The World of Moses Boone: The Economic Activity of a Berks County Tanner in the 1780s
by Karen Guenther
During the decade after the American Revolution, the new United States faced a series of economic problems because of the adjustment to a postwar economy that did not depend upon trade with Great Britain. In the wake of price and wage declines after the war came mounting indebtedness as the network of credit engulfed the country. This postwar depression had several impacts that influenced the development of the new nation, particularly an inability to pay taxes and reliance upon a barter system in order to survive economically. As residents of a back-country county, Berks Countians were not as dependent upon the fluctuations in external trade as were merchants in Philadelphia, but the readjustment from a wartime to a peacetime economy did have negative effects on some residents of the region. Consequently, although local craftsmen like Moses Boone might not have been directly affected by the economic disruptions of the 1780s, they found it necessary to operate their businesses through a barter system, instead of cash payments, during this decade.
Throughout the colonial period, arts and crafts belonged in the economic category known today as small business – the basic industrial unit was the family, and the success or failure in a given trade depended entirely on its head, the master craftsman who conducted the business. The typical Pennsylvanian opened and operated the shop, purchased the tools and raw materials, designed the product, trained apprentices, supervised journeymen, procured commissions for work, and sold finished goods. Adding to this practice of a skilled craft would be spring and summer harvests of wheat, which enabled a farmer/artisan to have a smooth flow of income while at the same time providing food for his family.
A tannery like the one operated by Moses Boone was one type of enterprise run by a farmer/artisan. In a land where farmers butchered cattle for salt meat and slaughtered deer merely for their skins, leather was plentiful and cheap. Being resourceful, colonists used leather clothing for everyday wear. The common tannery, then, was a type of small business that served a local market, one seldom affected by fluctuations in the global economy.
Moses Boone was a cousin of the noted pioneer Daniel Boone. He was born August 3, 1751 (July 23, 1751 O.S.), the tenth child and fifth son of James and Mary Foullte Boone. His father James was a prominent member of Exeter Monthly Meeting, serving as overseer for Exeter Preparative Meeting four times between 1737 and 1757 and as clerk of the Men’s Monthly Meeting between 1746/7 and 1749. In the secular world, James Boone was a justice of the Peace for Berks County between 1752 and 1755 and represented Berks County in the Provincial Assembly in 1758. Throughout most of the last half of the eighteenth century, James Boone also was one of the wealthiest men in Exeter Township, operating a prosperous tannery and farm.
As the youngest surviving son, it would not have been unexpected for Moses Boone to venture out into the frontier to seek his fortune, but that was not the case. His eldest brother, James Boone, Jr., became a prominent and respected schoolmaster in Exeter Township. Elder brother John did follow in his father’s footsteps and also became a tanner, but he died before his thirtieth birthday and his widow sold off the tannery in Alsace Township before remarrying. Brother Judah operated a gristmill in Exeter Township, while Joshua Boone eventually took over his father’s sawmill in Brunswick Township north of the Blue Mountains. It would be left to Moses Boone, then, to continue the family tanning business in Exeter Township that his grandfather George Boone had begun after his arrival in Oley Township in 1720.
Moses Boone did not play a role in the larger scheme of American history, but he did leave a ledger that provides a peek into economic activity in the new nation. According to the entries in the ledger, Moses Boone assumed control of the tannery in October 1778, when Samuel Webb sold him a 27-pound hide at 4d. per pound and gave him a 1s. advance toward work that would be completed by December. That December, Moses married Sarah Griffith, a Welsh Baptist from Gwynedd Township in Philadelphia County, an action that contributed to his dismissal from Exeter Monthly Meeting in 1780. This union produced four children over the next dozen years, and his eldest son John ultimately took over the family business shortly before Moses Boone’s death in 1823.
For the purpose of this study, the author examined the entries in Moses Boone’s ledger from 1780 through 1789. During this decade, 620 debits and 394 credits occurred, involving 114 separate customers. Over half of the accounts had fewer than four debits or four credits; in fact, over one-fourth of the accounts only involved one transaction or less on either side of the ledger. Moses Boone’s business, then, was somewhat transient during this decade.
The vast majority of Moses Boone’s accounts reflected his business as a tanner, because the transactions described tanning and curing services performed on hides and skins. When dealing with family members, however, the transactions reflected other activity. One such account was that of Samuel Webb, an Exeter Township farmer who also was a Quaker and Moses Boone’s cousin. Webb purchased tobacco, flaxseed oil, wheat, oats, Indian corn, rye straw, and apple brandy from Boone between 1778 and 1783. In addition, Webb had hides tanned and skins cured by his cousin. Boone treated calfskins, hogskins and sheepskins and made reins for a bridle and a strap for Webb’s windmill. As part of the arrangement, Boone bought a knife, several hides, a sheepskin, bark and a large oval tub from Webb. In 1780 and 1781 Boone also served as a bank for Webb, for on three separate occasions he exchanged Continental dollars for Spanish dollars, and twice he loaned him cash for expenses and to pay his taxes.
