1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Book-Keeping

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BOOK-KEEPING, a systematic record of business transactions, in a form conveniently available for reference, made by individuals or corporations engaged in commercial or financial operations with a view to enabling them with the minimum amount of trouble and of dislocation to the business itself to ascertain at any time (1) the detailed particulars of the transactions undertaken, and (2) the cumulative effect upon the business and its financial relations to others. Book-keeping, sometimes described as a science and sometimes as an art, partakes of the nature of both. It is not so much a discovery as a growth, the crude methods of former days having been gradually improved to meet the changing requirements of business, and this process of evolution is still going on. The ideal of any system of book-keeping is the maximum of record combined with the minimum of labour, but as dishonesty has to be guarded against, no system of book-keeping can be regarded as adequate which does not enable the record to be readily verified as a true and complete statement of the transactions involved. Such a verification is called an audit, and in the case of public and other large concerns is ordinarily undertaken by professional accountants (q.v.). Where the book-keeping staff is large it is usually organized so that its members, to some extent at least, check each other's work, and to that extent an audit, known as a “staff audit” or “internal check,” is frequently performed by the book-keeping staff itself.

Formerly, when credit was a considerably less important factor than now in commercial transactions, book-keeping was frequently limited to an account of receipts and payments of money, and in early times, before money was in use, to an account of the receipt and issue of goods of different kinds. Even now what may be called the “cash system” of accounts is almost exclusively used by governments, local authorities, and charitable and other institutions, but in business it is equally necessary to record movements of credit, as a mere statement of receipts and payments of money would show only a part of the total number of transactions undertaken. As for practical purposes some limit must be placed upon the daily record of transactions, certain classes show only a record of cash receipts and payments, which must, when it is desired to ascertain the actual position of affairs, be adjusted by bringing into account those transactions which have not yet been completed by the receipt or payment of money. For instance, it is usual to charge customers with goods sold to them at the date when the sale takes place, and to give them credit for the amotmt received in payment upon the date of receipt (thus completely recording every phase of the transaction as and when it occurs); but in connexion (say) with wages it is not usual to give each workman credit for the services rendered by him from day to day, but merely to charge up the amounts, when paid, to a wages account, which thus at any date only shows the amounts which have actually been paid, and takes no cognisance of the sums accruing due. When, therefore, it is desired to ascertain the actual expenditure upon wages for any given period, it is necessary to allow for the payments made during that period in respect of work previously performed, and to add the value of work performed during the current period which remains unpaid. In the majority of businesses those accounts which deal with various forms of standing expenses are thus dealt with, and in consequence the record, as it appears from day to day, is pro tanto incomplete. Another very important series of transactions which is not included in the ordinary day-to-day record is that representing the loss gradually accruing by reason of waste, or depreciation, of assets or general equipment of the business; proper allowance for these losses must of course be made whenever it is desired to ascertain the true position of affairs.

The origin of book-keeping is lost in obscurity, but recent researches would appear to show that some method of keeping accounts has existed from the remotest times. Babylonian records have been found dating back as far as 2600 b.c., History. written with a stylus on small slabs of clay, and it is of interest to note (Records of the Past, xi. 89) that these slabs or tablets “usually contain impressions from cylinder seals, and nail marks, which were considered to be a man's natural seal,” thus showing that the modern method of identifying criminals by finger prints had its counterpart in Babylonia some 4500 years ago. Egyptian records were commonly written on papyrus, and contemporary pictures show a scribe keeping account of the quantities of grain brought into and removed from the government store-houses. It will thus be seen that some form of book-keeping existed long before bound books were known, and therefore the more general term accounting would seem to be preferable—the more so as the most modern developments are in the direction of again abandoning the bound book in favour of loose or easily detached sheets of paper or card, thus capable of being rearranged as circumstances or convenience may dictate. Most of the earlier accounting records are in the nature of a mere narrative of events, which—however complete in itself—failed to fulfil the second requirement of an adequate system of book-keeping already referred to. Prior to the use of money nothing in this direction could of course well be attempted; but for a long time after its employment became general money values were recorded in Roman figures, which naturally did not lend themselves to ready calculation.

