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Recently, I got re-acquainted with the joys of a little utilized genealogical source: the store ledger. A wonderful local historian in Somerset County, Maryland shared ledger pages of a store in the community where my Eastern Shore ancestors lived for over 150 years.

Here is a ledger page showing the 1859 purchases of “John Waters of Lucy.”

John Waters of Lucy

The Store Ledger

Ledgers, like so many of the records we use, offer tiny windows into the daily lives of our ancestors. They can also provide the social and historical context we crave. Ledgers have a long history. In fact, ancient Mesopotamians used clay tablets to track grain and workers dating from 3400 B.C.

In more recent times, money was often a scarce resource in agricultural, rural communities. Their economies worked often by credit and by bartering.

In this way, small business owners provided a way for farmers and craftsmen to purchase goods throughout the year and pay their debts when the crops came in.

Those of you with accounting backgrounds will be familiar with how these books are arranged. Typically, a ledger entry contained the name of the customer, the date and items purchased on that date, and the total.

The running amounts are kept in a column called debits, sometimes just marked “Dr.” Sometimes this is on the same page, sometimes it is on the next page.

Anytime the customer came in to pay on the balance, that amount will be shown in another column for payments (credit), sometimes titled “Cr.” Beyond this, ledgers can get pretty complicated, but these are the basics to help you start exploring this exciting source.

Family Life

1937 General Store and PO in Chaneysville, PA, NYPL photographs, Image Id 58624811

Under each customer’s name in ledgers is the stuff of their everyday lives. It is here that we can find clues about an ancestor’s occupation, lifestyle, and relative wealth or lack thereof. What did they need to buy? What could they afford to buy?

They bought cloth, buttons, needles, and thread for making and mending clothes. They bought sugar, coffee, flour, tobacco, molasses, and alcohol. They bought butter if they didn’t make any themselves.  If the store offered clothing, they bought hats, shoes, pants, coats, and dresses.

And we can use the power of inference to learn more about these customers. The purchase of paper might suggest that customer’s literacy. Buying several containers such as baskets might imply that person is engaged in selling something themselves. Large amounts of fabric might tell us a woman in the household is making clothing to sell.

Along with what they made themselves, customers also bought items they used as natural medicines, like turpentine, paregoric, and castor or cod liver oil. Folk remedies are a particular interest of mine, and I always ask about them when I interview my elders.

I am fortunate to have a copy of an ancestor’s store purchases for the year 1883. George W. Holt, of Hardin County, Tennessee, was a very successful farmer, and he obviously kept his own records of his purchases:

JJ Williams Store Account

One of my family members gave me a copy of a postcard showing the inside of a black  owned store in the all black town of Red Bird, Oklahoma.

No one knew anything about who this person was, but after many years I uncovered the connection to the family (Mrs. S.B. Bradley was Lizzie Bradley).

Mrs. S.B. Bradley Store

That’s worthy of its own blog post one day, but I thought it was a nice illustration of the kind of store that used these ledgers.

 Other Kinds of Ledgers

Professionals such as doctors often used ledgers to track their clientele in the same way. They were not alone, which is why you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the prominent persons in the communities where your ancestors lived.

In 2014, I blogged about these records in a post titled “Slave Research in Community Papers.” Community Papers is catchall term I use to refer to the private records of community members.

In that post, I describe the entries about the free black community from Dr.Gustavus Warfield’s Account Book, housed at the Maryland Historical Society (now the Maryland Society for History and Culture).

Researchers of the enslaved know that many plantation owners documented their enslaved workforce and their labor in the same way. Much of what we know about George Washington’s enslaved laborers are because of his almost maniacal accounting practices.

These records contain a variety of information about the enslaved, such as provisions given, births, deaths, purchases, age, value, and daily output of labor. Maryland enslaver Charles’ Calvert’s slave account book is a good example of this kind of book.

I read an interesting book a few years ago called Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management by Caitlin Rosenthal. In it, she discusses how enslavers were innovators in the accounting methods they developed to manage their enslaved laborers.

Her book talk is online here and I highly recommend it if you’re interested in learning more about this topic.

Genealogical Use

Aside from the social history, ledgers provide evidence of an ancestor in a unique time and place. They might help us determine dates of death, such as when the account customer becomes “John Turners Heirs” or “John Turner’s Widow.”

When someone comes in to pay another’s debts, that person can now be a target of our cluster (or FAN club) research. That was not an uncommon occurrence.

These records can be very useful in discerning between same named individuals. As we often see in tax records, merchant’s used terms like “John Waters of Isaac” to mean the Joshua Waters who is the son of Isaac.

They sometimes used “John Waters col.”  to indicate an African American; or maybe we know the person but their race isn’t noted, which can suggest also something interesting about the community.  And of course we see the use of “Jr.” and “Sr.” as well.

Notice in the example that heads this post, John is called “John Waters of Lucy.” He was African American, but he is not marked as such. In other entries, color was noted.

The community of Upper Fairmount is located off a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, thus many in the community worked as oystermen and fishermen. Notice that John purchased fishing hooks and fishing line.

Finding Ledgers

As primarily private documents, museums, historical societies, archives, and libraries (especially university libraries) are a great place to find surviving store ledgers. These records are typically housed within special collections and manuscripts departments.

These items may also be described in finding aids as account books, or they might be under the description of journal, daybook, business papers, business records, and other related terms.

ArchiveGrid is a good resource for finding these records to explore in person. Archive Grid returned 2,655 items when I searched for “store ledger book.” Change your search terminology to find even more.

Assorted institutions have digitized some of these records, so head to the Digital Public Library of America, and sites like Internet Archives to find a few examples. For example, the Greenville (South Carolina) Library has digitized the store ledger book of McBee Sons and Company covering assorted years between 1846 and 1861.

Be aware that most of these records are not digitized, and will still need in-person consultation.

I hope you’ll be on the look out for ledgers in your research. They are a valuable resource in our never-ending quest to understand our ancestor’s lives.

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