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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Blog Archive » It turns out that business records are FASCINATING

It turns out that business records are FASCINATING

Written by Holly Mengel on March 14th, 2011

Unknown size: small.

When I was preparing to process the Thomas Leiper and family business records at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I was a little less excited than I usually am—although one would think that I have learned not to judge a collection by its type (in this case, business records).  This collection is an absolute treasure trove—and will be amazingly useful for so many different researchers, especially those interested in early American business, the tobacco and quarrying businesses, workers, estate management, and the American Revolution.

Unknown size: small.

There were a couple of volumes in this collection that I found particularly fascinating.  First, there are the letter books, which are largely business related, but are peppered with copies of more personal letters.  Leiper, in addition to being an intrepid business man, was also a patriot.  Based upon some of the letters, he was clearly an advocate of independence and in order to prepare for this dramatic step, he helped found and later served in the first Light Troop of City of Philadelphia.  He was actively involved in the city’s goings-on and as a result, his letters are full of news and updates on the events of the day.

Unknown size: small.

As mentioned before, Leiper was quite the business man.  He owned businesses in the tobacco and quarrying fields, and as a result of his success, he purchased land for further business developments and worked extensively for improved transportation in Pennsylvania.  If that is not enough to make the collection pretty amazing, Leiper’s business interests seem to have been inherited by his descendents and some form of these businesses as well as a few new ones continued into the 20th century.  One of the volumes relating to Leiper’s quarrying business contains a roster of early American stone masons and builders.  As a historian interested in how the “common man” (and woman) lived, I was quite enthralled with volumes entitled “Wage Book” and “Work Book” which can be found with the quarrying and tobacco business records, respectively.  The quarry business is documented via the “Wage Book” which effectively shows the cost of running a business from 1833 to 1839 with information on the cost of boarding workers, wages, freight bills, vessel charges, and expenses for the business and the people who supplied services.  The “Work Book” contains information about Leiper’s workers in the tobacco business from 1776 to 1795:  their names, the type of work they performed, their hours and their wages.  Both are a great snapshot of what it was like to own a business in the 19th century and serve as a laborer in the 18th century.

Unknown size: small.

All in all, this collection was a surprise for me and in the small amount of time I was able to look through the volumes, I was excited to find a few of the many hidden gems located in this collection.  Also, I love collections where I can go into the community and find remnants of their work.  The Thomas Leiper and Sons quarrying efforts live on … you can see their quarried stone at Girard College, Swarthmore College and the Leiper Church.  It would take quite an expert to locate, but apparently, his stone is also found throughout Philadelphia in curbstones and steps for city homes. We may even thank him (or curse him) for some cross-Pennsylvania roads.

Ahh, history … it is all about us … we just need to use archival collections to know where to look!


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