At the present time it may be generally stated that all book-keeping records are kept in three distinct columns, dealing respectively with the date of the transaction, its nature, and its money value. The earliest extant example of accounts so kept is probably a ledger in the Advocates' library at Edinburgh, dated 1697, which, it is of interest to note, is ruled by hand. Prior to that time, however, double-entry book-keeping had been in general use. The exact date of its introduction is unknown; but it was certainly not, as has been frequently stated, the invention of Lucas de Bergo, in or about 1494. This, however, is the date of the first issue (at Venice) of a printed book entitled Everything about Arithmetic, Geometry and Proportion, by Luca Paciolo, which contains inter alia an explanation of book-keeping by double-entry as then understood; but in all probability, the system had then been in use for something like 200 years. It is perhaps unfortunate that from 1494 until comparatively recent times the literature of accounting has been provided by theorists and students, rather than by practical business men, and it may well be doubted, therefore, whether it accurately describes contemporary procedure. Another illusion which it is necessary to expose in the interests of truth is the value attached to Jones's English System of Book-keeping by Single or Double Entry, published at Bristol in 1796. Before publishing this book, E. T. Jones issued a prospectus, stating that he had patented an entirely new and greatly improved system, and that subscribers (at a guinea a copy) would be entitled to a special licence empowering them to put the new invention into practice in their own book-keeping. With this bait he secured thousands of subscribers, but so far as can be gathered his system was entirely without merit, and it is chiefly of interest as indicating the value, even then, of advertising.

It is impossible here to describe fully all the improvements that have been made in methods of accounting during recent years, but it is proposed to deal with the more important Modern methods. of these improvements, after the general principles upon which all systems of book-keeping are based have been briefly described.

The centre of all book-keeping systems is the ledger, and it may be said that all other books are only kept as a matter of practical convenience— hence the name “subsidiary books” that is frequently applied thereto. Inasmuch, however, as the transactions are first recorded in these subsidiary books, and afterwards classified therefrom into the ledger, the names books of entry or books of first entry are often employed. Subsidiary books which do not form the basis of subsequent entries into the ledger, but are merely used for statistical purposes, are known as statistical or auxiliary books. In the early days of book-keeping the ledger comprised merely those accounts which it was thought desirable to keep accessible, and was not a complete record of all transactions. Thus in many instances records were only kept of transactions with other business houses, known as personal accounts. In the earliest examples transactions tending to reduce indebtedness were recorded in order of date, as they occurred underneath transactions recording the creation of the indebtedness; and the amount of the reduction was subtracted from the sum of the indebtedness up to that date. This method was found to be inconvenient, and the next step was to keep one account of the transactions recording the creation of indebtedness and another account (called the contra account) of those transactions reducing or extinguishing it. For convenience these two accounts were kept on opposite sides of the ledger, and thus was evolved the Dr. and Cr. account as at present in general use:—

Dr.  A. B.      Contra. Cr.
Date. Narrative. Amount. Date. Narrative. Amount.
    £ s. d.     £ s. d.

In this form of account all transactions creating indebtedness due from the person named therein to the business—that is to say, all benefits received by that person from the buisness—are recorded upon the left-hand, or Dr. side, and per contra all transactions representing benefits imparted by him, giving rise to a liability on the part of the business, are recorded upon the Cr. side. The account may run on indefinitely, but as a matter of convenience is usually ruled off each time all indebtedness is extinguished, and also at certain periodical intervals, so that the state of the account may then be readily apparent.

A mere collection of personal accounts is, however, obviously a very incomplete record of the transactions of any business, and does not suffice to enable a statement of its financial position to be prepared. So at an early date other Single-entry accounts. accounts were added to the ledger, recording the acquisition of and disposal of different classes of property, such accounts being generally known as real accounts. These accounts are kept upon the same principle as personal accounts, in that all expenditure upon the part of the business is recorded upon the Dr. side, and all receipts upon the Cr. side; the excess of the debit entries over the credit entries thus showing the value placed upon those assets that still remain the property of the business. With the aid of personal and real accounts properly written up to date, it is possible at any time to prepare a statement of assets and liabilities showing the financial position of a business, and the following is an example of such a statement, which shows also how the profit made by the business may be thus ascertained, assuming that the financial position at the commencement of the current financial period, and the movements of capital into and out of the business during the period, are capable of being ascertained.

