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You Never Know Who Is Hiding in those Details

By Daniel Hubbard | October 3, 2010

Yesterday, I was looking at a roll of microfilm. All I was trying to do was locate a will and get a list of grandchildren that I thought I would find there. This will I knew would be buried in the minutes of town council meetings. Eventually, after stumbling upon a few useful tidbits in the minutes, I found the will and I found the list. It was exactly what I was looking for but why stop there? Just because I had found what I wanted didn’t mean that I was done. I don’t just mean that the will should be copied and all the other names and any places mentioned should be noted and placed in context.

Beyond people and places, it was time to check what all the things being willed actually were. What do they tell about the people involved? What can all those things add to the story? Land and small amounts of money took up most of this will. There was also some livestock to be distributed. Unspecified household goods that had belonged to this man’s deceased wife would be divided among their granddaughters. He made sure that his second wife would retain what she had brought into the marriage and left her some useful things of his as well.

What Looks Insignificant? An “M” and a “B”

I always like to wonder what things seem insignificant that may not actually be insignificant. Is there anything that seems like an unimportant detail that I can’t guarantee is unimportant? Perhaps something will add an interesting detail or just an entertaining tangent. In this case, special consideration seemed to be made for some silver spoons. Not counting the land and a cow or two, the spoons were the only things specifically identified in the will. Several people got a spoon. Most recipients were supposed to receive a spoon with the letters “MB” No one I knew of in this family had those initials. It felt like just the kind of little thing that might have a little story to tell.

Because the spoons were silver, those letters might be a maker’s mark and it would have to be a maker’s mark in use 250 years ago. It would almost certainly be one used by an English silversmith. After some searching, it turned out that “MB” was the maker’s mark of Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, England. So, he could be the origin of those two letters. I had the odd feeling that his name rang a bell, but I couldn’t think why it should. It turns out that there was a reason and Matthew Boulton turned out to have been an interesting fellow. He literally was a “fellow” it turned out—a fellow of the Royal Society.

Matthew was a well-to-do man who started out in life by inheriting his father’s toymaking business, a business which also dabbled in small silver items. He expanded to include larger silver pieces and had the funds to make some significant investments. One of those investments resulted in a debt that could not be repaid. In exchange for canceling the debt, Boulton accepted a 2/3 share in a patent for a new, as yet undeveloped device. Boulton’s business partner reportedly refused to accept anything but cash for his share of that debt. Boulton had his eye on the device and had been interested in it for awhile. He suspected that it might eventually solve a problem he had with insufficient water power at one of his mills. The inventor behind that device was James Watt and the invention was Watt’s steam engine. With Boulton’s backing and encouragement, Watt perfected his engine and the firm of Boulton & Watt went on to design and manufacture steam engines for well over a century.

It turns out that it wasn’t a bad tangent. From the will of a typical New Englander of the 1770s to one of the fundamental moments of the industrial revolution via nothing more than two letters on a few silver spoons.

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Topics: Forgotten History, Genealogy, History, Methods | No Comments »

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