the french ledger book

by Sharon Santoni

This  weekend at a fair I bought two ledger books.  Nothing valuable, but the sort of encounter that sends a little frisson up my back.

I picked up the first book, with an unpromising dusty black cover, not really expecting to find anything interesting on its pages.  Inside I found a most beautifully written ledger of accounts, dated from 1858  to  1893.  No doubt, kept by a business man, keeping track of his expenses and investments.  The contents are too vague to be really informative, but the careful handwriting and neat notes are charming and unique.

The lady selling her pile of bric-a-brac saw me smiling at the pages and sidled up to me with a much much smaller book in her hand.  “You might like to look at this one too”, she almost whispered to me.

The little notebook had a handwritten label on the front: “Recettes et Dépenses”,  (income and expenses).

I opened it to find  a notebook, a financial record for the year 1912, whose sparse pages spoke to me of a simple life with few and inexpensive needs.

I thanked the lady enthusiastically, and she told me the book had been her great uncle’s.  He apparently bought bicarb of soda, shaving cream, stamps and other small necessities.

“Why are you selling this?” I asked;  “But why would you want to buy it?”, she replied.  !!

 I opened a page of the tiny ledger, where the owner had listed a hotel bill at 44 francs, and  a list of other travelling expenses*,    then pulled from my pocket a receipt from a trip to the supermarket this week.  Dozens of items required for one week of family life.
We both smiled as we looked at the two short  pages that covered her uncle’s expenses for the whole of the month of May ……  “Don’t you think life was simpler then?!”

[blank]*[this is in old francs, so today 44 francs would be worth 67 centimes of a euro or 0.86 US$][blank]


Our French Inspired Home October 15, 2012 - 1:25 pm

Thanks for sharing the story and books. They were a great find! I agree things were once MUCH easier. I dont know why we have decided to make life so complicated.

sanda October 15, 2012 - 1:45 pm

I understand why you would want these ledgers — the beautiful penmanship, the reminder of a much simpler time. Who among us takes, or has the time to document the small details of our lives? a sad reminder also that 100 years from it's likely nothing such as this nature will exist to tell the story of our daily lives.

Anonymous October 15, 2012 - 2:13 pm

I also do appreciate all the documents of my late mother in law.I inherited a savings book indicating a drawing on 16th December 1944 (imagine the war fronts were already in the city!!)surely she thought cash would be better in hand than savings in a Dorka

helen tilston October 15, 2012 - 2:45 pm

Hello Sharon

What a treasure. The penmanship and importance associated with daily living is chronicled so beautifully. I wonder if we had to account for our spending, in a journal, how different would our live be


I Dream Of October 15, 2012 - 2:56 pm

Sharon, I'm just caught up in the penmanship alone. I've been trying my hand at calligraphy because, sadly, even the cursive they taught us in grade school seems to be a lost art. I love this reminder of a time when details like that were a little more important. I'm wondering if there's a story to be created through the little bits of life left behind on those pages? XO

Corrine October 15, 2012 - 3:17 pm

Husband has a significant collection of such ephemera. In many envelopes and ledgers the words define lives. Some very simple, some not so much. He has a charming collection of post cards that illustrate lives on vacation, going off to war and from university. Wonderful. Your find is outstanding. The handwriting is art, pure and simple.

Sandy @ You May Be Wandering October 15, 2012 - 3:35 pm

Oh my goodness – what beautiful books – I love the handwriting! And, yes, live did seem simpler back then.

Yvonne @ StoneGable October 15, 2012 - 4:23 pm

What a find! BEAUTIFUL! The handwriting is like a work of art!

Kristie Franklin October 15, 2012 - 4:28 pm

The script is so beautifully written. It looks like it is written with a pen that uses a cartridge of ink. I think while some things seemed easier and people's needs were simpler back then the work was hard. When I think of having to wash clothes by hand, make bread everyday, cook over a hearth, make my own clothes it's a wonder people lived as long as they did. 🙂 I wonder how long I would have lived?

