Bureaucracy: CORA HELEN ELIZABETH ELLIOTT ACCOUNT BOOK

About

This account book records the activities of a milliner’s shop—a dealer in textiles—operating in Denton, Texas around the turn of the twentieth century. It records, in particular, one year’s activities spanning from late 1904 to early 1905. It was most likely kept by the shop’s proprietor, Cora Helen [Hettie] Elizabeth Elliott. Elliott did business as “Mrs. J. P. Elliott” and documents her personal salary under that name in this volume.  

Cora Elliot’s journey to Denton, TX, may be traced to Galveston, TX., in 1880, where her mother, Elizabeth Criss, kept house in the company of her two children: Cora, at that time, and a son, a grocery store clerk. The 1880 Census also shows that Criss rented two rooms in her house, one to a cotton inspector, John [Jacque] P. Elliott from Alabama, and another to a physician, Sam. A. Towsey.

Within one year of the census Cora married Elliott; and, by the 1900 census, the Elliotts had increased in number and relocated to Denton, TX. J. P. and Cora (now registered as Helen P. Elliott) had four children: Mavory [Mabel], Emma Elizabeth, Shada, and, the youngest, a son, Jackson, who would eventually relocate to Los Angeles, California. J. P.’s employment was recorded as that of a “commercial traveller,” and Cora declared herself to be working as a milliner. The book whose pages are reproduced in this digital exhibit are taken from an account book kept by Cora Elliott in the year 1905 for her Main Street milliner’s shop.

While digitization makes it difficult to capture the materiality of the book itself, it is clear that it was a carefully designed artifact manufactured to fit the record-keeping needs of Elliott and others like her. The insider cover explains the construction method:

EVERY SECTION OF PAPER In this book is stitched to a patent heavy woven cloth guard, which is then sewed by hand to specially made extra heavy linen bands, and the entire back of the guards is then reinforced with strong leather, which gives ADDITIONAL STRENGTH, Prevents breaking, and produces a book which opens PERFECTLY FLAT from the first to last page.

As several patent records show, the 1890s saw an interest in the development of record books that would, by design, lay flat without causing damage to the binding, thus preserving the integrity of the collection of individual sheets of paper. The particular example used by Elliott, “The ‘Commercial’ Perfect Flat Opening Blank Book,” was patented in 1894. The patent-holders for “flat opening blank books” licensed various manufacturers to make and sell them. One of the most prominent, and perhaps the manufacturer of Elliott’s book, was The Henry O. Shepard Company of Chicago, Illinois, which won an award for its blank book work at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Elliott’s book not only lays flat but also provided her with added convenience in the form of a tabbed index, within which she could list her clients by name and cross-reference individual pages of the book, all of which were hand-stamped with an ink page number. Presenting itself with an aspect of seriousness and elegance, the book was embossed on the outside and decorated with maroon paper strips, also embossed with a gold chain pattern. The color scheme of black, maroon, and gold is carried over into the book’s heavy decorative end papers.

Other than the very first, all 472 plus pages of Elliott’s blank book were put to use. Most of the simple semi-calligraphic manuscript writing in the book records individual transactions, arranged in chronological order, under a heading for each client. Notable corporate customers include the Denton County Jail, the College of Industrial Arts (now Texas Woman’s University), First National Bank, the Exchange National Bank, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company, and the Texas and Pacific Railway. Most accounts, however, correspond to individuals like Elliott and the members of her family. Each client’s transactions are arranged in a common two-column scheme, one denoting charges for materials received and the other for payments. By consulting these two columns, the book’s user could at any time determine the standing of any client’s bill. Additionally, the book records business expenses, including the cost of merchandise, insurance, freight, and advertising, and sundry expenses including stamps, telephone, envelopes, oil, water, ink, brooms, taxes, coal, rent, soap, telegrams, postcards, lights, “scavenger” services (i. e., street-cleaning and waste removal), towels, laundry, P. O. Box rental, signage, and horse feed, & etc. All told, this account book holds information for transactions between Elliott and hundreds of individuals and groups. The corporate accounts reflect the needs of business. Individual account records reflect how each of these entities used textiles in their day-to-day commercial activities as well as in acts of personal self-fashioning.

Despite its straightforward economic purpose, this book also became a repository of personal, sometimes private, and even highly charged emotional transactions and relationships. “Mrs. J. P. Elliott” is registered as having received $8000 in salary for the year. She also purchased needles and thread, suggesting her work as a seamstress was ongoing while she kept shop. All of Elliott’s daughters had running accounts in the shop. Elliott’s second daughter, Emma Elizabeth, died at age twenty-two near the close of the year that this book documents. Part of her short life is documented on page 380 of this book wherein it is recorded that she purchased three parcels of Liberty silk (produced by a high-fashion London silk merchant and famous for its printed designs), a pair of shoes, and some buttons. Emma’s older sister, Mabel, paid $8.75 for the cost of these materials. The date “Dec 5” is recorded in a slow-moving hand that caused ink to pool at various turns in the formation of the letters. This entry only records a date and no transaction, which is an anomaly in the book’s otherwise remarkably consistent record-keeping scheme. As the 1910 Census records, Elliott had left  the milliner’s business by 1910 and reported her employments as those of keeping house and dress making.

This book has been loaned to UNT by McBride’s Music and Pawn, a Denton business on whose current premises this book was found. Dona Terry of Houston, TX, a descendent of Cora Elliott provided important assistance in the compilation of this description.

Cora Helen Elizabeth Elliot's Account Book

Elliott, Cora Helen Elizabeth. Account Book, ms. 1904-1905. On loan from McBride’s Music and Pawn, Denton TX.