A few years ago, my esteemed colleague Ellen Terrell wrote an excellent blog post at Inside Adams, examining from a business perspective the firm of Scrooge and Marley, the fictional business at the center of Charles Dickens’s classic work of Christmas literature, A Christmas Carol. I thought I would see what an ethnographic perspective could achieve. Ethnography involves close observation of a culture not one’s own. This is similar to the kind of attention we need to give to literature set in other times and places. In performing ethnographic observation, it’s often good to take note of things that stand out or surprise you as unexpected or unusual. I do this too when reading literature from other times and places. I’ll be looking a couple of such elements of A Christmas Carol in this post.
In Ellen’s post, she examines the business terminology used by the firm and connects it to the business practices of the time. In particular, she identifies Scrooge and Marley as a “counting-house,” and concludes:
[…] It seems that a counting-house is a function or department that exists within a larger establishment – basically the bookkeeping or accounting department. Although this is not the case with Scrooge & Marley, it seems likely that the firm at least offered accounting and bookkeeping services.
Before proceeding, I should say that I think it is reasonable to argue that the counting-house is indeed a function within Scrooge and Marley, not its entire business. As a small firm with three known employees in its history (Bob Cratchit, the deceased Jacob Marley, and Ebenezer Scrooge), Scrooge and Marley would not have needed “departments,” but Scrooge certainly does other things besides accounting. Neither the firm itself nor its headquarters is ever said to BE a counting-house; rather, it is said to contain one.
In fact, one of the elements that stood out to my ethnographic ear when I read A Christmas Carol was a word for Scrooge’s place of business: “warehouse.” This seems to mean something different to Dickens than it does to me. The firm’s headquarters is in fact called a “warehouse” when it is first mentioned, and the Scrooge and Marley sign is described:
Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.
To me, of course, a “warehouse” is a large building where items are stored for sale or shipping. But, consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, I find that from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries “warehouse” was a genteel synonym for “shop” or “storefront.” So by calling it a “warehouse,” Dickens establishes that Scrooge and Marley had a public storefront into which business associates or customers could venture.
The same headquarters is later described as an “office,” when Bob Cratchit locks it up for the day on Christmas Eve:
Scrooge walked out with a growl. The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk, with the long ends of his white comforter dangling below his waist (for he boasted no great-coat), went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman’s-buff.
How do we know that both “office” and “warehouse” aren’t just alternate names for a “counting-house” in this instance? Dickens doesn’t give us much detail, but certainly within this warehouse or office were at least two rooms, only one of which is described as the “counting-house.” The other is called “the Tank.” The “counting-house,” where Scrooge sits, has its own door, which Scrooge keeps open so that he can keep an eye on Cratchit, who sits in the “Tank.” The “counting-house” appears to be an inner room; when Scrooge’s nephew Fred leaves the establishment, he takes leave of Scrooge and then of Cratchit on the way out:
His nephew left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding. He stopped at the outer door to bestow the greetings of the season on the clerk, who, cold as he was, was warmer than Scrooge; for he returned them cordially.
All this establishes that the business is laid out in the conventional way, with the clerk in a position nearer the outer door so that he can act as a receptionist, and Scrooge in an inner room with a separate door, typically called “Scrooge’s counting-house.”
It’s not established for certain whether the business has any other rooms, but it certainly might. Marley’s ghost refers to a “money-changing hole,” which could be the same room as the “counting-house,” but which seems more likely to have been a vault where actual money was kept (since counting-houses were for doing accounts, not storing cash). It’s also possible that Scrooge and Marley had separate offices; we can’t be sure if “Scrooge’s counting-house” and the room described by Marley as “our counting-house” were the same room or not. In any case, it’s clear that one or more “counting-houses” were only part of the office suite where Scrooge and Marley did business.
It’s also true that, as a very small firm, Scrooge and Marley could do business when not in their headquarters. For example, we see that Scrooge, having dinner as he always does at the same tavern, “beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s-book” before going home. “Banker’s-book” was another unfamiliar expression that caught my eye; according to the OED it means an account book, originally of a money-lender or money-changer, and (particularly in law), a book containing legal records of transactions. This means that Scrooge brings his account book home with him and works on it after dinner in the tavern. It may be significant that it’s described as “his banker’s-book,” not a client’s. We never apparently see Scrooge working on anyone else’s accounts, but we do see him working on his own. And the “banker’s-book” was especially associated with money-lenders, which we’ll come back to later.