State of Affairs as at 31st December 1906

    Liabilities.       Assets.      
  Trade Creditors £4,961 10 0 Fixtures, Furniture, &c. £1,269 4 3
  Bills Payable 2,620 18 4 Stock on hand 5,751 3 10
  Balance, being excess of       Trade Debtors 3,842 7 9
   assets over liabilities       Bills Recievable 7,468 14 3
   (or “Capital”) at this       Cash at Bank 4,169 5 5
   date carried down 14,918 7 4        
    £22,500 15 6   £22,500 15 6
  Amount of Capital       Balance brought down £14,918 7 2
   on 1st Jan. 1906 £15,010 1 7        
  Balance, being net       Amount drawn out of      
   profit for the year        business during year      
   ended this date 1,408 5 7  ended this date 1,500 0 0
    £16,418 7 2   £16,418 7 2

The method of accounting hitherto described represents single-entry, which—albeit manifestly incomplete—is still very generally used by small business houses, and particularly by retail traders. Its essential weakness is that it provides no automatic check upon the clerical accuracy of the record, and, should any mistake be made in the keeping of the books, or in the extraction therefrom of the lists of assets and liabilities, the statement of assets and liabilities and the profit or loss of the current financial period, will be incorrect to an equal extent. It was to avoid this obvious weakness of single-entry that the system of double-entry was evolved.

The essential principle of double-entry is that it constitutes a complete record of every business transaction, and as these transactions are invariably cross-dealings—involving simultaneously the receipt of a benefit by some one Double-entry. and the imparting of a benefit by some one—a complete record of transactions from both points of view necessitates an entry of equal amount upon debit and credit sides of the ledger. Hence it follows that, if the clerical work be correctly performed, the aggregate amount entered up upon the debit side of the ledger must at all times equal the aggregate amount entered up upon the credit side; and thus a complete list of all ledger balances will show an agreement of the total debit balances with the total credit balances. Such a list is called a trial balance, an example of which is given below. It should be observed, however, that the test supplied by the trial balance is a purely mechanical one, and does not prove the absolute accuracy of the ledger as a record of transactions. Thus transactions which have actually taken place may have been omitted from the books altogether, or they may have been recorded to the wrong accounts, or the money values attached to them may be incorrect; or, yet again, fictitious records may be entered in the ledger of transactions which have never taken place. A trial balance is thus no very adequate safeguard against fraud, nor does it bring to light mistakes in the monetary value attaching to the various transactions recorded. This last point is of especial importance, in that the monetary value of transactions may have been correctly recorded in the first instance, but owing to altered circumstances may have become inaccurate at a later date. This of course means that the altered circumstances constitute an additional “transaction” which has been omitted.

Trial Balance, 31st December 1906

    Dr. Cr.
1 Capital account   £15,010 1 7
5 Drawings 1,500 0 0  
20 Trade creditors   4,961 10 0
24 Fixtures, furniture, &c. 1,269 4 3  
27 Bills payable   2,620 18 4
40 Bad debts 71 4 2  
44 Stock 1st Jan. 1906 4,078 16 4  
50 Discounts allowed 975 3 3  
53 Trade debtors 3,842 7 9  
60 Discounts received   1,117 17 8
65 Wages and salaries 1,865 12 0  
75 Depreciation 141 0 5  
78 Rent, rates and taxes 1,242 13 8  
82 General expenses 1,087 8 0  
90 Bills receivable 7,468 14 3  
97 Purchases 44,731 2 10  
100 Sales   48,732 4 9
C56 Cash at bank 4,169 5 5  
    £72,442 12 4 £72,442 12 4

