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Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxi:2 (Autumn, 2000), 223245.

John Bedell


Archaeology and Probate Inventories in the

Study of Eighteenth-Century Life Historians have used
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 inventorieslists of peoples possessions compiled just
after their death. Probate inventories were rst 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-sufciency, economic
diversication, 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, 12721327, Past & Present, 162 (1999), 327.
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 Grifths, 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.
1 Lois Green Carr and Lorena S. Walsh. The Standard of Living in the Colonial
Chesapeake, William & Mary Quarterly, XLV (1988), 135159; idem, Changing Lifestyles
and Consumer Behavior in the Colonial Chesapeake, in Cary Carson, Robert Hoffman,
and Peter Albright (eds.), Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century
(Charlottesville, 1994), 59166; Alice Hanson Jones, Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American
Colonies on the Eve of the Revolution (New York, 1980); Gloria Main, The Standard of Living
in Southern New England, 16401773, William & Mary Quarterly, XLV (1988), 124134;
Carole Shammas, The Pre-industrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford, 1990); Ad van
der Woude and Anton Schuurman (eds.), Probate Inventories: A New Source for the Historical
Study of Wealth, Material Culture, and Agricultural Development (Wageningen, 1980); Lorna
Weatherill, Consumer Behavior and Material Culture in Britain, 16601760 (New York, 1988);
James P. P. Horn, Adapting to a New World: A Comparative Study of Local Society in

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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 ndings of archaeology. The comparison shows that probate
inventories were often incomplete, omitting many items of low
value, such as earthenware dishes, sewing gear, and childrens 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 fteen years (Table 1). 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 regions 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, 16501700, in Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo (eds.),
Colonial Chesapeake Society (Chapel Hill, 1988), 133175; Elizabeth A. Perkins, The Consumer Frontier: Household Consumption in Early Kentucky, Journal of American History,
LXXVIII (1991), 486510; Paul A. Shackel, Personal Discipline and Material Culture (Knoxville,
1993); Shammas, How Self-Sufcient Was Early America? Journal of Interdisciplinary History,
XIII (1982), 247272; Walsh, Urban Amenities and Rural Sufciency: Living Standards and
Consumer Behavior in the Colonial Chesapeake, 16431777, Journal of Economic History,
XLIII (1983), 109117.
2 Main, The Correction of Biases in Colonial American Probate Records, Historical
Methods Newsletter, 8 (1974), 1028; Jones, Estimating the Wealth of the Living from a
Probate Sample, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XIII (1982), 273300; Weatherill, Consumer
Behavior, 4; Franoise Piponnier, Inventaires Bourguignons (XIVeXVe sicle), in van der
Woude and Schuurman (eds.), Probate Inventories, 127139; Walsh, Consumer Behavior, Diet,
and the Standard of Living in Late Colonial and Early Antebellum America, 17701840, in
Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis (eds.), American Economic Growth and Standards of
Living Before the Civil War (Chicago, 1992), 217261; Anne Yentsch, Minimum Vessel Lists
as Evidence of Change in Folk and Courtly Traditions of Food Use, Historical Archaeology,
XXIV (1990), 2453.


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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


Darrach Store


McKean/Cochran II


Tenant Farm or
Tenant Farm
Tenant Farm and
Blacksmiths Shop
Tenant Farm
Tenant Farm
Occupied by
Native Americans
Store, then Tenant

date of



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 identied.
The survival of probate inventories from four of the sites permits
a direct comparison between the ndings 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 1720 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, Historic Context: The Archaeology
of Farm and Rural Dwelling Sites in New Castle and Kent Counties, Delaware, 17301770 and
17701830 (East Orange, N.J., 1999), 3242.

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and South sites. A second study of 190 randomly selected Kent

County probate inventories, most of them from the 1740s, 1750s,
and 1760s, 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 sitesfor
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 nd few
plates on farm sites that date before the introduction of creamware
in the 1760s, 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 1740s and 1750s, 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 ndings 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 farmers kept dairy cows. More prosperous
farmers were much more likely to have more expensive tools like
4 Bedell et al., The Ordinary and the Poor in Eighteenth-Century Delaware: Excavations at the
Augustine Creek North and South Sites (7NC-G-144 and 7NC-G-145) (Washington, D.C., 1998);
idem et al., An Ordinary Family in Eighteenth-Century Delaware: Excavations at the Thomas
Dawson Site (Washington, D.C., 1999); Carr and Walsh, Standard of Living Chesapeake;
idem, Changing Lifestyles; Main, Standard of Living Southern New England.


