labour.

Daybooks and Ledgers

Daybooks are a sequential record of transactions, which follow an establishment’s activities for the period covered (see Figure 1). A merchant’s daybooks recorded debits (dr), i.e. sales and charges to someone’s account, and credits (cr), i.e. payments on account, however made. A manufacturer’s daybooks had a similar function, but the creditors were usually employees and suppliers and the debtors were those buying manufactured goods. Both types of operations occasionally used daybooks as “business diaries,” recording anything from events on the street in front of a store to accidents in a mill.

Ledgers list accounts by person, firm, or product (see Figure 2). Typically, they were based primarily on daybooks. They are more complete than daybooks, because they often include transactions (especially credits) not entered in the daybook, but in summarizing detail, they often omit information about specific transactions. In principle, either resource could be recreated with data from the other, but there are likely to be some gaps or inconsistencies. Most rural or small town businesses would only have needed one general ledger, but the accounts of some larger firms were divided into nominal ledgers for revenue and expense transactions, real ledgers for assets, and private ledgers for confidential accounts.

Account books describe the relationship between debits and credits, and each account is titled by one of those terms. “Dr.” is short form for debit and means that the said amount is charged “to” the account. “Cr.” is short form for credit and means that the account is credited “by” the said amount. In most account books useful for rural history a merchant debits a customer for purchases made from the store or business. That same customer could be credited by produce sold to the merchant, labour performed for the business, cash, and other forms of transaction.

Accounts were kept in either single entry or double entry systems. Single entry bookkeeping, the basic format for many small businesses even into the twentieth century, involved the single posting of transactions from the daybook to the ledger. The process recorded debits and credits but the accounts would not show profits until all accounts were balanced, usually once a year, and net equity was compared to the previous figure. Double entry posted each transaction twice; for example, a sale would appear in the ledger as a credit to the business and as a debit to the customer (see Figure 3).

Other types of account books may accompany daybooks and ledgers, particularly in double entry bookkeeping. Journals are much like daybooks, in that they record daily transactions, but they summarize the details of daybook accounts and instruct the bookkeeper where each transaction should go in the ledger (see Figure 4). Similarly, cash books assist the transition of accounts to a double entry ledger by recording all cash payments and cash receipts. Many other types of business documents were created along with these central accounts. Business transactions were sometimes copied to the daybook from a “wastebook” or a manufacturer’s “mill book,” though these less formal documents rarely survive. It is also possible to find wage and payroll books, mill books, inventory lists, delivery books, and so on, all of which may offer material of use to rural history. A more complete study of these records appears in works such as Business Documents and Historical Accounting Records.

Issues and Problems

Perhaps the most significant criterion for evaluating a business account book is the representativeness of the data. How typical was the business? Did it resemble other businesses of the same trade? Were the accounts consistent and can the aggregate data be verified by corresponding census or municipal figures? It is important to look for clues as to how much of the whole business is covered by the accounts. For example, account books may have omitted cash transactions. But even if business accounts covered nothing but credit transactions we can learn a great deal about rural people by examining these sources. Another consideration is the length of run of data; even quite short periods, however, can reveal much.

To study some aspect of rural consumption it is important to identify accounts that have recorded merchandise in detail. Some account books were more specific than others; records which generalized items with terms like “clothing” “groceries,” or “sundries” are less useful. Even where sundries were not itemized, however, account books offer many ways to examine rural lives.

Understanding the Language

There are various resources to help understand the abbreviations and colloquialisms that were used in account books as well as the currencies.

Abbreviations and acronyms were important in record keeping. Ledgers and day books were expensive stationery, and, unfortunately for researchers, the space was sometimes conserved by using initials, code, slang or other abbreviated terms. The Dominion Business College offered a list of short forms (4) used in bookkeeping that may still help make sense of confusing abbreviations.

Colloquial Language:
Understanding colloquial language in account books is a challenge, but should not be an insuperable barrier. Often merchants used terms for their merchandise that are no longer common, and language varied so much with time and place that a comprehensive glossary is impracticable. Occasionally we might find a list of definitions in a published account book, or a contemporary text dealing specifically with the trade or item under question can help in learning the language.

Before Confederation, Canadian businesses dealt in at least three currencies – dollars, pounds, and livres. The standard work on Canadian currency before 1900 is A.B. McCullough, Money and Exchange in Canada to 1900 (Toronto, 1984). See also Douglas McCalla, Planting the Province (245-7). For French units of measure and currency, which were still in use in rural Quebec far into the 19th century, see Alan Greer’s Peasant, Lord, and Merchant (250).

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A (highly) Selective Bibliography of Research Using Business Account Books

Canadian material

Bittermann, Rusty. “Farm Households and Wage Labour in the Northeastern Maritimes in the Early 19th Century.” Labour/Le Travail 31 (Spring 1993): pp. 13-45.
The several merchants’ accounts used periodically in this article were analysed for their portrayal of rural labour traded for credit.

