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A Cobbler's Account Book Investigation

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Author: Bridget Fariel ,Rivendell High School
Grade Level: 9-10
Length of lesson: One 75-minute class period

Historical Context

  • Theme: Economic and Technical changes and their Relation to Society, Ideas, and the Environment
  • Era: The Revolution and the new nation (1763 to 1815)
Overview

This lesson introduces students to a cobbler's account book (8 pages of which are reproduced for this lesson). By examining these pages and answering questions, students learn to investigate and decipher a historical document that reveals a great deal about life in their local geographic area in its early settlement days. The following pages of the cobbler's account book are provided:

  • Dr. Eli Carpenter
  • Dr. Kimball
  • Israel Morey
  • Israel Morey 3
  • Israel Morey 4
  • John Mann
  • Moulton Morey
  • Sam Morey
Background: What is an account book?

In the days of early settlement, account books were used to record the exchange of goods and services in a very similar fashion to the computerized methods used today. Local merchants, craftsmen and traders maintained records of transactions and trusted their neighbors enough to allow a line of credit. Customers would settle accounts with goods and labor and—less often—with cash. The account books were maintained using monetary values despite the method of payment used to settle an account.

A note to remember: "Any rural householder at any given time could owe and be owed by many of his neighbors. Actually, the mutual indebtedness acted as a powerful social cement. Ideally, local debts were always collectible. Few men had the assets sufficient to settle all of their debts on demand, and, to most, economic survival meant not being called upon to settle frequently—or, worst of all, unexpectedly."1

Procedures
  1. Print enough copies of the primary documents so groups of students can each have a set (or provide access to images on-line). I highly recommend enlarging and laminating the pages of a source like the account book. Magnifying glasses are also useful if you are using a smaller copy-kids love these.
  2. Divide students into groups. Give them time to browse through the set of documents, choose a recorder for their group, and answer the questions below:
    • How is the account book organized? Does this make sense? Would you add anything to help with the organization?
    • What currency unit is used for accounting? Why is this used? Do you think the early settlers had currency and coins? If not, how else might they have paid? Is this other method of payment reflected in the account book? Explain.
  3. Have groups make a list of all of the goods and services provided by the cobbler; have them discuss and answer the following questions:
    • Do the goods and services provided by the cobbler change over time? Explain.
    • Are there any goods or services listed that surprised you? Why do you think the cobbler provided these?
    • Do any of the pages indicate that a customer paid his account in full? Can you tell how long a period of credit was granted?
  4. Have groups make a list of all of the customers of the cobbler, and answer these questions:
    • Are the names familiar? Write down anything you think you may already know about the customers.
    • Can you tell if the customers are wealthy? How?
    • What can you tell about their lives (including their families) from the purchases?
    • Why do you think the entries in the account book end around 1815?
Standards

6.6 Being a Historian
6.7 Movements and Settlements

Worksheets

Questions above can be made into worksheets; alternatively, groups could each explore a different set of questions, and then present their learning to the other groups.

Assessments

This lesson was not formally assessed at the time. It was assessed at the end-of-unit exam with the question, "What did we learn of early economic patterns in this New England town?"

Extension Activity

Have students research early census data on the family names that appear in the account books. Ask them if they see any connection between the cobbler account book and the census data. Have them write a reflection on what they have learned or wonder about regarding one of the families, and include a description of how the local economy appears to be organized.

Materials and Sources

The source for the cobbler's account book was the Fairlee Historical Society; it is currently located in the Fairlee Town Offices. The book is believed to have belonged to Daniel Freeman (whom I found in the Fairlee Census of 1790, and then in Orford by 1810). He seems to have started his profession as a cobbler, and eventually diversified into inn keeping in Orford (for Samuel Morey).

For additional background resources on the colonial economy visit the Sturbridge village site at http://www.osv.org/learning/

Sources

1. http://www.americancenturies.mass.edu/classroom/curriculum_12th/bull/background.htm



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