masters of industry and investment



. . . .the Ledger has all the perfection of form and order aimed at in book keeping, that can possibly be wished for; affording a ready answer to all the demands of the inquisitive merchant; and is therefore justly esteemed the principal book of the three.  It is called the Ledger, (an Italian word that signified art or dexterity) because in it the artificial part of book keeping chiefly appears.  But some choose rather toderive the word from the Dutch verb legger, to lie or continue in a place, because the Ledger is lodged or lies in the compting-house. 

—John Mair, Book-keeping Methodiz’d: or A methodical treatise of Merchant-Accompts, according to the Italian form. Seventh edition. Edinburgh: 1763.


Policies against the importation of British products in the 1760s fed the growth of colonial manufacturing, and the enterprising families of Providence took a leading role in a number of industries—from the making of spermaceti candles to the forging of iron and the distilling of rum and other spirits. By the 19th century, many of the companies invested in the textile mills that populated the river valleys—participating in the Industrial Revolution spawned by Moses Brown’s investment in the first water-powered textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

The management of industrial activities involved different forms of record-keeping—often separate ledgers tracked the costs and profits generated by factories, laborers’ books became timekeeping accounts, and invoice books developed straight and neat columns for the listing of numbers, weights, and fees associated with shipping bales of cotton and boxes of textiles.



SpermaCaeti Candles Warranted Pure are made & Sold by Nicholas Brown & Co. in Providence in the Colony of Rhode Island New Engl.d [Providence]:  Nathaniel Hurd, [1764].   

This advertisement, engraved by Boston silversmith Nathaniel Hurd, may have been used as a label for boxes of candles. Printed in English and French, it includes a space for the box number.


Nicholas Brown & Co., Account of the cotton and spinning abstracted from account against the Works from April, 1771 to Jan. 12, 1774. Brown family business records.

The wicks used in the candle works were spun from cotton, primarily by women. This account gives the names of the women employed and records the number of skeins each produced.



Nicholas Brown & Co.  “Hope Furnace for Supplys by Her Owners since Feb.y 17, 1775 . . . Credit by Guns & other Castings Since Feb.y 17, 1775 to July 1777.” Hope Furnace Ledger, 1774 – 1790.   Brown family business records.

Companies would often have separate ledgers for various parts of their business. This ledger for the Hope Furnace shows the Browns’ activities in manufacturing cannon during the Revolutionary War.


“Estimate of Rum distilld one year in B. B. & I. and W. A.’s Distillery, and remarks thereon for the Consideration of Mr.s  Mason, Sterry & Bowen.” March 13, 1795.  Brown family business records.

The collaborative distilling venture of Brown, Benson & Ives and Welcome Arnold did not end happily:  numerous conflicts over supplies, output, and labor issues resulted in the dismantling of their joint still house in 1794. This estimate is part of a packet of documents used to settle the primary dispute—in which Brown, Benson & Ives contended that Welcome Arnold did not contribute his fair share of the molasses needed to operate the distillery at capacity. The matter was referred for arbitration by other members of the community, including John Mason, Ephraim Bowen, and Cyprian Sterry. 


Blackstone Manufacturing Company, cotton invoice book.  1830 – 1866.  Brown family business records.

This invoice book shows one method of tracking the importation of cotton for use in one of the several textile manufacturing concerns in which the Browns had a controlling interest. The symbols in the right hand column on each page represent the various producers who sent cotton to Eastern textile mills from Southern cities like Mobile and New Orleans.


Plainfield Union Manufacturing Company Stencil.  Arnold family business records.

This metal stencil was used to mark parcels with the initials of the Plainfield Union Manufacturing Company, a cotton manufacturing concern established on the Moosup River in Connecticut in 1809.  Samuel G. Arnold acted as business agent and legal counsel for the company. 



When money was in short supply and taxation was limited, lotteries provided a method of raising funds for civic projects—from the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges to the building of churches, schools, and meeting houses. Respected members of the community served as managers of lottery schemes—supervising ticket sales and the disbursement of prizes.

Shortly before the start of the Revolution, the merchants of Providence petitioned the General Assembly, complaining that the people of the town “suffer great inconvenience for the want of a market; provisions being often spoiled by being carried about the streets through wet and heat; and fish rendered more scarce than if there were a proper place to expose them for sale.” 

