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the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the editors of The Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Archaeology and Probate Inventories in the Study of Eighteenth-Century Life Author(s): John Bedell Source: The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 223-245 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 04/07/2013 16:17
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Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxI:2




John Bedell

many kinds of records to study the material world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including paintings, letters, diaries, and wills. In recent years, however, they have concentrated on probate inventories-lists of people's possessions compiled just after their death. Probate inventories were first taken for estate and tax purposes in many parts of Europe during the later Middle Ages, and later in colonial America. Sometimes these lists are detailed, itemizing chairs, pots, pigs, and even bags. They provide a window into the homes of people who lived and died long ago. Among the issues that historians have used inventories to study are standards of living, overall wealth, self-sufficiency, economic diversification, the transition from frontier to settled community, and, through the presence of clocks, the spread of our modern, regimented way of using time. Comparisons have been made across class lines, between England and Maryland, and between rural areas and towns.1 Historians have discussed at some length the possible problems with the age bias and wealth bias of samples, but the conJohn Bedell is Archaeologist, The Louis Berger Group, Washington, D.C. He is the author of "Memory and Proof of Age in England, 1272-1327," Past & Present,162 (I999), 3-27. The author wishes to thank the many people whose assistance made this research possible, including Kevin Cunningham, Ingred Wuebber, Meta Janowitz, Marie-Lorraine Pipes, Gerard Scharfenberger, Eric Griffiths, Robert Jacoby, Doug Tilley, Rick Vernay, Charles LeeDecker, and the Delaware Department of Transportation. ? 2000 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the editors of The Journal of Interdisciplinary History. I Lois Green Carr and Lorena S. Walsh. "The Standard of Living in the Colonial XLV (i988), 135-159; idem, "Changing Lifestyles Chesapeake," William & Mary Quarterly, and Consumer Behavior in the Colonial Chesapeake," in Cary Carson, Robert Hoffman, The Style of Life in the EighteenthCentury and Peter Albright (eds.), Of ConsumingInterests: (Charlottesville, I994), 59-I66; Alice Hanson Jones, Wealthof a Nation to Be: The American Colonieson the Eve of the Revolution(New York, I980); Gloria Main, "The Standardof Living XLV (I988), 124-134; in Southern New England, 1640-1773," William & 24ary Quarterly, in Englandand America Carole Shammas, The Pre-industrial Consumner (Oxford, 1990); Ad van A New Source der Woude and Anton Schuurman (eds.), Probate Inventories: for the Historical Study of Wealth, MaterialCulture, and Agricultural Development(Wageningen, I980); Lorna Culturein Britain, 1660-1760 (New York, I988); Weatherill, ConsumerBehaviorand Mlaterial James P. P. Horn, "Adapting to a New World: A Comparative Study of Local Society in

Archaeology and Probate Inventories in the Study of Eighteenth-Century Life Historians have used

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sensus seems to be that such documents are accurate. Weatherill wrote that English inventories "normally give a full account of household contents." But do they? They may look precise and complete, but such documents can be wrong. Most classes of eighteenth-century documents cannot readily be checked, but probate inventories can, at least in part, by comparing them with the findings of archaeology. The comparison shows that probate inventories were often incomplete, omitting many items of low value, such as earthenware dishes, sewing gear, and children's toys. A better understanding of eighteenth-century material life can be gained by using inventories in conjunction with archaeology, rather than through either one alone.2 In order to appreciate the strengths and weakness of both archaeology and probate inventories, it is necessary to compare the two kinds of sources in the most direct way possible. A good data set for doing so now exists in Delaware, where twelve eighteenth-century farm sites have been thoroughly and professionally excavated in the past fifteen years (Table I). All of the sites are in New Castle and Kent Counties, which comprise the northern half of the state, and most of the excavations have been sponsored by the Delaware Department of Transportation. These sites provide a large and relatively homogeneous body of data for the study of one region's eighteenth-century material culture. They include tenant and owner-occupied farms, the status of the occupants ranging from low at the Augustine Creek North Site
England and Maryland, I650o-700," in Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo (eds.), Colonial Chesapeake Society(Chapel Hill, I988), 133-I75; Elizabeth A. Perkins, "The Consumer Frontier: Household Consumption in Early Kentucky," Journal of AmericanHistory, LXXVIII (I991), 486-5I0; Paul A. Shackel, Personal Disciplineand Mlaterial Culture(Knoxville, History, 1993); Shammas, "How Self-Sufficient Was Early America?"Jolurnal (f Interdisciplinary XIII (I982), 247-272; Walsh, "Urban Amenities and Rural Sufficiency: Living Standardsand Consumler Behavior in the Colonial Chesapeake, I643-I777," Journal of Economic History,
XLIII (1983), I09-I1I7.
2 Main, "The Correction of Biases in Colonial American Probate Records," Historical Methods Newsletter 8 (1974), 10-28; Jones, "Estimating the Wealth of the Living from a

Probate Sample, "Jolrnal of InterdisciplinaryHistory, XIII (I982), 273-300; Weatherill, Consumer Behavior, 4; Francoise Piponnier, "InventairesBourguignons (XIVe-XVe siecle)," in van der

Woude and Schuurman (eds.), Probate Inventories, 127-139; Walsh, "Consumer Behavior, Diet, and the Standardof Living in Late Colonial and Early Antebellum America, I770-1840," in Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis (eds.), American and Standards Economic Grolwth of LivingBeforethe Civil War(Chicago, I992), 217-26I; Anne Yentsch, "Minimum Vessel Lists as Evidence of Change in Folk and Courtly Traditions of Food Use," Historical Arcllaeology,


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Table 1 List of Excavated Eighteenth-Century Sites in Delaware


