In the warm, sleepy hour after Christmas dinner, my daughters have set their presents down in a nest of wrapping paper and turned to an old leather-bound book they’ve found in an upstairs closet of my grandmother’s house. We sit at her kitchen table 130 years after the first line of ink dried in this ledger as my grandmother gently traces her finger along the heading: Expense Account of the Family of W.F. & Julia Scott, beginning September 8, 1877, Xenia, Illinois. In fluid, even script, my great-great-grandfather Winfield Scott set down the life of his family in a string of words, beginning Reverend J.M. Miller for marrying us 5.00, Horse and buggy 3.00, Railroad fare 1.80. He detailed every expenditure in his household from that September wedding day in 1877 through December of 1900.
My daughter Eliza reads aloud the tally of items bought in those early weeks: Calico .25, Coffee .35, Butter .30, Chickens .40. Between Stamps .15, and Sugar .25, he noted Charity to unknown boy .05. “They started out in the little town of Xenia, north of here,” my grandmother tells us. “He was a teacher when they married, and sometime after the children were born, he earned his law degree.” As I turn the pages, I see him coming home from a day of teaching, tall in his dark clothing, sitting down to a small desk in the corner of the living room to record the costs of the day: Soap .20, Ginger .10, India Famine Sufferers 2.00, Sassafras .15, Gertie’s primer 1.00. A quick reading of a month’s expenses reveals what my grandmother confirms. Most of the money they spent went toward necessities, books and charity.
Eliza asks, “Why did he write it all down?” Her sister Alice answers, “To keep track!” It is as simple as that. He wrote it all down to keep track. He wrote it all down to account for every penny that left their hands, and in so doing, he left open the door to his household, a door through which my daughters can step more than a century later. We are home for the holidays, warming our feet near the fireplace in the grand home Winfield and Julia built after 30 years of saving. Every time I walk into this house with my children, I know they will take back to California the gift of having walked and talked in the rooms where their great-great-great-grandparents, and then their great-great-grandparents, and then their great-grandparents lived. They take back with them the gift of sitting with their great-grandmother as she tells them about Winfield and Julia Scott, her husband’s grandparents who built the home we’re sitting in.
“What kind of clothes did they wear?” Alice asks. They bought Gingham .25, and Collar Buttons .10, Lace .10 and Calico .25. My grandmother tells us that Julia liked fine hats made miles away in St. Louis, arriving in round boxes on the train. She paid $3.25 for a hat in November of 1886. I think of her four little girls helping her open the box and lift out the new hat. How that must have made her feel there in the small dusty town far from any city. I imagine she didn’t want feathers or bright colors or a long pin with a pearl on the end. She wanted something solid, simple, made from the finest wool.
We take turns reading the entries from December to get a sense of what their holidays were like, and find they were as frugal then as they were the rest of the year. Mamma tells us they would have celebrated Christmas in church, afterward exchanging only small gifts. In the week before Christmas in 1890, the following items are recorded: Winnie’s doll .90, Candy .05, Figs .10, Cocoanut .20, Handkerchiefs .15. Gertie’s Sled .65, Mabel’s Blocks .25, French Harp .10, Red Bird and Cage 1.00.
Although they were frugal, spending just over $16,000 in 23 years, there are pleasures strewn throughout. They somehow bought oysters in 1879, a thousand miles from any ocean. Did those oysters travel up the Mississippi River on a barge, packed in ice? Did they arrive glistening in their shells or in small tin cans? They bought oysters and schoolbooks, ink for the pen and cotton for the dresses. They bought a Bible (only one), seeds, apples, shingles for the roof, curtains for the dining room, a cow for milking. They didn’t travel but brought the world to them, four newspapers at once by 1900, oysters every six weeks or so from who knows where.
They had four daughters and a son who died. Births are revealed by 5.00 to Dr. Chatham, followed soon after the birth of the first child by Cradle 1.00. At the end of 1892, he notes the total expenditures for the year, $632.05. Average per week: $12.15. Total for 15 years: $7368.55.
Sorrows are met with perseverance, followed by a return to the small pleasures that sustain us. In the week of November 29, 1880, the accounting includes: Driving Cow .50, Bread .25, Thermometer .25, Boots 8.00, Flax seed .10, Thread .05, Coffee .50, Shoestrings .25, and at the bottom of the page, heartbreakingly, Digging our son Ezekial’s grave 2.00, followed by Coffin 8.00, Roll of Cotton .15, Lace .25, Crape .60, Dr. Carrothers 12.00. And then: Potatoes .25, Rice .25, Buttons .10, Gospel hymns .60, and for daughter Winnie, a Doll .25.
As the lines of the ledger move through the years, my great-great-grandfather’s handwriting grows tentative. There are more visits to the doctor. More books are bought, perhaps because he has more time to read them now. Emerson’s Essays 1.00, Around the World with Eyes Wide Open 1.00. Money still goes regularly to the First Baptist Church. His girls have grown up and moved into houses of their own. (Daughter Mabel in 1911 would become the first woman admitted to the bar in Southern Illinois.) I see him at the round oak kitchen table bought 23 years earlier, fingering the page of the ledger, toting up the expenses of the week, summoning the details as they swim away from him. Did he ever fall behind in his record keeping? Did he wonder what his daughters would do with the ledgers after he was gone?
My daughters, wearing the soft velvet dresses their grandmother gave them for Christmas, run off to play again with their presents near the tree. After the comforting cadence of the ledger, I am struck by how many things the girls have received. There are things to color and things to read, things that make music and things that make noise, things that puzzle and things that disappear. Happily they gather it all around them, settling into their new pleasures. Neither they nor their father and I could account for all of the possessions they’ve received in their young lives. The lasting gift this year is the message in the lines of the ledger: choose wisely, hold onto what matters, and know that love and kindness matter most. My grandmother and I turn back to December of 1896. Crackers .05, Candy .05, Milk .35, “Scenes from Abroad” for Gertie 1.00.
The ledger stops at the end of the year 1900, the last page of the book. Winfield and Julia Scott lived another 30 years or so. The subsequent ledgers either were discarded or have been lost. This one, we hold carefully in our hands.
Melinda Clemmons lives with her husband and two daughters in Oakland. Her writing has appeared in The Cimarron Review.
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