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Table 2 Presence of Selected Items in Kent County Probate Inventories, 17401769

total value of inventory
total number of cases

less than 50

50 to 225

more than




percent of households possessing

Household articles
Bed/table linen
Metal pot
Table forks
Dining tables
Spinning wheel
Dairy items
Blacksmiths tools
Carpenters tools
Shoemakers tools
Cider mill












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 11
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
Widows wearing apparel
Large old Bible
Looking glass
small old tea kettle
3 chairs
1 chest with meal in it
1 trunk with lumber
hackled ax, 5 small pieces new linning and 1 corse towell
2 old trowels & plum line & rule
1 old mugg with some brown sugar
Old earthenware & old tinn
1 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 nished 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 ne 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 50, 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.
testing inventory data
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 deceaseds 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
assessors did 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 eld 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 difculty with inventories is fraud perpetrated by heirs, executors, and other interested parties. One study
of a group of Maryland inventories dating to the 1670s 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 objectsfrom essentials like cooking
pots to luxuries like silver plate. In the manner of Table 2 herein,
such studies may try to nd 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
St. Marys County, Maryland, 16581777, Historical Methods, XIII (1980), 81104; Jones,
Estimating the Wealth, 277282.
6 Micheline Baulant, Typologie des Inventaires Apres Dcs, in van der Woude and
Schuurman (eds.), Probate Inventories, 3342.
7 Karma Paape, Providence: A Case Study in Probate Manipulation, 16701679, Maryland
Historical Magazine, 94 (1999), 6587.
8 Carr and Walsh, Standard of Living Chesapeake, 136138; Main, Standard of Living
Southern New England, 126127.

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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 difculties for such a straightforward
approach. Simple errors by the assessors would 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 identiable 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 1950s.) 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 identied, 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
9 Lu Ann De Cunzo et al., Final Archaeological Investigations at the John Darrach Store Site,
Delaware Route 6Woodland Beach Road, Smyrna Section, Delaware Route 1 Corridor, Kent County,
Delaware (Dover, Del., 1992), 149167; James F. Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The
Archaeology of Early American Life (New York, 1977), 125126; David J. Grettler et al.,
Landowner and Tenant Opportunity in Seventeenth Century Central Delaware: Final Archaeological
Investigations at the Richard Whitehart (7K-C-203C) and John Powell (7K-C-203-H) Plantations,
State Route 1 Corridor, Kent County, Delaware (Dover, Del., 1995), 144153.


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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 difculties, no denitive statement about the
quantitative relationship between goods listed in inventories and
archaeological nds 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
Two of the twelve items tracked by the Carr and
Walsh amenities index are coarse earthenware and rened
earthenware. Their gures 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 1760s, ceramics
were listed in only 67 percent of the inventories for the middling
households worth between 50 and 225, 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.
Rened earthenware is a more difcult category; it is not clear
that we divide coarse from rened 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 rened earthenware and some like coarse earthenware, further complicating the picture. Because Delawares inventories rarely specify ceramic types before the 1770s, it is difcult
to make any comparisons. However, what contemporary archaeologists consider rened ware has been recovered from most
10 Wade P. Catts et al., The Archaeology of Rural Artisans: Final Investigations at the Mermaid
Blacksmith and Wheelwright Shop Sites, State Route 7Limestone Road, New Castle County,
Delaware (Dover, Del., 1994), 916.


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eighteenth-century sites, including all of the Delaware sites in our

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
households worth more than 225 owned coarse earthenware,
and only 31 percent owned rened 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 1680, but their rst 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 Peerys inventory, made in 1789, 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 90th 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 identied 237 from the site
of his farm (Table 6). The archaeological sample includes at least
ve types of vessels not listed in the inventory. These include
mugs and chamber pots, two items that are archaeologically ubiq-

11 Bedell et al., Farm Life on the Appoquinimink: Excavation of the McKean/Cochran Farm Site,
New Castle County, Delaware (Dover, Del., 1999).
12 Piponnier, Inventaires, 136; Main, Standard of Living Southern New England;
Yentsch, A Chesapeake Family and Their Slaves (New York, 1994).

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Table 5 Ceramics Listed in William Stricklands Probate Inventory


2 bowls & a Cheese Pat

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


Table 6 Ceramics Identied Archaeologically at the William Strickland

total vessels
tea cups
posset cups
mush cups
small bowls
large bowls


serving plates
milk pans
butter pots
ointment pots
chamber pots
childs toy cup


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 1783. 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
13 Ellis C. Coleman et al., Phase III Data Recovery Excavations of the William M Hawthorn
Site, 7NC-E-46 (Dover, Del., 1994), 226; Catts et al., Final Archaeological Investigations at the
William Strickland Plantation Site (7K-A-117), A Mid-Eighteenth Century Farmstead, State Route 1
Corridor, Kent County, Delaware (Dover, Del., 1995), 1823, 46, 145.


