Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture

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Nabb Research Center Tools - Dictionaries & glossaries

* Illustrated dictionary of colonial items

Illustrated dictionary of items found in 17th-century probate inventories and other records. This work represents the combined effort of Nabb Research Center interns and staff, including Kevin Russell, James E. Jensen, and Natasha Jones.

Select:     A - C | D - F | G - I | J - L | M - O | P - R | S - U | V - Z

~ A ~

Adze - An implement of varying sizes with varying blades, used to hollow out wood. Usually belonging to a skilled craftsman and not a carpenter, e.g., "'To an ould adze' was written in the cabinet maker's inventory."

Alchemy spoons (occamy or occany spoons) - spoons made from an alloy of common metals and chemicals, often containing brass or copper in an attempt to resemble gold, e.g., "she had the finest alchemy flatware on her table."

Allam (or Alum) - a chemical that was used in baking powder, to render water clear, and also for medicinal purposes, where it was taken ether internally or topically, e.g., "Alice's inventory listed two pounds of allam and other baking ingredients such as sugar and honey."




Andirons - Iron supports used to keep logs off of the chimney floor when burning also called creepers, e.g., "To my sonne John I bequeath my andirons." See also dogs.

Anvil - an extremely heavy iron-shaping implement. Used by a blacksmith to pound out metal into various shapes, e.g., "He used his smaller anvil to shape the new horse shoes."

Auger - a tool that was used to bore holes into wood, leather, and even the ground, e.g., "Edward used an auger to cut into the door frame before he affixed the door."

Awl (aull or aule) - a tool made of iron that was used to pierce leather and was used by shoemakers and saddle makers, e.g., "an aule and several lengths of leather string, were listed in William the shoemaker's inventory."



Avoirdupois weight (averdepois) - a basic measuring system, which had one pound being comprised of sixteen ounces and each ounce therein further divided into sixteen drams.

~ B ~

Backsword - A sword with one sharpened edge, often with a basket or cage hilt for hand protection; used by cavalry and represented the precursor to the sabre e.g., "the boys played single-stick (fencing) with two old backswords."

Bandstrings - cords used to fasten collar together in front, later were ornamented with silk and lace.

Barrowes - (plural) for castrated boars or male pigs, e.g., "John Jackson's inventory made reference to one barrowe, one sowe, and 5 pigges."

Beaker - a cup or glass used as a drinking vessel, e.g., "William's inventory revealed four silver beakers."

Beakhorne (beakiron) - from the word beak, i) to bask in the heat 2) a iron situated over a fire from which hung boilers; beakiron a tool used by blacksmiths, e.g., "since his inventory listed a beakiron, Alexander was probably a blacksmith."

Bedstead - a bed frame, usually made of wood with rope crisscrossed over it onto which a bolster or tick was placed, e.g., "Richard had two bedsteads and two pillows in his inventory."


[Images from the web site of the
Ximenez-Fatio House Museum]

[Image: detail from Willem Claesz Heda's Stilleben mit Schinken]


Bed ticking (tick or ticking bag) - a mattress made of a rough canvas or oznaburg fabric that was usually stuffed with straw, feathers, or rags (Flock), e.g., "'two ticks' were listed in the inventory of John Smith, which referred to his two mattresses."

Bed wrench - A tool used to tighten ropes on a bedstead.

Belmettel - an alloy of two metals, made from combining 4 parts copper to 1 part tin and was generally used in the fabrication of bells, although other uses are found, e.g., "the inventory listed a belmettel pot and some spoons."

Bellows - used to pump air into a fire, via a small tube, when burning fuels such as wood or coal. This process allows the fire to reach higher temperatures, e.g., "the blacksmith labored at his bellows to get the fire hot enough to melt the iron."

Birding piece - see fowling piece.

Bit - The iron mouthpiece of a bridle, to which the reins are fastened.

Bleed (Bleeding) - the practice of phlebotomy, through which it was believed that letting the blood of a sick individual run from their veins would flush out and ailment he or she suffered, also used on animals, see fleem, e.g., "the doctor would often prefer to administer medicine rather than bleed his patients."

Bleeding Bowl (or Barber Bowl) - A bowl to catch the blood in medical bleeding; the cut out shape fitted the flexed elbow of a patient. Also used by barbers.

Blunderbuss - muzzle-loading firearm with a short barrel and flaring muzzle to facilitate loading.

Bolster (boulster) - a thin pad that was used to lie upon. Sometimes these were used as under padding for bed ticking and were stuffed with feathers, straw, or flock, e.g., "Margaret's inventory listed a feather boulster and two pillows."

Bonnet - a type of headcover worn by girls and women, usually brimless, which covered the hair and ears, but not the forehead, and was secured by tying under the chin.

bleeding bowl


branding iron         bottles         broadaxe



Bottles - a ceramic or glass container used to store liquor indoors as well as to transport liquor to the fields, e.g., "Richard often brought a bottle when he walked out into his crop fields."

