Friday, November 6, 2009

Bookends Friday: Inheritance in America

I'm still working my way through Inheritance in America from Colonial Times to the Present, a 12-year-old book by Carole Shammas, Marylynn Salmon, and Michael Dahlin (Galveston: Frontier Press, 1997). It's not a genealogy book, or a genealogical methods book, but a very specialized and quantitative history book -- also, contrary to this blog's policy, a largely bicoastal book with focused studies on inheritance practices in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and in California. Still it's great background. The authors are very good on how the changes in the kind of widespread wealth affected inheritance practices: when most wealth was tied up in land it was often difficult to turn the family inheritance into cash for distribution; later on as wealth became more intangible the situation changed.

My favorite passage so far, on the 19th century disputations that led to laws allowing married women to hold property in their own names: "Age and gender had already been dismissed as criteria in discriminating among children as heirs with the abolition of primogeniture. The feme covert status of married women seemed as riddled with contradictions as the position of the chattel slave, yet a family with two heads seemed unthinkable." {87} The past really was a different country...