In addition to “warehouse,” and “banker’s-book,” another word that struck my ethnographic eye was “’Change.” It begins with an apostrophe, suggesting it’s an abbreviation, and is also capitalized. It appears in the book’s very first paragraph, so it was the first detail to strike me as alien:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
What does this strange expression, “Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change,” mean? Here, The Annotated Christmas Carol provided the answer. “’Change,” is turns out, was a colloquial expression for the Royal Exchange, where business people went to negotiate deals on stocks, bonds, commodities, and other things that are bought and sold. Scrooge’s word being “good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to” means that Scrooge’s signature was considered sufficient guarantee of legitimacy for any deal on the Exchange. By extension, the narrator suggests that Scrooge signing the burial register is a guarantee that Marley is really dead! But the phrase performs a separate function of establishing something about Scrooge’s business: he does enough business on the Royal Exchange that he’s well known there.
We later see this more directly. In the company of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, Scrooge visits the Exchange (again known as “’Change”). There he overhears two meetings, one among a “little knot of business men” and the other between “two persons meeting.” He knows all of these men, and does business with them regularly; in fact, although he doesn’t know this, both groups are talking about him. After observing both meetings, Scrooge looks for himself:
He looked about in that very place for his own image; but another man stood in his accustomed corner, and though the clock pointed to his usual time of day for being there, he saw no likeness of himself among the multitudes that poured in through the Porch. It gave him little surprise, however; for he had been revolving in his mind a change of life, and thought and hoped he saw his new-born resolutions carried out in this.
We learn from this that Scrooge goes to the Exchange regularly, probably every day at the same time (or else he wouldn’t necessarily expect to find himself there), and stations himself at the same place, to do business largely with the same men. His “accustomed corner” is, in a way, a satellite office, and explains why he doesn’t need much beyond a counting-house at the company’s offices.
Another detail stood out to me; again it was some language that appeared to have significance beyond the simple words of the passage:
All he could make out was, that it was still very foggy and extremely cold, and that there was no noise of people running to and fro, and making a great stir, as there unquestionably would have been if night had beaten off bright day, and taken possession of the world. This was a great relief, because “three days after sight of this First of Exchange pay to Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge or his order,” and so forth, would have become a mere United States’ security if there were no days to count by.
What do we make of “three days after sight of this First of Exchange pay to Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge or his order,” and of “a mere United States’ security?”
Again, The Annotated Christmas Carol provides a useful explanation. The quotation about three days is the formal language of a bill of exchange, the manner in which Scrooge and other men of business bought and sold commodities or financial instruments without carrying around cash; it’s an agreement to pay or a promissory note. The comparison to a “United States security” is a caustic reference to the fact that American states, which in those days issued their own bonds separate from Federal bonds, frequently defaulted, so their promissory notes weren’t worth much. The rather obscure point here is that Scrooge is relieved that the world has not been plunged into permanent night, because according to the legal language of bills of exchange, without days and nights to count by, the debts people owe him will never come due!
As with the early quotation “his word was good upon ‘Change,” this passage amounts to the insertion of business and financial language into places where it would not normally be used: the affirmation that someone has died, and the relief he feels in discovering that time is passing normally. Because of this unusual use of financial language, these passages are humorously incongruous, and establish that business and finance is the primary frame through which Scrooge sees the world. But they also establish at least the likelihood that he is not merely an accountant for other business people, but a person who himself buys and sells on the exchange, and more importantly, a person to whom many debts are owed.
This last point is made even more vividly in another scene involving the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. When Scrooge has already seen a dead body covered in a shroud, but before he knows it is his own body, he demands that the ghost show him “any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man’s death.” The following passage ensues:
The Phantom spread its dark robe before him for a moment, like a wing; and withdrawing it, revealed a room by daylight, where a mother and her children were. She was expecting some one, and with anxious eagerness; for she walked up and down the room; started at every sound; looked out from the window; glanced at the clock; tried, but in vain, to work with her needle; and could hardly bear the voices of the children in their play.
