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Every business needs to keep records and these are kept in books of account sometimes called ledgers. Today this information is kept on computers, but before computers, manual ledgers were comprised of lined, loose-leaf sheets, kept in a binder, which made it easy to keep records for each customer together. The Caldwell ledgers were not like that. The early ones were unlined which means that it is sometimes difficult to decide what plant belongs with which date and which price.

Dates are the biggest problem, particularly when it was necessary to squeeze in an item that had been forgotten, and you may find plants have been placed in the wrong order as a result. Because the ledgers were solid-bound (i.e. like a book) orders on the same date for the same customer can appear on different pages. So there are lots of entries which are "carried forward" to another numbered sheet or "brought forward".

Understanding the orders

The ledgers have been transcribed by a team of volunteers and this has meant that – although the intention was to transcribe exactly what was written, this has not always happened. Those who originally wrote out the orders did so in different ways – sometimes a word would have a capital letter, sometimes not; sometimes words would be shortened, but not always. So a dwarf variety might be shown as Dwf; dwf; Dwarf or dwarf.

There is a recurring sign, looking something like a hashtag, but with only one horizontal line. It is a quantity, and comparing prices against other quantities for the same seed shows that it equals 4 x 4 ounces. Sometimes this has been shown as lb; at other times as a pint, on the basis that the next volume used is quart. If you have come across the sign before, please let us know.

Similarly the shortened form Pk has sometimes been read as "packet", although it appears to refer to a peck, which is equal to 8 quarts. Four pecks make a bushel.

It is important to remember that the 1824 Weights and Measures Act came into operation on 1 May 1825. So a pint in 1795 is not the same as a pint in 1835. Before the 1824 Act a pint contained 16 ounces (as it still does in America), but from 1825 onwards it contained 20 fluid ounces.


In the 18th century, spelling was not standardised. Turnips, for example, were sometimes written "turnip" and sometimes "turnep". There was also the difficulty of nurserymen only knowing plants by their spoken name, rather than written, which gave rise to some very strange spellings. This meant that the same plant might be sold by slightly different names at different nurseries, although the difference may have been down to regional accents.

Look out for the following:

In the 18th century the letter s was sometimes written . The cos of cos lettuce was spelled coss, but in writing the first s was long – so it looks like this: cos.

Leaving out letters was also common and the letter after the omitted characters was written above the line. So, for example, leaved (as in cut-leaved) was written without the e, and appears as leavd; standard appears as standd; cucumber appears as cucur.

Customer names

One of it challenges faced has been caused by the similarity of names from generation to generation. The earliest surviving ledgers date from the 1790s. When transcribing the ledger from the 1830s it was necessary to remember there had been an interval of 40 years and so a similar customer name was not necessarily the name of the same person.

For example, Sir Henry Mainwaring of Peover (baronet), whose orders appear in ledger 6, died in 1797 and his estate (but not his title) was left to his half-brother Thomas, on the condition that he changed his name to Mainwaring. This he did, and following his death the estates passed to his eldest son, Henry. He was successful in acquiring a new baronetcy in 1804 and was known as Sir Henry-Mainwaring Mainwaring. He appears in ledger 10, sometimes as Sir H. and sometimes as Sir H. M. Mainwaring.

We have done our best to check out these similar names, but we cannot be sure that we have spotted all of them. If you find one we have missed, please let us know.

Plant names

We set out with the laudable intention of reproducing the ledgers as they were originally written, but didn't think enough about the impact this would have on the database, and thus on the reports. The approach works best under Ledger Transcriptions, but is less useful under Plant Reports. We have done our best by having them appear under the "modern name" – so all Rhododendrons are together under R. But in the Rhododendrons list, R. pontica may appear under R for Rhododendron or P for pontica, as one nurseryman would write the name the correct way and the other would call it a Pontica Rhododendron. This is further confused by some being sold as Large, and thus appearing under L.

There were a lot more complications, such as the fact that the name of the plant is really R. ponticum, so before complaining about all the mistakes, botanists and keen plantspeople should read this document. (link to pdf).

All mistakes – other than those made by the original nurserymen – are due to our inability to read their handwriting or our inability to stay focused. Going cross-eyed has been an occupational hazard.

For further information on plant names, please see the attached file.

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