Going Once, Going Twice! A “Lot of Sundries” for Sixteen Cents

In 1684, Samuel Levis moved to Pennsylvania from his hometown of Leister, England, and settled near the Darby Creek on a parcel of land he had purchased from William Penn. Samuel Levis’ descendants –including at least five more individuals by the same name- established a number of profitable mills in the area, where they manufactured first paper and then, by the mid nineteenth century, cotton. The Levis family papers (Ms. Coll. 1282) contain documents representing generations of family history, from tax returns to report cards to invitations for tea.

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Among these papers are two unassuming booklets, hand-stitched and bound in rag paper. One, dating to 1803, is “An Inventory of The Goods and Chattles rights and Credits” of Isaac Lobb, “appraised by us the Subscribers”. With line-by-line price estimates for all of the late Mr. Lobb’s belongings, the inventory would have provided his beneficiaries with a record of the contents and approximate value of their newly-granted property. The other booklet, composed a decade later, documents the “Vandu” (or “vendue”, a then-common term for a public sale) of the estate of John Hibberd, and lists each item that was auctioned, its selling price, and its buyer.

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A page from Lobb’s Inventory; a “heckel” is a tool for processing flax.

These practical documents, so sparing in their use of words, provide a surprisingly vivid picture of the homes and lives and work of John Hibberd and Isaac Lobb. The ‘Inventory’ progresses room by room, so reading it is almost like taking a tour of Lobb’s house: one moves from the “little back room” to the “garret” and concludes “in the shop”. In both texts, lists of hogs, horses, sheep, dozens of beehives, a “Hare Live”, and cows with charming names like “Cherry” and “Lovely” and “Reddy”, give a sense of the animal life on both farms. Listings like “4 cheese fats”, a “bag of dryed apples” or “bread toster ladle & fleshfork” suggest the foods these men ate. Other items, like “3 dung forks”, “smith tongs” and a “coopers adze” indicate the types of labor the farmers performed. These booklets also describe some possessions that seem, by modern standards, too insignificant to include in an inventory of assets, or undesirable for purchase at auction: a “lot of Onions”, a “rat trap”, “bucket & beans” and a few “old baskets”, for example.

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By far the most common entry in both books is for a “lot of sundries”.

The booklets evoke both a way of life and an economic environment that are strikingly different from those prevailing in the twenty-first century United States. Today, we consume and expel stuff (from clothes to books to electronics) at such a rate that it’s almost hard to imagine a world in which there was a market for something like the second-hand bottle of molasses sold at Hibberd’s vendue. For me, these centuries-old books were a reminder to appreciate the value of even the most quotidian goods, and not take for granted the relative abundances of modern life.

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