Estate Inventories – How to Use Them: Book Review

Estate Inventories – How to Use Them by Kenneth L. Smith is a definite oldie, but goodie, having been published in 2000 and I have to honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever come across this book before in spite of researching my family tree for over 40 years.

I learned about this book during an online webinar I attended and bought a copy online for less than $15.00. Unlike many research-oriented books, the information in this little gem is as relevant and on-point today as it was when it was first printed almost a quarter of a century ago.


Chapter 1: What Does It Say?

  • Structure
  • Writing
  • Spelling
  • Foreign Phonetics
  • Abbreviations
  • Example

Chapter 2: How Much Is That Worth?

  • Currencies
  • Colonial and State Currencies
  • Frames of Reference
  • Examples

Chapter 3: What Does It Mean?

  • Example 1: Subsistence living
  • Example 2: House Layout and Real Estate
  • Example 3: Family Structure and Relationships
  • Example 4: Genealogical Data
  • Example 5: Animals’ Names and Names of Foreign Origin
  • Example 6: Genealogical Data on Slaves
  • Example 7: Indentured Servants

Chapter 4: That’s A Word?

  • Glossary of Uncommon Words
  • Abbreviations and Symbols


Estate Inventories – How to Use Them is a compact 137-page paperback book which contains four chapters filled with educational tips and strategies to help the reader understand all that can be gleaned from an estate inventory.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the difficulties that might be encountered just trying to decipher the cursive handwriting, which might range from obsolete letter style to modern illegible handwriting.

Chapter 2 discusses strategies and resources available to determine the dollar value of estate items, both in the original time period and more modern times and touches on the existence of colonial and state currencies.

Chapter 3 explains how inventories can provide a glimpse, or if lucky, a full view of the life of the deceased.

The first three chapters are filled with examples that illustrate the main points of each chapter and fill half of the book.

Chapter 4, which is my favorite, fills the entire second half of the book and is invaluable in understanding words and descriptions frequently found in American colonial estate packets.

So, your ancestor owned a dray, a smoke-jack, two Brown Swiss and a laver. What are these items? The Chapter 4 glossary (72 pages long) will provide definitions for all of them. Not only will the definitions provide an understanding of the inventory list, but having access to the glossary will also help the reader decipher difficult words, many of which are obsolete today.

Even the bibliography isn’t outdated because most of the books in the list cover topics like colonial kitchens, early American houses, life in colonial times, and other non-modern topics.

I highly recommend seeking out a copy of Estate Inventories – How to Use Them by Kenneth L. Smith to add to your genealogy reference bookshelf. Copies seem to be plentiful and can be found online for under $10.00.

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