Parchmen and Old Silk

Back in 1916, while rumaging through an old New England mill garret, Baker Library's librarian Professor Arthur H. Cole came up with bales of ancient financial history which started off one of the country's largest collections of business manuscripts. When George F. Baker presented the Business School with a library eleven years ago, the Manuscript Division was immediately set up to take care of Cole's find (the records of a colonial textile mill) and the other collections that Widener had already accumulated.

The present collection covers everything from a single ledger made out by some Colorado farmer to the hundreds of volumes put forth by companies such as the Peperell Textile Mills; in time they extend from the sixteenth century to the present. Most of them are well preserved for their age, but those showing signs of deterioration are covered on both sides with very fine silk.

One of the prize collections includes letters and account books kept by the Medici family during the fifteen hundreds. Written out half in Latin, half in early Italian, these records are filled with signs and symbols which can mean anything from a bale of cotton to a company insignia. One of the most rarely seen is a cross on the first page of a ledger, which means the account is honest.

During the twenties, the donor, Gordon Selfride (who founded one of London's largest department stores) heard that what was left of the Medici family was selling all the family papers. Although the Italian Government heard, too, and withdrew almost all of them, Selfridge bought enough to make 144 volumes. These were first bound and then given to the Baker Library.

Among its early American collections the Manuscript Division holds the records of Thomas Hancock who made all the family money and his nephew John who spent it all. They also include the ledgers of the first industry in the United States, a small iron works in Saugus, Mass. However, the collection is strongest on nineteenth century New England textile and shipping industries.

The most persistent users of these manuscripts are authors, who wish to write books on a single firm, and magazines. Many state historical societies use phtostats of original documents to round out their own files. According to Director Robert Lovett, even the Bank of England had to use photostats of Bank of England manuscripts, available only at Baker Library.

The collection was built up quickly after the Manuscripts Division was formed. The rapid accumulation was due to a deal made with the Business Historical Society by which the Business School could use the BHS' manuscripts if it would make space available in Baker Library for their storage. Agreements with other libraries such as the Boston Public brought in even more material. The Manuscript Division had so much material that it no longer accepts anything but complete collections, preferably on New England industries.