forming the man of business

The Pen an Instrument tho’ small
Is of great Use and Benefit to all.
Trust rather to your Fingers Ends,
Than to the Promises of Friends.

From George Bickham, United Pen-Men in his “Advice to Young Tradesmen &c."


The 18th century counting house was a site of movement—of goods, money, and information—all of which required the movement of pen on paper. Businessmen and their clerks needed to be skilled correspondents and record-keepers, and the multitude of manuals for “forming the man of business” published at this time attests to the need for employees who were literate, numerate, and trained in methods of bookkeeping.

Education for a life in business was often accomplished either in the home or during an apprenticeship with an established merchant or company. The collections featured in this exhibition offer examples of various paths. The four Brown brothers were trained by their uncle Obadiah—the items in this case give evidence of their preparation for work in the family business. Thomas Poynton Ives, eventually a full partner in the Browns’ companies, was an orphan who came to work as a clerk for Nicholas Brown at age 14. After a stint with a company in Baltimore, he returned to Providence in 1792, married Hope Brown, the daughter of his former employer, and became a partner in Brown, Benson, & Ives. Samuel G. Arnold, the son of Welcome Arnold, was educated at a school in Grafton.

In addition to writing, spelling, arithmetic, and keeping accounts, manuals for training clerks and other businessmen attempted to impart the values and behaviors deemed important for the operation of the economy: accuracy, honesty, and trustworthiness.


Edward Hatton. The merchant's magazine: or, Trades-man's treasury. London, 1697.

Published nearly half a century earlier than the Universal Pen-Men (see Home page and image above), Edward Hatton’s Merchant’s Magazine supplements its instruction in arithmetic and bookkeeping with copper-plate engravings that reveal the emphasis placed on writing instruction in preparation for a business career. This page displays flourishes and figures similar to those assiduously made by Nicholas Brown in his handwriting practice book. 


Nicholas Brown’s handwriting practice book.  1743.

As this practice book used by Nicholas Brown shows, “command of hand”—the masterful use of the pen—was a valued skill which could elevate the activity of writing into a form of art as well as a tool for business. 
Copybooks were used in a variety of educational settings, and handwriting practice generally consisted of copying sentences or phrases considered necessary for practical or moral improvement.   Nicholas Brown proceeded through his handwriting practice alphabetically—each letter begins a different maxim, reflecting the advice deemed most valuable to a young man entering the wide world.  [Art is perfected by Practice; Beauty without Virtue is like a painted Sepulchre . . . Misery attends Debts and Law Suits . . .]
The pithy sentences contrast dramatically with the fanciful fish, dragons, and birds that adorn the pages.


The Secretary's guide, or, Young mans companion, in four parts.[New York], 1728.  

An all-purpose manual for spelling, writing, arithmetic, and business matters “profitable for both old and young to learn and know,” this book was owned first by James, the eldest son of Captain James Brown, who died at sea in 1750, and then by his younger brother Nicholas, who eventually became the head of the family business.  Youngest brother Moses Brown also scrawled his name in the margins of a few pages.  The well-worn condition of the volume attests to its use.


William Weston.  The complete merchant’s clerk:  or British and American compting-house. . . To which is added, an Appendix . . . London, 1754. 

A number of book-keeping textbooks were published in England in the 18th century, and many were used to train clerks in the British colonies.  Weston’s manual focuses first on the basic set of accounting books used in British and American counting houses—the elements of the double-entry book-keeping system described in Case 2.  The second part deals with the use of these account books in a “Factory”—or trading post.  Weston made Jamaica his case study for commercial practices in the colonies, and added a special section for the use of young men going into trade in the Americas:
“I have also given my young American Clerk, by way of Appendix, the Forms of Book-Keeping for a Wharf or Plantation; Course of Exchange; Choice of Drugs, and what ever else I thought necessary to accomplish him for the Quarter of the World.”


William Williams to Welcome Arnold, July 26, 1793.  Arnold family business records.

Apparently responding to a complaint from Welcome Arnold, Wrentham-based schoolmaster William Williams explains any lack in Arnold’s son Samuel’s training by asserting that Samuel’s “attention to his Studies was not so fixed as I could wish—his Genius, especially in Figures, moderate.”  Indeed, Williams found Samuel “deficient in every part of Learning, which might properly qualify him for the Marcantile Line.” 

