The dissonance was palpable. I sat in the reading room of the American Antiquarian Society, looking up at a large portrait of Stephen Salisbury III (1835-1905). The portrait captures Salisbury in his middle years; the mood is somber and Salisbury projects a gravitas appropriate for a member of the nineteenth-century elite of Worcester, Massachusetts, and for one of the chief benefactors of the institution in which his portrait hangs. I was reading through Salisbury’s account books and had started with one he began in 1849, when he was thirteen years old. It was hard to reconcile the stern middle-aged man in the portrait with the boy whose childish scrawl recorded purchasing candy, seed for his pet canary, marbles, a shuttlecock, and valentines. The valentines would provide a key insight into Salisbury’s values, but I did not realize that when I first saw them listed in the account books.
I was at the American Antiquarian Society in the fall of 2009 on a long-term fellowship, doing research for my current project, an examination of how consumer activities and family relationships shaped one another in the nineteenth century. I am interested in how family members negotiated appropriate levels of consumer spending and in the meanings they attached to their consumer activities. Did increased opportunities to purchase goods challenge traditional household decision-making patterns? Did all family members share similar ideas regarding proper levels of consumer spending? How did family members determine which goods were appropriate to purchase and what prices were acceptable to pay? In what ways was consumer spending a cooperative venture within families? In what ways did it cause conflict between family members? To answer these questions I have turned to collections of family papers which contain account books, diaries, and correspondence created by multiple family members. The voluminous Salisbury family papers at the Antiquarian Society fit the bill precisely.
The Salisburys were one of nineteenth-century Worcester’s leading families. Stephen Salisbury I (1747-1829) had moved to Worcester from Boston in the 1760s to establish a branch of his family’s mercantile business. Stephen II (1798-1884) built on his father’s success as a merchant by investing in the manufacturing and transportation industries that developed in eastern and central Massachusetts in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Stephen Salisbury III was born into privilege, enjoying an education at the best schools as well as extensive social and kinship ties in Worcester and Boston. Like many nineteenth-century elites, Stephens II and III were extremely concerned with preserving the legacy of their family’s contributions to Worcester, and both were active members of the American Antiquarian Society. When Stephen III died in 1905 without heirs, he willed a substantial part of the family fortune to the Antiquarian Society. The Society also inherited the Salisbury family papers, which contain account books and letters kept by the three Stephen Salisburys and their wives, as well as the diaries of Stephen III from his teenage years through adulthood.
Young Salisbury’s early account books provide many clues to the questions that drive my project. Stephen Salisbury II taught Stephen III to keep accounts of the money he received from his father and of how he spent that money. On occasion, the adult Salisbury’s hand is visible in the books, correcting a mistake or helping young Stephen calculate his total expenses for a given period. Clearly the father intended to use his son’s consumer activities as a vehicle to teach him accepted nineteenth-century book-keeping practices, knowledge that would be essential in any field of business. However, he also wanted to teach his son how to spend money and how to determine what goods were and were not appropriate to purchase. The goods Stephen recorded in his early account books reveal the values his purchases helped inculcate. The teenager purchased tickets to concerts, museums, and a “World’s Fair Panorama,” indicating his participation in the cultured, “educational” entertainments popular among well-to-do New Englanders. The account books also make clear that his father expected Stephen to be responsible for maintaining his appearance: the young man routinely recorded what he paid for hair cuts, as well as cologne, hair oil, soap, creams, and lip salve. Salisbury’s purchases clearly evoke the image of a young man concerned with meeting the expectations of Worcester’s privileged class.
And then there were the valentines. In January and February of 1849 and 1850 Salisbury recorded purchasing valentines on several occasions. He did not record the precise number of valentines he purchased, but he only spent small sums, between ten and twelve cents, at any one time. In purchasing valentines to exchange with his female acquaintances, Stephen III was participating in an increasingly popular American ritual. In the early nineteenth century, young lovers had exchanged hand-made cards on Valentine’s Day; however, a veritable craze for valentines developed throughout the United States in the 1840s and 1850s as printers, stationers, and booksellers began to aggressively market commercially made cards. Salisbury might have purchased these commercially produced valentines or he might have purchased a “valentine writer,” a chapbook of appropriate verses to copy into homemade or blank cards. My initial response to seeing “Valentines” in Salisbury’s account books was twofold. One part of me thought, “Ah, an example of young Salisbury participating in the culture of sentiment that increasingly characterized the nineteenth-century upper and middle classes.” Another (perhaps less scholarly) part thought, “How sweet!” and I again experienced that sensation of dissonance as I tried to imagine the august man in the portrait as a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old boy buying valentines to send to his female friends.
