In 1843 Charles Dickens published his classic A Christmas Carol about the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Like many who have read the book, I have also seen various stage and television productions over the years and most of the attention was on the overall theme. When one of the details – the name of Scrooge’s firm – caught my attention, I decided to apply some business research skills in order to “learn” more about the fictional firm.
The first place to go was the text:
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.
Here we learn the name of the firm, Scrooge & Marley, and the name of sole remaining partner – Ebenezer Scrooge. But how many employees did it have and what did the firm do? Other than the owner, the text only specifies one employee, a clerk named Bob Cratchit. The only thing the text reveals about the firm’s business was that it was a counting-house. According to the Oxford English Dictionary this is a term that was used as far back as the 15th century to indicate:
a) A building or apartment appropriated to the keeping of accounts; a private chamber, closet, or cabinet appropriated to business and correspondence; an office. Now only as in c.
c) c. spec. A building, room, or office in a commercial establishment, in which the book-keeping, correspondence, etc., are carried on; also attrib. (Now largely superseded in everyday use by office.) (1)
Based on this definition 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. While Dickens mentions counting-houses several times in American Notes and the term shows up briefly in the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” neither source is very helpful in understanding what the firm Scrooge & Marley did. Unfortunately, what I thought was going to be a promising book, Counting House Book-Keeping, didn’t offer much help because the author’s intent was to write a “theoretical and practical” best practices book on “Counting-rooms and work-shops.” I did some searching for news articles, but didn’t come away with a better understanding of counting-houses. A strict comparison is a bit difficult, but a stand-alone accounting firm which has a NAICS code of 541219 and 541211 (there is no code for an internal accounting / auditing function) is close.
Even though Scrooge & Marley is fictional, I thought it would be interesting to find similar types of firms that were real. Finding those real-world, contemporary would-be competitors is a bit difficult but, in this situation, print directories were the best solution. Unfortunately, our print collection of older directories from England, Scotland, and Ireland didn’t go far back enough to help but the University of Leicester’s digital collection of historical directories had an 1841 Postal Directory for the city of London. The classified sections didn’t have a category for Counting-houses but there was one for Accounting that listed a number of firms including Armstrong & Faircloth, Oliver George & Son, and Webb & Gibson.
The next thing to look at was the stability of the firm and again, I went back to the text. The first clue – how Scrooge never re-painted the sign in the seven years since Jacob Marley died – makes clear that Scrooge was very aware of his business overhead and kept expenses low. Other clues indicate he didn’t spend money on much of anything and wouldn’t have been likely to have gotten in financial trouble due to overspending. This is emphasized by the following:
The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part.
There is also this very descriptive quote about Scrooge:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
He was also not a proponent of corporate philanthropy if his conversation with the gentlemen seeking funds for the poor was any indication. So, if he wouldn’t spend much on repainting signs, coal, or corporate philanthropy, one wonders if he would have spent any for books for a small library, and if he did, which ones might he have had. A Practical Compendium of the Law and Usage of Mercantile Accounts and titles in Accounting Bibliography : Historical Approach by Walter Hausdorfer may be representative, while his contemporaries in the United States would have been familiar with items in Bibliography of Works on Accounting by American Authors.
As for academic qualifications and previous work experience, the text offers few clues except something mentioned during the visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past when Scrooge is shown his life during his apprenticeship to Mr. Fezziwig. This is likely when he would have been made familiar with many of the late 18th and early 19th century works cited in the Hausdorfer title above, as well as writings by Malachy Postlethwayt, Martin Clare, Thomas Watts, William Gordon, and brothers Henry and William Augustus Clarke that were included in Education for the Mercantile Counting House: Critical and Constructive Essays by Nine British Writers, 1716-1794.
After being visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, Ebenezer Scrooge was a changed man. When Bob Cratchit came to work a bit late and Scrooge forgave the tardiness as well as indicating he was giving his employee a raise, Cratchit was so surprised he wondered what was wrong with his employer. The events of that night changed Scrooge personally, who knows what changes he might have made to his business.
NOTE (1): “counting-house, n.”. OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/43076?redirectedFrom=counting+house (accessed December 16, 2014).
UPDATE: Steve Winnick who writes for the Library blog Folklife Today wrote a post “More About the Business of Scrooge and Marley: an Ethnographic Approach” that adds even more to the picture but teasing out new details. It is definitely worth a read.