What can an estate inventory tell you about an individual?
Estate Inventory of Thomas Meade, Lancaster County Inventories, (1650–1705), pages 76–77, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)
Will of Thomas Meade, Lancaster County Deeds Etc., No.2 (1654–1702), page 12, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)
Part of the process of settling the estate after an individual's death was to take a probate inventory. The inventory listed the personal property in the possession of the owner at the time of death. The local county court assigned a person or group of people to make the inventory and value the estate. A credit-based economy, where tobacco was used as currency more often than cash was used, made taking inventories a necessary procedure. Before any outstanding debts were settled, the surviving members of the family needed to assess the value of the property. In Virginia, these inventories did not include buildings or land. Slaves included were often listed by name and individual value. Inventories taken after a person's death, such as Thomas Meade's, provide valuable information on everyday life such as social class, wealth, and occupation.
Based on the evidence in his inventory, Thomas Meade was above the middling sort in his local community of Lancaster County. He had a hall (denoting a more than one room house), a kitchen (perhaps a separate outbuilding), and a shed. His kitchen equipment included pewter items (not woodenware, which the poorest groups used). As a farmer, he owned numerous livestock and grew tobacco. He also owned several books including two Bibles. From looking at the inventory one can tell little about his family although he owned two bedsteads, one in the hall and one in the shed. The one in the shed was perhaps for his maidservant. This inventory describes a man who was not of the gentry but did quite well in providing the needs and a few luxuries of life.
Will of Thomas Meade, Lancaster County Deeds Etc., No.2 (1654–1702), page 12.
• bayson (basin)—an open round shallow container usually for holding liquids.
• canhooks— a tool used to hoist casks.
• chattel—an article of personal moveable property; i.e, not real estate.
• cittern (chithern)—a stringed musical instrument of the guitar family.
• debt—something owed as money, goods, or services.
• estate—all of one's possessions, especially those left at death.
• hogshead—a large barrel designed for the shipment of commodities, especially tobacco (one hhd would hold approximately 900 to 1,000 pounds of tobacco).
• Imp.r (imprimis)—in the first place (legal term).
• inventory—a detailed list of the supply of goods on hand.
• pestle—a handheld tool for grinding substances in a mortar (a sturdy vessel in which material is pounded or rubbed with a pestle).
• porringer—a shallow cup or bowl with a handle.
• pound, shilling, pence—units of British currency; one pound (£) = 20 shillings (s), 1shilling = 12 pence (d).
• powdering tub—container used for salting or pickling meat to preserve it; sometimes also used to store meat.
• probate—the process of establishing the validity of a will.
• rundlet (runlet)—a small barrel for holding liquids.
• shilliards—equipment used in the salting process.
• shoat—a young pig.
• tackle—a set of the equipment used in a particular activity.
• PRELESSON ACTIVITY:
♦ Pull out any modern-day item and discuss with the class what we can learn from the objects people own. A good example would be a coffee mug, a cell phone, etc. Have students write down everything they own in a one-minute time period and exchange their list with another student. Students should then report to the class the following: questions they have about their classmate's list, what they learned, and how knowing their classmate helped them in understand the information.
• DOCUMENT ANALYSIS:
♦ Before beginning activity, have students discuss what they know about life in Virginia in 1655 around Lancaster County (Northern Neck). Show students where Lancaster is located on a map.
♦ Distribute Thomas Meade's inventory with the assessed values covered. Have students examine the inventory of by creating a document with the following categories: kitchenware, bedding and furnishings, slaves and servants, tools and outdoor equipment, livestock, and miscellaneous items. Students should then speculate the most valuable item and least valuable item in each category. Have students present their findings, what are their top four most expensive items, what are their top four least expensive items? Students must give reasons for their choices. Are there any categories with nothing listed?
♦ After the students have speculated property values, give the students the inventory with tobacco values listed. Have students order items in terms of value; were their previous speculations correct or incorrect? If they were incorrect, why do they suppose they were incorrect? What information was left out on the inventory that would have helped them in making their previous decisions?
♦ Now have students make conclusions on Thomas Meade based on the inventory. Students should make statements about Thomas Meade on the following topics: wealth/social class, family, and occupation.
• CREATIVE WRITING and ART:
♦ Have students write a short paragraph about Thomas Meade. Students should imagine they are introducing Mr. Meade to their family or friends for the first time. How would they describe him, what do his possessions tell about him?
♦ Have students list names of unusual items from the inventory. Students should then research item and write a short description of item function, material, and modern equivalencies. In order to enhance explanation of item have student draw an illustration of object.
RESEARCH AND DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
♦ Have students review Meade's inventory and come up with their own analysis of his status and lifestyle. What information can be gleaned from the inventory list? After having a chance to review it, have students discuss whether they have any unanswered questions in regards to Thomas Meade. Students should then write down their questions. What can historians do when they have unanswered questions? In order to find out, have students do further research by examining the will of Thomas Meade. What conclusions can you now make about Thomas Meade based on this new source of information? Have you learned any new information and if so what?
♦ How has the Thomas Meade Will and Inventory added to your understanding of life in 17th century?
Harold B. Gill, Jr. and George M. Curtis, III, "Virginia's Colonial Probate Policies and the Preconditions for Economic History" The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Jan., 1979), pp. 68–73.