From Memory to Mastery: Accounting for Control in America, 1750-1880

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From Memory to Mastery: Accounting for Control in America, 1750-1880

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Title: From Memory to Mastery: Accounting for Control in America, 1750-1880
Author: Rosenthal, Caitlin Clare
Citation: Rosenthal, Caitlin Clare. 2012. From Memory to Mastery: Accounting for Control in America, 1750-1880. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: From Memory to Mastery charts the development of commercial numeracy and accounting in America and the English-speaking Atlantic world between 1750 and 1880. Over this period, accounting evolved from a system of recordkeeping into a multifaceted instrument of control and analysis—from an aid to memory to an instrument of mastery. The traditional story of modern management begins in the factories of England and New England, extending only much later to the American South. This dissertation draws on textbooks and manuscript account books to argue that southern and West Indian plantations also influenced the development of bookkeeping. Scientific planters adopted sophisticated accounting practices, foreshadowing the rise of scientific management in the late nineteenth century. Their sophistication was not just incidental to the use of forced labor. Rather, the control of planters over their slaves made data easier to collect and more profitable to use. New methods were, in a sense, a byproduct of bondage. By contrast, the mobility of labor in the North made detailed recordkeeping necessary for keeping track of wages but relatively futile for detailed benchmarks and comparisons. Early northern factories distinguished themselves not by analyzing productivity but by mediating between firms and the market. They developed hybrid practices that bridged management hierarchies and market exchange. Commercial colleges educated clerical workers, accountants, and bookkeepers, providing the staff for a revolution in the organization of information. Though the rise of accounting helped planters and manufacturers to organize and control their expanding workforces, numeracy was not always class-biased. Textbooks and common schools spread numerical knowledge across a wide range of people, enabling them to turn the language of accounts to their own purposes. Account books reflect the power of their keepers, but bookkeeping is also a creative language that can be used by all kinds of people. This study bridges history and economics, blending qualitative and quantitative methods. The dissertation closes with a statistical analysis of accounting practices among Massachusetts corporations in the 1870s. Both these data and close readings of account books elsewhere in the dissertation suggest that practices were incredibly diverse but also fundamental to firm survival. Keeping accounts was a creative, narrative process that helped eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans to navigate the increasingly complex world around them.
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