Robert Townsend Account Books – About the Project

The following Townsend journals and ledgers give an interesting picture of the colonial economic life from the earliest accounting in 1773 to the last account book in 1785.  Entries continuously show Townsend giving credit to customers for purchases and accepting all types of payments in commodities, personal services and cash payments. These types of financial activities occurred with almost all of the merchants in the British American colonies.

Colonies lacked adequate cash due in part to Great Britain’s “mercantilist” policy. Two major pieces to this policy forbade colonies to mint their own coinage and it was against the law for Great Britain to export their silver coins. There was one exception to this law. In 1652, England allowed Massachusetts to mint silver coins for a limited period of time. The colony continued to mint shillings, sixpence and threepence silver coins for thirty years by using the same mint date of 1652! The Massachusetts mint producing these coins closed in 1682.[Mossman,p.84] Colonies did acquire silver and gold coins through trade in the West Indies, from privateering and trade with Spanish treasure ships stopping at colonial ports to buy ship stores before they headed across the Atlantic to Spain. Even though Colonists had a reasonable influx of silver currency, they had to ship the bulk of their silver to English merchants to pay for British manufactured goods.

Colonies used a number of money substitutes to act as currency so commerce could proceed. Farm products such as corn, wheat, oats, pork, beef, animal skins, and other items such as guns, powder and shot, all passed as money substitutes.  The purchase of a bushel of corn at 5 shillings would show as a debit (Dr) in the customer’s account. When making a payment with a commodity the currency value of the commodity would be credited to the customer’s account (Cr). These money value entries were known as money of account and were in British denominations of pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d).

Merchants would record all sales and payment transactions in an account book called a Daily or Journal.  All transactions were listed chronologically. At the end of the month all daily transactions were transferred by the merchant to the ledger. All debits and credits would be listed by customer name with customer balances. This form of keeping accounts is called single entry accounting and was practiced in most colonies. This method of accounting facilitated the flow of commerce and most importantly gave the merchant the ability to track customer balances. When a customer paid for an item at the time of purchase, no record of the transaction was made.

The dual currency system, commodity currency and silver coins, satisfied debt but the inferior currency (commodity currency) drove the currency with intrinsic value (silver coins) out of circulation. Inferior currency driving good currency out of circulation is known as Gresham’s Law. [Rothbard, p.50]

This phenomenon is demonstrated in modern day coinage. In 1965 the United States mint ceased minting silver half-dollars, quarters and dimes and the public began hoarding all silver coins (half dollars contained 40% silver from 1965 through 1970 and many proof sets from 1965 forward contain silver coins). The inferior copper-nickel coins drove the superior silver coins out of circulation!

The most popular coin circulating in the British American colonies and also accepted as an international trade dollar, was the Spanish American silver dollar (SD). This coin was also known as the eight reales (8R) or Piece of Eight.

In the latter part of the 17tht century the value of the SD was set by England at 4s6d sterling or 54d (54 pence) sterling. A sterling silver coin had a silver content of 92.5% and the balance was usually copper. Colonies would set values of the Spanish Dollar in excess of the established 54 pence. To combat this problem, the English Board of Trade created a single monetary standard in the Proclamation of 1704. England established the value of the eight reales for all colonies not to exceed the value of 6 shillings, or 72 pence. [Mossman, p.49]  The New England colonies (MA, CT, RI and NH) and VA maintained the 6s value but the other colonies kept inflated values of the dollar as follows:  New York and North Carolina, 8s or 96d and Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland & Delaware, 7s6d or 90d. Georgia and South Carolina maintained the value at 4s 8d or 56d. Refer to Book 1, Appendix lll entitled Colonial Currency Arithmetic. This section will assist you in understanding the various rates of exchange between the colonies and the colonies with England.

The following ledger demonstrates all debits and credits for the customer named William Hill. The upper half of the ledger contains all the purchases or debits while the lower half lists all the payments or credits:

Dr William Hill

£ s d
Novr 9 To Mott & Bown on Richd Adams £24 9 4


old written document


William Hill        Cr

£ s d
Novr 9 By Sales of Tar 44 £24 9 4


old written document

old written document


In addition to acting as bankers, merchants could also pay the debts of their customers by transferring customer credit balances to a third party by making cross entries in their account books. This was a common practice amongst merchants and in this case Robert Townsend paid a debt owed by William Hill to Mott & Brown for Richard Adams. Hill’s credit account, for a sale of tar was used in a cross entry to Mott & Brown’s ledger for credit to Richard Adams.