John Powell Augustine Creek South William Strickland Thomas Dawson Augustine Creek North Charles Robinson McKean/Cochran I Benjamin Wynn Whitten Road William Hawthorne Bloomsbury Darrach Store McKean/Cochran II

1726-1760 1726-I760

Farm Farm Farm

1735-1756 1750-S8Io
1762-1783 1750-I790

Farm Tenant Farm or Dwelling

Farm Tenant Farm Tenant Farm and

1754 1754


Blacksmith's Shop
1760-I830 1760-1900

Tenant Farm Farm Tenant Farm


Occupied by Native Americans

1775-1860 1790-I830 Store, then Tenant


to the bottom end of the upper class at the William Strickland Plantation and the McKean/Cochran Farm. Since all but one of the sites dates later than 1724, the data on the early part of the
century is weak, but for the 1740 to 1800 period, the information

is rich. All of the excavations were accompanied by detailed title research, and the occupants of several sites have been identified. The survival of probate inventories from four of the sites permits a direct comparison between the findings of archaeology and the inventory lists.3 Separate probate inventory studies have also been done as part of the work on some sites, and this data can be used to compare archaeology and inventory studies within the Delaware context. Two studies are particularly useful. A sample of 200 randomly selected inventories from New Castle County, focusing
on the

to 1740, 1760 to 1769, and 1790 to 1799 periods,

was analyzed as part of the work on the Augustine Creek North

3 Summary descriptions of all sites are provided in Bedell, HistoricContext: The Archaeology of Farm and Rural Dwelling Sites in New Castle and Kent Counties, Delaware, 1730-1770 and
1770-1830 (East Orange, NJ., 1999), 32-42.

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and South sites. A second study of I90 randomly selected Kent County probate inventories, most of them from the I740s, I750s, and I76os, was done as part of the work on the Thomas Dawson site. Because these studies followed the general methods of Carr, Walsh, and Main, the data should be roughly comparable with their results from New England and the Chesapeake.4 Archaeologists employ inventory studies because they report many items that usually do not turn up at archaeological sites-for instance, objects that rot away in the ground, such as clothing, bed linens, rugs, and books, as well as valuable objects that were rarely lost or thrown away, such as silver buckles and gold jewelry. In some ways, the evidence from inventories shows that the picture provided by archaeology alone is not just incomplete but also misleading. For example, the fact that archaeologists find few plates on farm sites that date before the introduction of creamware in the I76os, but that after 1770, they become common does not mean that farmers in Delaware did not use plates before 1760; they simply used pewter or wood plates that did not survive. The data from Kent County reveal that in the I740S and I750s, pewter dishes were listed in at least 75 percent of the inventories, even those of poor families. A picture of eighteenth-century life drawn entirely from archaeology would be incomplete. Table 2 summarizes the findings of the Kent County inventory study, as a point of comparison for the archaeological data to follow. In general, the Delaware inventories are similar to those from other parts of the thirteen colonies, telling us that the average house was simply furnished. Beds, tables, chairs, and chests are the only items of furniture listed for a majority of households. Some richer people also had desks, cupboards, or chests of drawers, but they mainly had more beds, tables, chairs, and chests. Books seem to have been common, especially the Bible. The count of "dairy items" (primarily churns) is surely too low, since the inventories also show that almost all farmerskept dairy cows. More prosperous farmers were much more likely to have more expensive tools like
at thle and the Poorin Eiglteenth-CelntryDelaware:Excavations 4 Bedell et al., The Ordinary AugustineCreekNorthand SouthSites (7NC-G-144 and 7NC-G-145) (Washington, D.C., I998); ideimet al., An OrdinaryFamily in Eighteenth-Century Delaware:Excavationsat the Thomas Dawson Site (Washington, D.C., I999); Carr and Walsh, "Standardof Living Chesapeake"; idenm, "Changing Lifestyles";Main, "Standardof Living Southern New England."

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Table 2

Presence of Selected Items in Kent County Probate Inventories, I740-1769





TO /225






Household articles Bed/table linen Earthenware


39 71

55 85

78 83

Metal pot




Table forks Pewter


35 78
39 oo00

49 94

73 96






Desks Cupboards


I 19

6i 39

Dining tables Tools

Spinning wheel Loom Dairy items


91 23 23

I00 39 17


Gun Wagon/cart Blacksmith's tools

Carpenter's tools

35 8

57 53

87 87 8

Shoemaker's tools Cider mill


4 6

22 30

carts and cider mills, and some farmers probably supplemented their income by renting these items to their poorer neighbors. The overall impression is that although a few people in the eighteenth century owned many things, many people did not.
Joseph Nixon, who died in 1750 left an estate valued at only fI I 2s., as listed in Table 3. Nixon and his wife owned little beyond

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Table 3

Inventory of Thomas Nixon, March 15, 1750

One bed & bedding Wearing apparel Widow's wearing apparel Largeold Bible Looking glass small old tea kettle 3 chairs I chest with meal in it I trunkwith lumber hackledflax, 5 smallpieces new linning and i corse towell
2 old trowels & plum line & rule i old mugg with some brown sugar

Old earthenware & old tinn I old piggin & snuff bottle

2 turkeys

a table, three chairs, a chest, a trunk, some clothes, and a Bible. Their only luxury, if such it can be called, was a single mirror. Their kitchen was finished with a tea kettle, a mug with brown sugar, and "old earthenware & tin." According to the inventories, a majority of poorer people did not have table forks, bed linens, or fine dishes; about one-quarter did not have pewter plates or coarse earthenwares; and more than one-third did not even own a table. The only articles that almost everyone had were clothes, beds, and metal cooking pots. Only about one-half of middling farmers, those worth more than S50o, had bed linens, teawares, or table forks; 28 percent did not even own a chair. By our standards, and by the standards of the wealthy in their own time, the material goods of ordinary eighteenth-century people were few and simple.
DATA TESTING INVENTORY Although they are a valuable source for learning about eighteenth-century life, inventories are not without their own problems. For one thing, they were the work of the deceased's neighbors, who were appointed by the court. Little is known about how well these amateur assessors were able to do this complex job. A study of inventories from various parts of the country suggests that they were taken according to unwritten rules about what was countable and what was not. Inventories