The Snowdrop Project October 15, 2012 - 4:45 pm

How wonderful.
The copper plate handwriting is beautiful. With computers these days, I believe our hand writing is deteriorating rapidly.
Hope you have a lovely day,
Liz x

Julie October 15, 2012 - 5:12 pm

So beautifully written. I found myself wondering about the trip to Paris – which hotel did they stay in, what did they have for breakfast, was it business or pleasure? And what was the 50 centimes for "Maman"? More questions than answers! What a wonderful peek into a bygone age, a century ago.

a breath of fresh air October 15, 2012 - 6:23 pm

OMG what a super find I am so jealous I could browse these for hours. What a lovely piece o history to have :-), Thank you for sharing.
Annie x

rosaria williams October 15, 2012 - 6:46 pm

Such well-written ledgers!
Life was simpler, and few things were needed for living. Now, we have more cash, and we also have more wants.

Geli October 15, 2012 - 7:57 pm

Hello Sharon! What a wonderful and interesting find! Very interesting post! Best wishes, Geli

PURA VIDA October 15, 2012 - 9:57 pm

I could get lost in wondering about these!

Cotton Peony October 15, 2012 - 10:12 pm

Hi, new follower here.. lucky No. 3180!

I would love to have a copy of pages that could be used for crafting! Ever think about selling or placing a image after scanning on your blog here?

Love what I've read so far!

warm hugs,

Cotton Peony

cocoquilts October 15, 2012 - 11:11 pm

I just have to tell you that I absolutely love to read your blog! I try to limit the time I spend online as so much time just disappears before you realize but I must always visit your country home! You are so inspiring with so much beauty in your home and garden! I have decided that I must finally learn to speak french as it is such a beautiful language! Thank you for sharing just the perfect amount of your life! Cheers, Colette

Garden, Home and Party October 16, 2012 - 12:59 am

What a fun find. I love the paper on the book as well as the simple fountain pen on paper. Oh for life to be as simple and inexpensive today.

hopflower October 16, 2012 - 1:01 am

Such beautiful handwriting! You can rarely see anything like it today I am afraid. But then, letter writing and notes and hand bookkeeping are hardly in style anymore.

Gaynor October 16, 2012 - 2:59 am

They are beautifully written and remind me of a story from my 91 year old father-in-law. He grew up in Fiji of Indian and Irish stock and married my mother-in-law of Chinese descent. Her parents ran a grocery emporium supplying many necessities in the 30's and 40's. The Father would do all of his accounts on an abacus at lightening speed or in his head and then ink it, in a beautiful hand. My father-in-law asked him once what he would do if he made a mistake and he looked at him, shocked at the notion. No white out or delete button then! Times have certainly changed. Thank you Sharon, I enjoy your blog every day. Kind Regards, Gaynor.

Vicki October 16, 2012 - 6:58 am

The script is so lovely. People used to take pride in a nice signature and a good writing hand. I treasure bits and pieces of things handed down in my family. Sometimes, other than the rare instance of a letter or postcard, the only writings in a family are entries in a Bible, such as baptisms, marriages, death. A charming tradition in the early 20th century, at least with my female relatives now long since gone, was the keeping of small autograph books when a preteen/teen, exchanged between friends, nothing really to do with school but more like comments one might pen in a greeting card. Your ledgers tell a story. Amazing how some things survive the years of a family if protected and properly stored. A little glimpse into history

david terry October 16, 2012 - 2:42 pm

Well, Sharon,…how timely…. I wish that I could post a photograph. If I could, I'd send you a photograph of the two foot tall STACK of 20-or-so old, leather-bound plantation and store ledgers belonging to this 220 year old house. The ledgers date from 1820 to 1940.

