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Material possessions, then and now

March 30, 2013

In 1922 Forest “Pop” Hall published a miscellany of early Bloomington history called Historic Treasures. Despite containing valuable historic information, it’s liberally sprinkled with the condescension of the newly-moneyed and materialistic 1920s toward an earlier, “quainter” and less affluent time.

This two-story double log cabin with a covered dogtrot was a substantial and respectable building in its day on the Indiana frontier.

This two-story double log cabin with a covered dogtrot was a substantial and respectable building in its day on the Indiana frontier.

For instance, Hall reprinted an inventory of personal items left after the death  of one John Henson in 1819. Hall commented loftily, “It may not bear close inspection under the critical and aristocratic eye of the present generation, but it is an honest record that speaks in volumes of self-denial and early times.” But self-denial had absolutely nothing to do with the items that Henson accumulated during the course of his life. Instead, his possessions tell a story of can-do pioneer capability.

Outside cellars like this one were still being constructed as late as the 1910s.

Outside cellars like this one were still being constructed as late as the 1910s.

Everything that Henson owned was crucial to making a living on the frontier in a brand-new state. The inventory of his household goods gives us insight into his daily life and also gives us the value of handmade household items in early Bloomington. Henson’s possessions included two chairs worth 62 ½c; three kettles for cooking, worth 50c, $3.00 and $3.00 respectively; two cook pots valued at $2.75 and $2.62 1/2 (these would have been hand-made); a plate worth $1.25; a knife ($1.66 1/4); a basket (31 ¼ c); and a butter churn (6 ¼ c). He also owned a number of metal wares including a shovel (62 ½ c), a plow ($4.40); three garden hoes (50c); one steel trap for catching fur-bearing animals ($3.00); smithy tools valued at $5.87 ½, which is a hint that Henson may have made the aforementioned knife himself; a pair of steel yards ($2.36 1/4) which would have been needed for carpentry; and a set of fire-dogs ($2.00) which indicates that Henson heated and cooked over an open fire, not a wood stove. He left a quantity of tobacco ($2.82), which was grown by early inhabitants of Monroe County and was frequently used for barter, so rare was actual money and so prevalent were the practices of smoking and chewing. Henson additionally left a quantity of leather worth one dollar; its uses ranged from shoes to primitive hinges to horse harnesses. He left a keg and a barrel for storage (48c and 75c respectively), and a curry comb for cleaning a horse (54c). His final possessions relate to fiber preparation: three pairs of wool cards for cleaning and fluffing wool preparatory to spinning (50c); sheep shears (52c); a yarn reel (21c); a hackle for preparing flax fiber ($4.00) and two sets containing a reed and gear, the essential components of any loom ($1.18 and 50c).

All the workings of this water mill are wood. It still works perfectly today at Spring Mill Park.

All the gears of this water mill are made of wood. It still functions well today at Spring Mill Park.

When this list is looked at with an open mind, one sees that Henson was not practicing “self-denial” at all. Instead he was in fact quite wealthy in regard to the things that would enable him to make a living on the frontier. This list of items would have made a one-room log cabin and the adjoining horse shed seem filled and cozy, particularly if the looms (which would have been sizeable) were assembled and operational. In 1819 Indiana, Henson was NOT poor but was instead a relatively well-furnished man. He had a chair for himself as well as for a companion, containers to cook with, tools, the core elements of looms, containers for foodstuffs, and raw materials with which to make other things.

Hall simply did not understand this. Writing in 1922, he was looking back from a decade of material prosperity upon an earlier time that was harsher and less affluent, and he probably wrote his book inside a modern bungalow that had a relatively new Model T parked alongside it. Compared with Hall’s material wealth, Henson’s life would of course have seemed impoverished.

The lesson: whenever we read history, we should consider how Hall got it wrong. We should never say “How could those people back then bear to live in such an awful way?” Instead, we should remember that every person who has ever lived, be it in ancient Rome, or in Elizabethan England, or today, wherever and whenever— all of them believe that they are living at the very apex of modernity.


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