Account Books and Day Books

Those big dusty leather-bound books in your historical society are probably account books or day books. Vermont farmers, merchants, and artisans all used a form of bookkeeping that worked for the 19th-century barter economy. In the barter economy local merchants, craftsmen, and farmers maintained records of transaction and trusted their neighbors enough to allow a line of credit. Customers would settle accounts with goods and labor and—less often—with cash. Two books were required to keep track: a “day book” in which transactions were entered in chronological order and a “ledger” in which transactions were entered under individual accounts as debits (Dr.) and credits (Cr).

Find Monday, December 25, 1848. On that day the merchant sold to Elias Carpenter an algebra book for .67 and a 5th of a yard of edging for .22. The total sale was .67. Elias Carpenter didn’t pay cash that day. He’s listed as “Dr.” If we could see the merchant’s account book, we’d find a page for Elias Carpenter listing all his debts and how he paid for them.


If we read down the page, we see that a little later B. R. Cheedel came in to sell 450 pounds of pork, totaling $22.50 . He was not paid in cash. Rather, the pork sale was credited to Cheedel’s existing debts. In fact, at the same time he sold his pork, he bought 3 yards of cloth.


The merchant probably did not keep all that pork in his store. He probably sold it on to a larger store in a more urban area. This is because a merchant’s suppliers were often also his customers. The same person who purchased manufactured goods provided him with farm goods or other commodities for resale.

The records in this daybook are kept in dollars and cents, but accounts kept in pounds, shillings, and pence occurred up through the 1830s in New England. Often early nineteenth-century arithmetic books had lessons on how to convert from pounds and shillings to dollars and cents.