Estate Inventories: Primary Sources for Daily Life in the Past

How do historians recreate the daily lives of average people in the past? What primary sources exist to tell us how regular people worked, cooked, slept, or played?  Historical estate or probate inventories provide many clues to answers these questions.

Estate inventories are lists of the belongings of a person made after his or her death. These legal documents value the deceased person’s estate for taxes, are used to divide the property among the heirs, or to sell the property to settle outstanding debts. This process is administered by a probate court. Since the Middle Ages, church or secular authorities in Europe and America appointed appraisers to make probate inventories.  Today, executors  still compile a list of the deceased person’ assets and distribute the assets to creditors or the heirs of the estate.

These primary sources help historians recreate the daily lives of historical households. Standards of living, poverty and wealth, and social classes in a community can be studied. Historians also can see the transitions from a pre-industrial or frontier to an industrial or settled community using information from inventories.  Sometimes the appraisals listed items room-by-room. These detailed lists provide clues about the functions of various rooms, the items in those rooms, and the activities that took place in different areas of the house and its outbuildings.

Estate inventories, wills, and other probate court records are public documents. Visit your local county court archives or ask your local historical society to determine the local of historical estate inventories and wills in your community. In Kentucky, these records are in the archives of the County Court Clerk. In some cases, the earliest records may have been moved to a central state archive. Many transcribed inventories are also available on the internet (see additional resources below).

Choose inventories from several different historical eras to examine change over time.  Ask for photocopied or digital scans of the original documents.  Students may struggle with the archaic handwriting and various spellings of common words. Encourage students to search the internet or the Oxford English Dictionary  for the meaning of words like piggin, noggin, hooks/pothooks, or single tree and clevy/clevice/clevis, (go to this site and scroll to the bottom learn about trees and clevis). Reading estate inventories provides a glimpse into life in the past and the challenges faced by historians.

Estate Inventory, Kentucky, 1802
Estate Inventory, Kentucky, 1802

This is a digitally scanned image of an appraisal, or estate inventory, recorded Kentucky in 1802. Moses Hiatt was probably born between 1775 and 1780, married in 1796, and died in his twenties in 1802. Hiatt lived in Garrard County, Kentucky, an area of the state first settled in the 1770s before the Revolutionary War. Kentucky became the fifteenth state in 1792, ten years before Hiatt’s death.

Select the image for a larger, detailed view.

The complete set of surviving appraisal documents for his estate includes a record of the sale of each item and the person who bought it. His widow, Isabella, purchased the most of the items listed in the appraisal. When compared to the appraisals of other estates in same area, the estate of Moses Hiatt was modest. But Moses Hiatt died in his twenties and likely would have accumulated more belongings over a lifetime. On the frontier, the challenges of long distance travel meant families of average means had few of manufactured items that were available and affordable in cities and ports.

The Moses Hiatt estate inventory is one of the primary source documents featured in Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies.

More primary sources for daily life:

  • To learn more about historical probate records – How to Read Probate Records
  • On this website, 17th century inventories from Massachusetts are transcribed.
  • This index has transcribed examples of 19th century Virginia room by room inventories.
  • This website has additional information and ideas for using probate inventories in the classroom

Beware of nostalgia in primary sources

Nostalgia – a sentimental longing for the past. Many primary source texts and images suggest the past was a better place. But was it really? The word comes from Greek roots: nostos means to return home, aliga/alegein means pain, to care about, longing.   Homesickness is a similar feeling – a longing for home.

Historical sources are often nostalgic, skewing our views of the past. You’ve heard modern references to the halcyon days when people didn’t need to lock the doors of their homes, when neighbors always helped neighbors, when men were brave and chivalrous, women virtuous, and students always did their homework and behaved. In every historical era, references are made to previous golden age. But was a previous era really that good?

Probably not. Every culture throughout time had the good and the bad. Nostalgic primary sources say more about the creators’ views of their own contemporary eras than an idealized past.

Nostalgia in Primary Source Images
late medieval depiction of idealized chivlary
At the 16th century Renaissance kings Henry VIII and Francis I , chivalry was nostalgic for past eras of warfare before the destruction caused by the new weapon – gunpowder.

For example, in the late Middle Ages, (1300s -1400s), the nobility was obsessed with chivalry and elaborate tournaments. At the same time, mounted knights in war were becoming obsolete due to the introduction of gunpowder. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), jousts between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France were nostalgic re-enactments of battle, not the reality of 16th century warfare. Times were changing and the past was idealized.

In the late 1800s, more and more Americans were leaving the farm to live and work in towns and cities. At the same time, nostalgic lithograph prints depicting idealized rural farm homes were especially popular. The 1877 lithograph used as a header image for this post is entitled “Home Sweet Home.” A rural family is relaxing on the porch of a perfect home. No references to the hard labor required by men, women, and children on a late 19th century farm.  Many people were yearning for this nostalgic, peaceful life after the economic disaster caused by the Panic of 1873 and a year of the labor unrest, the Great Railroad Strike, Indian Wars, and violence.

Analyzing Primary Sources in the Classroom

Ask your students to consider modern media depictions of the 1950s. The “mid-century” nostalgic trend portrays a time when families were “traditional” – dads worked, moms got to stay at home and loved it, and kids could “play all day outside and didn’t come home until dark” because the world was a much safer place. Historical study of the real 1950s reveals that most people did not live this utopian life. Everyone was not suburban middle class and sexism and racism were prominent features of daily life.

Ask students to consider what broader modern trends cause Americans to yearn for the idealized1950s. Future historians will probably conclude that concerns about job security due to technological change and globalization and changing family patterns are the “real” history of the early 21st century.

Hotels in the Nineteenth Century: Place-based Primary Sources

Hotel Advertising Cards, late 1800s, place-based primary sources

Your local library, historical society, or university archives is a treasure trove of primary sources from your community – letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, local publications, and all sorts of other ephemera. In most cases, these local institutions are thrilled to work with teachers developing place-based lessons. The staff will know about local history and have primary sources that you didn’t even know existed.
These hotel advertising cards, all from the late 1800s, are from a scrapbook in Eastern Kentucky University’s Archives. The scrapbook was created by French Tipton (1848 – 1900), a Richmond, Kentucky editor, lawyer, judge, IRS Revenue Agent, and journalist. These hotels existed in an era when railroads were the primary form of transportation for long distance travel. Hotels were located close to the railroad depot, instead of the interstate highway exit.
Teachers can create place-based education mysteries for students to solve. Do these businesses still exist? If not, are the buildings still there? If so, how have they been re-purposed? What changes in American vacationing, travel, and transportation caused them to close? Be sure to connect these wider trends to the present – why do businesses, like hotels, close in the 21st century?

Sanborn maps are valuable resources for locating old business in your town. These maps were created to assess fire insurance liability in towns and cities in the United States from 1867 to 2007. When you visit your local library, historical society, or university archives, ask for the historic Sanborn maps for your town. Many are also available on the internet.