Sunday, May 27, 2018

A life in belongings

detail of screengrab of 1800s estate inventory
19th century estate inventory lists were often highly detailed.
I'm so enjoying Lucy Worsley's book, Jane Austen At Home, because it focuses on "everyday things from an ordinary life" (16). That's how I try to focus this blog: on the everyday parts of daily life among regular folk. Finding those details can be challenging. Always interesting, though.

Wills and their associated inventories are one way to view an ordinary life framed by its things. A treasure hunt through such public records occasionally provides insights amid the legalese, generalities, and scribbled or faded cursive writing. You see what was materially valued by people.

The older the record, the generally more detailed it is.  The belongings of a man or woman named B.P. Johnson of the panhandle's Jefferson County were detailed down to the number of teaspoons (nine) in 1880. This person's two quilts were deemed important enough to note each's value, $1.50. One inflation calculator tells me that's about $33 in modern dollars, not very much. It's a fair assumption that those quilts were handmade, and I hope they were treasured.

A man named Fred, whose surname is unreadable in the record, had one pair of pants, one vest, two suits, and shoes when he died in 1882 in Monroe County, in the Florida Keys. No other possessions are documented. He left chunks of change to heirs. Seven each received more than $3,000, close to $70,000 apiece today. Others received from $100 to $1,500 ($2,275 to $34,000), nothing to sneeze at in that era.

Then, as now, inequality existed. The differences between the estates of two unrelated people who died in the panhandle's Leon County in 1853 are one example. The inventory of a "Mrs. Mary Ann B" (surname unreadable) lists more than 100 items including a gold watch, silver thimble, several volumes of books, at least seven quilts and seventeen cane-bottom chairs. She had more mundane items, to be sure, such as a mosquito net, a soap box, and a snuff box. Hers was the only list I saw that included a Bible among belongings.

Compare that to a Mr. Jenkins in the same county, same time. He left behind far fewer items, including a set of crockery and milk pans, some books, one pitcher and cup, two pairs each of pants, shirts, and coats, one hat, fourteen turkeys and one brown horse.

Both these Leon County residents also had what we'd consider the basics: bed, bedding, tables, etc. Neither was what we'd call rich. Mrs. Mary Ann's assets totaled $252 (about $7,600 today), and Mr. Jenkins' belongings were worth $79 (about $2,400). They were unequal, but both would be considered as living below the poverty level today.

So what can we glean from such records? Maybe consumerism wasn't as widespread back then. Perhaps goods weren't available, or weren't affordable, or just weren't wanted or valued as much as they are today. Hard to say. I'm sure some people in pioneer days over-consumed and lived beyond their means. And I don't want to go all nostalgic about so-called "simpler" times that weren't simple at all. Life was downright harder back in the day.

One thing I can say. The older I get, the less attached I'm becoming to things. Or trying to become less attached. My goal is to downsize to what's really meaningful (to me) and needed for a comfortable but basic life. I won't end up with seventeen cane-back chairs, but I might keep nine teaspoons.

Records cited in this blog post are from and online public records. 

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