2.1. Account Books


Account Books


Rachel Tamar Van, Cal Poly Pomona

Rachel Tamar Van is a professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona.  She specializes in early American family capitalism, New England merchants, and Americans in the Pacific.  

Caitlin Rosenthal, University of California, Berkeley

Caitlin is associate professor of history at University of California, Berkeley. Her research explores the development of management practices, especially those based on data analysis. Her first book focused on 18th and 19th century slave plantations in the US and the Caribbean, and a newer project considers the emergence of HR departments in the 20th century. 

William Deringer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Program in Science, Technology & Society

Will is a historian and STS scholar who studies the calculative practices that organize our modern political-economic world. He is writing a history of “discounting” – calculations that value the future.

The chair of this session is: Beatriz Rodriguez-Satizabal (Universidad del Pacífico)

Description of workshop

This workshop centers on one of the paramount sources of business history:  account books. Yet “account books” is a deceptively simple label for a remarkably varied set of sources. And no single set of instructions can enable historians to decode all or even most sources classified in this way. In this session, three panelists will walk through a source used in their own research, offering practical advice on getting as much as possible from these records.

Caitlin will describe an account book tracking cotton picking on a slave plantation. She will discuss strategies for both decoding the logic of plantation production and for finding the moments when enslaved people pushed against that logic. 

Rachel is on this panel because she, too, wishes to compare notes on ways to get the most out of account books in historical research. She will discuss account book sources for analyzing personal relationships. While the nineteenth century is often seen as an era of professionalization and institutionalism, with the disappearance of family from ledgers, she will discuss examples of persistence.

Will plans to discuss the accounts and analyses that English coal mining engineers (called “viewers”) composed around the turn of the 19th century to place a value on unmined coal deposits. These analyses relied on a distinctive mathematical technique—exponential discounting—central to modern accounting practice (the subject of Will’s current book project). He will examine how analytical approaches from science and technology studies (STS) can be brought to bear on the analysis of account books—quantitative representations of the world that both reflect their social contexts and act upon their social environments in “performative” ways. Will will look at how mine engineers’ accounts encoded particular attitudes about the value of nature, the nature of risk, and the relationship between mine capitalists and mine workers.

For more information or if you wish to participate in this workshop, please check out this document.