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inventories in the Kent County study seem to have the same

problem. The inventory of John Virden, a substantial farmer who
died in 1769, mentions ceramics, but this simple fact betrays the
obvious inadequacy of the list that his assessors provided, 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. Dawsons 1754 probate inventory valued his goods at 50.
Strickland was somewhat wealthierhis goods and chattels being
valued at 189but not really of the elite. The Benjamin Wynn
(a blacksmith) Site was a tenant farm occupied from about 1765
to 1820, by Wynn himself between 1775 and 1800. 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 materialsfrom 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 identied archaeologically, one
dating to the 1750s or 1760s and one dating to about 1800. The
earlier material (Table 7), which was better preserved, included
14 Ronald A. Thomas, Robert F. Hoffman, and Betty C. Zeeboker, Archaeological Data
Recovery of the Charles Robinson Plantation, 17621781, Appoquinimink Hundred, New Castle
County, Delaware, unpub. ms. (Delaware State Historical Preservation Ofce, Dover, 1994).
15 Bedell et al., Ordinary and the Poor; idem et al., Ordinary Family; idem et al., Farm Life;
Catts et al., William Strickland Plantation; Grettler et al., Marginal Farms on the Edge of Town:
Final Archaeological Investigations at the Moore-Taylor, Benjamin Wynn (Lewis-E), and Wilson-Lewis
Farmsteads, State Route 1 Corridor, Kent County, Delaware (Dover, Del., 1996); idem et al.,
Landowner and Tenant Opportunity.

Table 7 Well-Dated Ceramic Collections from Eighteenth-Century

Archaeological Sites in Delaware
site and feature
John Powell well

time frame
of deposit

William Strickland


Augustine Creek
South cellar


Thomas Dawson


Augustine Creek
North root cellar






Benjamin Wynn


contents of deposit
10 mugs, 2 cups, 4 plates, 1
small bowl, 1 jug, 1 milk pan, 5
jars, 1 bottle, 1 ointment pot
3 teacups, 2 saucers, 3 teapots, 8
plates, 4 porringers, 3 small
bowls, 11 mugs, 7 cups, 10 large
bowls, 3 pitchers, 10 jugs, 5 jars,
7 pots, 9 milk pans, 4 chamber
29 teacups, 36 saucers, 8 teapots,
6 plates, 17 small bowls, 17
porringers, 27 mugs, 3 cups, 15
jars, 8 milk pans, 1 pipkin, 18
dishes, 4 jugs, 3 chamber pots
29 tea cups, 17 saucers, 7
teapots, 1 creamer, 3 plates, 16
small bowls, 7 porringers, 11
mugs, 7 jars, 4 jugs, 16 milk
pans, 11 dishes, 8 pans, 2 large
bowls, 2 chamber pots, 17
1 small bowl, 1 porringer, 8
mugs, 1 jar, 1 milk pan, 4 dishes,
1 pan, 1 ointment pot
5 teacups, 7 saucers, 9 bowls, 8
porringers, 2 mugs, 10 cups, 5
jars, 6 milk pans, 1 colander, 5
dishes, 5 pans, 4 jugs, 2 chamber
pots, 1 ointment pot, 6
8 teacups, 12 saucers, 1 teapot, 1
plate, 2 platters, 3 small bowls, 2
porringers, 5 mugs, 5 jars, 9 milk
pans, 1 pipkin, 5 dishes, 7 pans,
1 jug, 2 large bowls, 1 chamber
pot, 11 unidentied/other
8 teacups, 5 saucers, 5 teapots, 1
cup, 10 plates, 3 platters, 4 small
bowls, 1 mug, 4 jugs, 6 large
bowls, 3 jars, 1 milk pan, 1
pitcher, 1 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
oral 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 rened earthenware teacups, and hand-painted teacups have also been found
at the homes of tenant farmers on the Appalachian frontier.16
Teacups are of particular importance 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 gure 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-1790 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 Wedgewoods creamware and
pearlware, which usually appear rst 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
16 Bedell et al., Ordinary and the Poor; Bedell, Michael Petraglia, and Christopher Plummer,
Status, Technology, and Rural Tradition in Western Pennsylvania: Excavations at the
Shaeffer Farm Site, Northeast Historical Archaeology, XXIII (1994), 2957; William M. Kelso,
Kingsmill Plantations, 16191800: Archaeology of Country Life in Colonial Virginia (New York,
1984); Theresa A. Singleton (ed.), The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life (Orlando,
17 Timothy H. Breen, Baubles of Britain: The American and Consumer Revolutions of
the Eighteenth Century, Past & Present, 119 (1988), 73104, 83; Mark Shaffer et al., Final
Phase III Investigations of the Whitten Road Site, 7NC-D-100, Whitten or Walther Road, New
Castle County, Delaware (Dover, Del., 1988); Shammas, The Domestic Environment in Early
Modern England and America, in Michael Gordon, (ed.), The American Family in SocialHistorical Perspective (New York, 1983), 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 nd 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, ve 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 20 in
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 appraisers were 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 1700s, 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 reects real differences, both
18 For the relative values of wooden- and earthenware, see Delaware State Archives, Dover;
New Castle County Probate Files, John Corbett 1761 (Delaware probate les are indexed
by county, name and date).


