The records of Rhode Island businesses are a key component of the Society’s manuscript collection, comprising approximately a third of the collection by volume. While most of Rhode Island’s leading industries and trades are included, mercantile firms and textile manufacturers are most prominently represented.
Rhode Island first came to international prominence as a maritime center in the mid-eighteenth century. Manuscripts collections include records from many of the state’s most successful shipping merchants, including early records from Providence’s Brown family, a massive collection from China merchant Edward Carrington and large collections from the Champlin, Greene and Nightingale families. A large ship’s log collection is also available, as well as the nearly complete records of the U.S. custom houses at Providence and Bristol/Warren. Many of these mercantile collections relate to the slave trade and have been released in a microfilm publication by University Publications of America as Papers of the American Slave Trade, Series A: Selections from the Rhode Island Historical Society.
The state’s shift from mercantile trade to textile manufacturing began in 1789 with the pioneering Almy & Brown mill in Pawtucket (now known as Slater Mill). The Society has those important records, as well as very large collections from the Brown & Ives, Sayles conglomerates and dozens of other firms. These collections document the driving force behind the prosperity that Rhode Island enjoyed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Two other specific collections also need mentioning. The Library holds the records of the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company, once the world’s leading manufacturer of precision measuring devices and a mainstay of the Rhode Island industrial scene from 1853 to it’s final sale in 2000. Also, the records of Old Stone Bank offer a comprehensive look into the finances of one of Rhode Island’s early banks, including detailed depositor records from the bank’s founding in 1819 through 1897.
Manuscripts collections also include a wide variety of account books from the general stores and other small retailers that played such a major role in the daily life of nineteenth-century Rhode Islanders. Some of these ledgers and daybooks have survived from most of the towns in the state, and their daily record of customer purchases is often of interest to both the genealogist and the social historian.
The most comprehensive access to manuscript materials is through a paper card catalog located in our Reading Room. A complete listing of our manuscript collections and detailed inventories for many of them are available in the Reading Room. Electronic versions of the detailed inventories are also available through the Master List of Finding Aids page. Please contact the Reference Librarian for more details about the manuscript collections for which there is no detailed inventory available on this website.
Additionally, other business-related papers can be found elsewhere in the manuscript collections. In particular, many collections of personal papers have extensive business content. If you are looking for something in particular, please contact the Reference Librarian so we can consult our extensive catalogs at the library.