John Markham’s family is sitting around their large walnut table, on the rush bottom chairs. It’s 1757, a cool autumn afternoon in Chesterfield county Virginia. On this day the table is set with the Delph plates. The Delph teapot, sugar dish and “cream pott” wait on a side table. A corner cabinet holds a few of their finer things – “Chainie” plates, cups and saucers, six silver spoons, and a flint glass decanter with wine glasses . . .
Years of research on John Markham’s family has left me with the impression that they lived a comfortable, rural life, perhaps a step above the typical tidewater farmer, but not quite members of the Virginia elite. John Markham was a large landowner, holding about eight hundred acres. Services he offered to his community suggest that he was literate, and possibly formally educated. Records regularly designate him as “gentleman”. His estate inventory tells us that he had a few fine (imported) things.
In 18th century Virginia many of the large homes were inventoried “room by room”, filling many pages in the county ledgers. But, John Markham’s inventory comes to us as a single list, about one and one-half pages long. Items are arranged on the list in a manner that might suggest several rooms in the home. There must have been a separate dining area to house their large collection of tableware. Besides the “Chainie” plates, and Delph collection, they also had thirty-six pewter plates, and various serving items. The more utilitarian cooking items appear near the end of the inventory, along with odds and ends. They might have had a detached kitchen, a somewhat common practice of that time and place.
The furniture listed on the inventory was simple – six beds and furniture, two tables, twenty-four chairs of various description, two old desks, and a bookcase. The bookcase is of interest, because it probably held the parcel of Books, valued at twelve pounds and thirteen shillings. Books were expensive, and this valuation is one of the larger amounts on John Markham’s inventory, ranking up there with his Copper Still and grey Horse.
Rosie Zagarri, Professor at George Mason University, soothed my curiosity about the nearly three dozen cups and saucers listed in the inventory,
By the mid-18th century there was a lot of imitation of English tea drinking rituals. So if you could, you would import fancy silver goods, tea kettles, teaspoons. Tea drinking really was the center of social ritual at the time. Especially the women would gather together and make a big ceremony of brewing a certain kind of tea and pouring the tea and socializing and gossiping and eating little teacakes. It was all a big way to both demonstrate your social status and connect with other members of your community.
What might we learn of John Markham himself from these inventory items – a Silver Watch, a pair of pistols and fencing foils? The watch was valued at 4 pounds, identifying it as a valuable possession, and a mark of social standing. The pair of pistols, at 10 shillings, must have been old and weary. But, the fencing foils are interesting. These were not commonly listed on the inventories of Virginia farmers in 1770. With the value at 1 shilling, they weren’t fancy. I wonder who John Markham found for a sparing companion – perhaps one of his sons. Or, were the foils remnants of his youth, when he served as a British soldier in the Highlands of New York?
There are other items listed in John Markham’s inventory that might support a future blog posting. It would be interesting to know more about how they used the warming pan, mustard pott, fire Dogs, and bullet moulds. Did the Markham women work the Spinning Wheele? And what makes a hair Brush valuable enough to list on an inventory? Certainly, I would like to take a hard look at his thirteen slaves.
underlined items appear in John Markham’s inventory
For more details on John Markham, visit his page at the Markham of Chesterfield website. A transcription of his inventory will be found there.
If you would enjoy knowing more about probate inventories, visit this great website:
Probing the Past. It includes the interview with Professor Rosie Zagarri.
About the photos:
Posset pot, Netherlands, Late 17th or early 18th century, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons, photo in the public domain.
H. Angelo's Fencing Academy by Rowlandson, 1787.