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from New England listed houses and land, but southern inventories did not. Those in Delaware tended to omit houses and land, but we have no idea why and according to whose decision.5 That a few Delaware inventories listed land suggests that some assessorsdid not fully grasp the local procedure. A few of the rules in Delaware are inferable from the inventories. The inventories almost always include the value of crops standing in the field but never the contents of gardens or apples on the tree. Small sums of money hardly ever appear, although the inventories of rich men often list larger sums. The inventory takers, by common consent, may have refrained from listing items that were considered the personal property of widows, such as clothing, sewing kits, and purses. What were the rules that caused people to omit other items that may not appear?6 Another possible difficulty with inventories is fraud perpetrated by heirs, executors, and other interested parties. One study of a group of Maryland inventories dating to the I67os produced evidence of systematic under-valuation, probably to conceal assets from creditors and competing heirs.7 Historians frequently employ inventories to estimate the standard of living in the past, primarily by counting how many inventories include selected objects-from essentials like cooking pots to luxuries like silver plate. In the manner of Table 2 herein, such studies may try to find out how the number of people who owned these things changed over time. Carr and Walsh have created what they call an "amenities index" to study the level of comfort in colonial Virginia and Maryland, and Main has applied the same technique to New England.8 The amenities list contains twelve items that are intended to represent the range of goods, from necessity to luxury. Among the items chosen are bed or table linen, table forks, books, and silver plate. The number of times that these items appear in
5 Carr and Walsh, "Inventories and the Analysis of Wealth and Consumption Patterns in
Maryland, I658-1777," Historical Methods, XIII (I980),

St. Mary's County,


"Estimatingthe Wealth," 277-282. 6 Micheline Baulant, "Typologie des Inventaires Apres Deces," in van der Woude and Schuurman (eds.), Probate Inventories, 33-42. 7 KarmaPaape, "Providence:A Case Study in Probate Manipulation, I670-I679," Maryland Historical Magazine, 94 (I999), 65-87. 8 Carr and Walsh, "Standardof Living Chesapeake," I36-138; Main, "Standardof Living Southern New England," 126-127.

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inventories shows that they became more common in all areas, among all income groups, from 1650 to 1775. These inventory studies suggest, therefore, that standards of living were rising for most people in the colonies. Questions about the accuracy of inventories, however, create difficulties for such a straightforward approach. Simple errorsby the assessorswould presumably average out over time, given the large number of inventories available for study, but systematic distortions would be more recalcitrant. If the unwritten rules changed over time and some items were counted more often, or less often, the usefulness of these inventory summaries for studying long-term change would be greatly undermined. One way to check their accuracy is to compare them to available archaeological records. The radically different origins of archaeological deposits and probate inventories raises questions about the value of a direct comparison. An inventory was supposed to be a complete list of all the objects present on a particular day. An archaeological deposit is created over years, or even decades of trash disposal, though it may represent only a small percentage of the material thrown away on the site. In general, the only artifacts still identifiable after 250 years in the ground are those that were deposited in a protected environment, such as a well or cellar hole. Refuse simply strewn on the ground has generally been too pulverized by trampling and plowing for archaeologists to learn anything from it. (All but one of the sites in the Delaware sample had been plowed; the exception was occupied into the I950s.) On rural eighteenth-century sites, most trash seems to have been "broadcast" in yard areas, not thrown into pits.9 Even when intact deposits have been identified, archaeologists usually do not know how many years of occupation they represent, or what part of the trash thrown away ended up in them. Furthermore, not everything used on a site was thrown away. Some items were regularly broken and discarded and others maintained for decades. Pewter was recycled; silver kept as an
at tle John DarrachStore Site, 9 Lu Ann De Cunzo et al., Final Archaeological Investigations Route6-WoodlandBeachRoad, SmyrnaSection,Delaware Route1 Corridor, Delaware Kent County, Delaware (Dover, Del., I992), I49-167; James F. Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten:The Archaeology of Early AmericanLife (New York, I977), 125-126; David J. Grettler et al., in Seventeenth Landowner and Tenant Opportunity Centur CeCentral Delaware:Final Archaeological at the RichardWliitehart Investigations (7K-C-203C) andJonll Powell (7K-C-2o3-H) Plantations, State Route 1 Corridor, Kent County, Delaware(Dover, Del., 1995), I44-I53.

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heirloom. Eighteenth-century blacksmiths' accounts refer to repairs made on simple metal tools, such as pitchforks and sickles. Because of these difficulties, no definitive statement about the quantitative relationship between goods listed in inventories and archaeological finds is now possible. Most likely, a few breakable but durable items, especially ceramics, may be better represented archaeologically, but most categories are more likely to appear in inventories.10 Two of the twelve items tracked by the Carr and Walsh amenities index are "coarse earthenware" and "refined earthenware." Their figures show a steadily increasing percentage of households owning ceramics, indicating a rising level of comfort, but there are reasons to be skeptical about these numbers. In the New Castle County, Delaware, sample for the I76os, ceramics were listed in only 67 percent of the inventories for the middling households worth between so5 and z225, but they were found on every site in the Delaware sample (Table 4). In fact, they are ubiquitous in the archaeological record of colonial America, appearing on every domestic site that archaeologists have investigated. The archaeological record for the colonial period, on which most inventory studies have been focused, contains an enormous amount of coarse earthenware. (In some parts of the country, it became rare after 1780.) Moreover, every colonial plantation, tenant farm, urban tenement, and slave quarter that has ever been tested has yielded sherds of it, in most cases by the thousands. "Refined earthenware" is a more difficult category; it is not clear that we divide coarse from refined wares in the way that eighteenth-century potters or inventory takers did. Carr, Walsh, and Main say nothing about stoneware, some of which was treated like refined earthenware and some like coarse earthenware, further complicating the picture. Because Delaware's inventories rarely specify ceramic types before the 1770s, it is difficult to make any comparisons. However, what contemporary archaeologists consider refined ware has been recovered from most

