Digitizing History: A Real Page-Turner

Eli Adams Ledger Index, 1815-1817. (Historical Society of Easton, 70.1.Jan 15)

This January, the Historical Society of Easton purchased an overhead scanner to digitize our bound archives. We thank each donor who contributed and in gratitude, we will be posting updates on our progress. To that end, several questions have come in about the kinds of books we are currently scanning, and it seemed to be of interest enough to address in more detail. 

The core of our collection is a series of ledgers and daybooks donated in 1970 by Clifford W. Gillette with additional volumes bequeathed by town residents over the past 50 years. While most of these are bookkeeping records that date from 1790 to 1870, some volumes do extend into the early 20th century. From our perspective, in a world more familiar with QuickBooks than cursive scripts, understanding these texts may seem a bit daunting. Their format and function, however, were standard in 18th and 19th century life when account books were ubiquitous in much of society.  Easton farmers, merchants and craftsmen all kept records in this manner and bookkeeping instruction was included in basic arithmetic texts.  Even those with minimal literacy would often have enough working knowledge of simple math to maintain their own records.

George Fisher’s The American Instructor: Or, Young Man’s Best Companion, 1770. Notice the specific headings for merchant’s accounts and bookkeeping.

Many of the account books in our care can be classified as single entry bookkeeping and in this format two different volumes were used: the daybook and the ledger. In a daybook, transactions are listed by their date with the customer’s name and the specific goods or services received. If a payment was made, it was listed here as well. Depending on the number of entries, these books could fill up quickly and they often show the excess wear and tear of daily use. Modestly bound in paper and pressboard, every inch of free space was filled with notes and numbers. While daybooks were used to record at most a year or two of transactions, ledgers were significantly larger and could be used over the course of a decade or more.

An example of one of the many Eli Adams Ledgers on the left and on the right one of the daybooks.

At the end of the day, purchase and payment information was transferred into a ledger under customer account pages. The layout usually included two facing pages with the left side holding a running total of debts incurred (Dr.) and the right side listing all payments and credits. (Cr.)  The names of the account holders were written in a large calligraphic style across the top of the pages and an index at the beginning of the volume helped organize and locate the records. Bound in tooled leather and generally of a higher quality stationery, ledger books often survive in better condition than the smaller day books. This was in part because their use was limited, and the volumes were kept secure as valuables that might be needed to settle debts or estates. 

In order to help illustrate how this system worked we can look at some details from our recently scanned books. In the Adams Tavern daybook for 1810 and 1811, you may recognize some of the familiar surnames from our historic homes and local roads: Seeley, Hubbell, Wakeman and Beers to just name a few.

Eli Adams Daybook, 1810-1811, 120-121, detail of entry, Elihu Staples, July 3rd, 1811.

On the lower half of page 121, we find the name of Elihu Staples. A local farmer and distant relation to Samuel Staples, Elihu had a measure of his own contemporary fame as a witness to the Weston Meteor in 1807.  On July 3rd 1811, one of his three sons visited the Adams Tavern and picked up a pound of allum along with a half gallon of rum. As credit, the young man delivered from his father’s farm 2 dozen eggs plus 10 more. It is tempting to think that the rum was for a July 4th celebration the next day, but in truth rum was a relatively common purchase at the tavern with seemingly no holiday required. The allum, most likely powdered potassium alum, was used for preserving summer produce or it may have been sodium alum which was used for baking.   Either case, it was probably meant for Elihu’s wife, Abigail.  

This entry is a prime example of the “barter bookkeeping” that thrived at this time. Goods like rum and allum could be purchased with “food money” in the form of farm produce. In this system, the customers were also the suppliers of much of the shop’s inventory. Credit was given also for non-comestibles such as lumber, sewing work, crafts and labor. A horse for transport, a wagon ride to Bridgeport and even house painting was accepted in payment for goods.

Eli Adams Ledger 1810-1815, 138-139, account of Elihu Staples.

 If we look up Elihu Staples’ account in the ledger book for these years, we see both the debit and credit for July 3rd 1811.  The specific details however are not included, and the general term “Sundries” was used as a shorthand to signify the purchased items. Since this word could refer to anything from apothecary medicines to wash basins, it is fortunate for our town’s history that the daybooks are preserved along with the ledgers. Together, they help us reconstruct a clearer picture of daily life and material culture.

