The title page of this instructional manual – The Young Clerk’s Manual, or Counting House Assistant, published in 1848 – features a woodcut illustration of office clerks at their desk, flanked by cash and capital ledgers as though in a heraldic painting.
19th-century Britain saw the growth of what we would now call ‘white collar’ workers: people paid to oversee, administrate and annotate financial or legal transactions ordered by heads of business. With Britain’s simultaneous manufacturing and trading boom, the number of clerks in commercial industries grew enormously. The 1841 census records only 20,000 commercial clerks in Britain, but by 1871 the number of ‘clerks, accountants and bankers’ had grown to 119,000.
As the word ‘clerk’ suggests (it is Old English for ‘lettered person’, via ‘cleric’), the job mostly involved transcription. A letter from a manager would have to be copied and recopied by hand until there were enough to send to all involved parties; likewise every invoice and account ledger. A junior banking clerk at the time of this illustration would likely have earned around £100 a year. A skilled engineer might have earned double that, but because engineering was manual work and clerkship was not, the clerk was the one considered ‘middle-class’.
- Full title:
- The Young Clerk's Manual; or, Counting-house assistant. Embracing instructions relating to mercantile correspondence, book-keeping ... etc. ... and a dictionary of commercial terms. New edition.
- 1848, London
- Illustration / Image
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Kathryn Hughes
- The middle classes
Professor Kathryn Hughes describes how the expansion of the middle classes in the 19th century led to a new emphasis on upward mobility, etiquette and conspicuous consumption.