Craig, Beatrice, Rygiel, Judith, and Turcotte, Elizabeth. “The Homespun Paradox: Market-Orientated Production of Cloth in Eastern Canada in the Nineteenth Century.” Agricultural History 76(1) (2002): pp. 28-57.
The authors used three merchants’ accounts to examine textile consumption and the amounts of labour for cloth production credited by the merchants.

Craig, Beatrice. “Solder les comptes: les sources de credit dans le magazines generaux ruraux de l’est Canadian au milieu du XIXe siecle.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 13 (2002): pp. 23-47.
Three rural merchants’ accounts were used to understand the availability and function of specie and credit in the mid-nineteenth century countryside.

Greer, Alan. Peasant, Lord, and Merchant: Rural Society in Three Quebec Parishes, 1740-1840. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
The account books of merchant Samuel Jacobs were used in Chapter 6 to reconstruct the commercial relationships in rural Quebec in the late eighteenth century. This chapter is an important example of what these sources reveal about Canadian rural history in this period.

Loewen, Royden. Family, Church, and Market: A Mennonite Community in the Old and the New Worlds, 1850-1930. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
Loewen used the account books of two general merchants in Steinbach, Manitoba, to portray the businesses as agents of change in a rural Mennonite world (pp. 154, 208-9).

Mancke, Elizabeth. “At the Counter of the General Store: Women and the Economy in Eighteenth-Century Horton, Nova Scotia” in Intimate Relations: Family and Community in Planter Nova Scotia, 1759-1800. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1995.
This article examined two eighteenth century ledgers and one daybook to demonstrate the gendered division of goods produced and consumed.

McCalla, Douglas. “Consumption Stories: Customer Purchases of Alcohol at an Upper Canadian Country Store in 1808-1809 and 1828-1829.” Cheminements – Conférences Québec, CIEQ, 1999, 11 pp.
Two account books from Yonge Mills, Upper Canada, are examined for evidence on alcohol consumption.

McCalla, Douglas. Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
Chapter 5 of this book examined the account books of thirteen stores and a dozen farms. It used these sources to determine how farmers paid for goods bought on credit and what that revealed about the traditional story of Upper Canadian wheat. However, it also examined rural accounts in other chapters and it offers a wider context for anyone who wishes to use account books for a study of Ontario’s rural history.

McCalla, Douglas. “Textile Purchases by Some Ordinary Upper Canadians, 1806-1861.” Material History Review 53 (Spring-Summer 2001): pp. 4-27.
The account books of seven stores are the central sources for this study of textile consumption in rural Upper Canada.

Michel, Louis. “Le livre de compte (1784-1792) de Gaspard Mausse, marchand à Varennes.” Histoire sociale – Social History 13(26) (1980): pp. 369-98.
Michel studied this rural merchant’s clientele base and commercial trends and concentrated on wheat-based transactions.

Ommer, Rosemary E. “The Truck System in Gaspé, 1822-77.” Acadiensis 19(1) (1989): pp. 91-114.
Based on the ledgers of “the largest fishing firm in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” this article examined how the company operated credit and debt and how that affected the fishermen in the trade.

Parr, Joy. The Gender of Breadwinners: Women, Men, and Change in Two Industrial Towns, 1880-1950. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.
This study’s resources were mostly in small towns, but depending on one’s focus the models used by Parr may be helpful for connecting to rural people through account books. She made excellent use of the ledgers and minute books from the Penmans factory in Paris, Ontario. Much of the material is from after the First World War.

Steeves, Helen. The Story of Moncton’s First Store and Storekeeper: Life Around “The Bend” A Century Ago. St. John: A. McMillan, Limited, 1924.
This early text studied late eighteenth and early nineteenth century ledgers belonging to a merchant in Moncton, New Brunswick. The book described his trade with rural customers along the Peticodiac River.

Sweeny, Robert C. H., with Bradley, David and Hong, Robert. “Movement, Options and Costs: Indexes as Historical Evidence, a Newfoundland Example.” Acadiensis 22(1) (Autumn 1992): pp. 111-121.
This article used the indexes to the general ledgers of two merchants in Bonavista, Newfoundland, in the late nineteenth century to analyse the types of fishing households and the nature and extent of their ties to the merchants.

Sweeny, Robert C. H. “Accounting For Change: Understanding Merchant Credit Strategies in Outport Newfoundland.” in Candow, James E. ed. How Deep is the Ocean?: Historical Essays on Canada’s Atlantic Fishery. Sydney: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1997.
This article used the same account books as Sweeny, Bradley, and Hong’s publication in Acadiensis 22, see citation above, but it focused specifically on accounts in the general ledgers. It reexamined the truck system and fishermen’s reliance on credit.

International material

Adams, William Hampton, and Smith, Steven D. “Historical Perspectives on Black Tenant Farmer Material Culture: The Henry C. Long General Store Ledger at Waverly Plantation, Mississippi.” in Singleton, Theresa ed. The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life. Toronto: Academic Press, Inc., pp. 309-44.
This article examined two ledgers from the 1870s and 1880s. The analysis focused on consumption patterns and material culture.

