Abstract: “A Companion for My Travels”: The Use of Vade Mecums by Early American Merchants

Kim Todt


How did merchants learn to become merchants in early America? Certainly, part of their readying was in the form of on-the-job training. The advent of printing, the outpouring of publication projects in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and an increase in literacy throughout society allowed additional forms of knowledge to become accessible to merchants. One form of such knowledge was vade mecums, or merchant manuals. Relatively small and rather inexpensive printing productions, manuals brought selective information to both aspiring merchants and those already established in their careers. No longer were trading companies or merchant houses gatekeepers of general commercial knowledge. This paper examines three of the earliest examples, all produced in eighteenth-century America. The first was written by a minister in Boston, the second by a Dutch mathematician, and the third by a former indentured servant in Virginia. As handbooks of this nature had no prescribed format, each reflects regional attributes and emphasizes local trading conditions and commodities. The regional aspect of handbooks would diminish subsequently with the unification of the colonies and the creation of a national identity, in part, through knowledge production. Vade mecums provide a snapshot of commercial knowledge as a construct of economic reality in eighteenth-century America.