One of Moses Boone’s most frequent customers was his brother Judah. Between 1779 and 1788, Judah Boone had fifty-six debits and twenty-five credits posted to his account, totaling £126.1.2 1/4. Only a few of these transactions involved tanning, curing, waxing, and or dressing calfskins and hogskins. Instead, just like Samuel Webb’s account, most of the ledger entries reflected Moses Boone’s activity as a farmer. The credit side of the ledger reflected that Judah paid his debt by providing Moses with calfskins and hides, wheat, beef, salt, and “3/4 days reaping by Dennis Brady.” The account was balanced after Judah’s death through notes to be paid by Moses to the estate for the balance of Judah’s inheritance.
Throughout the entire period of Moses Boone’s operation of the tannery, he conducted more transactions with his brother Joshua than anyone else. Joshua had been a storekeeper in Oley Township and by this time was operating the family sawmill in Brunswick Township north of the Blue Mountains. Unlike Judah’s account, however, Joshua’s did not balance; the total in the debit column after the last recorded transaction exceeded the credit amount by £75.19.3.
Like the account for Judah Boone, few of Joshua’s ledger entries involved tanning. Moses supplied his brother with bushels of oats, wheat, malt, buckwheat, and Indian corn. He also sold him quarts of whiskey and pecks of salt. In addition, Moses lent Joshua cash on four occasions during the 1780s and transferred the balance of Nicholas Drumheller’s account to his brother’s. Moses’s life as a farmer also appeared evident in this account, for he sold two pigs to Joshua in 1784, lent two cow chains and sold a steer in 1787, and stabled Joshua’s mare and colt on two occasions in 1788.
Joshua Boone did make several payments on this account during the 1780s. In 1783, Joshua sold Moses a writing desk and four pounds of calfskins. In September 1785, Moses bought from Joshua “14 gallons and 3 quarts of Fish Oil,” a bedstead, and an 8-lb. calfskin. The transactions recorded for 1786 indicated that Joshua made payments for Moses to John Cinle and John Drumheller, both of whom had transacted business with the tanner. If the client was not a relative, typically Boone only performed tanning and curing services.
While the vast majority of entries overall reflected that Moses Boone’s primary activities were tanning and farming, his clients paid for his services or products in a wide variety of ways. For instance, in 1787, Isaac Levan paid by the “run of his wagon to Philadelphia with my body,” and two years later with the “run of his wagon to Robeson’s mill,” hauling six bushels of apples and a barrel of cider from John Popp’s. Other customers settled their accounts by performing services that often related to their own crafts. Food, beverage, and supplies were other common repayments for a debt. Sometimes customers satisfied accounts by working for Boone during harvest time. On a few occasions accounts were settled when someone other than the customer performed work for Boone on his farm.
Transactions at Moses Boone’s tannery fluctuated a bit during the 1780s. Business started slowing 1780, with only twenty-three entries (18 debits, 5 credits) for that year. The number of entries in the debit column of the ledger (services rendered) outnumbered credits (expenses) throughout the decade, but in two years — 1784 and 1787 — the amounts in the credit column exceeded the value of debits, indicating that Moses Boone lost money those two years. He experienced high volume in business in 1782, when he made ninety-one entries in the debit column and fifty in the credit column; after taxes, Boone earned £44.13.0 from his business that year. The greatest number of total transactions occurred in 1786, when Boone recorded 104 debits totaling £102.16.l and 56 credits totaling £72.14.0 1/4; after taxes, he made a profit of £24.10.6 3/4 that year. His economic distress in 1784 — the value of credits exceeded debits by £48.13.4 that year, not including any tax paid (the tax lists for 1784 have not survived) — can be attributed to postwar readjustment. For example, ironmaster Mark Bird went bankrupt in 1783 because he could not collect debts owed by the American and French governments, and the county sheriff sold most of his property at a public auction. If one of the wealthiest men in the county could suffer such economic problems because of the war, it is not unreasonable that a local tanner would experience the same pain.
By 1786 Boone was doing well again, mainly because of the inheritance from his father. But in 1787 he faced a huge shortage in the balance of accounts. Credits for that year exceeded debits by £90.11.11 3/4, mostly because of the necessity of closing the account of his brother Judah who died that year. On June 13, 1787, two notes, totaling £102.11.6 3/4, were presented to Boone by the administrators of his brother’s estate to be paid as part of Judah’s legacy from their father’s death two years earlier. In spite of this enormous expense, Moses Boone did have a positive balance to his ledger by the end of the decade, although it was only £11.16.9 3/4. Without a doubt, Moses Boone operated in an environment in which services were exchanged for goods in a barter situation. Otherwise, it would be extremely difficult for a family of five to survive on less than £2 per year after taxes without moving into the almshouse.
