For the IHR Winter Conference on Home: New Histories of Living we are highlighting some relevant sources in the IHR library. Inventories of furniture and possessions are especially well represented in our large collection of primary printed material, a fascinating way into the domestic arrangements of particular houses and the day-to-day lives of the people who lived there.
Some of the inventories describe the rich and extraordinarily varied possessions of the grandest families in society, including Lorenzo de’ Medici at home : the inventory of the Palazzo Medici in 1492, Inventarios reales: Bienes muebles que pertenecieron a Felipe II and Noble households : eighteenth-century inventories of great English houses.
The focus here, though, is on the inventories of middling families in the towns and villages of pre-industrial England, typically probate inventories drawn up in connection with the legal validation of wills. Many are published in local and regional record series, either as general collections from a local probate court or as specialist compilations on particular subjects. For comparative research, the IHR library is a good place to access many editions in one place.
Inventories often give an idea of the sequence of rooms in a house, using phrases such as ‘the street parlour’ or ‘the chamber over the hall’. It is interesting to see the changes between early and later inventories. The will of William Robinson, linen weaver of Northallerton (1705), details the rooms and layout of his house as he divided it between existing occupants and allowed rights of access through other parts of the house. (Northallerton wills and inventories, 1666-1719, Surtees Society 220, 2016, p.xxxi and pp.146-8).
The probate inventory of Sarah De Morais, widow (1691), a French immigrant in London, lists the contents of ‘the Daughters Roome’ and ‘the widdows Roome’, both with multiple beds. Artisans usually worked from home, and the inventory of Thomas Grafforte, merchant tailor in St Giles Cripplegate, noted ‘4 weavers loomes, one warpe . . . 2 paire of Vices & a few Bobbins with other lumber’ in his ‘workeing roome’. (Probate inventories of French Immigrants in Early Modern London, 2014, pp.97-9 and 37-9)
Turning from towns to the countryside, Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex brings together probate inventories from two rural parishes, accompanied by a useful introduction which discusses the sorts of furniture and other goods mentioned in the inventories.
The inventory of Theophilus Lingard of Writtle in 1744 has a detailed description of the furniture and items in his house, as well as his livestock, farm equipment (including cucumber frames), produce and crops. The total value was £247. Five rooms contained beds: the best room, the little room, the striped bed room, the garrett and the maid’s room.
The best room included
‘a sacking bottom bedstead with blue mohair curtains lined with India Persian, a feather bed, bolster, and two pillows, three blankets, one quilt, a chest of draws, a dressing table and glass, six cane chairs, one elbow ditto, a stove grate, shovel, tongs, poker and holders, a hearth brush, a pair of window curtains and rod, a looking glass, the paper hangings’.
The maid’s room had
‘a corded bedstead with old curtains, a set of yellow ditto not put up, a feather bed, bolster, one pillow, two blankets, one rug, two old hutches (cupboards), four old chairs, an old trunk, a brass kettle, one small ditto, two old water potts, a pair of garden sheers, a pair of cobirons’.
His house also had a best parlour, pantry (with sixteen pewter plates, fifty-five pieces of Delph and earthenware), hall, cellar, buttery and out cellar. (Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex, 1635-1749, pp.269-70).
By contrast John Day the elder of Highwood in Writtle, carpenter (1726), lived in a much humbler dwelling, with goods worth only £15. His hall was simply furnished, though he owned a clock. Although he had four beds, one was ‘indeferant’, one ‘sorry’ and two ‘very mean’. (Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex, 1635-1749, p.260).
Inventories are complemented by other types of household records, for example building accounts and household accounts. The Russells in Bloomsbury 1669-1771 is based on letters, accounts and household bills. Extraits des comptes du domaine de Bruxelles des XVe et XVIe siècles concernant les artistes de la cour details payments to artists and the type of work they were producing.
The library collection is also strong on guides to sources and bibliographies, and the following are examples that will help with finding and interpreting inventories:
- When death do us part : understanding and interpreting the probate records of early modern England
- British and Irish inventories : a list and bibliography of published transcriptions of secular inventories
- Wills and other probate records : a practical guide to researching your ancestors’ last documents
- Names for things : a description of household stuff, furniture and interiors 1500-1700