LOOK: A Bill of Lading and Customs Entry From 1871

September 29, 2009
By Michelle Kelley

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Chris Cuddy, Director of Corporate Development, as interviewed by

I collect ephemera, which is historical documents and papers. One day I did a search for Customs documents on eBay. I ended up buying a set documents from the late 1800′s.

The set includes the bill of lading, Customs Entry of Merchandise, and liquidation worksheet for a U.S. import shipment from 1871.

// View scans of the documents [pdf]

As a Customs broker, I find the entry and liquidation worksheet fascinating because they show you how things have changed.

The Customs entry (page 2) is equivalent to today’s 7501 form (see page 4 of PDF), also known as an entry summary. Both forms serve the same purpose—to summarize what’s in the shipment and apply duty rates.

// View scans of the documents [pdf]

It has been 138 years—and sure, now we call it an “entry summary” instead of a “entry of merchandise”—yet the basic information required by Customs remains relatively unchanged.

Both documents must list the Customs broker, importer, foreign port of lading, destination, and arrival date, along with an itemized list of the goods and each item’s duty rate.

Today’s entry summary requires quite a bit more data. For example, each item must be classified with a harmonized tariff code. However, the use of computers and standard codes makes the reporting of data much more streamlined and labor efficient.

Another difference between then and now is that duty rates were much higher back then. The 1871 manifest shows duty rates from 20-50 percent. Most of today’s duty rates are easily one-tenth of that. There are only a few places where you see duty rates that high. They tend to be countries that we have embargoes against, like North Korea or Cuba.

The biggest difference between then and now is that now, shipment information is submitted to Customs electronically. Back in 1871, everything was handwritten. Duty rates had to be calculated in longhand. This is what makes the 1871 manifest and liquidation worksheet so interesting.

You can see the Customs broker’s duty calculations on the entry of merchandise. The broker’s total was $514.79, which was paid to Customs on February 14, 1871.

According to the liquidation worksheet (page 3), which Customs used to double-check the broker’s math, the total duty due should have been $500.79 ($14 less than the broker’s total). So, Customs refunded the importer the $14.00.

// View scans of the documents [pdf]

The handwritten liquidation sheet is very interesting because it’s from a time when Customs had a pair of human eyes looking at every single entry. They don’t do that nowadays. Instead, a computer accepts all the data. In fact, in today’s paperless environment, Customs rarely sees actually paper entries.

Although Customs still liquidates duty, these days if they catch an error, it’s usually a situation where the importer owes them money.

I only wish I could see how much things will change over the next 130 years.


// Download scans of documents [pdf]

Bill of Lading (page 1)
Dated: December 9, 1870 (London)
Shipper: Crosse & Blackwell
Vessel: Abraham Lincoln
Qty/units: 110 packages
Destination: Philadelphia, U.S.

Customs Entry of Merchandise (page 2)
Customs broker: Hampton & Larzelere
Importer: Githens & Rexsamer
Arrival: in Philadelphia on February 10, 1871
Marks: G+R (importer’s initials)
Goods: preserves, olives, mustard, milk punch, anchovy paste, prepared fish
Duty rates: 20-50% (see calculations in columns on pg 2)
Duty paid: $514.79 on 2/14/1871 (calculated by broker)

Liquidation Worksheet (page 3)
Dated: March 13, 1871
Refund: $14

Chris Cuddy is a licensed U.S. Customs Broker and Certified Customs Specialist.