It will be observed, therefore, that in order to complete the record of the transactions by double-entry, it has become necessary to introduce into the ledger a third class of accounts, known as impersonal or nominal accounts. These accounts record the transferences of money, or of money's worth, which, so far from representing a mere reshuffling of assets and liabilities, involve an increase in or a reduction of the amount invested in the business, i.e. a profit or a loss. Transactions representing profits are recorded upon the Cr. side of nominal accounts, and those representing losses (including expenses) upon the Dr. side. This is consistent with the rules already laid down in connexion with real and nominal accounts, inasmuch as expenditure which does not result in the acquisition of an asset is a loss, whereas receipts which do not involve the creation of liabilities represent profits. All debit balances therefore that are not assets are losses, and per contra all credit balances that are not liabilities are profits. So that, inasmuch as double-entry provides inter alia a complete statement under suitable headings of all profits and all losses, it is possible by aggregating these results to deduce therefrom the net profit or loss of carrying on the business—and that by a method entirely distinct from that previously described in connexion with single-entry, thus constituting a valuable additional check. Taking the trial balance shown above, the following represent the trading account, profit and loss account, Balance sheet. and balance sheet compiled therefrom. The trading account may be variously regarded as the account recording the movements of goods which represent the stock-in-trade, and as a preliminary to (or a subdivision of) the profit and loss account. The balance sheet is a statement of the assets and liabilities; but—inasmuch as, by transferring the balance of the profit and loss account to the capital account, it is possible to bring the latter account up to date and to show the credit balance representing the surplus of assets over liabilities to date—the balance sheet, instead of showing a difference, or a “balance,” representing what is assumed to be the amount of the capital to date, shows an absolute agreement of assets upon the one hand and of liabilities plus capital upon the other. The two sides of the account thus balance—hence the name.

Dr. Trading Account for the Year ended 31st December 1906 Cr.
  To Stock on hand, 1st Jan. 1906 £4,078 16 4   By Sales £48,732 4 9
   ”  Purchases 44,731 2 10    ”  Stock on hand 31st Dec.  
   ”  Gross Profit, transferred       1906 5,751 3 10
     to Profit and Loss account 5,673 9 5      
    £54,483 8 7     £54,483 8 7
Dr. Profit and Loss Account for the Year ended 31st December 1906 Cr.
  To Rent, rates and taxes £1,242 13  8     By Gross Profit as per  
   ”  Salaries and wages   1,865 12 0        Trading Account £5,673 9 5
   ”  General expenses   1,087 8 0      ”  Discount received 1,117 17 8
    £4,195 13 8      
   ”  Discounts allowed 975 3 3      
   ”  Bad debts 71 4 2      
   ”  Deprecation 141 0 5      
   ”  Net Profit for the year trans-        
     ferred to Capital account 1,408 5 7      
    £6,791 7 1     £6,791 7 1
Dr. Balance Sheet as at 31st December 1906 Cr.
  To A.B., Capital account £14,918 7 2   By Fixtures, furniture, &c. £1,269 4 3
   ”  Trade creditors 4,961 10 0    ”  Stock on hand 5,751 3 10
   ”  Bills payable 2,620 18 4    ”  Trade debtors 3,842 7 9
         ”  Bills receivable 7,468 14 3
         ”  Cash at bank 4,169 5 5
    £22,500 15 6     £22,500 15 6
Dr. A.B., Capital Account Cr.
1906. To Drawings account £1,500 0 0 Jan. 1 By balance from last account £15,010 1 7
Dec 31  ”  Balance carried down 14,918 7 2 Dec. 31  ”  Profit and Loss account,  
           being net profit for the  
          year ended this date 1,408 5 7
     £16,418 7 2     £16,418 7 2
      Jan. 1 By Balance brought down £14,918 7 2
In the foregoing example the customary method has been

followed of deducting withdrawals of capital from the capital account and of adding profits thereto. Sometimes, however, the balance of the capital account remains constant, and the drawings and net profits are transferred to a separate account called current account. This plan is but rarely observed in the case of undertakings owned by individuals, or private firms, but is invariably adopted in connexion with joint-stock companies, although in such cases the name appropriation of profit account is generally employed.

Although it is now usual to employ several books of first-entry, in the case of comparatively small businesses one such book is sufficient for all purposes, in that it is practicable for one person to record all the transactions that take Journal. place as and when they occur. A book of this description is called the journal, and for many years represented the only book of first-entry employed in book-keeping. An example of the journal is given below. The entries appearing therein are such as would be necessary to prepare the trading and profit and loss accounts from the trial balance shown above, and to bring the capital account up to date.

