Mathematical Treasure: Moffett Register for Recording Alcohol Sales

Peggy A. Kidwell (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Moffett register, used in 1877 to track alcohol sales.

Moffett Register, 1877, Smithsonian Institution negative number DOR 2012-1002-2267.

From ancient times until well into the Renaissance, scribes carried out calculations by moving tokens or counters along lines. More recently, mechanical counters have been used to record everything from distances to revolutions of a shaft to sales.

In the spring of 1877, to pay the interest on the public debt, the state of Virginia passed a law suggested by State Senator Samuel H. Moffett of Harrisonburg. Every liquor dealer and saloon in the state was to be equipped with a so-called Moffett Register to record sales of liquor, allowing state tax collectors to know taxes due. This is an example of a Moffett Register.

This object and other mechanical counters from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History are shown at the website

Index to Mathematical Treasures