About a month ago (which is to say, two months after I moved in), a former head of this very self-consciously historical little town's Historical Society asked me if I wanted a pile of old ledgers that came from the Webb House. Turns out that she had rescued them when, during some fit of archiving and de-accessioning fifteen years ago, the Historical Society had decided that these were worthless, compared to many other items in the overflowing collection. So….they were put out in a garbage can. I kid you not.

My neighbor (who's a relative newcomer to the town…certainly not "from" here; bascially, she's a very pleasant&smart; yankee) figured they had probably been donated when the house was, for the first time since it was built in 1790, sold out-of-the-family in 1979. One week after I was given the books, I had a lunch here for the 86 year old, last-Webb-born-&-raised-in-this-house (she now lives in a fancy retirement home in Chapel Hill, twelve miles away).

Amusingly enough??….I showed them to her, and her first reaction was one of horror at the thought I was going to give them BACK to her. She told us that it took her "FOREVER" to get rid of 189 years of family-related clutter&detritus; out of this house before she (the unmarried, last direct descendant of the family) was able to finally get herself out of it.

So, no sentimentality over some ledger books was coming from her.Of course, the house was built for the daughter of the state's first governor, had three subsequent governors in it, plus (at various times) two signers of the Declaration of Independence. All in all, there were some much "nicer" things belonging to the family. I got the ledgers (which, ironically enough, are the only things in this big, old house, aside from the actual fabric of the house, that have been here longer than three months). It was absolutely (actually a bit TOO throughly, I think) restored in the 80's….when I moved in, there wasn't even a speck of dust that I hadn't brought with me.

In any case, here these tall, leather-bound, thick ledgers sit….containing purchase and sales records from the early, operative-plantation days….then predictably seguing, at the beginning of the Civil War (the 1860's, for all you non-Americans), to considerably less properous transaction (albeit at wildly and suddenly inflated prices)….and then they all become store-ledgers, dating from the 1870's to the 1940's.

In short, the war ruined the family, and by the 1870's, they'd lost all their county lands and found themselves opening a store in the back of the house to make some actual cash money (not that ANYONE had much in the way of cash-money post-war)….(to be continued)….

david terry October 16, 2012 - 2:45 pm

(continuation..)….Gone with the wind (to coin a phrase) were the days when the ledgers contained records of purchasing sixteen wagonloads of hay or twenty bolts of cloth for "servants" (no one ever used the word "slave", even when they were recording the sale or purchase of one….rather as my grandmother's generation, even when they had ten black folks doing EVERYTHING around and in the house every single day, never used the word "servant"; such black folks were euphemistically referred to as "the help").
In any case, it's a bit saddening to note that, in the post war years (and lasting right up until the first world war era) the "store" ledgers are absolutely filled with the names of all the Finest & First Families of this state (this was the capital until that was moved to Raleigh in the 1830's). Roulhacs, Hamiltons, Strudwicks, Camerons, Webbs, Nashes (basically, every name that's associated with one or more of the big mansions or plantations in this area and/or adorns the fifty or so historical markers on the main street) all came here to buy markedly-measly, "just enough for a week", little purchases…and sometimes trading for them.
All in all?….it's obvious, going through these ledgers, that anyone who'd HAD money had lost it all. Another very interesting fact (obvious if, like me, you're attuned & trained to tease-out these facts)??….during the reconstruction years, it appears that the majority of customers were "MR. Roulhac" or "MR. Nash"….stopping by to pick up a needle, some blue thread, 4 ounces of sugar, and a pound of white flour.
My assumption is that (and there's historical precedents for this)is that the men of the "fine" families weren't, no matter what, going to let folks see their wives going around doing errands and chores previously done by slaves….or haggling over pennies when they used to be rich. I grew up hearing of one well-known Confederate general (and this is a quite validated anecdote) who, having been among those who lost the war, took to doing all the household's washing, despite his having a wife and five daughters. He was just NOT going to let the ladies of his family be seen standing over a washtub in the yard. Just for record, he eventually shot himself in the head and was buried, wrapped in a confederate flag. I don't know what happened to his wife and daughters (this family is one of the few that ISN'T related to mine) following THAT final incident.
In any case, the ledgers shift somewhat between about 1900 and the 1920's….when the "store" (which is now the back kitchen wing) was run by two spinster aunts who lived with their brother's family here. I gather that the "store" basically supported the whole family. After the 1920's (a period of wild prosperity compared to what had preceeded it for fifty years following the war), the store was moved into an actual building on the main street, where it was successfully and profitably operated (by the grandfather of the 87 year old Webb who came here for lunch last month) until World War II.
So, all these ledgers, instead of being thrown out as rubbish fifteen years ago, now sit in the library (not that they were ever kept there when the family still owned this house)…..and there's quite a lot to be gleaned from them.
All you have to do is read between the lines, so to speak……but then I expect you, having spent plenty of time going through old monogrammed bridal sheets, engraved christening cups from 1890, and all the multitudinous things that folks just throw away ("Who would want this old stuff? Who knows who it belonged to?"), already know that.
thanks for the obviously evocative posting. I'll send you a photograph of the ledgers by private email.

