American Probate Inventories

Establishing what items of furniture were found in colonial households is done largely through probate inventories. When the head of a household died,
his (or, in some cases, her) possessions were listed and valued in a probate inventory. Any debts owed were taken from the total value. The remaining
amount was divided between the heirs, according the wishes of the deceased. Probates were customarily done a room at a time, making it possible to
reasonably assess how each room was furnished and what it was used for. Probates written thirty or forty years apart for a father and son can indicate
changes in the family’s finances.

While probates are invaluable, they also have their limitations. Different regions and periods used different terms for some items. A bow-back chair could
also be referred to as a rush-seat or crooked-back chair in 1760s New England. In the 1790s, the term bow-back referred to a Windsor chair. Items
such as portraits not assigned monetary value by whoever was doing the probate would also not appear. Although most women’s belongings were
automatically subsumed into their husband’s estates on marriage, some women were able to have their belongings remain legally separate. These items,
such as a spinning wheel or chest, may not have appeared in probates done of their husband’s belongings.

Evolution in furniture styles also indicate broader changes in society. The small houses and limited furniture of the early settlements reflected the
challenges of life in the colonies. They also reflect a period barely out of medieval society. Most people in Europe were accustomed to living close
together, often with their animals beside them. Once a family was established in the colonies, its life could continue very much as it had in Europe.
In contrast, the eighteenth century brought changes to all of the Atlantic world. As financial prosperity grew, so did definitions of privacy, ownership, and
personal comfort. The possibility of a separate bedroom for a married couple was a new concept on both sides of the Atlantic.

Abigail B. Chandler
See also: Art, Fine; Art, Folk; Artisans; Document: Probate Inventory of a Plymouth Colony Estate (1672).
Bibliography
Fitzgerald, Oscar P. Three Centuries of American Furniture. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1982.
Kirk, John T. American Furniture & the British Tradition to 1830. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Sweeney, Kevin. “Furniture and the Domestic Environment in Wethersfield, Connecticut.” In Material Life in America, 1600 1860, edited by Robert Blair St. George.
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.
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