In modern times, however, with the growth of business, it was soon found impracticable to keep one book of first-entry for all transactions, and accordingly it became necessary either to treat the journal as an intermediate book, in which the transactions might be brought together and focused as a preliminary to being recorded in the ledger, or else to split up the journal into numerous books of first-entry, each of which might in that case be employed for the record of a particular class of transaction. The first method has been generally adopted in the continental countries of Europe, as will be shown later on, whereas in Great Britain and in North America the latter method more generally obtains; that is, instead of having one journal in which all classes of transactions are recorded in the first instance, it is usual to employ several journals, as follows:—a sales journal, sales book or day book, to record particulars of goods sold; a bought journal, invoice book or purchases book, to record particulars of goods purchased; a returns inwards book, to record particulars of goods sold but subsequently returned by customers; a returns outwards book, to record the like particulars with regard to goods purchased and subsequently returned; a bills receivable book, to record particulars of bills of exchange received from debtors; and a bills payable book, to record particulars of bills of exchange given to creditors.

Journal 1906

      Dr. Cr.
Dec. 31 Trading account 110 £48,809 19 2  
   To Stock account 44   £4,078 16 4
    ” Purchases account 97   44,731 2 10
Sales account 100 48,732 4 9  
  Stock account 44 5,751 3 10  
   To Trading account 110   54,483 8 7
Trading account 110 5,673 9 5  
  To Profit and Loss account 120   5,673 9 5
Profit and Loss account 120 5,383 1 6  
   To Rent, rates and taxes 78   1,242 13 8
    ” Salaries and wages 65   1,865 12 0
    ” General expenses 82   1,087 8 0
    ” Discounts allowed 50   975 3 3
    ” Bad debts 40   71 4 2
    ” Depreciation 75   141 0 5
Discounts received 60 1,117 17 8  
   To Profit and Lossaccount 120   1,117 17 8
Profit and Loss account 120 1,408 5 7  
   To A.B., Capital account 1   1,408 5 7
  A.B., Captial account 1 1,500 0 0  
   To Drawings account 5   1,500 0 0
      £118,376 1 11 £118,376 1 11

Day Book 1906

(471) Forward     £3761 7 8
27th December.      
A. Brown,      
 492 New Street, Walworth—      
2 doz. V.C. port 31/- £3 2 0  
1 ” A.C. pale brandy 49/- 2 9 0  
(216) 28th December.     5 11 0
Fredk. Newton,      
 Farleigh House, Epsom—      
1 gall. E. Pale sherry 13/6 £0 13 6  
2 doz. O. B. Heidsieck 1892 160/- 16 0 0  
2 gall. P. Scotch 21/- 2 2 0  
(408)       18 15 6
Robert French,      
 214 High Road, Sutton—      
6 doz. F. D. Pommard, 1899 30/- £9 0 0  
1 ” M. F. Margaux, 1893 66/- 3 6 0  
2 ” A. Niersteiner 24/- 2 8 0  
        14 14 0
        £3800 8 2

With a view still further to split up the work, thus enabling a large staff to be simultaneously engaged, the ledger itself is now generally kept in sections. Thus the cash account and the bank account are frequently bound together in one separate book called the cash book, showing in parallel columns the movements of office cash and of cash at the bank, and by the addition of a third column for discounts the necessity of keeping an additional book of first entry as a discount journal may also be avoided. Of late years, however, most businesses pay all moneys received into their bankers without deduction, and pay all accounts by cheque; the necessity of an account for office cash thus no longer exists, save in connexion with petty payments, which are recorded in a separate book called the petty cash book. With regard to the remaining ledger accounts, personal accounts—which are the most numerous—are frequently separated from the real and nominal accounts, and are further subdivided so that customers' accounts are kept separate from the accounts of trade creditors. The customers' accounts are kept in a ledger (or, if need be, in several ledgers) called sales ledgers, or sold ledgers; while the accounts of trade creditors are similarly kept in purchases ledgers or bought ledgers. The nominal and real accounts, if together, are kept in what is called the general ledger; but this may be further subdivided into a nominal ledger and a private ledger. This last subdivision is, however, rarely made upon a scientific basis, for such accounts as the profit and loss account and trading account are generally kept in the private ledger although strictly speaking nominal accounts; while the bills receivable account and the bills payable account are generally kept in the nominal ledger, so as to reduce to a minimum the amount of clerical work in connexion with the private ledger, which is kept either by the principal himself or by his confidential employee. By the employment of adjustment accounts, which complete the double-entry record in each ledger, these various ledgers may readily be made self-balancing, thus enabling clerical errors to be localized and responsibility enforced.

