Reuben Wood’s Library

[Because of the length of this research paper, I divided it up into five sections; actually six now, because the footnotes wouldn’t register with the blog software, so I but them in a separate post.  I and II deal with Reuben Wood and his family and career; the footnotes follow; and II, IV and V is the inventory of his library, transcribed by me from the handwritten text in Will Book 4.  Not every title has been recovered- if you have any ideas for one of the odd titles, email me.]

With no diaries and other first-hand accounts available to tell us of daily life in 18th-century Randolph County, one of the only alternative sources is to look in the Will Books maintained by the county Clerk of Court.  The series of books, dating back to the formation of the county in 1779, preserve more than just the Last Will and Testaments of county residents; those who died without a will (“intestate”) often provide even more information.  A typical first step in the administration of any estate was compiling an inventory of the deceased’s personal property, and one of the next steps was often to sell it all at a public auction.  These inventories and sale accounts are the best window into early American domestic life we have as local historians.

While looking for something entirely different many years ago, I noticed that one of the very first inventories in Will Book 4 (the blank book was started in November, 1812) was the “Inventory and Account of the Sale of the Estate of Reubin Wood, Esq., Dec’d”, which took up 14 of the first 15 pages in the book.  I knew nothing at the time about Reuben Wood, other than he appeared to have owned a remarkable number of books, and the fact that many of them were law books indicated that he must have been an attorney.  I filed the Reuben Wood papers among the many hundreds of interesting Randolph County curiosities pending further research.

[Home spinner- a dozen yarn ends at the time]

Last fall I stumbled across it again, because one of the items of farm equipment sold at Wood’s 1812 auction sale was an unusual piece of textile production equipment.  “1 spinning machine — 9.0.0 [9 pounds sterling/ no shillings/no pence] ” was purchased by Benjamin Elliott, an Asheboro merchant who would go on, with his son Henry Branson Elliott, to convert his grist mill at Cedar Falls into Randolph County’s first textile mill.  Every estate at that time included numerous items of textile production equipment, and the Wood estate also sold “1 loom & apparatus” at 2.10.0, two spinning wheels (at 0.18.7 [probably a flax wheel] and 0.7.0 [probably a cotton or ‘walking’ wheel]), and one “flax machine” at 0.5.0 (probably a flax “brake,” an ironing-board-sized contraption that removed the hard outer husk from raw flax).

[36 yarn ends at once- more like a factory!]

The “spinning machine” was by far the most expensive piece of textile equipment, and was probably what was commonly called a “spinning jenny” or “plantation spinner,” used by slaves to mass-produce cotton yarn needed to weave clothes and domestic textiles.  This is the only reference I have seen to such a device in Randolph County estate records.  Its presence raises a number of questions:  was it meant to be used by the family’s slaves (there were nine)?  Does it indicate a long-standing family bias against imported English or European textiles?  Did Reuben Wood perhaps affect cotton “homespun” clothing, as Thomas Jefferson and North Carolina’s congressman Nathaniel Macon?  Or was this a recent acquisition indicating the effect of anti-English trade embargoes preceeding the War of 1812?  We’ll never know.

[Colonial Williamsburg coachmakers build a riding chair]

The Spinning Machine caused me to take a closer look at the Wood inventory.  One other unusual item stood out:  “1 Riding Chair”, purchased by the widow Charity Wood at the premium price of 22.0.0 Pounds Sterling!  (compare “1 Waggon,” at 15.0.0, or “1 Cart with Oxen” at 16.5.0!).  This indicated the upscale status of the Wood family just as much as the fact that Reuben Wood owned nine slaves at the time of his death.  Just recently the wheelwrights at Colonial Williamsburg reproduced a riding chair for the collection of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and explained that

[Child’s riding chair for horseback use]

“Riding chairs were popular in the 1700s… These vehicles typically had two wheels and seated one or two people…  Riding chairs were more comfortable than riding on a horse…  In a riding chair, you could move a bit, shift your weight. You didn’t have to sit on the back of a sweaty horse in August.  Also, it was easier on the horse, which didn’t have the weight of a human on its back. ”  [See http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/Winter04-05/wheel.cfm#webex ]

Not so extraordinary for the times was that a slave auction was part of the sale– in fact, the major financial aspect of the whole estate.  70.86% of the total auction proceeds of 2,272 pounds, 7 shillings, 11 pence represented the value of nine human beings (1,610 pounds, 12 shillings, 6 pence).  All but one of the nine were purchased by the widow or by family members, so this particular sale did not represent the catastrophic separation of slave families that many such auctions did.  No comparable research has been conducted in other Randolph County estates, so it is not clear whether the high proportionate value of the enslaved blacks was unusual in this case.

What was without a doubt unusual was the high proportionate value of Reuben Wood’s Library to the total value of his estate.  Almost fifteen and three-quarters percent of the total auction proceeds was made up of the price paid for books.  While that may not sound impressive, look at it this way:  when the value of enslaved people are subtracted from the total estate, the sales total just 661 pounds, 9 shillings and 9 pence; and out of that total, 357 pounds, 9 pence represented books—54% of all personal property excluding slaves.  Two hundred twenty-three separate titles are listed by name, and due to the book-binding practices of the time, it can be safely assumed that the vast majority of these titles were multi-volume sets.  My study of the collection indicates that it probably represented approximately 800 volumes, a large private library even by modern standards.

