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John Glassford & Co., Alexandria Store 1767/1768, Folio 1D

Shopping Stories: A Look at the People, Places, & Things in 18th-Century Store Ledgers

Eighteenth-century store ledgers show a glimpse of a community of shoppers - who they were, where they lived, what interested them, who they knew and how they were connected to others in the community, what their lives were like.  History Revealed, Inc. (HRI), is engaged in a crowd-sourced project to transcribe and analyze store ledgers.

Our goal is to better understand the community who frequented these stores, what they purchased and how they paid for their goods, all contained in these interactions to reveal the stories contained in these dusty books.  Our final product will be an online, searchable way to page through ledgers and interpret and present the past, understand the artifacts found at archaeological sites, and furnish historic museums and museum exhibits.


The first phase focused on Scotsman John Glassford, who controlled a major portion of the Chesapeake tobacco trade by establishing stores along the Potomac River where planters sold tobacco and purchased goods such as rum, sugar, salt, cloth, and hardware, as well as slaves.  The John Glassford & Company Papers, owned by the Library of Congress, detail the daily transactions of the company and include the records of twenty identified branch stores in the Tidewater of Virginia and Maryland.  These store accounts capture a moment in time – at the height of the colonial tobacco trade when access to consumer goods extended not only to upper class planters, but increasingly to the middle and lower classes including craftspeople, tenants, hired white workers, and the enslaved community. From the Glassford collection, HRI worked on two of the Glassford stores, in Alexandria and Colchester, Virginia for a glimpse into the community and the local economy of Northern Virginia from 1758-1804.  The crowd-sourced effort transcribed eleven (11) ledgers, with over 4,300 pages completed. 


In the second phase, HRI focused on a single ledger through a community partnership grant with the University of Central Florida (UCF).  History undergraduate and graduate students explored the people, places, and objects found within the Colchester 1760/1761 ledger.  They produced essays on their website, Economy of Goods.  At the same time, we published transcription challenges on social media and blog posts.  In addition, interns developed an index of objects and an index of people and places found in the ledger.

As HRI continues with the analysis of the Glassford stores through the development of an online database, additional store ledgers from one of Glassford's competitors have been digitized and transcriptions begun.  This new phase looks at the merchant Robert T Hooe and his various business partners from ledgers found at the New York Public Library.

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