Brewer, Priscilla J. From Fireplace to Cookstove: Technology and the Domestic Ideal in America. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
One Greenfield, Massachusetts, merchant’s account books were used extensively to examine the purchases of a few cookstove consumers in particular and stove consumption in general (pp. 79, 83-5, 125-7).

Clemens, Paul G. E. The Atlantic Economy and Colonial Maryland’s Eastern Shore: From Tobacco to Grain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Plantation account books were used to make “Table 15. Clothing costs for a male slave field hand, 1722 and 1774” (p. 152). Another merchant ledger was cited as support for “the scale of business of an Eastern Shore merchant” (n. 45, p. 156).

Darnton, Robert. The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopedie, 1775-1800. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.
Darnton used account books to trace the shipments of paper from millers and merchants to the book manufacturers (pp. 190-1) and the subscribers to the Encyclopedie (Appendix B).

Enman, John A. “Coal Company Store Prices Questioned: A Case Study of the Union Supply Company, 1905-1906.” Pennsylvania History 41(1) (1974): pp. 53-62.

Fix, Edward B. “A Long Island Carpenter at Work: A Quantitative Inquiry into the Account Book of Jedidiah Williamson.” Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association 32(4) (December 1979): pp. 61-63; and 33(1) (March 1980): pp. 4-8.

Hubscher, Ronald-Henri. “Le Livre de compte de la famille Flahaut,” Revue d’histoire economique et sociale, 47 (1969).
This article examined the account book of the mayor of a village in Pas-de-Calais. He was also a country notable and land owner, and his account books demonstrated how he needed to manipulate his estate workers by carefully controlling his money.

Innis, Ben. “Bottoms Up!: The Smith and Leighton Yellowstone Store Ledger of 1876.” North Dakota History 51(3) (1984): pp. 24-38.
A history of a frontier sutler and his customers based on a store ledger, this article focused on alcohol consumption but was hindered by the vagueness of items labeled “sundries.”

Lemay, Edna. “Thomas Hérier, A Country Surgeon Outside Angouleme at the End of the XVIIIth Century: A Contribution to Social History.” Journal of Social History 10(4) (1977): pp. 524-537.
This article used a surgeon’s account books to examine his trade and his business relationships with his rural clientele.

Rothenberg, Winnifred B. “The Market and Massachusetts Farmers, 1750-1855.” Journal of Economic History, 41(2) (June 1981): pp. 283-314.
This seminal work demonstrated early the possibilities of systematic account book analysis, and although it used farmers’ records it employed useful models for understanding rural participation in the commercial economy.

Wallace, Anthony F. C., Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
Wallace used a cotton mill’s daybooks to trace everyday business, technological improvements, and households – the basic units of production (pp. 158-183).

Wettstaed, James. “A Look at Early Nineteenth Century Life in an Ozarks Mining Town: The View from the Company Store.” Plains Anthropologist 45(171) (2000): pp. 85-112.
Using company store accounts to examine “the diversity and quantity of goods available in a remote frontier community,” this article studied a sample of 8 consumers in the 1840s.

Material Addressing the Use of Business Account Books

Recent material

Armstrong, John. and Jones, Stephanie. Business Documents: Their Origins, Sources and Uses in Historical Research. New York: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1987.
This useful book is slightly general when describing account books but puts them in a much wider context of business documents.

Boyns, Rosemary E., Boyns, Trevor, and Edwards, John Richard. Historical Accounting Records: A Guide for Archivists and Researchers. London: Society of Archivists, 2000.
This is the most recent material on using account books for historical research, and although it offers helpful information about the form of accounts it is directed largely to archivists and accounting historians.

Lamoreaux, Naomi R. “Rethinking the Transition to Capitalism in the Early American Northeast.” Journal of American History 90(2) (2003): pp. 437-461.
Pages under the subtitle “Evidence From Account Books” offer an interesting commentary on using merchant account books for rural history.

Lee, G. A. “The Concept of Profit in British Accounting, 1760-1900.” Business History Review 49(1) (1975): pp. 6-36.
A study of the transformation of accounting techniques that enabled profit determination. It includes a useful description of double and single entry bookkeeping practices (pp. 7-10).

McCalla, Douglas. “Accounting Records and Everyday Economic Life in Upper Canada, 1790-1850.” Archivaria 21 (Winter 1985-86): pp. 149-157.
This article remains the most direct introduction to Canadian business account books and their contribution to historical research.

Contemporary material

Beatty, S. G., and Clare, S. Book-Keeping by Single and Double Entry: Designed for Use in the Public High Schools. 6th edition, Toronto: W. J. Gage and Co., 1881, 194 pp.

Dominion Business College, Book-Keeping by Double and Single Entry. Kingston, Dominion Business College, 188(?), 224 pp; link to full text.

Mescall, John. BookKeeping by Double Entry. Toronto: Copp, Clark & Co., 188(?), 86 pp.

Recently Added Links:

Library of Congress, Guide to Business History Resources. This website is a helpful summary of standard tools used by business historians. The examples are primarily American, but should also be useful to Canadian researchers.

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