In August 1771 the Assembly organized a lottery for the raising of funds for the Market House, with Moses Brown serving as one of the managers. Joseph Brown and Stephen Hopkins were placed in charge of construction and Nicholas Brown laid the foundation stone on June 11, 1773.  The brick building still stands in Market Square as part of the Rhode Island School of Design.  
The Browns also participated in lotteries to raise funds for the construction of the First Baptist Meeting House (1774–1775), the Washington Academy in North Kingstown (1804), and the rebuilding of the Second Baptist Church (1815).


Tickets for the Market House lottery, Class I, #1316-1322.  April 1772. Brown family business records.
Ticket book for the Market House lottery, Class 1, #1098–1331. 1772. Brown family business records.

Early American lottery schemes could be quite complex, and as in the case of the Market House lottery, tickets were often sold in multiple “classes” corresponding to separate drawings.  In general, a purchaser received one copy of a ticket; on the drawing date, another copy would be removed and placed in a wheel for the drawing; a third copy or stub would remain in the ticket book in case of complaints or disagreements after the drawing.
The tickets and ticket book shown here reveal the printing and cutting techniques used to prevent fraud; the curved edges of the tickets must match those of the tickets remaining in the book.



Other forms of public investment included subscription drives, such as the one organized by the Browns on behalf of the College of Rhode Island.  Founded in 1764 and originally located in Warren, the College was moved to Providence in 1770, largely due to the considerable sums raised by the Browns by encouraging subscriptions from other members of the community.  The College was re-named Brown University in 1804, in recognition of a donation made by Nicholas Brown, the son of the first Nicholas Brown of Nicholas Brown & Co., and a member of the Class of 1786.


Receipt to Nathaniel Hurd for the creation of a seal for Rhode Island College (later Brown University).  ca. 1765.  Brown family business records. 

This seal can be seen on the subscription books shown in this case.  After the Revolution, a new seal was created for the College, as the original bears the busts of the English monarchs.   Nathaniel Hurd also engraved the plate used for the advertisement for spermaceti candles sold by Nicholas Brown & Co. on the other side of this case.


Bill from Francis Skinner for the creation of subscription books for Rhode Island College.  November 19, 1765.  Brown family business records.

Francis Skinner was a book binder in Newport who operated for over fifty years—his bindings have been identified on a number of 18th century account books, including those used by the Brown family companies.


List of subscribers to the College, No. 2 and No. 3.  1769.  Brown family business records.

These two subscription booklets record the pledged donations of members of the Providence community to the College of Rhode Island, specifying that “The Following Subscriptions are on Condition that the Colledge Edifice be Erected in the Town of Providence or otherwise to be Void.”


Circular letter, Blackstone Canal Bank.  January 18, 1831.  Brown family business records.

Considerable effort and money were expended to convert the Blackstone River into a workable canal in the 1820s, but the Blackstone Canal Company ultimately failed, succumbing to numerous disputes and competition from the developing railway system.  In 1831 the proprietors of the company, including members of the Brown and Ives families, applied for and received a bank charter from the General Assembly. The Blackstone Canal Bank provided new opportunities for investors and new stock offerings for the canal company. Though the canal company was dissolved in 1849, the bank continued operation until its merger with the Providence National Bank in 1945.


Share: Troy Turnpike and Railroad Company, held by Elisha Potter.  August 1, 1835.  Tillinghast family business records. 

Stockholders received share certificates like this one obtained by Elisha Potter for this transportation company in Troy, New York. Elisha Potter was related to the wife of William E. Tillinghast.


J. N. Denison, Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad Co. to Brown & Ives, September 22, 1874.  Brown family business records.

The letterhead of the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad Company depicts a map of the railway’s route, which connected the Western lands that provided ample investment opportunities for Brown & Ives and the related Gilman family companies.


United Fund, trial balance book, 1862–1863.  Brown family business records.

The financial activities of the Browns and related families in the mid-19th century reveal an increasingly sophisticated and complex approach to business investments. In the 1840s, members of the Brown, Ives, and Goddard families formed the United Fund, which functioned much like a modern mutual fund.  As this trial balance book shows, by the middle of the Civil War the fund was worth over $2 million in stocks, bonds, and investments in all manner of industries and institutions.

A trial balance form is used to tally up credits and debits at the end of an accounting period—the totals at the end of each column should match, or balance.  The United Fund trial balance book shows that this was done monthly.


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