of RuralArtisans:Final Inhestiationsat the Mermaid Io Wade P. Catts et al., The Archaeology Blacksmithand WlieelvrightShop Sites, State Route 7-Limestone Road, New Castle County, Delaware(Dover, Del., I994), 9-i6.

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Table 4

Presence of Selected Items on Eighteenth-Century



Sites i


DATES I69I-I735 1724-1760 I726-I762 I740-I780 I750-I810 1762-1783 I750-I790 1765-1820 I750-I830 I750-I96I I76I-1814

WARE x x x x x x x x x



John Powell Augustine Creek S. Wm. Strickland Thomas Dawson Augustine Creek N. Charles Robinson McKean/Cochran I Benjamin Wynn Whitten Road William Hawthorne Bloomsbury Darrach Store McKean/Cochran II
NOTE "x" means present; "-


x x
x x

x x

x x

1775-1860 I790-I830 " means absent.

x x x

x x x

x x x


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eighteenth-century sites, including all of the Delaware sites in our sample." The discrepancy between the ubiquity of ceramics in the archaeology and their frequent omissions from inventories was noticed by French scholars more than twenty years ago, but most historians have not heeded the warning. They have continued to print numbers suggesting that many households, even wealthy ones, owned little or no pottery. Main reported that in rural Massachusetts, in the 1725 to 1749 period, only 69 percent of owned coarse earthenware, households worth more than f225 and only 31 percent owned refined ware. Ceramics are so poorly represented in the inventories that not even new and exotic ceramic forms necessarily appear. Yentsch found that oriental porcelain teawares appear on archaeological sites in the Chesapeake by I680, but their first listing in surviving Virginia probate inventories does not occur until 1717.12 Since all of the inventories for excavated sites in Delaware list ceramics, we have no basis for an archaeological comparison. (William Peery's inventory, made in I789, lists only "a lot of dishes," but this vague designation certainly could include earthenware.) However, some inventories itemize ceramic dishes, and we can compare them to what was found in the ground. William Strickland, whose family occupied his plantation from c. 1726 to 1760, worked his way up from the bottom half of taxables in the county to the goth percentile (such movement was not unusual in his time). After his heirs left within a few years of his death, the site probably had no other occupants. His inventory, taken in 1754, lists no more than nineteen ceramic vessels (Table 5). Using a technique called "Minimum Vessel Analysis," which determines the smallest number of vessels that could have produced the sherds found in the ground, archaeologists identified 237 from the site of his farm (Table 6). The archaeological sample includes at least five types of vessels not listed in the inventory. These include mugs and chamber pots, two items that are archaeologically ubiq-

Excavation McKean /CocliranFarmSite, II Bedell et al., FarmLife on tlieAppoqluininiink: of thle New Castle County, Delavare (Dover, Del., I999). I2 Piponnier, "Inventaires," 136; Main, "Standard of Living Southern New England"; Family and Their Slaves (New York, I994). Yentsch, A Chesapeake

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Table 5
To To To To

Ceramics Listed in William Strickland's Probate Inventory


To 2 bowls & a Cheese Pat

5 Old pots and 2 Old frying pans & Skillet 6 Earthen pans 6 Old Earthen pots Teaware & some Bowles

5:0 3:0 4:0 I2:0

Table 6


Ceramics Identified Archaeologically

at the William Strickland



tea cups saucers teapots posset cups plates porringers mugs/jugs mush cups small bowls large bowls


3 8

4 41
2 24


dishes serving plates jars pots milk pans butter pots ointment pots chamber pots child's toy cup unidentified

8 3 4


11 4 9 I

uitous but rare in inventories, as well as plates, porringers, and


The inventory of Charles Robinson, a "yeoman" whose farm was occupied from c. 1762 to 1783, lists "Tea delph ware one Nip [bowl] & 3 plates" and "3 earthen pots and 3 old pans Jug & 3 bottles." Both the written record and archaeological evidence suggest that the house was never the property of anyone except Robinson and his wife, who died in I783. Nevertheless, archaeologists found at least 528 vessels at his farm, including 58 tea cups, 52 saucers, and dozens American-made dishes or "pie plates." The apparent detail of this inventory is misleading; many objects have obviously been omitted from this precise-looking list. Although we cannot check them archaeologically, some of the
Excavations 13 Ellis C. Coleman et al., Phase III Data Recovery of the WilliamM Hawthorn at the Site, 7NC-E-46 (Dover, Del., I994), 226; Catts et al., Final Archaeological Investigations StateRoute 1 Plantation Site (7K-A- 17), A Mid-Eighteenth WilliamStrickland CenturyFarmstead, Kent County, Delaware(Dover, Del., I995), 18-23, 46, 145. Corridor,

