Treasure hunting in historical housekeeping books

Researchers from Utrecht University are using a Vici grant from NWO to reconstruct the financial history of the Netherlands. They are doing that with the help of old cash books, company accounts and the housekeeping books of private individuals.

Text: Merijn van Nuland

Oscar Gelderblom and Corinne Boter (credits: Fjodor Buis)Professor Oscar Gelderblom, here with his postdoc Corinne Boter: ‘The financial needs of families and small companies have not changed but an entirely new financial infrastructure has developed.’

Somewhere towards the end of the interview there is a knock on the door: a colleague from the Internationalisation department enters the room of Oscar Gelderblom. She has read a message on the intranet and wonders whether the researchers would be interested in a pile of audit reports from her husband's grandfather. They are otherwise just collecting dust in the attic anyway.

Oscar Gelderblom, Professor of Economic and Financial History at Utrecht University, carefully thumbs through the handwritten books from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that lie on his desk. He suddenly starts to nod enthusiastically. ‘Look, this is exactly what I mean! Here you can slowly but surely see how a distinction arises between the business operations and the private housekeeping book of the farming family. This is a change you also encounter over the course of time with many other small and medium-sized entrepreneurs. A very useful document!’ Fellow researcher Corinne Boter also gleams with pride. Gelderbloem's office has been an open house for the past few months. Together with his colleagues he is collecting financial documents from the 19th and 20th centuries.

He has actively engaged the public's help for this. Private individuals – and also colleagues – are bringing in large quantities of housekeeping books, company accounts and audit reports. So far, almost 300 donations have been made.

Writing the history from the bottom up

‘We want to use all of these documents to gain a picture of the financial history of the Netherlands’, says Gelderblom. He is funding the project with the Vici grant team received from NWO in 2015. Such a Vici grant gives leading scientists the freedom to set up a new line of research. Rather than investigating the financial history of government bodies or banks, Gelderblom has instead chosen to study the financial history of households and small companies. ‘How did their financial situation and how they dealt with money change over the years? This is writing history from the bottom up so to speak.’

The researchers suspect that the financial needs of families and small companies nowadays do not differ much from the needs in the past. Households and companies have always looked for smart ways to save, invest, lend and insure.

The financial infrastructure, however, has changed drastically: for example, since the 1950s we have had an extensive welfare state and a large financial sector. ‘It is of course interesting to know how ordinary households and small companies arranged their financial affairs before the emergence of those financial bodies’, says postdoc Corinne Boter.

Take a funeral insurance, for example. Nowadays that can be concluded online. In the past, the insurance company sent an agent each week to collect a few cents. Gelderblom: ‘Is the current approach better? I do not know. However, I do not think that we should all too easily assume that financial innovation always means a financial improvement in the interest of the private client. One such example is all of the sub-prime mortgages that caused the financial crisis. Perhaps the old ways of lending money and providing insurance were not that bad after all.’

Flow of donations

To get the flow of donations up and running, the research group built a website and issued a press release but they also turned to unconventional methods. On 8 October – during the Science Weekend – people could let experts study their financial documents. On that Sunday, Utrecht University Hall resembled the set of the British TV Programme 'Antiques Roadshow'. About 300 interested people came to the event and 50 of them also made their documents available for the research. Initially the research group made a raw data set that contained photos of all the documents supplied. ‘Receiving the documents is the most enjoyable part’, says Gelderblom. ‘After that we need to classify and digitise all of the documents. That is the biggest challenge because we do not know in advance how many documents we will receive and that in turn makes it difficult to estimate how much manpower we need.’

Boter's postdoctoral research will specifically focus on finances in periods of crisis such as in the 1930s and during the Second World War. For that last part, collaboration has already been sought with the NIOD, Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. ‘Contrary to what you might expect, the housekeeping book of most families during the occupation was more or less the same’, says Boter. ‘People even continued to pay the dog tax. I will further unravel now which financial strategies households used during this war period.’

Television series

The gems from the newly acquired collection of Oscar Gelderblom and Corinne Boter will play a role during the six-part Dutch television series Kasboekje van Nederland (Cashbook of the Netherlands). Each part will focus on a phase in life: from the financial upbringing of small children to a person's will. Gelderblom: ‘All of the donated documents are extremely valuable for our scientific research but at the same time we also have the obligation to do something in return. After all, you have entered the private domain of your donator and he or she would like to know more about his or her family history. It is therefore fantastic that the broadcaster NTR is now making a television series about the personal stories behind the documents submitted.’

‘Kasboekje van Nederland’ will be broadcast from Thursday 29th March onwards on the Dutch TV channel NPO2.