Of recent years considerable attention has been devoted to further modifications of book-keeping methods with a view to reducing clerical work, increasing the speed with which results are available, and enabling them to be handled more quickly and with greater certainty. Tabular book-keeping is a device to achieve one or more of these ends by the substitution of books ruled with numerous columns for the more usual form. The system may be applied either to books of first entry or to ledgers. As applied to books of first-entry it enables the same book to deal conveniently with more than one class of transaction; thus if the trading of a business is divided into several departments, by providing a separate column for the sales of each department it is possible readily to arrive at separate totals for the aggregate sales of each, thus simplifying the preparation of departmental trading accounts. As applied to ledgers, the application of the system may be best described by the aid of the above example (the proceedings of the columns being given only), which shows how a very large number of personal accounts may be recorded upon a single opening of a ledger provided the number of entries to be made against each individual be few.

Name of
due on
1st Oct.
Discounts. Allowances. Bad
due on
31st Dec.
    £ s. d. £ s. d. £ s. d.   £ s. d. £ s. d. £ s. d. £ s. d. £ s. d.  

EB1911 Book-keeping Fig. 1 Card-Ledger Tray.jpg

Fig. 1.—Card-Ledger Tray (Library Bureau System)

Another important application of modern methods consists of what may be described as the slip system, which is in many respects a reversion to the method of keeping records upon movable slabs or tablets, as in the Babylonian accounts Slip
referred to at the beginning of this article. This system may be applied to books of first-entry, or to ledgers, or to both. As applied to books of first-entry it aims at so modifying the original record of the transaction—whether it represents an invoice for goods sold or an acknowledgment given for money received—that a facsimile duplicate may be taken of the original entry by the aid of a carbon sheet, which instead of being immovably bound up in a book is capable of being handled separately and placed in any desired order or position, and thus more readily recorded in the ledger. Postings are thus made direct from the original slips, which have been first sorted out into an order convenient for that purpose, and afterwards resorted so that the total sales of each department may be readily computed; after which they are filed away in a form convenient for reference. Sometimes the process is carried a step further, and the original slips, filed away with suitable guide-cards indicating the nature of the account, themselves constitute the ledger record—which in such cases is to be found scattered over a number of sheets, one for each transaction, instead of, as in the case of the ordinary book ledger, a considerable number of transactions being recorded upon a single page. This adaptation of the slip system is impracticable except in cases where the transactions with each individual are few in number, and is not worth adoption unless the exceedingly large number of personal accounts makes it important as far as possible to avoid all duplication of clerical work. The more usual adaptation of the slip system to ledgers is to be found in the employment of card ledgers or loose-leaf ledgers. With card ledgers (fig. 1) each ledger account is upon an independent sheet of cardboard suitably arranged in drawers or cabinets. The system is advantageous as allowing all dead matter to be eliminated from the record continuously in use, and as permitting the order in which the accounts stand to be varied from time to time as convenience dictates, thus (if necessary) enabling the accounts to be always kept in alphabetical order in spite of the addition of new accounts and the dropping out of old ones. An especial convenience of the card system is that in times of pressure any desired number of book-keepers may be simultaneously employed, whereas the maximum number that can be usefully employed upon any bound book is two. The loose-leaf ledger (fig. 2) may be described as midway between card and bound ledgers. It consists of a number of sheets in book form, so bound as to be capable of being readily separated when desired. The loose-leaf ledger thus embraces most of the advantages of the card ledger, while remaining sufficiently like the more old-fashioned book ledger as to enable it to be readily handled by those whose previous experience has been confined to the latter. Both the card and loose-leaf systems will be frequently found of value for records in connexion with cost and stores accounts, quite irrespective of their advantages in connexion with the book-keeping records pure and simple of certain businesses.

EB1911 Book-keeping Fig. 2 Loose-Leaf Ledger.jpg

Fig. 2.—Loose-Leaf Ledger (Library Bureau System)

All book-keeping methods rest upon the same fundamental principles, but their development in practice in different countries is to some extent influenced by the manner in which business is there conducted, and by the legislative Legislative
requirements imposed by the several states. In France traders are required by the Code of Commerce to keep three books—a journal, an inventory and a letter book, somewhat elaborate provisions being made to identify these books, and to prevent substitution. The compulsory journal makes the employment of numerous books of first-entry impossible without an undesirable amount of duplication, and wherever