Three years later, Welcome Arnold attempted to place his son as an apprentice with the New York firm Hugh Pollock & Co.  The letter from the company expressed that they expected “to find a young gentleman who writes a good hand and has a competent knowledge of accounts, leaving us nothing in short, to teach him but business, which we will do with particular care & attention.”  The deal apparently fell through when the company realized that Samuel was nearly of age—which would prove a poor return on their investment in training him, as he would most likely leave to work in his father’s firm just as he became useful.  In a letter expressing their regrets, the firm explained that “we had supposed him to be fifteen or sixteen years old”—a more typical age for a business apprentice.

Young Samuel seems to have found his footing in any case, and was capable of taking over the family business upon his father’s death in 1798.

 “A few Days since Receiv’d your short, but comprehensive Letter, expressing your Mortification, that Saml. gerauld had made so little Improvement, whilst under my Tuition; which, I confess, hurt my feelings a little—not because, I was disappointed, in having judged him qualified for Business, when he left me; for I well knew he was not—neither because, upon Reflection, I had Reason to accuse myself of Partiallity or Neglect in his Instruction.—But because, it was the first Instance, as I recollect, in which I failed of giving Satisfaction.—When he first came to me, which was toward the last of Decemb.r. I was sensible the time proposed was a term, too short to answer your Expectations—he tarried at Home nearly a Month in the Winter,--and left my school in the Spring.—his attention to his Studies was not so [fixed?] as I could wish—his Genius, especially in Figures, moderate.—In short, I found him deficient in every part of Learning, which might properly qualify him for the Marcantile Line.—I attempted an Improvement, according to my usual Method & Abilities, in which, if I had been so happy as to have given you Satisfaction, & met your Approbation, I should now with the greatest pleasure, & highest Esteem Subscribe myself your Friend & very Humble Servt Wm. Williams”


Daniel Fenning.  The ready reckoner, or, The trader's useful assistant, in buying and selling all sorts of commodities, either wholesale or retailShewing, at one view, the amount or value of any number or quantity of goods or merchandise, from half a farthing to 20s. either by the long or short hundred, half hundred, or quarter, pound or ounce, ell or yard, &c. &c.  Newburyport, [Mass.], 1794.

A tool for quickly calculating the cost of any quantity of a commodity, Fenning’s Ready Reckoner promises to present the amounts in “so plain and easy a manner, that persons quite unacquainted with arithmetic may hereby ascertain the value of any number of hundreds, pounds, ounces, ells or yards, &c. at any price whatever.”

This edition of Fenning’s book also includes tables for calculating simple and compound interest.  Other editions (and there were many) featured tables for converting currency, important weights and measures, and other calculating tools.  The Library also holds a German translation of this edition.


Moses Brown (1775-1791).  Cyphering book, ca. 1785.  Brown family business records.

For obvious reasons, arithmetic, or “cyphering,” was an essential skill for a young man entering business.  The Brown family collection contains two “cyphering books” belonging to the sons of Nicholas Brown, that reveal the kinds of problems posed to young students to prepare them for the calculating tasks required of the careful merchant and tradesman.  In addition to determining the size of hogsheads to accommodate certain quantities of rum or mastering the scale of avoirdupois weight, Moses Brown (namesake of Nicholas’ brother Moses) was asked to ponder this question:  
“Suppose you Moses, was born the Third day of Feb.ry 1775, and the Age of man, was 70 Years, as mention in the 90th Psalm, I Demand how much of that Time is passed of to this 14th day of April 1785, @ 12 o’Clock and how much more there is yet to Come, may this [be] Numbering of your Day that you may apply your Hart unto True Wisdom, according to that Sacred recommendation in Wholy Writ.”
Young Moses [at 10 years, 70 days old] diligently calculated that he had 59 years, 295 days to come.  Unfortunately, he died young, in February 1791. 


Exhibition may be seen in Reading Room from September 12 through
december 2012.

Exhibition prepared by Kim Nusco, Reference and Manuscript Librarian, John Carter Brown Library