Keep On Minding Your Business

The JCB’s exhibits and research constantly refract old material through new lenses, and recent work with the library’s collections of business papers casts light on historical questions ranging from commerce to education, maritime history, and medicine. The 2012 exhibition “Mind Your Business: Records of Early American Commerce at the John Carter Brown Library” highlights multiple layers of history in the library’s manuscript collections, Providence’s past, and the growth of American business practices in the context of global trade. The online version of the exhibition is a contribution to local history and a promising teaching tool, and current fellows at the JCB continue to explore its source manuscripts from new angles of scholarship.

Using the papers of the Brown, Arnold, and Tillinghast families’ business endeavors, curator Kim Nusco created a window into the sources of wealth that established and supported Brown University, and the life experiences of those who accumulated and inherited it. She combined examples from these manuscript collections with other sources from the JCB’s rare book stacks to frame these families’ documents within the larger contexts of mercantile education, financial practices, currency, maritime trade, and colonial industry in eighteenth and nineteenth century America. The surprising variety of documents makes a potentially dry and abstract topic personal and arresting. One such unexpected inclusion, in the section “Forming the Man of Business,” is from the school days of a young Moses Brown, namesake of the famous abolitionist.  His 1785 ciphering (arithmetic) book asked,

      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,” Nusco explained. “Unfortunately, he died young, in February 1791.”

This variety of material makes the online exhibition useful as an introduction to research in economic and maritime history. It includes examples and explanations of double-entry bookkeeping, ledgers, waste-books, spike files, laborers’ books, day books, mortgages, bills of exchange, loan certificates, early American printed currencies, sea letters, shipping insurance policies, seamen’s protection certificates, and more. For history classes, an assignment in which different students discussed work, trade, and money based on different document types could build up to a multivocal view of early American economic life. For student researchers or those beginning new projects, consulting the exhibit could be useful for building an understanding of types of records and their purposes before diving into the archives.

Pepa Hernandez Villalba and Anoush Fraser Terjanian, 2013-2014 fellows, bring new perspectives to the Brown family papers, incorporating the collections into comparative and transnational histories.

Hernandez, a doctoral candidate at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), conducted research at the library from July through October 2013. Her research in medical history focuses on the changing practices of British and Spanish naval surgery in the late eighteenth century in relation to the professionalization of medicine in Europe. She began her research at the JCB with the diary of the surgeon Benjamin Carter, brother in law of Nicholas Brown, on the 1790-1799 voyage of the Ann and Hope to Canton. To better understand the man behind the journal, Hernandez consulted letters in the Brown family papers that related to Benjamin Carter and his family.  In a September 30 talk, titled “Surgeons at Sea: Spanish and American Medical Travel Narratives, 1780-1806,” she reflected on Carter’s experiences to discuss significant differences in the status of surgeons in Anglo-American and Spanish contexts. Her careful attention to the everyday practice of naval surgeons blurs the conventional line between eighteenth-century naval surgery and professional medicine in the process.

Terjanian, an Associate Professor of History at East Carolina University, plans to use the Brown family papers to gain insight into how personal relationships and individual histories shaped transoceanic trade networks in the eighteenth century. Her first book, Commerce and Its Discontents in Eighteenth-Century French Political Thought, explored debates about the intellectual history of commerce in eighteenth century France before ideas of “free trade” became naturalized. In preparation for her second book, she is conducting research at the JCB from September 2013 through May 2014 to investigate how individual traders, officials, and members of their networks in the French East and West Indies understood and shaped ideas about commerce on the ground. The Brown family papers, as the record of one family’s commercial reach from the West Indies to China, will provide one point of departure.

These promising projects incorporate the records of Providence businesses past into far-reaching studies in medical, maritime, and commercial history. In both exhibits and ongoing research, the Brown family papers continue to find new lives and purposes at the JCB.

Emily Button, J.M. Stuart Fellow, John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, 2013-2014