A storekeeper, Samuel Rex, in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania had a business relationship with a local iron plantation. The company supplied workers with food and housing, purchased food items from farmers and purchased meat from Rex. The company also used the Rex store by allowing workers to charge items to their account.  This relationship, storekeeper Rex and the Iron manufacturer, accounted for one-third to one-half of Rex’s store income.[Wenger .p.83 circa 1802. It is interesting to examine the type of payments made by Rex’s customers. The percent of payments (credits) made in 1791 are as follows; cash – 14%, Country Produce – 8.9%, Craft Goods – 2.9%, Iron – 45.5%, Labor .4% and Paper Instruments – 28.4%. [Wenger, p.106]   A paper instrument was usually an “order” or a “note” instructing Rex to give a person credit or make a payment. Orders were also used to pay a third party.  When reviewing the Robert Townsend journals and ledgers you will see a number of “orders” and “notes” being used for financial instructions.

The following is a representation of the number of customer purchases and payments made to Robert Townsend from 1773 to 1779. Not shown are cash sales, since they were not recorded. Also entered are the approximate payment values for each year in New York money and in Sterling currency:

The last column lists the Sterling value in dollars and cents; the dollars represent the Spanish silver dollar, which was the forerunner of the United States silver dollar.

Year # of Sales (Dr) # of Pmts (Cr) £’s NY Money £’s Sterling Stg $ Value
1773 117 12 £178.10s.1½d £100.3s.2d $446
1774 139 26 £1220.15s.6d £686.13s.9d $3049
1775 155 34 £3303.17s.1½d £446.0s.5d $8251
1776 10 3 £101.11s.9d £57.2s.10d $254
1777 35 9 £255.11s.9d £143.9s.9d $637
1778 116 9 £711.3s.7d £400.0s.9d $1776
1779 113 14 £440.12s.8d £247.17s.2d $1100
Cash Payments 73%
Commodity 22%
Notes 5%


The Book 1 journal and ledger are unique and rare documents. Unique, because they identify the customers by name, record their purchases, and include the prices they paid for each item. In addition the ledgers show the balances that were left in their accounts. Other ledger entries show international trade with Scotland and Ireland. The fact that most merchant account ledgers have not been found makes this a very rare and valuable item.

As mentioned earlier, a major problem facing most merchants was the scarcity of specie. This was the case for one of the most famous and successful merchants in Boston, Thomas Hancock. Not only was specie scarce but also the paper currency issued in Massachusetts depreciated rapidly. During his career, Thomas Hancock managed his finances successfully even though there were three separate values for what was called Old Tenor, Middle Tenor and New Tenor paper currency. [Baxter, p12 & 113] Robert Townsend had an easier time because the currency situation in New York was quite stable compared to Massachusetts. The most surprising discovery of all was to find out that Robert Townsend’s customer debt payments were made in cash 73% of the time while most other merchants experienced a much lower rate in currency. I believe this was possible due to New York being a major port and the British military population was paid in silver coin.

This ends the Introduction to the Robert Townsend’s account ledgers.

Baxter, William, T., The House of Hancock – Business in Boston 1724 – 1775, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1945.

Mossman, Philip, L., Money of the American Colonies and Confederation: A Numismatic, Economic & Historical Correlation, Numismatic Studies No. 20, the American Numismatic Society, New York, 1993.

Rothbard, Murray N., A History of Money & Banking in the United States: The Colonial Era to WWII, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama 2005.

Wenger, Diane E., A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania  1992.

The following highlight the various appendices in the Compilation of the Robert Townsend Account Books.

Accounting, Journals and Ledgers:
The accounting method of this period, single entry accounting and basically had no rules established for a uniform and consistent accounting procedure. The merchant’s primary objective was keeping an accounting of all customer balances and this accounting system worked.

