Storybook-keepers: Numbers and Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America
To give an account of something is to tell a story about it, and to hold someone accountable is to make him responsible for that story. This essay explores the ways bookkeepers wove numbers into narratives and the way the stories they told influence their decision-making. In early America, bookkeepers braided together words and numbers, sometimes following the recommendations in the latest textbooks, but also developing their own idiosyncratic notations for making sense of the world. They scrawled rough and ready calculations alongside precise and orderly balance statements, revealing their anxieties, preferences, and priorities along the way. Following them illuminates the daily drama of accounting as a narrative, contested search for understanding and control.