After these brief initial reactions I gave no more thought to the valentines for several weeks, during which time I finished reading Stephen III’s account books and moved on to his diaries. In 1848 Salisbury received his first diary as a gift from one of his maternal uncles. The twelve-year-old began recording the weather and some of his activities on a daily basis for about three weeks, after which his enthusiasm for keeping a diary began to wane. For one week longer he dutifully recorded “Nothing happened” and then he abandoned the project entirely, returning to it only on December 19, when he recorded the death of his “best Canary Bird.” After more than a year-long hiatus, Stephen again began to keep a diary in February 1850, and his entries immediately refocused my attention on the valentines. On February 2, 8, and 9, Salisbury reported that he had written valentines, summarizing his efforts on February 13 by recording “Have written 13 valentines.” His attention then turned from sending valentines to receiving them. Salisbury’s diary entries for the next three days read like a stock market ticker tape accounting for every increase in the number of valentines he received:
February 14 “Its Valentines Day have already received one Valentine but the Girls will probably not put theirs in till tomorrow Have written 13 already 1 more”
February 15 “Have recd 4 Valentines more”
February 16 “Have received a Valentine this morning which makes 7 already Have recd 2 more One more Have now got 10”
This last entry, in particular, resembles a shop keeper’s day book, with Stephen returning to the diary on at least three separate occasions to record a transaction, in this case, the receipt of an item which he valued. Each valentine he received was important because it revealed that another person had valued him enough to purchase (or perhaps make) a valentine and then pay the postage required to send it to him. Salisbury had not finished accounting for his valentines, for on the blank pages at the back of the diary he entered a “Memorandum” in which he recorded the names of the young ladies to whom he had sent valentines and the names of those from whom he received valentines. He ended by writing, “I have received 10 Valentines. Very Well.” Salisbury obviously was pleased with how well he had done in the “receipts” category, even if he was three valentines in the red.
Numbers mattered to Stephen Salisbury III. Learning to keep accounts had taught him that numbers were a way of expressing value. The “Saga of the Valentines” (as I referred to it in my notes) raises the possibility that Stephen had learned to value social relationships in similar ways. After all, it was the number of valentines he received that Salisbury emphasized. Nor was Salisbury alone in using numbers to symbolize the value of affective relationships. Bits and pieces of evidence from the papers of other members of the Salisbury family and their extended kin network offer an intriguing glimpse into the ways that nineteenth-century Americans accounted for friendships and other social ties. Like other upper-class nineteenth-century women, Stephen’s stepmother, Mary Grosvenor Bangs Salisbury (1800-1864), kept a social account book where she recorded the names of those people with whom she exchanged calls. On these pages she also listed the names of those who had called on her and her husband on New Year’s Day in 1860. She was not content merely to list their names, however, for she totaled up the number of people who had visited: 45. Stephen’s aunt, Catharine Flint (1802-1869), kept records of her social calls that resemble ledger books. She organized her social call book alphabetically, writing the names of her acquaintances on the left pages in ink, and then writing the dates she had called on them on the right pages in pencil, so she could update the book by erasing the dates of old visits and replacing them with new ones.
Building and maintaining social capital was very important to these mid-nineteenth-century Americans. From sending and receiving valentines to exchanging social visits, the elite New Englanders with whom the Salisburys associated were building social networks and participating in an economy of social reciprocity. Social relationships were valuable for many reasons, from the emotional to the practical. However, this value was difficult to express. The language of numbers and accounting helped Stephen Salisbury III express the pleasure and sense of value he received from valentines. Just as numbers in account books and diaries helped Salisbury express value, so too did his portrait hanging on the wall of the American Antiquarian Society. After all, Salisbury’s portrait presents a man of wealth, status, and benevolence; it is a measure of Salisbury’s economic and social value. Perhaps I was wrong to sense any dissonance between the middle-aged man in the portrait and the boy who purchased candy and toys. They both understood the value of social capital, whether expressed through portraits or valentines.
For further reading on consumerism in early America, see John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (New York, 1993); Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, Peter J. Albert, eds., Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville, Va., 1994), Ann Smart Martin, Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia (Baltimore, 2008); and Elizabeth A. Perkins, “The Consumer Frontier: Household Consumption in Early Kentucky,” Journal of American History 78 (1991): 486-510. Elizabeth White Nelson, Market Sentiments: Middle Class Market Culture in 19th-Century America (Washington, D.C., 2004) analyzes the relationship between the growth of sentimental culture and the market economy. For histories of Valentine’s Day celebrations and cards, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, 1995) and Barry Shank, A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (New York, 2004).
This article originally appeared in issue 11.4 (July, 2011).
Mary Beth Sievens is associate professor of history at SUNY Fredonia, where she teaches courses on American Women’s History, the American Revolution, the Early Republic, and the Civil War. She is the author of Stray Wives: Marital Conflict in Early National New England (2005). Her current project is tentatively titled Gendered Accounts: Consumption, Labor, and Households in Nineteenth-Century New England.
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