Last semester I was trying to inspire my students about the ways historians reconstruct lost worlds. We talked about how mundane documents such as estate inventories (inventories of a person’s property–usually attached to a will– taken after they have died) can shed light on the history of everyday life in early America. I wish I had Dan Allosso’s post on reading estate inventories at the time.
When I was writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I read a few hundred of these inventories just to get a feel for life on the Cohansey River in the eighteenth century. Very little of this research made it into the book itself, but it was still indispensable for my understanding of the world in which Philip Vickers Fithian was born and raised.
Here is a snippet from Allosso’s recent post at the blog of the Historical Society.
One of the things that fascinates me about doing historical research, is that it doesn’t always involve long trips to exotic archives or well-known historical sites. For example, wills and estate inventories going all the way back to the earliest days of settlement are often kept in the county records office. Whether you are trying to find information on a particular family or individual, or looking for background material to help you rebuild the world your subjects lived in, probate documents can be a really interesting window into the material culture of the past, and into the attitudes and values of people long ago…
…Wills are public records, so you don’t have to provide any credentials to look at them—but I don’t imagine they get a lot of use. In Northampton, there’s an old-fashioned card catalog where you can find the names you want to ask for, and a simple form you hand to the records clerk. The January 3, 1811 will and April 10, 1811 inventory of Joseph Clark is typical of what I found. Most of the old documents are folded into palm-sized packages, often bound with string. The inventory, taken by Clark’s executor Japhet Chapin, lists everything of value that Clark owned. First and most important, of course, are “Fifty acres of land including the buildings valued at $800.” Everything else Clark owned was worth about $159, including six cups and saucers valued at 12 cents, a vest worth 42 cents, and seven sheep and two lambs whose $13.50 value suggests they may have been newly introduced Spanish Merinos.