Boutry gall - gall, or nutgall, refers to a nut-shaped swelling of plant tissue, caused by an infection of bacteria, parasite or virus, which was largely used as a commercial source of tannin, e.g., "Mr. Robinson's inventory listed oddities such as a pair of alchemy spoons and a parcel of boutry gall."

Branding iron - a tool that was used to permanently mark an animal with its owner's symbol done by heating up the tool so that it scar the hide, also known as a marking iron, e.g., "Mr. Scarborough always had his 'X' mark branded on his cows."

Brase sasepan (brass saucepan) - a cooking pan used either to boil or fry food that is being prepared. This particular use presents a more luxurious model when compared to the iron skillet, e.g., "unto my sone John I bequeath my brase saucepan."

butter mold

butter paddle

Brazier (brasier) - a modified cooking pan, designed as a vessel for both hot coals and embers. With a tripod construction this portable element was used as a heat source for cooking, e.g., "Mrs. Jackson loved to cook an early morning meal on her new brasier." Also, referring to one who worked with brass, e.g., "his inventory listed an anvil and other tools used by a brazier."

Breeches - common early male apparel, usually tied below the knee leaving the remainder of the leg dressed in stockings, e.g., "one handkerchief, white breeches, and one pair of old stockings were listed in Phillip Davis' inventory."

Broadaxe - an axe that characteristically had only one broad and flat cutting edge, also known as a goosewing for its appearance, e.g., "the boat's mast was hewn from a single timber with a broadaxe."

Broad cloth- Dense woolen cloth.

Buckram - a stiff and course cloth, made of linen, which was put under garments to provide a stiff appearance; also, used in book binding, e.g., "the clerk of the court had his ledger bound in buckram and not leather."

Busk (busque or busking) - made of either metal or the cartilage from the mouth of a whale and was used to reinforce women's stays, much like a corset, e.g., "whalebone busking was sited in Mary's will, which she bequeathed to her sister Anne."

Butter mold - a mold, usually made of wood, which would be used to stamp a design into a measured amount of butter as the operator depressed its plunger; e.g., "Abigail loved to use her buttermold with the floral motif, which left the impression of a rose - her favorite flower."

Butter paddle - a tool for putting butter into a butter mold.

Bruckle - a term to describe something as being wet and dirty, e.g., "his inventory lists a broken bruckle bedstead."

Buckram (bokeram) - A fine linen or cotton fabric, usually treated with glue or another substance to give a stiff appearance.




~ C ~

Caddoes (caddow) - a quilt or covering made of a coarse wool, e.g., "'a yard or towe of ribbynige and a caddow' were found listed in her inventory."

Cauldron (coldron) - a great pot or large kettle, which was used to cook by boiling or simmering and either hung over a fire or stood on three legs, e.g., "his inventory revealed one small kettle and an ould cauldron with a hole."

Calico - an originally imported cotton cloth from Callicut, in India, sometimes designs were painted on it, e.g., "Alice had a calico pinafore."

Camlet (camblet) - a beautifully rich fabric made from blending both silk and the hair of a camel, e.g., "in his father's will the camlet coat was left to John, Stephen's older brother."

Candlestick - a candlestick was used to carry or simply anchor a candle as it burned, a common item since candles were used often for light and made of a resilient metal such as pewter, e.g., "the inventory revealed that Caroline had two pewter candlesticks and a snuffer."

Cannister - a basket or other small vessel used to carry objects, also used when referring to an early artillery shell that would launch smaller projectiles from within, e.g., "Anne had a little cannister that she used to house her extra buttons."

Cantharides - a plural form of cantharis; a preparation of dried beetles (especially Spanish flies) that contain the chemical compound cantharidin. Used in medicine as a blister-producing agent and an aphrodisiac, e.g., "Jonathan's inventory listed several ointments and herbs, including cantharides, therefore he may have been a physician of sorts."

Canvas - usually referring to a heavy cotton or linen fabric made from flax, e.g., "6 yards of canvas was revealed in Jane Smyth's inventory."

Cart & wheels - an animal drawn device used to haul a variety of goods or other items, usually consisting of a platform of wood and a set of two wheels, e.g., "the men would transport goods from the wharf to their homes on a horse drawn cart, since the roads were uneven."

Cask - a vessel shaped like a barrel, constructed of staves, headings and hoops and was used to transport liquids. Also known as a hogshead, roughly the equivalent of sixty-three gallons, e.g., "3oo pounds of Chesapeake tobacco, a cask of salted troutes and a hogshead of corne to be given to my sone John Smith."

Casque - to a protective helmet, usually worn by a soldier in times of battle to prevent injury, from the French word for hat, e.g., "William's inventory revealed one sorry musket and a casque, perhaps he was a military man."





chamber pot

Casters - a set of vials or vessels used to contain household condiments, also referring to a cloak [slang] or a hat made from beaver fur [castor], e.g., "'one chafing dish and pewter caster' were listed in her inventory."