Over two-thirds of Moses Boone’s clients lived in three townships – Amity, Exeter, and Oley. The remainder of his business was scattered throughout eastern Berks County and northwestern Philadelphia (after 1784, Montgomery) County. These men and women were predominantly farmers (over sixty percent), but they also followed a wide variety of occupations. Six shoemakers dealt with Moses Boone as a tanner during this decade. Four of his clients were women, either widows or daughters of previous customers. Other craftsmen who considered Boone worthy of tanning hides for them included a cooper, a fuller, a papermaker, a sawyer, a collier, a hatter, a tailor, a stocking weaver, a storekeeper, a schoolmaster, two masons, two laborers, two saddlers, two tanners, four smiths, four carpenters, four millers, and four weavers.
As a craftsman and businessman in Exeter Township during the 1780s, Moses Boone dealt with a variety of clients, not just in occupation and wealth, but also in ethnic and religious background. Thirty-two of his 114 creditors (28%) were of British ancestry, almost three times the proportion of British settlers in the county. Most of the English or Welsh settlers for whom Boone tanned products were relatives (eight were brothers or cousins) or area Quakers who probably had done business with James Boone and continued patronizing the tannery after Moses assumed control, even if he no longer belonged to the monthly meeting. Because almost three-fourths of Moses Boone’s clients were of German ancestry, it is clear that he recognized the necessity of dealing with non-English residents in order to survive economically. By the 1780s, most of the German residents of the county were familiar enough with the English language to conduct business with Boone, but he evidently was not fluent in German, based upon the way he spelled the names of his German customers.
Aside from those customers who are known to be Quakers, it is difficult to ascertain the religious affiliation of Boone’s clients. Most of the Germans were probably either Lutheran or German Reformed, worshiping at one of the union churches in the area, or Roman Catholic. The few British who were not Quakers would have attended St. Gabriel’s Anglican Church in Amity Township, the lone Episcopal Church in the area, if they did have an affiliation.
An examination of the tax lists for Amity, Exeter, and Oley Townships (those with the highest number of clients) revealed that few of Boone s customers were among the wealthiest men in the township. Less than three percent could be considered among the top 10 percent of taxpayers. More likely, they would fall into the upper 30 percent or middle 30 percent classification. From 1780 until 1784, Moses Boone himself was among the bottom 30 percent or middle 30 percent of the taxpayers, as were other tanners in those three townships. In 1785, in fact, Moses Boone did not even pay taxes because of a negative balance between his income and expenses (values of debits and credits). But in that year his father died, bequeathing to him the family home in Exeter Township, including 212 acres of farmland and the tannery. As a result of this bequest, Moses Boone rose in economic status to be among the top 10 percent of the taxpayers in Exeter Township, a rank he would continue to hold throughout the rest of the decade. In contrast to Boone’s newfound wealth, Charles Bingeman, the other tanner in Exeter Township, continued to rank in the bottom 30 percent, and in 1789 his name did not appear on the tax list.
Furthermore, Moses Boone was not the only tanner in the region. The Oley Valley, where the Boone tannery was located, had three tanneries in 1775. Throughout the 1780s there were at least four other tanners in Exeter and surrounding townships. George Hughes’s tannery in Exeter Township was barely one-half mile south of the Boone Tannery, while Nicholas Boyer’s shop was scarcely two miles east in Oley Township. The close proximity of these businesses, however, was really not that distinctive. In Reading, the county seat of Berks County, the founders of the town restricted the location of Isaac Levan’s tannery to the south of Penn Street because of the noxious odors emanating from the operation. Perhaps township officials consciously made these same arrangements when authorizing the construction of these enterprises, for the Boone family owned several land tracts in Exeter, Oley, and Amity Townships by 1775, but the only tannery was located near the others. According to county tax lists from this era, seven other tanneries in Exeter and adjacent townships would be operating at various times during the decade. For Moses Boone, then, it would be important to satisfy a first-time customer, because in any given year a cordwainer who needed some leather tanned could choose among over a dozen other tanners in the county to perform this service.
The 1780s indeed were a tumultuous decade for the new American nation. Colonial artisans who worked in a family setting, like Moses Boone, were better able to adapt to changing economic conditions than were merchants and craftsmen in cities like Philadelphia, where external trade could adversely affect a man’s income and economic status. For Moses Boone, the decade would also be a time of transition, from assuming control of his father’s prosperous tannery in 1778 to coping with postwar economic dislocations and the death of his father. By the end of the 1780s, his business was returning to prosperity, but to accomplish this he would have to broaden his clientele to include residents of different ethnic and religious backgrounds from his own. Local craftsmen like Moses Boone learned to adapt to the evolving market economy of the new nation, while at the same time perpetuating the colonial heritage of personal contact. Moses Boone’s success at maintaining the family business during this transitional era ultimately would permit the tannery to fall into his son’s hands, continuing the legacy of handing down skills through generations.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2002-2003 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County – published quarterly by the Historical Society of Berks County.
The Daniel Boone Homestead is located in eastern Berks County Pennsylvania.
Daniel Boone Homestead
400 Daniel Boone Rd.
Birdsboro PA 19508