Letterbooks, Indexes, and Learning about Early American Business

By Mark Boonshoft
July 20, 2015
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Like many other libraries and historical societies, The New York Public Library is in the process of digitizing sizable portions of its manuscript collections. In addition to making it easier for scholars to access these sources, there is a general hope that digitization will make it possible for students to use manuscript materials in a classroom setting. But what, exactly, do we hope students will gain from using digital manuscript sources when plenty of transcribed, published, and annotated primary source readers already exist?
To learn about how everyday life worked in a given period, there really is no substitute for manuscript sources. Even their seemingly insignificant quirks often turn out to be significant details. This is especially true of business records. NYPL has recently digitized two items—the letterbook of the Gouverneur and Kemble mercantile firm, from 1796 to 1798, and Lewis Ogden’s letterbook, from 1787 to 1798—both of which make clear both the virtues of manuscript sources and the importance of manuscript digitization.

Letterbooks were the hard drives of their day. Businessmen and merchants—like Lewis Ogden, Isaac and Samuel Gouverneur, and Peter Kemble—used letterbooks to keep records of their business transactions. Between placing orders with other business, regulating their supply chain, and corresponding with their agents, businesses generate piles of mail. When a merchant sent a letter in the eighteenth century, there was no carbon copy, or digital copy in an email sent folder. So merchants copied down their outgoing correspondence into letterbooks. (The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has written a useful guide and glossary of early American business records). Businessmen and merchants were not the only people to use this tool. Anyone who corresponded frequently—politicians, lawyers, printers, and intellectuals, among others—needed a letterbook in order to simply keep track of their correspondence, of what they said and when they said it.

Gouverneur & Kemble letter book Index for 'C'. Image ID: 5218669

That these books exist in the particular form and structure that they do explains a great deal about how trade actually worked in the late-eighteenth century. Take indexes as an example. The physical volume that Gouverneur and Kemble bought to use as a letterbook came with dedicated pages for an index with cut tabs.

Each tab had two letters printed or stamped on it, one for each side of the sheet of paper. Gouverneur and Kemble used their index to keep track of the recipients of the letters collected in their dense, over 600-page letterbook, which they amassed during a short two-year period. Lewis Ogden’s letterbook has a similar index section, only with four handwritten letters per tab. Ogden did not use the index of his comparatively manageable, 150-page letterbook as intended, though he did copy a few letters into those pages.

An index is often the most utilitarian and, consequently, the least exciting part of a book. In manuscript letterbooks and account books, though, they are a defining feature. Indexes are a critical clue for making sense of how merchants used letter books and why. That blank letterbooks came with a pre-made index is evidence suggests that there was demand for this feature, which in turn testifies to common record-keeping practices among merchants and businessmen. And indexes offer very basic clues to how merchants managed their network of customers, suppliers, and partners.

Lewis Ogden letter book index (blank) for 'H'. Image ID: 5223811

Reproducing letterbook indexes in a printed book is basically impossible to do in any useful or practical way. So a handwritten index is just the sort of thing that often gets left out of a published edition of letters. Removing the index from a letterbook, though, makes it impossible to see as a coherent artifact and obscures some of the more fundamental insights we can glean from these kinds of sources.

Digitizing letterbooks will allow us, in the future, to link directly from the index to the specific pages in the volume. Through computers, students and scholars will be able to use these letterbooks as their authors would have and interact with the 18th century global business world. Students can learn a great deal about the economy, business practices, and record keeping in early America—which are not necessarily the most exciting topics—by working with a single letterbook. What’s more, they can get all of this by working with primary sources, but without having to struggle through the complicated and lengthy correspondence generated during any individual business transaction. Indeed, the physical layout of a letterbook may reveal even more about the most basic realities of how business was conducted in early America than the letters it contains and the transactions documented. Therein lies the pedagogical value of digitizing these sorts of sources in full. Doing so preserves the structure of letterbooks. And this is the reason that scholars, teachers, and students alike will want to access letterbooks in their digital format.

Catalog Number
Link to Finding Aid
Digital Collections link
MssCol 1186
Gouverneur & Kemble letter book
Image ID: 5218659
MssCol 3523
Lewis Ogden letterbook
Image ID: 5223659

About the Early Manuscripts Project

With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.