By Eleanor Breen / Project Manager, Archaeological Collections Online
Archaeology and purchase records are two measures of what was used in the past but historical archaeologists often rely on probate inventories to track changes in things like milk pans over time. Probate inventories list and value items within a deceased’s household which are then added to assess an estate’s total value. These lists provide a wonderful snapshot of material goods being used at a point in time. Probing the Past presents 325 probate inventories dating from 1740 through 1810 from Virginia and Maryland. Continuing with the dairy research, a search for milk pans reveals their presence in 125 inventories (or 39% of the households).
I believe that this is actually an underestimate for milk pan ownership. For example, there are some inventories where furniture and other goods are listed under headings like “milk house” or “dairy” for which no milk pans were inventoried. This could be because the executor did not recognize the vessel form, misidentified it, or it was valued too low to record. Other clues also suggest dairying activities not captured in this search. For example, Doctor Adam Thomson owned 7 milk cows, but no milk pans. Finally, oftentimes executors did not list vessel forms in any detail. For Zephaniah Wade’s 1746 inventory of his milk house, 21 pieces of earthenware and 44 pieces of tin ware are valued and undoubtedly included milk pans. Therefore, probate inventories offer a conservative view of milk pan ownership in 18th-century Virginia and Maryland.
If we look at milk pan ownership over time in the Chart, we see a bimodal curve. Ownership peaks in the 1760s and again in the 1790s. Additional research is required to explain this pattern, however, a few hypotheses could be offered. Low milk pan rates in the 1740s and 1750s might be explained by the predominance of tobacco monoculture in the Chesapeake region. At this time, most planters were devoted to tobacco production and engaged in other activities like dairying only to meet the needs of their family when possible. Slowly, as more individuals embraced mixed grain agriculture, with George Washington being one of the first in the 1760s, a coincidental increase in the appearance of milk pans in the inventory records is seen. The significant decrease in the 1770s and 1780s may be more of a reflection of the disruption in the material lives of individuals during the Revolutionary War. This hypothesis would be supported if other categories of goods similarly decreased in these decades. We see a final peak of plantation milk pan ownership in the 1790s just before the drop at the beginning of the 19th century. These final numbers may be a reflection of the industrialization of dairying.
Of the 125 milk pan owners, 119 listed counts of the vessels. Most people (n=78) were inventoried for 10 or less milk pans suggesting small-scale production of milk, cheese, and butter – a plantation craft as opposed to a plantation business. Fewer owned 11 to 20 milk pans (n=30) and even less owned over 20 (n=11). Individuals were most frequently inventoried for 3 milk pans. This low count is interesting considering that the database is not representative, but instead focused on probate inventories of wealthy and fashionable individuals. We assume that like George Washington, other large-scale plantation owners were diversifying their operations, as they switched from growing tobacco to mixed grains, but this does not appear to have been the case, at least for dairying. One individual owned by far the most milk pans at 123 in 1795 – this is 2.8 times the next highest milk pan ownership at 44, and more in line with the milk pans George Washington amassed in the early 1760s. This inventory, unlike many others, even goes so far as to value the pans by three sizes. This outlier accounts for the high rate of milk pan ownership in the 1790s – without it, the 1760s becomes the period during which the most pans were recorded. This coincides with the expansion of George Washington’s dairy operations at Mount Vernon which is seen in the South Grove’s archaeological record.