Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

Penny-wise Housewives Keeping Account

A frugal and virtuous housewife was supposed to keep a record of her expenditure in a household account book. It enabled her to keep track of what she was spending, see why she had spent too much by the end of the month, or see how much she had left to save. In the twentieth century, household account books were used by institutes such as the Dutch National Statistical Office (CBS), and the National Institute for Family Finance Information (NIBUD), to research household expenditure. Over the years, the IISH/NEHA has acquired a number of household account books. The oldest dates from 1660. They provide valuable information on households from different walks of life, social classes, and time periods.

Primary Sources

If we treat the account book as an ego-document it can be used to get a peak into the family’s kitchen, household, and social status.
The books are certainly intriguing.
The heading “Miscellaneous” was a catchall category covering anything from the cost of digging a grave to the purchase of a tram ticket or a pair of spectacles.
The books also offer us a lot of “collateral information”, for instance about the bonus paid to the maid on the occasion of the annual fair, the salary of a tutor and the amah as a travelling temporary worker.

You can read more about this in the following sections:

Since these account books generally lack contextual information on the background and composition of the household, they are probably of limited used for statisticians or economists. A family living in a self-made turf hut, heating and cooking on free sods of peat, and owning a goat or a pig would probably not have noted these under “Income”. When nothing is given under “Expenditure” for “Clothing”, this might indicate poverty. But it might also indicate a wardrobe so full that the family had no need to buy any new clothes. Though an account book tells us something of the pattern of income and expenditure of a household, it might not say much about the socioeconomic status of that family. (Text and compilation: Margreet Schrevel)

If you have an unusual household account book you would like to donate to the IISH, please contact

12 January 2016