At a Glance

History Matters
  • An inventory—a list of someone's belongings made at his or her death—can tell you something about a person's life. But what does it leave out? Barbara Clark Smith examines an 1804 inventory, asking what it does and does not record.


About the Author

Barbara Clark Smith is Curator of Social History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where she has worked since 1983.


1804 Inventory

What questions do you bring to reading a document like this? What do you learn by reading this inventory? How do you contextualize material objects in an inventory? Are you curious about anything after reading the inventory?

Video Transcription

  • What questions do you bring to reading a document like this?
  • What do you learn by reading this inventory?
  • How do you contextualize material objects in an inventory?
  • Are you curious about anything after reading the inventory?

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  • This is an inventory. An inventory and appraisement of the goods and chattel of a man named Thomas Springer in 1804. And an inventory is a list of the possessions of someone that's taken after that person dies. It's usually the head of the household because that's who owns the possessions. Therefore most of the inventories we have are inventories of men. And it's a document that's created by the fact that wealth in the late 18th, early 19th century, is not so much in the form of things in the bank or things in the stock market, but real estate and actual moveable goods. So when someone dies, the county court appoints appraisers, local men, to go out and look at an estate, see what's there, list it, and estimate its value. And these documents are of immense interest to people who want to know about the possessions and the living standards of people in the past. Particularly about people who aren't famous, or whose things were not saved. You can get a sense of what did this man own at least at the time of his death. What was in his household?

    Thomas Springer is someone I got interested in—his possessions are something I got interested in, as a museum curator. It was my job to figure out what this man owned because we, at the Smithsonian, owned the house that he lived in. This was a house built in the 1790s and it's built of logs. And it was collected some time ago. My job was to go back and find out everything I could about the people who lived in this house. Not just Thomas Springer, but his wife, Elizabeth. It's hard to find out about Elizabeth—she doesn't have the inventory. Although there may be hints in here about her life, too.

  • Like many of these inventories it begins with the wearing apparel of the deceased. The basic thing is coats, jackets, shirts, trousers, hats, boots, drawers. Those are valuable items. You can see that clothing are valuable. They're valued here in 1804 at 30 dollars. You can look at the list of how things are valued and get a sense of what were expensive things and what were cheap things. Many inventories are like this. They're simply a straight list. A few go room by room. They list different rooms. They say, "In the parlor, there was this." Those are usually the inventories of the most well-to-do people because they have a lot of rooms. This man lives in a one-room house, perhaps with a loft upstairs. So you have to picture the inventory men coming through and as you read their list you can get a sense, to some degree, not just of what Thomas Springer may have owned, but of how it may have been arranged or organized.

    As you go through you begin to see a place where they tell us certain things about particular belongings. I'd ask the question, "What's really surprising?" Well, one thing is this man owned one thing worth 40 dollars. It's a piece of furniture which is a really expensive item and that's an eight-day clock. One looking glass worth one dollar and an eight-day clock: 40 dollars. So that's kind of interesting. That's a luxury item. And it's certainly a luxury for a farmer to own a clock. You don't need the clock to know when to milk the cows. And that's a sign that this man doesn't live too far from Wilmington, where he's very likely to have purchased this clock. And he's interested in what is a scientific piece of equipment and an expensive one. There's a point as you go down through the list you can learn about . . . unfortunately you get to read something like this in many inventories: "a lot of books, 50 cents." And I'd love to know what the books were. My guess is a bible, okay, what else? I'd love to know what he was reading. But it does suggest people in this household were literate. It doesn't simply say, "a family bible" which might be there whether people read or not. This suggests some people are reading.

    You certainly get a picture of a few of their behaviors. They have teacups and a tea table, so they're probably partakers in the afternoon or evening ceremony of tea. There's a part where it seems they've gone from the house, outside. After a lot of "Queensware," which is ceramic ware, you start finding "saddles, saddlebag, blanket and bridle, axes, maul and wedges, sledges, and a crowbar." Here, maybe we've moved to the barn. Maybe we've moved to an outside building of some sort. "Two spinning wheels." Alright, there we're getting a sense possibly, of what women in the Springer household may have done. Maybe that tells us a little something about Elizabeth.

