While best known for its premier collection of rare books, maps, and other printed treasures, the John Carter Brown Library also holds significant manuscript collections relevant to its mission as a center for research in American history. Among these are three large collections of business records from three of the most prominent families in Providence: the Browns, the Arnolds, and the Tillinghasts. Documenting the “golden age” of Rhode Island trade—from the early eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century, these collections provide insight into every aspect of economic life in the New World. Particularly strong for maritime activities (shipbuilding, privateering, trade with the Caribbean, Europe, South America and Asia, and traffic in slaves), the collections also trace each family’s development of land-based interests, from the manufacturing of spermaceti candles and iron, to the distilling of rum and gin, and the production of cotton textiles, as well as banking, insurance, and speculation in Western lands.
Though many repositories hold important collections of business records, the extent and completeness of these family papers and the interconnected nature of the various business activities of these Providence families make the John Carter Brown Library uniquely situated to serve as a hub for the study of American economic development.