The following is a Journal or Daily account book which lists chronological sales by date, name, purchase or sale, product or service and currency amount.

£ s d
August 4th 1773
4 Paid Samuel Sackett 11 9 8
3 Saml Townsend Dr
To 12 ld[pounds] Tea 4/8
2 16
 “   Bag 1
 “   Cash pd [paid] Barber 12 6


old written document

Ledger documents show all debits and credits for a customer by name. These entries were usually made at the end of every month to keep a running total of a customer’s balances. The following is an example of a customer’s ledger:

Dr           Robert Stoddard[‘]s    Accot Current

£ s d
Septr 17 To amot of 20 Bbls Pork 25 £73 12 9
Novr 2  “   3 ld [lbs] Tea                                                                   5/ 29 15
£74 7 9
Jany 12  “  To Ballance [sic] £7 2 3
[To Balance is the amount owed to Robert Townsend.]


old written document


Robert Stoddard[‘]s    Accot Current          Cr

£ s d
Octr 27 By Sales of Rum £67 5 6


old written document

old written document

Appendix – Glossary of terms (sample):

Adventure – A commercial venture where the merchant and other investors take the risk of trade with         other cities or countries. Sites mentioned in the Townsend account books were Carolina (North); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Newry (Ireland); Glasgow (Scotland) and Hartford Connecticut.
Avoirdupois Pound – 16 ounces
Barrel– A container or vessel holding solid or liquid contents; 1 barrel salmon – 35 to 42 gallons; beer and ale – 36 gallons; spirits – 31½ gallons; flour, butter and soap – 56 pounds; gunpowder – 100 pounds; coffee – 1 to 1½ cwt (hundredweight).
Bills of Exchange – a written authorization or order to pay a stated sum of money to a specified person.
Bladder – a sack or a bag.
Bond – an obligation imposed by a moral duty, as by a vow or promise, by law or other means. An obligation or deed by which a person binds himself, his heirs, executor and administrators, to pay a certain sum on or before a future day appointed.
Breeches – A baggy garment. A loose garment worn by men
Broadcloth – A class of woolen Cloth. A fine smooth finish wool cloth.
Broglio – A silk woolen fabric.
Bushel – a dry measure containing 8 gallons or four pecks. 1 Bushel of flour barley or salt is 56 pounds; rye, maize or wheat – 60 pounds and oats – 39 pounds.
Butt – a container whose contents is 108 to 126 gallons or two hogsheads. Also called a pipe. A butt of beer or sherry is 108 gallons; port – 115 gallons; cider – 100 to 118 gallons and Madeira wine 92 gallons.
Calamanco – A woolen stuffed fabric.
Calico – A printed cotton cloth having not more than two colors.
Cambric – A class of fine white linen made of flax and said to be named from Cambray in Flanders where it was first manufactured.
Cassimere – A thin twilled wool cloth.
Cask – a closed vessel for containing solid items. 1 Cask of Rice (America) – 6 cwt (hundredweights); 1 Cask of Cocoa – 1¼ cwt (hundredweights); 1 Cask Raisons (Turkey) – 2½ cwt (hundredweights); cider – 110 gallons; cloves, mace nutmeg – 300 pounds; red herrings – 450 pounds; sugar – 8 -11 cwt; tobacco – 224 pounds.
Check – a cloth designed with check pattern.
Cockett (Cocket) – A scroll or parchment, sealed and delivered by the officers of the customhouse to merchants, as a warrant that their merchandise is entered.
Calico (Callico – English spelling)  – a cotton cloth. In England, a white or unprinted cloth. In the United States, Calico is a printed cotton cloth having not more than two printed colors.
Card (Wool) – an instrument for combing, opening and breaking wool or flax, freeing it from the coarser parts and extraneous matter.
Chest – a box of wood or other material, in which goods are kept or transported. Examples are Hyson tea – 60 – 80 pounds; Indian tea – 126 pounds; Ceylon tea – 120 pounds; Soap – 3½ cwt
Cordage – all sorts of cords or ropes used in the running rigging of a ship, or kept in reserve to supply the place of that which may be rendered unserviceable. The word includes all ropes and lines used on board of ships.
Currency Conversions – £ (pounds), s (Shillings) and d (pence) to dollars (Spanish Milled Dollars) and cents (Parts of the Spanish Milled Dollar).
The United States mint commenced production in 1793. In 1793, 110,512 one cent copper coins were minted, for a total face value of 1,105.52 dollars (SMD). It wasn’t until 1857, 64 years after the U.S. Mint was in operation, that the country had an adequate supply of minted coins in circulation. At that point in time all foreign coins were demonetized. The Spanish Milled dollar played a major role in everyday commerce in Colonial America, and was the model for the new U.S silver dollar.
The SMD was valued at 8s (shillings) or 96d (pence) New York money. The following values are for the £, s and d in New York money: 1£ = 2.50 SMD, 1s = .125 cents and 1d = .01042 cents. Converting £6 . 7s . 6d to dollars and cents:(6 x 2.50) + (7 x .125) + (6 x .01042) = 15 + .875 +.0625 = 15.9375 or 15.94 dollars
Dimity – A type of white cotton cloth ribbed or figured.
Dowlas – A coarse linen cloth.
Draft – An order from one man to another directing the payment of money.
Durance – A cloth used for curtains.