To understand how mind-boggling this percentage is, we must check out other Randolph County estate inventories.  A comprehensive comparison was beyond my available time these past 6 months, but a random check of 50 or so estates in the first four will books indicates that not one in three Randolph County decedents at the turn of the 19th century even listed books as part of their estates.  Typical of those was Joseph Hill (d. 1794, WB 2, p.18) and Barnaby McDade (d.1812, WB4, P17), both of whom list simply”1 Bible.”   Elizabeth Wright (Feb. 1813, WB4, p.22), lists “1 Hymn book” and “3 books.”  Stephen Cox (August 1814, WB4, p.92) listed “1 spelling book” which sold for 4 shillings, 7 pence and “1 Arithmetick & Testament” worth 1 shilling.

Only four take the trouble to list books by title, as did Joseph Wilson when he inventoried the Wood estate.  Haman Miller of the Farmer community, who died in  1814 (WB4, p.97), was one of the wealthiest men in the county.  His wife listed “1 Testament”, “1 Hymn Book,” and 18 assorted law books in her inventory, indicating his status as a Justice of the Peace (what we would today consider a county commissioner).  His sale listed “1 Dictionary… 1 Pilgrim’s Progress… 1 Little Boston Collection… Acts of Congress… Acts of the General Assembly… and Laws of the United States.”  Col. John Brower, another JP (d. 1814, WB4, p.100) had an estate sale which raised $2,312.48, of which just $37.41 was attributed to the sale of his 71 books, including “Dutch [German] Books,” “Acts of the General Assembly,” “Martin’s Justice,” “Hutchinson’s Works,” and “Carver’s Travels” comparable to those Reuben Woods’ collection.  William Tomlinson (1812, WB4, p.74) unhelpfully lists “1 lot of old books” and “1 lot of pamphlets” and a book on Landlord-Tenant law, but also features a volume of “Christian Philosophy” and 4 volumes of “Newton’s Works” (Sir Isaac Newton? Unclear).  In none of these estates is the proportion of books to the total anywhere near that in the Reuben Wood estate.

Before researching the man himself, I decided to look closely at the contents of his library.  As best I could, I transcribed each title, alphabetized them, and then sought to classify them by subject matter.  It became obvious that the inventory had been based on the short title embossed on the leather spine of a book or series, which was probably called out aloud by one person while being transcribed phonetically by another- a process that inevitably led to mis-spellings and odd transpositions.   I attempted to match each short title from the inventory with the author and exact title of an edition which might have been the one listed.  The most useful resource for this purpose was the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) of items printed before 1801 [ http://estc.bl.uk/ ]; I also used the Law Library of Congress Rare Book Collection [http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awlaw3/rare_book.html ] for specialty law titles.  Three early-19th century library catalogues provided interesting comparisons:  the 1822 printed catalogue of books in the UNC-Chapel Hill Philanthropic Society library; the 1828 catalogue of the University of Virginia library; and the 1831 catalogue of Harvard’s Porcellian Club Library.

Twenty-eight titles have so far defied my analysis- either no specific title was given [“A Lott of Books”/ “A Dutch Book”/ “A French Grammar”]; or the original listing is perhaps in error [Grolisque?  Canuclad?]; or the information given was vague or inadequate [“A Small View,” “Christ”?], or I have been unable to match the title to any known comparable book [“Astrolhology,” “Sullivant’s Lectures,” “Thiston’s Memorials,” “Jennings Works,” etc].

Undoubtedly more titles will become clear with additional research, but some things are obvious.  At least 67 titles were those used by a working lawyer, representing what appears to be one of the largest private law libraries in Piedmont North Carolina.  Four books were reference works [such as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary] and six were in German or French.  Sixteen were Classical Literature, with Greek and Roman authors in translation.  Ten related to religion, with a strong bias toward Presbyterianism, with a large number of titles from the Scottish Enlightenment.  Another 18 can be classified as contemporary philosophical and ethical works, including Locke, Helvitius, Lavater, Chesterfield and Edmund Burke.   Twenty-one titles would then have been classified as “Political Economy,” titles that were standard currency among the Founding Fathers: Junias, Burke, Adam Smith, Burlemaqui, Joseph Priestly, Thomas Paine.  Twenty-eight titles were in the realm of History and Biography: not just ancient history, but a number of contemporary works indicating an interest in foreign policy, especially of France, Ireland, Scotland, India, and Prussia.  Finally, twenty-three titles were purely for entertainment, with classics of English Literature such as Paradise Lost, The Spectator, and The Rambler; early novels such as Clarissa Harlow, Tristam Shandy and Tom Jones; and a number of volumes of poetry.  Oddly missing are standard titles and authors such as Shakespeare [neither plays nor sonnets], Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey.  Perhaps these titles were in the “1 Lott of Books” which sold for the amazingly large price of 37 pounds, 2 shillings and 6 pence- more than the Riding Chair, more than “1 Bay Horse, 26.10.0” and half the price of “1 Negro Girl, Eleanor, 75.0.0”.

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One Response to “Reuben Wood’s Library”

  1. Juli Dempewolf Says:

    Reuben Wood is my 6th great-grandfather. Thank you for this research and incredible information.

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