Ask A Librarian

Piggins, Plunder, and Swingle Trees: The Early 19th Century American Household, Part 1

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 8th, 2016

Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.

Recently at the History Center, when reviewing inventories of household property in the estate records of the Harrison County Court, I encountered the names of items that were unfamiliar to me, such as “swingle trees” in the 1818 appraisal for the estate of Mary Cunningham:


Estate record for Mary Cunningham, 1818, Harrison County, WV

Estate record for Mary Cunningham, 1818.
Can you find “Swingle Trees and Cleavisses” in the above list


This didn’t surprise me though, since I was looking at records that are 200 years old — one expects advances in technology to eventually render tools obsolete, and thus also render their related terminology irrelevant for daily use.  In this case, with a little research, I was able to learn that swingle trees are a component part of the technology involved with harnessing horses to a carriage or plow.


I was also puzzled by “piggin,” which appears in the estate record of Alison Clark:


Excerpt of Estate Record for Alison Clark, 1813, Harrison County, WV

Excerpt of Estate Record for Alison Clark, 1813.


From online sources, I discovered that a piggin is a bucket made like a small barrel, with one stave left extended to form a handle, for functions like scooping grain or feeding chickens.  Apparently they’re still being made today.


Piggin (bucket with handle)



And what about “plunder,” as in the phrase “one box of plunder” found in the following appraisal?:


Excerpt of Estate Record for Thomas Estlack, 1822, Harrison County, WV

Excerpt of Estate Record for Thomas Estlack, 1822.


According to Louis Ferleger, in his book Cultivating Success in the South: Farm Households in the Postbellum Era (2014), “plunder” was a term used extensively by appraisers to refer to the “low value miscellanea that accumulate in virtually every household.”  It seems plausible, therefore, that the same term used in the same context earlier in the century meant the same thing.  Understandably, what precisely such miscellanea could be is left unexamined by the author.


There were of course other terms I encountered in these appraisals that are unfamiliar to current day Americans, like “flax hackle” and “stilliards,” but those can be the subject of another blog.



The image of a piggin that appears in this blog is copied from the online version of the Merriam Webster dictionary.

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