Have you Counted Your Handkerchiefs Lately?

Have you ever thought about counting all the small (and medium and large) things you own? How many pillowcases do you have? Dishtowels? Spoons? Buttons? Cowbells? Nightcaps? Dung forks? And do you think your heirs will count them when you’re gone? Probably not.

"Dung Fork," Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2015

“Dung Fork,” Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2015

But in 1839 when my great-great-great-grandfather Aaron Hall Esq. died, exact inventories were important parts of an estate settlement. Aaron had nine children and one wife, and he was very clear about passing specific property on to them. To read about the belongings he left behind is to gain a more vivid picture of the day-to-day lives of my ancestors.

Last fall, when I was in Wallingford, I went to Probate Court in the Town Hall to find Aaron’s will. I’d put off my search until a day when I had several free hours, thinking it would take a long time. But the efficient woman behind the counter needed only the name of my great-great-great-grandfather and the year of his death. It took her less than ten minutes to find and bring me a large portfolio containing this treasure, and later that afternoon I came back to pick up my copies of the nineteen legal-sized pages of beautiful handwriting and juicy information.

Detail of Will of Aaron Hall, Esq.

Detail of Will of Aaron Hall, Esq.

These are formidable documents. I’ve read the pages over and over, and still don’t quite understand what much of it means. The inventory is pretty straightforward, but the distribution of property, which I’ll talk about on Wednesday, is complicated and often pretty amusing.

The six-page list of Aaron’s real and personal property includes “wearing apparel,” “farming utensils,” “household furniture,” and “real estate.” My great-great-grandfather Salmon Hall and his brother Billious Kirtland Hall, the will’s executors, counted, recorded, and assigned a value to every item of clothing, cutlery, farm equipment, livestock, hay, money, etc. on the property. This section of a page includes an inventory of the bed sheets (I count 58 total) valued from 25¢ to $1.00.

Detail of Inventory of Aaron Hall, Esq.

Detail of Inventory of Aaron Hall, Esq.

Here are a few items from the executors’ list:

  • 1 Loose Gown – 30¢
  • 1 Pair Pantaloons – 20¢
  • 1 Cow Bell – 6¢
  • 1 Spit Box – 8¢
  • ½ of 1 Dung Fork – 17¢, 1 Old Dung Fork – 4¢,
  • 1 Calico Comfortable – 37¢
  • ½ of 1 Cow – $14.00
  • 7 Tons of Hay – $67.65
  • 1 Porridge Pot – 34¢
  • 10 Fowls – $2.37 ½
  • Pair Great Steelyards – $1.50
  • 1 Sausage Filler – 8¢
  • 4 Night Caps – 12¢
  • Chaise and Harness – $10.00
  • 1 Beer Pot – 17¢
  • 90 Lbs Cheese – $7.20

Some of Aaron’s inventory may still exist today.

This could be one of the linen pillowcases. It’s hand-hemmed and hand-embroidered with the letter “h.”

Linen Pillowcase

Linen Pillowcase

My mother was very fond of the old pewter, and I’m sure this duo was part of what the inventory describes as: “Lot of Old Pewter – $3.27.” It used to sit on the dining room mantel at the farm, and is now in the living room of our house on Whirlwind Hill.

Pewter platter and pitcher

Pewter platter and pitcher

And the foot warmer I talked about in my post about electricity might be the one recorded as: “1 Foot Stove – 50¢.”

Foot Stove

Foot Stove

Cash on hand amounted to $56.43, and the sum total of all the personal property was $1400.26.

I try to picture how Salmon and Billious accomplished this task. Did they walk around carrying paper, ink, and quill pen to make their list? Did someone bring the items to them one by one? How did they decide on the value? Why was one pillowcase worth 17¢ when another was valued at only 12¢?

I’m trying hard these days to lighten my own load of unused and unnecessary detritus. But Aaron’s goal was probably to leave as much behind as possible. I’m certainly glad he left this list.

And just for the record – – he left 7 handkerchiefs.

On Wednesday:  House Divided


10 thoughts on “Have you Counted Your Handkerchiefs Lately?

  1. Margaret Norton Campion

    Wow. I thought it was a chore being Executor THESE days!
    Austin Hart Norton left quite a few (all white) handkerchiefs, himself.
    The 6 that I have are napkins now, folded and nestled in with their fellows in the kitchen drawer where I keep the placemats. I think Dad and his generation were likely the last to have a stack of handkerchiefs in their drawers. (Those handkerchiefs of my father’s were the first item I learned to iron … I was very proud of those perfectly pressed + folded white rectangles.) Now I have tissue boxes on the pantry shelf instead of handkerchiefs in the drawers. But I’m still in search of sturdy muslin sheets – and value them highly – so some things haven’t changed.

    1. Carol Post author

      My father continued using handkerchiefs right up until the end of his life. And you’ve reminded me about learning to iron by doing the handkerchiefs. It was very satisfying. The old materials used for the sheets and pillowcases stand up so well.

  2. Netzy

    Hi Carol, he was so detailed! Do you suppose most people left lists like these? Beautiful handwriting on those 19 pages of goods. You have found treasures and are treating them as such. What a gift you are leaving for your relatives. Henry will have so much to share when he is in 5th grade and studying immigrants and his family. Carry on.

    1. Carol Post author

      Thanks, Netzy. I think the lists probably had to be made in the case of a large household like this one with so many children to pass things along to. And the handwriting is amazing. It never changes – it’s done so carefully.

  3. Karen Dederick Kowalski

    The historical records kept in Wallingford are wonderful trips down down memory lane. The Clerks office is one other source that I enjoyed working in for several years and loved it when I had the chance to help someone look up very old records, the handwritten entries are beautiful. Love the pillow case, I am actually using a sheet. Dottie had made for us in Spain with monogram and trim across top edge on muslim, even tho I have to iron it each time, it will never wear out!

    1. Carol Post author

      Now I want to go back there and look for more of the old records. And sometimes it’s worth the work to iron those precious linens. It makes them look so inviting.

  4. Susan Kernis

    This may be my favorite post! 90 lbs of cheese? I’m imagining how that cheese would have been weighed!
    David still uses handkerchiefs, and although I don’t iron them, they do have to be folded, a chore that is as onerous as any I can think of, especially during allergy or cold season. Do you remember that Great Aunt Irene telling us that she would wash her husband Tom’s handkerchiefs, then plaster them against the icebox/refrigerator where they dried beautifully flat and crisp AND did not fall off? Grammie would have harrumphed about that, but I’ve tried it and it does work!

    1. Carol Post author

      Yes – and what kind of cheese was it? You definitely needed a pot of beer with that. Or cider, which was another of the items. I didn’t know that about Aunt Irene and the handkerchiefs, but I can certainly imagine her doing it. She wasn’t exactly the queen of domestic chores. Funny!

    2. Margaret Norton Campion

      Ha!!! That is such an ingenious trick! I bet they didn’t fall off (really? even when they were dry??) because those old ice boxes and early fridges were slightly rounded. (Though if you’ve tried it, perhaps it even works on the new, flat ones!) Yeah. There would’ve been harrumphing, for sure, but VERY clever trick!

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