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inventories in the Kent County study seem to have the same problem. The inventory ofJohn Virden, a substantialfarmer who died in 1769, mentions ceramics, but this simple fact betrays the obvious inadequacy of the list that his assessorsprovided, which includes "6 earthen potts, 5 full of lard," "3 earthen pots, 2 full of shugr," and "3 earthen potts with dirty fatt," but no pans, dishes, bowls, or teacups.14 The ceramics found in eight well-dated archaeological deposits from Delaware are listed in Table 7. These deposits are as close to being "time capsules"as the archaeological sample permits, since they were all probably created in a decade or less, probably by a single household. Table 7 provides some idea of the large amounts of ceramics used and discarded on eighteenth-century farms within ten or so years. The John Powell, Augustine Creek South, and Thomas Dawson sites were small, owner-occupied farms. Dawson's 1754 probate inventory valued his goods at 5so. Strickland was somewhat wealthier-his goods and chattels being valued at 1i89-but not really of the elite. The Benjamin Wynn (a blacksmith) Site was a tenant farm occupied from about 1765

by Wynn himself between I775 and 800o. The occupants

of the McKean/Cochran Farm in the 1750 to 1790 period were tenants, but the farm was large (c. 400 acres), and the tenants seem to have been well above average in wealth. The ceramic collections from these deposits, all generated by typical households, show a substantial number of vessels and a great variety of vessel forms, as well as a wide range of different materials-from Chinese porcelain to coarse, locally made earthenware.15 The Augustine Creek North Site was a small tenant farm located on sloping ground next to a swampy stream, an undesirable location that strongly suggests that its occupants were poor. Two collections of artifacts were identified archaeologically, one dating to the I750s or I76os and one dating to about 800o.The earlier material (Table 7), which was better preserved, included
Data 14 Ronald A. Thomas, Robert F. Hoffman, and Betty C. Zeeboker, Archaeological Recoveryof the CharlesRobinson Plantation,1762-1781, Appoquinimink Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware,unpub. ms. (Delaware State Historical Preservation Office, Dover, 1994). I5 Bedell et al., Ordinaryand the Poor; idem et al., Ordinary Family; idem et al., Farm Life; Catts et al., WilliamStrickland Farmson the Edge of Town: Plantation;Grettler et al., Mlarginal at theMoore-Taylor, FinalArchaeological BenjaminWynn (Lewis-E),and Wilson-Lewis Investigations State Route 1 Corridor, Kent County, Delaware(Dover, Del., I996); idem et al., Farmsteads, Landowner and Tenant Opportunity.

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Table 7

Ceramic Collections Well-Dated Archaeological Sites in Delaware


from Eighteenth-Century






John Powell well William Strickland well


io mugs,

cups, 4 plates, I

small bowl, I jug, I milk pan, 5 jars, I bottle, i ointment pot

1725-1750 3 teacups, 2 saucers, 3 teapots, 8

plates, 4 porringers, 3 small

bowls, II mugs, 7 cups, io large

bowls, 3 pitchers, I jugs, 5 jars, 7 pots, 9 milk pans, 4 chamber pots Augustine Creek South cellar
29 teacups,

36 saucers, 8 teapots,

6 plates, 17 small bowls, I7 jars, 8 milk pans, I pipkin, I8 dishes, 4 jugs, 3 chamber pots
porringers, 27 mugs, 3 cups,

Thomas Dawson cellar


29 tea cups, I7 saucers, 7 teapots, I creamer, 3 plates, small bowls, 7 porringers, II


mugs, 7 jars, 4 jugs, I6 milk pans, II dishes, 8 pans, 2 large

bowls, 2 chamber pots, 17

unidentified/other Augustine Creek North root cellar McKean/Cochran cellar


I small bowl,

I porringer,

mugs, I jar, I milk pan, 4 dishes, I pan, I ointment pot


jars, 6 milk pans, i colander, 5 dishes, 5 pans, 4 jugs, 2 chamber pots, I ointment pot, 6 unidentified/other McKean/Cochran well
1750-I770 8 teacups, 12 saucers, I teapot, I

5 teacups, 7 saucers, 9 bowls, 8 porringers, 2 mugs, IO cups, 5

plate, 2 platters, 3 small bowls, 2 porringers, 5 mugs, 5 jars, 9 milk pans, I pipkin, 5 dishes, 7 pans,
I jug, 2 large bowls, I chamber

Benjamin Wynn well


pot, iI unidentified/other 8 teacups, 5 saucers, 5 teapots, I cup, io plates, 3 platters, 4 small bowls, I mug, 4 jugs, 6 large bowls, 3 jars, I milk pan, I pitcher, I pan

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coarse earthenware milk pans and jars, slip-decorated dishes, and at least ten ceramic mugs. The later material included several creamware plates, hand-painted pearlware teacups and saucers in floral designs, and at least one teapot. Late eighteenth-century slave-quarter sites that have been excavated in Virginia have also yielded substantial numbers of ceramics, including refined earthenware teacups, and hand-painted teacups have also been found at the homes of tenant farmers on the Appalachian frontier.'6 Teacups are of particularimportance to social historians; they document the spread of both a new product and a new style of etiquette. Inventory studies show that in the later eighteenth century, at least half of American households were consuming tea. Archaeology suggests that in Delaware the figure was even higher. Israel Acrelius, writing about 1750, said that in Delaware, tea was being drunk in "the most remote cabins," and archaeological discoveries imply that he was not exaggerating. Although teawares are absent from some deposits, notably the pre-179o deposits at Augustine Creek North, all of the sites in the Delaware sample dating to the second half of the eighteenth century yielded teawares from every period, including well-dated, eighteenthcentury deposits at the Benjamin Wynn, Whitten Road, and Bloomsbury tenant-farm sites. Deposits securely dated to the lifetime of Thomas Dawson include several high-quality teaware vessels. Teawares are so common in British North America that nearly all archaeologists use Josiah Wedgewood's creamware and pearlware, which usually appear first as teawares, to date deposits. Studies based on the presence of teawares in probate inventories are likely to underestimate the rapidity with which tea drinking spread through the population.17
and the Poor;Bedell, Michael Petraglia, and Christopher Plummer, I6 Bedell et al., Ordinary "Status, Technology, and Rural Tradition in Western Pennsylvania: Excavations at the XXIII (I994), 29-57; William M. Kelso, Historical Shaeffer Farm Site," Northeast Archaeology, KingsmillPlantations,1619-1800: Archaeology of CountryLife in Colonial Virginia(New York, of Slaveryand PlantationLife (Orlando, I984); Theresa A. Singleton (ed.), The Archaeology 1985). 17 Timothy H. Breen, "Baubles of Britain: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century," Past & Present,II9 (1988), 73-I04, 83; Mark Shaffer et al., Final Phase III Investigations of tlhe WhittenRoad Site, 7NC-D-loo, Whittenor WaltherRoad, New Castle County,Delaware(Dover, Del., I988); Shammas, "The Domestic Environment in Early Modern England and America," in Michael Gordon, (ed.), The AmericanFamily in SocialHistorical Perspective (New York, I983), 125; Walsh, "Consumer Behavior, Diet, and Standard of Living."

