Fun with Probate Inventories

As we progress with the refurnishing of Kenmore, you may be wondering where exactly we begin our research.  How do we begin to piece together the clues? Where do we even find the clues to begin with? Well, the process begins with one very basic, but incredibly important document – the probate inventory. 

In the 18th century, when the owner of a house died, an appointed official came into the house to inventory its contents, and assign a value to each item. The final inventory, which also included all assets on the property, as well, such as livestock, food stores, equipment and even slaves, was recorded with the local government and used for tax purposes and the settling on any debts that the deceased might still have outstanding.  Hundreds of these original 18th century probate inventories have survived in court house archives and local historical societies.  Depending on how thorough the inventory taker was, and on the method he used to conduct his accounting, a probate inventory can be an invaluable tool to today’s curators in determining what the rooms in a house should look like.

Some inventories were simply done as long lists of items, without any indication of what room the items were found in.  Other inventories were done room-by-room, providing a room name followed by a list of the items in that room.  The most detailed inventories also provide descriptive information, such as “small walnut table” instead of just “table”.  In some rare cases, very helpful clues show up, such as “small spice cupboard, hanging above the table”, which tells us that a) there was a small spice cupboard, b) it was mounted on a wall, and c) the table in this room must have been pushed against a wall, in order for the “hanging cupboard” to be above it.  The valuations given on the probate inventory are also useful, in that we can compare objects.  One set of 6 chairs might be valued at ₤8, while another set of 6 is valued at ₤10.  Without any other descriptive information, we know that the room in which the more expensive chairs were placed was a room of more importance with higher quality furnishings.

At Kenmore, we are lucky enough to have Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory, conducted just after his death in 1781.  It was done room-by-room, and even contains some descriptive information (although not enough to tell us about the arrangement of furniture in the house, sadly).  Additionally, we also have the probate inventory that was done at Millbrook, the house where Betty Lewis lived after leaving Kenmore, in 1797.  Although the Millbrook inventory is not room-by-room, and it is not nearly as extensive as the Kenmore one, it does show that quite a few items from Kenmore made the move to Millbrook with Betty. 

So, if we have Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory, why can’t we just find a piece to match every item listed and place it in the room indicated? As useful as probate inventories can be in furnishing a historic house, they can also play tricks.  For example, the Kenmore inventory lists nothing hanging on the walls in the central Passage, but it does list a large and quite valuable mirror as being in the Dining Room.  If we went strictly by the probate inventory, we would hang a mirror on a wall in the Dining Room and put nothing on the wall in the Passage.  However, we know that there are three very large hooks mounted in the wall of the

One of three hooks or brackets in the Passage wall, this one is located along the top edge of the chair rail.

 Passage, and not a single hook or hole was found in any of the walls of the Dining Room during the restoration.  At the time the inventory was taken, the Lewis family was in transition between households – Fielding died while at their house in Clark County, Virginia, not at Kenmore.  The family hadn’t resided at Kenmore for several months.  It’s safe to say the house and its contents were in flux.  The Passage connects directly to the Dining Room.  Could the mirror have originally hung in the Passage, but was taken down and leaned against a wall in the Dining Room temporarily while things were being moved or packed or cleaned? We have to remember that a probate inventory is only a snapshot of a household on one single day at one single moment.  If someone came into your house today and made a list of everything in your bedroom, would that list show you what was in your bedroom yesterday? Last week? Next month? Probably not. 

A probate inventory is our basic tool in furnishing Kenmore, but it cannot be our only source of information.  As you will see in the coming weeks, there are many other layers!

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One Response to Fun with Probate Inventories

  1. budinger says:

    You are indeed correct – many thanks for the catch!