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 (Now largely superseded in everyday use by office.)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.
Thank you Ellen. Often I read ” the counting house…” this or that. Also there is often for me to read,…”the threshing floor.” It is clear that’s where the money is. You made it more clear and in civil London no security needed. In country C. H. I see guns and muscle and police, and Wells Fargo type moving of the funds. I would like read so much more about a counting house. Always more Ellen. From Dianne
Note that Scrooge apprenticed at Fezziwig’s warehouse and that the Scrooge & Marley sign “hangs above the warehouse door.” This suggests the business was warehousing and trans-shipping.
Christmas Eve 1843 was a Sunday, so the warehouse workers could be off, but office-clerk, Bob Cratchit, is working–copying letters.
Scrooge is also a landlord. Several rooms in his house (formerly Marley’s house) are let out to businesses–not as apartments. So real estate may be a side business.
The landlording business is further evidenced by the scene in Christmas-yet-to-come where the Third Spirit shows Scrooge a family who learns that due to a death (presumably of Scrooge), they’ll have more time to make their rent, and thus, avoid ruin.
It may be that the letters Bob Cratchit is copying are eviction notices or complaints to be used to send debtors to “sponging houses” on their way to Marshalsea prison. That is where Dickens’ parents were held. If Dickens wanted to make Scrooge a villain, a heartless landlord would certainly resonate with his own personal experience.
However, Scrooge seems risk-averse–especially after his fiancee’s rejection. I would think that his primary business was warehousing, with only a bit of landlording thrown in–to lessen the risk of debtors not paying.
Through the Christmas season, I daily listen to the unabridged audiobooks of A Christmas Carol narrated by Tim Curry and also by Jim Dale. It’s interesting to become so familiar with the actual story that one realizes the creative process in how the movie-makers added and removed content for their screenplays.
For historical accuracy, we have to use only the actual story as written. That said, the book references “Warehouse Door” and also something about contract language wherein Scrooge was due payment in three days, and “a mere United States security”. The relieved couple at the end – my impression wasn’t that it was rent or mortgage, but just a loan payment.
After Reading all the above, I understand the business was a warehouse and the “counting-house”, whose door was open, is just the cubicle where Bob Cratchit worked. It was open so Ebenezer could keep an eye on him.
Wondered about this myself. Scrooge was almost certainly a money lender, may have operated a warehouse, but he probably had his fingers in more than one pie. He was involved in the stock exchange. Other than a few such clues, Dickens either assumed that the Victorian reader would recognize a generic successful man of business or otherwise didn’t want us to dwell too much on the subject.
As to the date of Christmas in 1843: the narrative itself is dated firmly in “once upon a time”. The scenes from Scrooge’s past were probably regency in period, hence Fezziwig’s wig and breeches.
And touching on the possibility of Cratchit working on Sunday, there is some debate as to the work week of that period, but Sundays were probably off and some seemed to work Tuesday through Saturday, and Saturday may have been a half day. Long days though. Scrooge even brings up the work week with the ghost of Christmas present, wondering why the spirit’s kin would deprive people of a day’s work once a week. Of course the spirit chastises Scrooge for confusing the hubris of man’s religious laws with the what was otherwise much more important, as Scrooge was learning from his experience with the ghosts.
After reading and watching the TV adaptations of A Christmas carol I was certain that Scrooge and Marley’s was an accounting firm and that Scrooge lent money hence the counting of money in the films and book. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I begin researching and after reading this particular post and comments I am pretty certain of Scrooge’s business.
We know that their business must have had something to do with money, letter copying, and the book describes the Scrooge and Marley sign to be above a warehouse door. Does this mean they owned and operated a warehouse or maybe they dealt with the accounting and bookkeeping of the warehouse? In the article above Ellen describes their business to be a counting-house, this checks out my theory above while explaining their extreme wealth and why Bob worked in almost an “open cubicle” like it explains in the book.
We also know that Scrooge loaned money and had payments from clients due around the time of the book. Some of the people commented that he rented out rooms in his house for payments and was very much a “slumlord”
I am still very confused about what their real profession really is but alas I can’t ask Charles Dickens so blog posts like this will have to do.