Cattale bed (Cattail) - a tick stuffed with the shredded tops from a cattail, a weed that grows in marshy areas of which the roots are edible and from which the dried leaves could be used to weave baskets, e.g., "'one feather bulster and a cattale bed' was revealed in his inventory."

Chafing dish - a portable vessel, which was comprised of a dish that rested over a small grate of hot coals, used for heating water or keeping prepared food warm while on the table, e.g., "among his other table-top accessories of a canister and knives and forks, Edmund mostly enjoyed his new chafing dish."

Chamber pot - a bedroom or bedchamber vessel that was used to collect urine, e.g., "Susan was much happier with using the chamber pot that going to the outhouse on cold nights."

Chattel - used to describe objects that were owned by one specific individual, e.g., "The true inventory of the property and chattel of Obedience Robins."

Chirurgeon - an early form of the modern word surgeon, a person associated with setting broken bones and limited operations such as extracting teeth, e.g., "The inventory of John Marshall chirurgeon..."

Chisels - an edged implement used to shape wood or to make a deep cut; several types can be found from farming, wood, gooseneck, mortise, corner, paring, socket-lock, skew, and slick, e.g., "To a parcel of chisels and an old saw."

Churn - used as both a noun and a verb. Made of wood, this barrel-like container was used to combine both milk and cream from which butter was made through a process of agitation, e.g., "Alice churned butter every week, she had a wooden churn."

Cider house - a small one room structure, usually situated on a plantation with numerous apple trees and was used to produce cider; which is a beverage made from apples and was widely used as a substitute for water, since the eastern Shore's water was often found to have a high salinity level that causing illness.

Claw hammer - a metal tool that was used for pounding, the claw used to pull nails out; there were various types such as: claw, cobbler's, cooper's, and veneer - e.g., "Edmund's inventory revealed one claw hammer and a parcel of nails."

Clothes smoothers - see smoothing iron.

Clyster - see Glister pipes.

Cobbler - one who only repaired shoes or boots and was not skilled enough to actually make either, see shoemaker, e.g., "there were no shoemakers around so the local people often had the cobbler mend their old footwear."



collar and hames

[Image: Colonial Williamsburg]

Colander - metal vessel with holes in the bottom, used to drain excess water from foods after boiling, e.g., "she tasted the soup and then upon her satisfaction brought out her colander to remove the bones before giving it to her ill father."

Collar and hames - usually the stuffed section (collar) of a harness that was attached to the wooden struts (hames); used by a draft animal for hauling a heavy workload, e.g., "Stephen had to purchase a new collar and hames as his broke when his horse was pulling a load of bricks."

Cooper - Craftsman who made wooden casks for the storage and shipping of liquid and dry goods.

Cooper's adze - see adze, specifically one used by a cooper, e.g., "the carpenter's adze was larger that the one-handed cooper's adze."

Corded cotton - a fabric that was made from combining equal amounts of cotton and linen, which produced a corded or ribbed texture, e.g., "Elizabeth enjoyed her new curtains of corded cotton, which she purchased in Jamestown."

Corn - through the colonial period, the term for any type of grain; the term for maize (see photo) was "indian corn."

Corn hooks - see hooks.

Coulter - an iron knife like instrument located at the front of a plow, often used to break new lands, meaning to cut roots prior to plowing, e.g., "John's inventory revealed two coulters and a broken colter, which suggests he had broken new land."

Coverlet (coverlid or covrelit) - a bedspread that was used to cover a bed, although usually not falling to the floor, e.g., "one coverlet and two old bedsteads, and two pillows."

Creepers - See andirons.

Crepe - a fabric that was designed to look permanently wrinkled, e.g., "Elizabeth wore black crepe in her hair ever since her husband died."

Cross-cut saw(cross saw) - a saw that was designed to cut across the grain of wood and was used most commonly to fell trees, also used by a carpenter, e.g., "one cross cutting saw and a parcel of nails."

Cruet - a glass container or vessel, usually employed for the purpose of holding condiments on a table such as oils or pepper, e.g., "his inventory listed a cruet and a pewter tray, therefore he was likely wealthy."

Cupping glasses - usually in the context of phlebotomy (bloodletting), although occasionally used to refer to a Tavern's glassware, see phlebotomy, e.g., "Jane placed a warmed glass over Jonas' wound, then after cooling it, it drew forth the illness from within him."

Curry comb (curry brush) - a brush used to rid a horse, pony, mule, or donkey, of ticks, lice, and dirt, e.g., "Hanna curried her horse every morning with her curry comb before ridding in the fields."

Cutlass (cutilax, cutlace, cutlash, curtle-ax, or kutlass) - a short broad sword with one edge, with a blade that is either straight or curved, usually refers to a naval or gentleman's sword, e.g., "John Russell bequeathed his cutlass to his sonn Stephen."

cooper's adze

indian corn

curry comb

Select:     A - C | D - F | G - I | J - L | M - O | P - R | S - U | V - Z

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