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Why are ceramics omitted from so many inventories if they are so archaeologically ubiquitous? Probably for the simple reason that they were not worth much money. Even new earthenware vessels cost less than a shilling; inventories assign them values as low as one penny. In Delaware inventories, "wooden ware" (such as buckets) was often valued at more than the earthernware. The main purpose of inventories was to provide a guide for the division of estates, and heirs were not likely to quarrel over a few milk pans. For this very reason, inventories rarely list pins, scissors, thimbles, and razors, which archaeologists find on almost every site. Some Delaware inventories, the work of extraordinarily conscientious appraisers,contain lists of earthenware that resemble the collections found on archaeological sites. For example, the inventory of John Tilton, a Kent County tenant farmer who died in 1746, lists two jugs, three butter pots, one earthen pan, five old earthen porringers, one small earthen vessel, three earthen plates, a one-pint drinking pot, two pint and a half drinking pots, two earthen cups, and one saucer. Even John Amyatt, a poor Kent County shoemaker, whose estate was valued at less than 20oin 1744, owned six dishes, six plates, one basin, two bowls, four earthen pans, four porringers, and nine plates, as well as eight wooden trenchers.18 But if earthenwares were so commonplace, why are they listed more often in the households of the rich, and why do they get more common over time? Two factors probably contribute to these trends. First, the more earthenware people had, the more likely appraiserswere to note it. A bowl or two could easily be placed in a category like "lumber," or "small things forgotten," but by the middle of the I70os, rich farmers sometimes had whole rooms full of earthenware, including dozens of milk pans and large jars. Rich farmers undoubtedly had more earthenware than poor ones, but even ceramics became more common over the course of the eighteenth century. Minimum vessel counts are frequently in the dozens for archaeological sites dating from c. 1700, but in the hundreds for sites dating from the 1750s and later. Indeed, the increased reporting of earthenware reflects real differences, both
8S For the relative values of wooden- and earthenware,see Delaware State Archives, Dover; New Castle County Probate Files, John Corbett I76I (Delaware probate files are indexed by county, name and date).

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over time and across social classes, in the ownership of dishes and pots.'9 Factors internal to inventories also help to explain the increased reporting. The Delaware inventories for rich households seem to have been more detailed than those for the poor, and inventories in general became more detailed throughout the course of the eighteenth century. These statements are difficult to test quantitatively, but numerous signs point toward this conclusion. Clothes are frequently itemized for the wealthy, sometimes in page-long lists of jackets, belts, handkerchiefs, and so on, but inventories of the poor usually say only "clothing of the deceased." A detailed list is a natural response to the greater challenge presented by a closet full of clothes, but it leads to problems in comparing the inventories of the rich with those of the poor: Since those for the poor itemize nothing, a simple count would show that many more rich people had shirts, shoes, belts, and pants. Likewise, the inventories of the wealthy are more likely to specify different types of ceramics, chairs, bed linens, and kitchen utensils, probably because these much larger collections of objects would have been more difficult to compile during the valuation, as well as more difficult to divide among heirs. The evidence for increasing rigor over time is less conclusive, but it is nevertheless suggestive. In Delaware, the oldest preserved inventories, dating from the I69os, are extremely sketchy and sparse. General terms like "lumber" and "household trumpery"
grow less common after the early
700oos. The

first inventories that

describe different types of ceramics, as opposed to just "crockery" or "earthenware," date from the I770s, as does the first inventory to list books by title. Several historians have elsewhere noted long-term trends in inventories' level of detail. Schuurman, for one, observed that Dutch inventories gradually became less detailed over the course of the nineteenth century. Any study of long-term social trends must take into consideration the possibility that the sources change with society.20
19 Deetz, "Ceramics from Plymouth, I620-1835: The Archaeological Evidence," in Ian M. G. Quimby (ed.), Ceramlicsin America:Winterthur Report1972 (Charlottesville, Conference

Reflections on the Use of Probate Inventories as a Source for the Study of the Material Culture of the Zaanstreek in the Nineteenth Century," in van der Woude and Schuurrnan (eds.), Probate Inventories, I77-I89.

