Abstract: Slavery, Common Schools, and Counting Houses: Knowledge of Accounts in Antebellum America

Caitlin Rosenthal


Accounting was the financial language of nineteenth-century American business—at once itself a kind of knowledge and a technology through which other knowledge flowed. This paper, part of a larger project on the development of commercial numeracy, explores the paper technologies of accounting and their importance for the evolution of business practices. I concentrate on two genres of printed material that expanded dramatically during the nineteenth century: first, manuals and textbooks for teaching accounting—both in common schools and in commercial colleges; and second, job printing—the production of blank forms and specially lined paper for keeping accounts. I find that accounting practices varied dramatically by region, with textbooks and manuals circulating largely in the northern states and the most complex blank forms in the slave south. By the 1840s, southern planters could purchase fully formatted account books that contained every record and calculation necessary for a year of cotton or sugar planting. This paper explores the implications of this variation, suggesting that on a number of dimensions (such as consideration of depreciation and productivity), southern systems of accounting advanced ahead of northern methods. This sophistication had limitations, however: while general education in the North spread bookkeeping knowledge across a large number of people, the extensive use of blanks in the South enabled a de-skilling of clerical work.