Starting Conversations with Students about Personal Spending, Investing, and Stewardship with Historical Receipts

This post was written by Lee Ann Potter, the Director of the Office of Learning and Innovation at the Library of Congress.

In the March/April 2019 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article featured five historical receipts, one each from the papers of Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell, Frederick Law Olmsted, Anne Fitzhugh Miller, and Rosa Parks.

Receipt to Abraham Lincoln for Contributing to the Fund for the Monument to the Forefathers at Plymouth, 1861

Receipt to Alexander Graham Bell for membership, Boston Society of Natural History, 1876

Receipt to Frederick Law Olmsted for membership, New York Horticultural Society, 1879

  • The Lincoln receipt, dated April 15, 1861, included a sketch of the National Monument to the Forefathers. It certified that the newly inaugurated President had contributed $10.00 to the Fund for Erecting the Monument.
  • The Bell receipt, dated June 12, 1876 – five months before Bell received his patent for the telephone – recorded that the Boston Society of Natural History had received the inventor’s $5.00 initiation fee.
  • The Olmsted receipt, dated January 21, 1879, indicated that the landscape designer, who was the architect of New York City’s Central Park, had paid his $5.00 annual dues to the New York Horticultural Society.

    National American Woman Suffrage Association of the United States-Life Membership Certificate for Anne Fitzhugh Miller, 1900

    Rosa Parks’ Receipt, Poll tax, 1957

  • The Anne Fitzhugh Miller receipt, dated February 15, 1900, documented that “having paid Fifty Dollars,” she was a Life Member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
  • Finally, Rosa Parks’ receipt indicated that she had paid the $1.50 poll tax in Montgomery, AL, on January 21, 1957—a month after the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, which followed her arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, had ended.

In the article, we explained that receipts for personal expenses such as these – for initiation fees, annual and lifetime membership dues, taxes, and donations – can provide starting points for conversations with students about a wide variety of economic topics from personal spending to investing to stewardship, and more. We also described ways they can inspire interest in conducting original research.

We suggested dividing students into five groups, and assigning each group to conduct brief research on one of the individuals and their circumstances (i.e. occupation, residence, marital status) to the extent possible, for the month and year provided:

  • Abraham Lincoln, April 1861
  • Alexander Graham Bell, June 1876
  • Frederick Law Olmsted, January 1879
  • Anne Fitzhugh Miller, 1900
  • Rosa Parks, 1957

Then we suggested providing each group with the featured receipt related to the individual they researched, reminding them that a receipt serves as proof of money spent, and inviting student groups to:

  • discover how much their individual spent and for what purpose (students may choose to research the value of the expense in today’s dollars, or relative to the average annual income at the time spent and the cost of other items);
  • characterize the expense as either an initiation fee, annual or lifetime membership dues, a tax, or a donation;
  • determine whether the expense was voluntary or required, and what it enabled;
  • consider how the expense reflected the interests or values of their individual; and
  • discuss to what extent the receipt contributes to their understanding of their individual.

Next, we suggested asking a representative from each group to share a description of their receipt and their conclusions with the class.

Finally, we suggested leading a class discussion about spending, investing, and stewardship. Begin by reminding students that stewardship is the acceptance of responsibility to shepherd and safeguard something of value to others, and then ask students to consider how personal spending can be an investment that generates social benefit dividends, and the relationship between such dividends and the larger concept of stewardship.

If you’ve introduced your students to these or other historical receipts, what discussions about spending, investing, and stewardship followed?

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