At length the long-expected knock was heard. She hurried to the door, and met her husband; a man whose face was careworn and depressed, though he was young. There was a remarkable expression in it now; a kind of serious delight of which he felt ashamed, and which he struggled to repress.
He sat down to the dinner that had been hoarding for him by the fire; and when she asked him faintly what news (which was not until after a long silence), he appeared embarrassed how to answer.
“Is it good?” she said, “or bad?”—to help him.
“Bad,” he answered.
“We are quite ruined?”
“No. There is hope yet, Caroline.”
“If he relents,” she said, amazed, “there is! Nothing is past hope, if such a miracle has happened.”
“He is past relenting,” said her husband. “He is dead.”
She was a mild and patient creature if her face spoke truth; but she was thankful in her soul to hear it, and she said so, with clasped hands. She prayed forgiveness the next moment, and was sorry; but the first was the emotion of her heart.
“What the half-drunken woman whom I told you of last night, said to me, when I tried to see him and obtain a week’s delay; and what I thought was a mere excuse to avoid me; turns out to have been quite true. He was not only very ill, but dying, then.”
“To whom will our debt be transferred?”
“I don’t know. But before that time we shall be ready with the money; and even though we were not, it would be a bad fortune indeed to find so merciless a creditor in his successor. We may sleep to-night with light hearts, Caroline!”
Yes. Soften it as they would, their hearts were lighter. The children’s faces, hushed and clustered round to hear what they so little understood, were brighter; and it was a happier house for this man’s death! The only emotion that the Ghost could show him, caused by the event, was one of pleasure.
What we learn here is that Caroline’s family owed the dead man (that is, Scrooge) enough money that if he foreclosed on them, they would be ruined. It seems most likely this debt took the form of a mortgage, although this is not stated. Whatever the case, this establishes that Scrooge is a creditor who holds large debts from individuals. It also establishes that he has a reputation for foreclosing and ruining families like Caroline’s. Remember also that the “bankers’ book” originally meant, according to the OED, “an account book belonging to a moneylender or money changer.” It seems likely, then, that Scrooge is, at least in part, a moneylender.
The two aspects of Scrooge’s business I have outlined—buying and selling on the exchange and holding private debt—were often connected, then as now. In fact, one of the things you could buy on the exchange was discounted debt. Then, as now, debts in danger of default or already defaulted on were sold at a discount so the original creditor could cut his losses while the new creditor could collect only part of the original debt and still make a profit. As Carlo DeVito points out in the recent book Inventing Scrooge, men haunted the exchange with lists of debtors whose debt could be bought by other businessmen. It’s likely these are the transactions Scrooge makes every day “upon ‘Change.”
Of course, it’s possible that Scrooge’s status as a major creditor and as a buyer and seller on the Exchange are unrelated. And it’s possible that both are ancillary to another business in which he offered accounting services. But the simplest solution is that Scrooge and Marley is a financial institution like a mortgage bank, which either exclusively or in part obtains debts on the Exchange, and which then collects those debts, sometimes ruining lives like Caroline’s in the process.
This revelation is significant to the text in several ways. In particular it makes more poignant Scrooge’s conversation with two “portly gentlemen” earlier in the text:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
The later scene with Caroline reveals that his “business” is much more closely connected to poverty, the workhouses, and the treadmill than he admits when the book opens. Since he is a creditor with a reputation for literally forcing people to go to debtor’s prisons or workhouses, it’s a bit disingenuous for him to say that the lives of people in such institutions are “not my business.”
Of course, the most stirring lines about business in A Christmas Carol are delivered by Marley’s ghost:
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
These words of regret over conducting business as Scrooge and Marley did suggest a possible future for Scrooge himself. Given Scrooge’s change of heart at the end of the book, we can assume that the business of Scrooge and Marley changed accordingly after the events of the story. But whether Scrooge became a more merciful creditor, or went into a whole new line of business, we may never know.
Let’s consider it another Christmas mystery from Dickens’s prolific pen.