In our increasingly paperless society, this traditional verse may lack some of its original resonance. But while most paper is no longer made from rags and many financial transactions are conducted electronically, recent history suggests that the lines about banks and loans may still carry meaning. And the statement that “paper makes money” has multiple layers of significance for the collections featured in this exhibition. 

Among its resources for the study of early American history, the John Carter Brown Library holds archival records for companies founded by three prominent Providence families—the Browns, the Arnolds, and the Tillinghasts. Spanning the 18th to the early 20th centuries, the documents and account books in these collections shed light on nearly every aspect of the developing American economy. In addition, the unusual completeness of these business archives provides the opportunity to examine how early American firms managed their progressively more complex activities. The Brown and Arnold family collections arrived at the Library with their sets of account books and bundles of records largely intact, making it possible to trace the practices that enabled these companies to profitably operate locally and across great distances. 

This exhibition explores what it took to “mind” one’s business in the 18th and early 19th centuries. During that period, literacy and numeracy became critical skills for merchants and traders, and sophisticated methods of recording and analyzing transactions and investments enabled companies to more efficiently strategize their use of capital. Beyond being a boon to historical research, these accumulations of paper generated by clerks, bookkeepers and accountants did, indeed, make money.


This exhibition was curated by Kimberly Nusco.