david terry October 16, 2012 - 2:48 pm

(P.S…..and I KNOW that this has to be the longest damn response you've ever been burdened with, but I hope you enjoy the story)….

Amusingly enough, sitting on top of that stack of old ledgers is a stuffed tiger's head…. glass eyes and snarling jaws and all. It used to belong to a friend of mine (his great uncle shot it in the 1930's), but he gave it to me as a birthday present a few years ago when he began dating a woman (he's now married to her) who's a ferocious animal-rights, PETA advocate/disciple. It didn't take too much sense to figure out that he needed to get rid of the tiger-skin rug if he ever planned on getting her to spend the night at his house.
I should add that the "rug" part is gone now…..a victim (the first time I left the house after its arrival) of three very-very delighted terriers.
Level Best as Ever,
David Terry

Vicki October 20, 2012 - 6:48 am

Wow, I really enjoyed reading about David Terry's plantation ledgers! It's often a big mystery as to what happened to many of the grand landowners/wealthy people after the American Civil War; lands were confiscated, lost to the tax man; gracious mansions had been burned to the ground by Union soldiers, American fighting against American (a very sad chapter in U.S. history). The gentry of the American South were people who indeed had others to do their daily work for them and their lives were quite coddled. Because so much was burned, many written histories of families were lost. In my own family, reportedly an old trunk with family memorabilia of this era existed into the 1940s having made its way to California, only to have disappeared amid much accusation and blame…so my Southern/ancestral info is sketchy and instead told only as an oral history.

I learned that my great-great grandfather's call to the Confederacy was "bought" so that he could instead go to Europe and study. He came home after years abroad, post-war, not to his childhood home and the only way of privileged life he'd ever known, but to one for which he was completely unprepared. His own son was reduced to hardscrabble farming and died a hopeless alcoholic, although he was not an unintelligent man. His daughter, my grandmother, a noble and patrician woman who found herself in the role of "mother" to the family at age 16 (when my great-grandfather's wife died in childbirth), strapped her mother's infant to her back and picked cotton in the fields til her hands bled, slowly going insane by middle age with the stress of an impossibly difficult youth. So, it was three generations of which I'm aware who simply couldn't cope with "rich to poor"–knowing what they'd had, and what they lost–when the Confederacy fell and the Old South changed forever. Some got over it, they survived, as David details of his former homeowners' swing from a pampered life to one of storekeeping. Others, like my ancestors, apparently didn't have a clue how to reinvent themselves. It is indeed the non-fiction version of the famous American novel/film, GONE WITH THE WIND. I so wish I had something, anything to substantiate the stories of my ancestors so that I could understand them better.

To me, David's ledgers are a treasure and so important to keep with that house! What a serendipitous series of events precipitated those historical books finding their way back where they belonged.

Sharon, with your newfound ledgers, there's a story in there for you to pen, as you're a very good one to weave a tale!

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