1972), 15-39. 20 Schuurman, "Some

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Probate inventories are complex documents, each one different from the next. Some are detailed; some are not. Some describe a particular group of possessions in great detail, such as clothing or livestock, and lump other groups into general categories. Much of the richness of the inventories is lost when they are reduced to simple statisticalsummaries. As noted, some inventories provide lists of ceramics that tally well with the archaeological data, and more could be learned about ceramic use in Delaware from these detailed inventories than from a statistical summary of the many sketchy lists. The argument is not that inventories are all "wrong," only that most of them were never intended to be complete. They reflect, in a general way, broad changes in the ownership of many items, as well as broad economic trends. But inventory reports testify to not just the presence of the item but also to its value, as well as to the number of items and the level of detail in the inventory. A graph showing that the percentage of households owning earthenware rose during the period from I650 to I750 means more than meets the eye when we know that the actual value in all periods was close to o00 percent. Presence/absence tables may be informative about the ownership of expensive things, like silver plate or looms, but they are not as trustworthy about cheap items like earthenware. Archaeology suggests that other kinds of household goods are also underreported in the probate inventories. Sewing items, such as thimbles and scissors, have already been mentioned. Children's toys are also rarely listed; a study of inventories might lead one to think that eighteenth-century children had none. Most toys were made of perishable materials, such as wood, but a few kinds, such as ceramic marbles and toy-sized cups, regularly turn up at archaeological sites. Children's clothes receive little attention in the inventories. Assessors may have viewed children's clothes and toys as the children's and not part of the householder's estate. Three underreported items that were definitely part of the adult world were chamber pots, spoons, and tobacco pipes (Table 4). No tobacco pipes are mentioned in the 400 inventories of the Delaware sample, though they have been found on every eighteenth-century site that has been excavated in the state. Because they were cheap, their presence or absence has few economic implications; it may, however, have

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cultural significance. Compared with sites in the Delaware Valley, Chesapeake sites yield, on average, at least five times as many tobacco pipe fragments. We do not know whether Delaware Valley farmers smoked less than those in the Chesapeake, or they used another kind of pipe, perhaps corn cob.21 Forks represent a special case, since they were not introduced into the colonies until c. 1700. They are listed in all the inventories for sites where they have been found archaeologically, but an interesting pattern develops in the Delaware inventories. The number of New Castle County inventories with forks peaks in
the I76os and then declines in the I79os. Shackel found the same

pattern in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Data published by Carr and Walsh end with the year 1775, but they show that the number of households with forks may have peaked at that point. Since it is highly unlikely that the use of forks declined under the early Republic, another explanation is needed. Figure I interprets the rise and fall of forks in the Delaware inventories as the product of two variables, the ownership of forks and the number of appraiserswho reported them. (The figure lumps all wealth groups together, but the trend holds for rich, poor, and middling households.) When forks were rare and something of a luxury, appraisers probably mentioned them most of the time that they were present. After they became ordinary objects, however, some appraisers began to ignore them, or to put them into categories like "goodes in a chest." Even though forks were not expensive, the vagaries of their reporting suggest further difficulties with inventories as

The part that drinking glasses play in the inventories is also suggestive. Overall, about 20 percent of the Delaware inventories list them; the high point among wealthy households in the I79os was 43 percent. In the I75os, however, not one of the thirty-six Kent County inventories for households worth less than /50 lists a drinking glass even though they are common archaeologically. Stemmed glasses, the easiest kind to identify from small fragments, have been found at all four of our sites, including the home of
Bedell et al., FarmLife; idem et al., Ordinary and the Poor;Catts et al., WilliamStrickland Coleman et al., PhaseIII; Schuurman, "Some Reflections," I36; Edward F. Heite Plantation; and Cara Lee Blume, Mitsawokett to Bloomsbury: and Historyof an Unrecognized The Archaeology Indigenous Communityin CentralDelaware(Dover, Del., I998). 22 Shackel, Personal Discipline,Io8; Carr and Walsh, "Changing Lifestyles,"78.

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poor tenants at Augustine Creek North. The remains of at least five stemmed glasses were found in one well at the John Powell Site, the home of a middling property owner; the well was filled in about I720.23 There are even clearer conflicts between inventories and archaeological discoveries. William Strickland's inventory lists no glasses or glassware, but at least three stemmed glasses and one tumbler were found at the farm, as well as a glass candlestick. Likewise, no glasswaresare listed in Charles Robinson's inventory, but archaeologists recovered fragments of glass tumblers and an opaque glass bowl. The values that inventory takers assigned to stemmed glasses and tumblers varied widely, presumably depending on the quality and condition, but, on average, glasses were valued at just under a shilling, about twice as expensive as earthenware pans. Because they were highly breakable, it is possible that all of Strickland's and Robinson's had been dropped and the fragments swept away before these men died. But whatever the reason, their absence from the inventories creates interpretive difficulties.
BONES Archaeology agrees with inventories about the distribution of large farm animals. Cattle and pig bones have been found at every eighteenth-century site excavated in Delaware to date, and these animals are listed in most of the inventories. Where calculations are available, cattle seem to supply more meat than pigs, although the fact that cattle bones are larger and survive better than pigs' may bias the sample. Sheep are common, though not as common as cattle or pigs, and their distribution is more varied. Farmers differed widely in the number of sheep that they raised and ate. Butchered horse bones have been found on most Delaware sites, although in small quantities, indicating that horse meat was eaten at least on occasion.24 Another discrepancy between inventories and archaeology arises in the case of smaller animals. "Fowles," as chickens were generally called, are listed in few Delaware inventories, but chicken bones have been found on all the sites excavated to date. Strickland's inventory lists no chicken or other "fowles," but archaeologists found 324 "medium bird" bones that were almost

and Tenant Opportunity. 23 Grettler et al., Landowner Bedell, Petraglia, and Plummer, "Status,Technology, and 24 Bedell et al., Ordinary Famltily; Rural Tradition";Walsh, "Consumer Behavior, Diet, and Standardof Living."