    The most shocking thing in the list, that takes you up short, is we find listed, right among the artifacts, people. "One Negro man, named A something-something-Ace." "Nine years to serve. Valued at 180 dollars." Below that, "one old Negro man, a slave, 66 years old named Will, valued at zero." One's first response I think is, as I say, just of shock, that we've been listing horses and bridles and now we've got people, and it reminds us about this time period, that that's a routine, this is a possession. But there's also something else in this list that's interesting. There is one, one of these people is a slave. This is in Delaware in 1804 where slavery is really dying out. It's not as profitable as it is to the South. But here's the "Negro man named Ace, nine years to serve." And that suggests to us that what Ace did was what a lot of African Americans did which was that they negotiated for their freedom in the years after the American Revolution. And that he had some form of agreement with the Springers. That he would work for a certain amount of time, for his freedom, or he would work for a certain amount of time for a set amount of money at the end of it.

  • To begin with you have to figure out what they are, which in some cases is really hard. A corner cupboard, I sort of have an image of, or thought I did. "Decanters, jars." But something like "Queensware" is worth going and looking up—either in a dictionary or in a local museum or in a ceramics history. "Queensware" is imported ceramics, kind of middling. You can find images of it. Again, you'd always want to compare. That is, in many cases there are very fine examples of something and not so fine examples of something. So you'd want to get a sense of what did most people own. Is this person typical or atypical? Looking at the artifacts themselves is a great help.

    The other thing I should mention about moving to artifacts is that there is a wealth of knowledge that people who've studied material culture have about what was typical in certain regions at certain times. And that doesn't mean that your one inventory may not be atypical because he may, his six leather-bottomed chairs, maybe they're a family heirloom and they came down from somebody in some other part of the country. That's possible. But given what we know about how expensive it is to transport things over land or to put chairs on a ship and ship them out, that's unlikely. They are likely to be fairly locally made or at least locally sold. They may have been brought in by boat from say, Philadelphia to Wilmington. And there's a lot of studies that material culture scholars have done to figure out what specifically did people own.

    I think probably the main thing about these inventories is that they're most valuable when you have a great number of them and many of the studies of them have been quantitative. So we know what people in say a given county—if you could go to this entire Hundred, Mill Creek Hundred, of New Castle County in Delaware, in a 10-year time period and go through and see what different people owned, that would give you a good idea about what some of these things were. And which of these things were typical, which of these things were extraordinary to this family, if anything. If that's the same or different than it is in other parts of the country, you'd want to know that.

  • The first thing I'd want to do is know a good deal more about Thomas Springer. It's really hard to know much about him with only this. So, I'd go track down . . . luckily I can find him in tax lists, find out what he's listed as owning at different moments, how much he paid, find his will. I can find a record of his marriage, and his children's birth in the local church. And I can find the deeds of his sales. So I'd want to find out as much as I can about him. And then I want to find out about other people who live in Mill Creek Hundred, or New Castle County, those other people on the tax lists. What their lives are like, how much land they own, what possessions they have. So that I can tell, is this man typical or is he exceptional in some way? And for that I'd want to then locate the document in the context of other documents, particularly in this region. And compare this inventory with the inventory of other people in Northern Delaware in this time period. Maybe take a 10-year period of time and see, of people who die, and paying attention to how old they are when they die. What do they own? How much is it valued at? So I think, that, first Thomas Springer, find out more about him. And then find out more about the other people around him in his community and what's going on in the region in general.

    I think what's interesting; the other final context is the context of change in material culture. And probably what's most interesting there is the house itself. Because it's very easy to have an image of 18th-century houses and early 19th-century houses as being several different rooms, high style, with separate parlors, bedrooms. A central hall in the Georgian style. That's what you see when you go to most historic houses because the ones that have been saved are these very nice houses of well-to-do people. And here's a really ordinary house. It's small. We'd have a hard time being comfortable living in this space. And there's no evidence particularly, that Tom Springer or Elizabeth Springer or their children had a hard time living in this space. And this as it turns out is extremely typical. Most people in the early 19th century are still living in one- or two-room houses made of wood. Not made of brick, not fancy, nothing permanent, nothing meant to last all that long.