Looking at these entries you may be wondering a bit about the way cash value is noted. On the right side of each page three columns are designated with the “£” symbol. These rows were for state pounds, shillings and pence. This might seem rather odd to us knowing that Congress established the dollar as legal tender in 1785 and a mint for central production in 1792. Currency usage in the early years of our country was a rather complicated mess. During the colonial period, the British government prohibited the local minting of coins as well as the exportation of pound sterling to the new world. This resulted in a shortage of money. Trade brought Spanish, French, Dutch and Portuguese coins to fill the void and their use as cash and commodity played an important part in the early American economy. Not only were these coins used on their own in commerce, but each colony and subsequently each state translated their metal value into the more familiar pound unit and then printed and minted their own legal tender. Further confusing the matter, each state set a different valuation to their own pound notes and groups of states competitively adjusted their currency against one another.  Does this sound complicated? Well, it was. So much so that tables had to be drawn up to help merchants process all the different denominations.

Left: Table of coin weights and values engraved by Nathaniel Hurd of Massachusetts c1750; Right: Currency conversion chart from Pike’s Complete Arithmetic first published in 1788.

Matters were not improved by the continental currency of the war years, but at least it did establish the use of the dollar by the United States federal government. With the guidance of Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for a money system based on a clear decimal ratio of cents, dimes and dollars, the nation was well on its way to a unified monetary system. The transition in day-to-day usage, however, took several decades. Depending on your location during the early nineteenth century, foreign, state and federal currency could all be in circulation and accepted. In order to maintain some consistency in record keeping, many continued to log transaction values in pound denominations.  Merchants translated any cash received into the older and more familiar format for their records. 

As late as the mid-19th century, bookkeeping accounts in rural areas continued to use pound denominations and even contemporary math textbooks included lessons on exchange rates between state currencies and the federal dollar. It is not surprising then to see dollar payments converted into pound values in some of our ledgers. In 1810, for example, David Silliman paid cash towards his debt at the Adams Tavern. While at least two entries specify dollars were received, their value was configured into the older currency to determine his outstanding balance.

Eli Adams Ledger, 1810-1815, 18-19, account of David Silliman. Payments made “by cash” in dollars are converted into pounds and shillings.

The dollar takes over as the primary unit of payment and bookkeeping in our preserved ledgers by 1818 and this suggests that this region made the shift into central currency by this date.  Though a seemingly small observation, it implies a significant change in the mindset and behavior for this community.  Consumers benefited from uniform pricing and a single currency was far more convenient for everyone.

The ability to see this sort of transition in historical documents is an exciting opportunity that will be available to the greater Easton community through our digitizing project. The scanning process, however, has required a great deal of care and patience. Each volume was examined for its condition to determine if it could be safely opened. Some have water damage, and their pages are stuck together. These have been set aside for professional conservation. Those books that can be handled safely in-house are placed on a neutral black background under our overhead scanner and pages are turned cautiously with attention to margins and image clarity. With some volumes holding over 600 pages, it can be a rather time-intensive activity, but in this long winter of social distancing, it has been extremely rewarding. 

Digitizing the Easton Archives. I am grateful to my whole family for their help this winter while I worked on this project and especially my daughter Autumn who has done a great deal of scanning during her gap semester from college.

It seems clear from many notations in these texts that there was a sense of history being captured and you often get the feeling that there was an awareness of future generations seeing their work. There are moments captured in the margins about odd weather like a heavy snowfall in May or a hard frost in June. An enormous calf born was large enough to warrant not only mention, but even an illustration.  Prayers for guidance in the day’s labors, notes from patrons, drawings and measurements, doodles and death notices; all together giving us a sense of what was considered important at the time. As a firsthand account of that everyday life, sometimes, we are even privy to an actual outline of a hand.

Burr Ledger, 1818-1880, 126-127. Outline of small hand.

We will be relaunching our website this year with highlights from our digital project and we would also like to put out a plea for any additional ledgers or day books that might be held within our community.  While many other outdated personal papers would have been used for kindling, these books were often tucked away safe.   Some have been found under the floorboards of attics or sitting on bookshelves ignored for generations. 

Unknown ledger converted into a scrapbook with newspaper clippings, possibly Bridgeport origin. Historical Society of Easton.

These old volumes were also used as scrapbooks in later years with newspaper clippings pasted over the original handwritten texts. We are interested in preserving these volumes as well.  Advancing technology may allow us to read the covered text one day, and the scrapbook collections are valuable time capsules of contemporary interests.  In fact, some even provide rare glimpses of periodicals that have been mostly lost.  If during your spring cleaning or home renovation you find similar old books, please consider contacting the Historical Society of Easton. We may be able to scan them and preserve their contents while advising you how best to preserve these treasures.

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