Appendix – Names:

1. NAMES, PERSONAL (note: citations for each individual will be included after exhaustive research):

[Bayard, Samuel of Taylor and Bayard (New York, N.Y.)] Merchant(s) Corner of Wall and Queen Streets “Chymist (sic) of Quebec, sold by Samuel Bayard, seller of Black Spruce, Spruce Beer, ingredients sold with instructions” (per November 1773 advertisement in the Royal Gazette)    
Bleeker, Anthony L. [Blecker in account books] Auctioneer (per June 1773 advertisement in the Royal Gazette)      
Coupar, Robert, Capt. Ship Captain [Delivered gold and silver lace to be sold by Ennis Graham, merchant, per June 1773 advertisement in the Royal Gazette]    
Roe, Austin     May 21, 1781 November 30, 1781
Springhall, Gregory [Springall?] Distiller Near the upper end of Chapel Street “Will sell for cash – gin, brandy, caraway, aniseed” (per November 1775 advertisement in the Royal Gazette)    
Underhill, Amos, 1740-1803 (younger brother & business partner of Benjamin) [of Benjamin Underhill & Co.] Mill owner & merchant Flushing, Queens County, N.Y. as of 1784    

2. NAMES, CORPORATE (note: citations for each business venture will be included after exhaustive research):

Ancrum Foster & Brice (Wilmington, N.C.) Merchants      
Duncan Barclay & Co. (New York, N.Y.) Merchants 516 Hanover Square (per March 1780 advertisement in the Royal Gazette)    
Templeton & Stewart (New York, N.Y.) [Oliver Templeton] Merchants (and auctioneers?) “Auction at the Coffee House Bridge” (per April 1780 advertisement in the Royal Gazette)    


Appendix – Colonial currency explanations & arithmetic:

The purpose of this appendix is to give you a basic knowledge of British currency, Spanish dollar ($) valuations for each colony, convert currencies between American colonies and Britian and convert pounds to dollars and dollars to pounds.

In this appendix the $ sign will signify a Spanish dollar and not an American dollar. The first American mint was created by Congress in 1792 and the first American silver dollars were minted in 1794. American silver dollars were similar in designed to the Spanish milled dollar in weight and fineness of silver. The first minting of American silver dollars in 1794 was 1,758 coins. In 1795, 160,295 coins were minted.1 It wasn’t until 1857 that congress demonetized all foreign coins.

1 A Guide Book of United States Coins 2011,Yeoman, R.S., 64th Edition, Whitman Publishing, LLC, 3101 Clairmont Road, Suite G, Atlanta , GA 30329 

British Currency and Denominations:
British currency is made up of Pounds (£), Shillings (s), Pence (d) and Farthings. There are 20 shillings to the pound, twelve pence to the shilling and four farthings to the pence or penny.