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over time and across social classes, in the ownership of dishes and
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 difcult 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 difcult to compile during the valuation,
as well as more difcult 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 1690s, are extremely sketchy and
sparse. General terms like lumber and household trumpery
grow less common after the early 1700s. The rst inventories that
describe different types of ceramics, as opposed to just crockery
or earthenware, date from the 1770s, as does the rst 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, 16201835: The Archaeological Evidence, in Ian
M. G. Quimby (ed.), Ceramics in America: Winterthur Conference Report 1972 (Charlottesville,
1972), 1539.
20 Schuurman, Some Reections 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, 177189.

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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 statistical summaries. 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
reect, 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 1650 to 1750
means more than meets the eye when we know that the actual
value in all periods was close to 100 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.
other household goods
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. Childrens 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. Childrens clothes receive little attention in the inventories. Assessors
may have viewed childrens clothes and toys as the childrens and
not part of the householders estate. Three underreported items
that were denitely 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 signicance. Compared with sites in the Delaware Valley,

Chesapeake sites yield, on average, at least ve 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 1760s and then declines in the 1790s. 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 1 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
appraisers who reported them. (The gure 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 difculties 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 1790s
was 43 percent. In the 1750s, 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
21 Bedell et al., Farm Life; idem et al., Ordinary and the Poor; Catts et al., William Strickland
Plantation; Coleman et al., Phase III; Schuurman, Some Reections, 136; Edward F. Heite
and Cara Lee Blume, Mitsawokett to Bloomsbury: The Archaeology and History of an Unrecognized
Indigenous Community in Central Delaware (Dover, Del., 1998).
22 Shackel, Personal Discipline, 108; Carr and Walsh, Changing Lifestyles, 78.

242 | J OHN BE DE LL

poor tenants at Augustine Creek North. The remains of at least

ve stemmed glasses were found in one well at the John Powell
Site, the home of a middling property owner; the well was lled
in about 1720.23
There are even clearer conicts between inventories and
archaeological discoveries. William Stricklands 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 glasswares are listed in Charles Robinsons 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 Stricklands and Robinsons had been dropped and the
fragments swept away before these men died. But whatever the
reason, their absence from the inventories creates interpretive
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.
Stricklands inventory lists no chicken or other fowles, but
archaeologists found 324 medium bird bones that were almost
23 Grettler et al., Landowner and Tenant Opportunity.
24 Bedell et al., Ordinary Family; Bedell, Petraglia, and Plummer, Status, Technology, and
Rural Tradition; Walsh, Consumer Behavior, Diet, and Standard of Living.


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certainly chicken. Dawsons 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 womens
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
catsh 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 prolically 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 carcasses were 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 culture of poverty
Perhaps the biggest difference between the inventories and the ndings 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 Faulkners wife prepared and served the familys meals.
25 Jean Russo, Free Workers in a Plantation Economy: Talbot County, Maryland, 16901759
(New York, 1989), 31 n. 39.
26 Schuurman did not nd dogs and cats listed in the nineteenth-century Dutch inventories
that he studied, although birds were (Some Reections, 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 renement 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 ne tea equipment spread with
the tea-drinking habit. In the eighteenth century, teawares were
the nest 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 Passing the Time in Balleymenone (Bloomington, 1995), 361372.


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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 ndings
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 reected 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 ne 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
difcult. Archaeological data is rarely published in a form that
historians can nd 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.
29 Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York,
1986), 180183.