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