£1 = 20s
1s = 12d
£1 = 20s or 240d (20×12=240)
1d = 4 farthings
½ penny = 2 farthings
1 Guinea (Gold Coin) Sterling = 21s or £1 . 1s Sterling
1 Guinea New York Currency = 37.333s or £1 17s  4d New York Money

The Daily account books and Ledger accounts are subdivided in £, s and d. These account entries can represent either imaginary or real currency notations. Imaginary notations are similar to looking at your Master Card bill listing merchandise and dollars and cents showing your debit balance. Your debit isn’t reduced or paid in full until a payment is made. Real money is entered in your account when you submit accepted currency (a check) to your creditor. The same concept was accepted in Robert Townsend’s shop. All purchases showed as a debit until payment (gold or silver coins, commodities, personal services) were made and accepted. Remaining balances were determined by subtracting the credit balance from the debit balance. The real or imaginary denominations were called money of account. Today’s money of account are in dollars and cents and in the colonial era it was pounds, shillings and pence. Whenever a customer purchased an item and paid for it at the same time, no entry was made in the Daily or Journal book.

The Spanish Dollar ($):
The Spanish dollar during the Colonial era was an internationally accepted trade dollar and was the most popular coin circulating in the American Colonies. In order to have the Spanish dollar circulate as the accepted money of account (£, s & d) and be sure trade accounts reflected the proper values, the dollar was assayed by the London mint and determined its calculated sterling value to be 4s6d or 54d (54 pence). The American Colonies determined their own values for the Spanish dollar and the following lists the values for each colony:

Spanish Dollar Valuations in Shillings and Pence:
NY & NC = 8s or 96d (8s X 12d)
PA, NJ, DE & MD = 7s6d or 90d (7s X 12d + 6d)
MA, CT, RI, NH & VA = 6s or 72d (6s X 12d)
GA & SC = 4s8d or 56d (4s X 12d + 8d)
British Sterling = 4s6d or 54d (4s X 12d + 6d)

These valuations now represent five different currencies in the American Colonies. If an individual from Massachusetts wanted to buy furniture in New York, how many Massachusetts dollars did it take to pay the New York price? Conversions had to be calculated using the above conversion rates.

How much would it cost in New York money when a person from Massachusetts buys a £20 chair in Robert Townsend’s store in Oyster Bay?
£20NY Money x 96NY/72MA = £26.667
= £26 . 13.34s (.667 x 20)
= £26 . 13s . 4d (.34 x 12)
= £26 . 13s . 4d

 Appendix – Glossary of Products:

Food Items Kitchen Wares Personal Services and Miscellaneous
Apples Bowls And Iron
Beef Chafing Dishes Candles
Beer Forks Candle Sticks
Beets Glasses Canvass
Biscuits Knives Cartage
Brandy Sauce Pan Chestnut Wood
Bread Market Lamp Oil
Butter Spoons Nut Wood
Cabbage Tea Canister Oak Wood
Carrots Tureen Powder
Chicken Sand
Chocolate Sawing
Clam Shovels
Coffee Snuffers
Cucumber Starch
Fish Thread
Flour Tongs
Goose Writing Brush
Port Wine

3c. Appendix – Foreign Coins and their Approximate Values in New York Money and Silver:
Silver coins are followed by an “S,” copper coins are followed by a “C”   
Spanish American and Spanish Coin Values as of May 4, 2015
As mentioned in a previous section, the 8 reales or piece of eight was an international trade dollar and accepted worldwide due to its consistent weight and fineness (amount of silver).

Coin Value in Pence in NY Money Value in Shillings in NY Money Dollar Value
8 Reales  (8R) S 96d (pence) 8s (shillings) $1
4Rs 48d 4s .50
2Rs 24d 2s .25
1 s 12d 1s .125
½Rs 6d ½s .0625
¼Rs 3d ¼s .03125

Sample of a few Spanish American silver coins are shown below. Starting with the top row, the first coin, called a cob is hammered against a die and gives an irregular shape. This coin is a 2 reales and was minted between 1622 and 1635. All other coins were minted by using a screwpress creating a more perfect coin. These more modern Spanish American coins were produced starting in 1732.

The top row: 1622-1635 2R; 1798 2R; 1768 1R
Middle Row: 1738 ½R; 1797 ¼R
Bottom Row: 1799 8R


old coins