Jesuits and the Book Trade

The following post is written by senior Brendan Courtois, one of this semester’s interns and a 2015-16 Ramonat Scholar. It is the first in a series about an important ledger that reveals the previously unappreciated role played by Jesuits in supplying the communities of the upper Missouri and Mississippi Valleys with Catholic books in the mid-nineteenth century. Unlocking the secrets of this volume is one of the initiatives of the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project this academic year.

As a history and finance major it seems appropriate that the first document I’ve been looking at this semester is a ledger from the Jesuits’ Missouri Vice Province now in the collections of the Archives of St. Louis University (Missouri did not become a full Province until 1863). For a little context: the volume is catalogued as “Library. Financial Records. 1847-49” in the SLU Archives’ finding aid. It actually documents book trade transactions for much of the 1840s and has separate sections for a “Cash book,” “Ledger,” “Bill book,” “Sales book,” and “Expense book.” The sales section reaches back to April 1842, but I haven’t found a specific reason why.

Table of Contents for Book Trade Volume in the Archives of St. Louis University

Table of contents for book trade volume in the Archives of St. Louis University

These sections act differently than their modern equivalents:

  • The Cash section seems only to deal with cash outflows. A modern cash flow sheet would account for cash inflows and outflows;
  • The Ledger seems to be a record of books purchased, which would line up with a modern ledger (other than the style of book-keeping, which will be discussed later);
  • The Bills are grouped under the individual they were given to, as opposed to the modern concept of tying bills to the work that created them;
  • The Sales section is a record of sales, which would be grouped with a ledger in a modern context;
  • The Expenses section operates similarly to the Bills section in this volume, and in a modern context they should be grouped together. Hopefully with more examination I’ll be able to understand the reason behind the separation.

The volume uses single-entry bookkeeping, and keeps track of the individual or business exchanging assets with the Vice Province. Single-entry bookkeeping is recording the financial effect of an entry, but does not tie it to any other asset. Double-entry bookkeeping is tying each entry with another asset to better see its financial effect. The fact that single-entry bookkeeping is used is not unusual, as standards for bookkeeping from professional accounting societies start around the mid-nineteenth century. However, single-entry bookkeeping makes interpreting a document of this size a challenge.

I’ve been looking through this volume for the past couple weeks in an attempt to understand what it can tell us about the financial operation of the Jesuits in the Missouri Vice Province. I know that the Jesuits kept track of the people they interacted with well. Every person has been named and a cost assigned to the transaction. In the sales section each month’s total sales are added up, but I haven’t found the added total anywhere else in the document.

Examples of the listings from the Sales section of the volume.

Examples of the listings from the Sales section of the volume.

At this point in my investigation it makes little sense to speculate, but I do have some specific questions I would like to answer about it over the coming weeks. First, why does this document exist? The records fill up 480 pages, which seem to be a lot of transactions for a short span of time. Second, what conclusion are the numbers leading to? Sales are added up monthly, but other sections are added up by client. The totaled numbers don’t seem to go anywhere in the volume to indicate a profit or loss from operation. Third, can these records be compared to the others kept by the Vice Province at the time? Are all the records similar to this volume or are they adding up numbers to record financial well being?

These are the initial questions I seek to uncover about this document and about the operations of the Missouri Vice Province as a whole during this period of time. I will dive into the document more thoroughly in the coming weeks to answer these questions. Stay tuned!


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