Probate estate inventories, such as Martha Allen’s from Amanuensis Monday (6 December) are the legal record of person’s belongings made after their death; it was standard practice in many places to catalogue the deceased’s effects room-by-room during the late eighteenth and nineteenth-century, mostly to ensure an estate could cover its debts. As vernacular documents generated by the deceased’s own peers, Randolph County estate inventories provide a virtual snapshot of life in another time. These inventories can be used to theorize the way a person lived, what types of goods s/he owned and how household spaces were used.
However, using probate inventories is not always easy. While these records provide a plausible picture of how life was conducted at the time, as a primary resource they have problems that must be considered and taken into account. Such problems include a lack of standardised spelling and word usage (less common after about 1830) and “grouping” — the lumping together of items under one heading that might have been separate. For example, an inventory could list all bedding, curtains and other fabrics by each individual piece (or provide numbers for particular types, e.g., six sheets) or it could lump or group everything in a room together under the heading of “linen” or “fabric.” Martha Allen’s inventory does both; it lists “2 pitchers” but, elsewhere, lists only “carpets.” The plural indicates the presence of at least two carpets, but there could have been more.
Terminology can also be a problem. Sometimes it’s impossible to know what the appraiser meant because the word has come to have several diverse meanings.i “Tricks,” “box of tricks” and “box of contents” are entries that appear frequently in several Randolph County inventories, including Martha’s. Found in parlours, kitchens, bedrooms and in barns these are complete unknowns — the meaning has been lost. Another such word is “lot”; used in reference to books, food stuffs and linens, it obviously referred to a specific number but that number is unknown.ii Martha’s inventory has a “lot” of books and a “lot” of corn, but we have no way of knowing how many or how much that was. Did the term have a different meaning when applied to different items? Or did it just refer to multiples of an item in a given location?
Another problem with using inventories is the absence of expected items. This may or may not reflect ownership of the potential item in question; often, items that were already willed or part of other legacies, such as a widow’s thirds, were omitted by appraisers. Drawing conclusions about living standards and consumerism based on an absence — without thoroughly analysing the possible reasons for that absence — will result in skewed findings. Also, female clothing and accessories such as jewellery and shoes are almost never inventoried; as the only personal goods a woman could legally own after marriage, these would be excluded from her husband’s probate inventory.iii However, clothing and accessories were often handed down along female lines, these items could have been bequeathed before death and thus not subject to probate — hence their absence from Martha’s inventory.
Another important thing to remember when dealing with absences in probate records is the possibility of intentional concealment.iv Many inventories from Randolph County, although clearly made by an appraiser who surveyed the interior of the deceased’s home, record that the items listed were those “brought forward.” This may be tradition, or legalese, but it is certainly possible some household items not previously bequeathed were concealed or removed prior to inventory. Again, this could be the reason for the lack of bedding in Martha’s inventory.
Inventories also have absences due to the season in which they were made. Certain crops and tools specific to the sowing or harvesting of those crops likely fluctuated within households depending on the season.v It would be unlikely, for example, to find corn listed on an inventory taken in mid-June or to find dried meat listed in October, as corn was usually harvested in September and autumn was prime hunting and slaughtering season.
Beyond all this, Randolph County’s probate inventories also present a unique and somewhat frustrating challenge – only approximately one out of every thirty pre-1868 inventories is explicitly room-based. This lack of room-based inventories, however, does not constitute a complete and total loss in understanding the source material. A more in-depth survey of several inventories, where the contents are simply listed in straight columns without room designations, has resulted in the discovery of a recurring pattern of item listing that repeats over time and throughout these records. Observable as early as the 1790s and as late as the 1860s, this pattern is found in nine out of every ten inventories that are not explicitly room-based. The number of inventories that imply room function increases over time, whereas the number of explicitly room defined inventories decreases.
These implicitly room-based inventories typically begin with a catalogue of stock, tools and accoutrements (such as saws, hoes, saddles, etc.) and crops before moving on to the interior items. In almost every case the interior inventory begins in the kitchen before moving into other rooms on the same level, usually the dining room or parlour (or what can be construed from its contents as a “best space” for any refined items the deceased may have owned), with a change in room noted by a line break or, in some cases, with a small underscore. In this type of inventory, the movement of the appraiser from one room to the next can be noted by the change in the goods that are noted – from pots and pans, pantry and foodstuffs and ovens to “parlour chairs” and tea tables to bedsteads and featherbeds. It is thru an evaluation of objects, in conjunction with notations in the inventory itself, that these inventories can be seen as implicitly room-based and thus used to understand spatial use in Randolph County.
So how does all this relate to Martha Allen’s inventory? It serves as jumping off point for understanding what we see and don’t see. Also, by examining her husband’s inventory, we can see if there was a difference between her use of household space as a wife and her use of the same space as a widow. When John Allen died in 1858, his estate included, among other things, three featherbeds and bedsteads, three tables, eight chairs, a wardrobe, two chests, a trunk, two smoothing irons, seventeen pounds of iron, two sets of smithing tools, two plows, a hoe, a scythe, ten books, ten “stands of bees,” sixteen sheep and four bushels of wheat. Moreover, the arrangement of his household conformed to the prevailing notions about formal front space with all production-related items (pots, pans, churn, loom, spinning wheel, etc.) in a separate area of the house.
After those goods were auctioned, his wife, Martha, received only one book, two smoothing irons, a table, a chair, a cupboard, trunk and chest in addition to a year’s worth of foodstuffs, the now empty house and land. From the records, it appears that the money collected from the auction went towards his debts.
Eight years later, however, Martha’s inventory reveals quite a bit more — but also has some glaring absences such as bedding and bedsteads. She had a table with multiple chairs, five “lots” of books and a spinning wheel, tub, several baskets and a “box of contents.”vii The four columns from her inventory could represent four rooms … or not. Either way, based on the observable pattern of Randolph inventories being implicitly room-based, it appears Martha was combining her living areas. For an older widow, this makes practical sense. If so, her decision to relocate part of her household production appears to have been a conscious decision, but could also have been due to wartime interruptions of the traditional routine.
As for that elusive bedding … their absence does not mean Martha did not have any. As with any clothes, shoes, jewelry or other accessories, she may have bequeathed those items to others in her will. However, given that she died only a year after the end of the Civil War, she may have sold her bedstead to help pay back taxes or put food on the table. It’s also possible her bedding was in the chest, or included among the “box of contents.”