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certainly chicken. Dawson's inventory also lists no birds, though chicken bones abounded in the major deposits at his farm. Chickens seem to have been such a common feature of life that hardly anyone bothered to notice them, especially not when valuing an estate. Russo found that in Talbot County, Maryland, chickens tended to be listed more often in the inventories of widows, suggesting that they were often considered the women's personal property. This trend, however, does not seem to hold in Delaware. Of the thirty-nine widows' inventories in the Delaware sample, only two mention fowls, even though seventeen mention other livestock.25 Bones from archaeological sites also show that hunting was common, especially of such small animals as squirrels, rabbits, and turtles. The bones of these animals have been bound on all of the sites with good collections. Fishing is indicated by the bones of catfish and perch that were probably taken from streams with a line and hook. Not one inventory in the Delaware sample lists a dog or a cat. Although both animals breed prolifically and could usually be had for free, a good hunting dog must have had some worth. Evidently, pets were not part of the inventory process. Dogs and cats were both common in eighteenth-century Delaware; their bones have been found on all sites that yielded large collections of animal bones. The reason why their bones are not always in evidence is not because these animals were eaten, but because when they died, their carcasseswere thrown out with the rest of the trash. There is not much archaeological indication of pet sentimentality in eighteenth-century rural America.26
THE MATERIAL OF POVERTY CULTURE Perhaps the biggest difference between the inventories and the findings of archaeology concerns the feeling or atmosphere that each conveys about life in poor households. Descriptions based on inventories make the material life of the poor seem grim. For example, "Four pots (two broken) and pot hooks, skimmer, spit and dripping pan, and three old pewter dishes accounted for all of the utensils and dishes with which Faulkner's wife prepared and served the family's meals."

Talbot County, Maryland,1690-1759 in a PlantationEco0no11)y: Jean Russo, Free Wo)rkers (New York, I989), 31 n. 39. 26 Schuurman did not find dogs and cats listed in the nineteenth-century Dutch inventories that he studied, although birds were ("Some Reflections," 136).

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Ceramics may have been cheap, but the addition of a dozen or so earthenware dishes and maybe a few wooden trenchers would make a major difference in how we imagine life in the Faulkner household. The archaeological ubiquity of ceramics demands that we make this addition.27 The ceramics from eighteenth-century archaeological sites may imply more than just the presence of unrecorded dishes. The potsherds found on the sites of tenant farms and slave quarters are often brightly colored, and other decorative items, such as beads and fancy buttons, also turn up from time to time. These objects convey a sense of beauty absent from the inventory lists. Because the clothes and dishes represented by those pretty buttons and colorful potsherds may have been purchased already used, with tears or cracks, they may mean little in economic terms, but they might have great import in cultural or psychological terms. They suggest that the people who owned them were trying to beautify their lives in the ways they could afford. The occasional appearance of other inexpensive luxuries, such as stemmed glasses,jewelry, and molded shoe buckles, supports this notion. Even the most utilitarian ceramics, such as American-made earthenware pans and dishes, often had elaborate, slip-trailed patterns that made them objects of style almost as much as kitchen utensils. In the light of these small archaeological discoveries, the sheer meanness of the inventories gives way to a more lively and cheerful picture.28 Tea drinking was an aristocratic refinement widely adopted by poor and ordinary people, and, because it has been much studied, it provides a model for social and material ambitions. Archaeology shows that tea drinking may have spread even more rapidly among poor farmers than the inventories suggest, since sherds of teacups and teapots are abundant even on slave and poor tenant sites by the late eighteenth century. Poor people seem to have changed the meaning of tea, using tea time as a pick-me-up in the middle of their long work days, as well as a pleasant diversion. But the desire to have fine tea equipment spread with the tea-drinking habit. In the eighteenth century, teawares were the finest and most expensive dishes on almost every site. By 1800, hand-painted pearlware teacups were common even in poor
27 Russo, Free Workers, 410. 28 Compare the statements made by Henry Glassie about the poor country people of contemporary Ireland in Passingthe Time in Balleyrmenone (Bloomington, I995), 361-372.

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households. Archaeology shows that few people in eighteenthcentury America were so poverty-stricken that they had no desire, or capacity, to keep up with fashions like tea drinking and to own beautiful things.29 A comparison of probate inventories and archaeological findings shows that neither, by itself, gives a complete picture of material life in the eighteenth century. Some kinds of information are available only from one of the two sources. The hunting of small animals, such as rabbits and turtles, is reflected only in the bones found by archaeologists, whereas bed linens, books, and pewter dishes can be studied only through the inventories. On some questions, the two data sets can be used to check each other. Archaeology can show that the probate lists of ceramics are incomplete, and the probate inventories can testify that the occasional hammer or saw found by archaeologists represents many more objects that never made it into the ground. Even where they agree, archaeology and written records provide a more detailed and nuanced picture together than apart. For example, both archaeology and the written records suggest that most people lived in small, poorly built, wooden houses. But the written records indicate only the height of houses, the construction materials, and the number of rooms; archaeology gives the dimensions of houses and reveals cellars, chimneys, glass windows, and other fine details. Combining archaeological data with probate inventory studies is a better way to achieve a complete understanding of material life in colonial households. The structure of contemporary scholarship, however, makes such an interdisciplinary approach to the eighteenth century difficult. Archaeological data is rarely published in a form that historians can find and employ; even historians studying ceramics usually rely solely on documentary sources. When more archaeological data is made available to historians, and more dialogue takes place between practitioners of the two disciplines, a fuller and more sophisticated appreciation of eighteenth-century material life may begin to emerge. The data presented here are intended as a small step in that direction.

Sidney Mintz, Sweetnessand Power: The Place of Sugar in ModernHistory (New York, 1986), 180-183.

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