Date of Award

Winter 1982

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation evaluates the material life and economic culture of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from 1680 to 1740 through an analysis of the probate inventories of the estates of 234 males. It also details the methodology used to determine the twin biases of probate records--that people whose estates were probated were generally older and wealthier than people in the overall population.

The inequality of wealth was fairly static. Using model life tables, a commodity price series derived from Portsmouth goods, and weights to account for differences between the ages and economic status' of the probated and total populations, the Gini Index for the entire period was calculated at 0.684. That index varied only slightly over time; 0.641 for 1680 to 1699, 0.622 for 1700 to 1719, and 0.687 for 1720 to 1740. This narrow range in inequality is partially attributable to the geographic and social environment of the town. Portsmouth was a penninsula, locked in by water on three sides and bordered by a town close to another body of water on the fourth. It was also socially isolated. Newcomers were discouraged from settling, and families intermarried among families of their own socio-economic level, creating an inbred society that recirculated wealth between generations in a partible manner.

The distribution of wealth ranged from insolvency to over ten thousand pounds before inflation was taken into account. For purposes of general evaluation, the population was broken into five wealth groups, the average assessed wealth being around one hundred fifty pounds. The ownership of selected material possessions was, in most cases, not clearly associated with any economic group. Luxury items were the only goods strictly associated with the elite group. Land ownership was widespread as, except for the poorest group, over half of each group owned realty.