Editor’s note: This column, which first appeared in the Exeter News-Letter in 2007, typifies Bill Gustin’s diligence and dedication to the Exeter Historical Society. Gustin became a specialist at transcribing and interpreting documents from the 18th century. He died this past Monday, at age 93.
In 2001, the Exeter Historical Society purchased an account book on e-Bay. Although this may seem odd, some of our most significant acquisitions recently have been purchased through this international yard sale. Several of our more clever members keep a close eye on the listings and contact us as soon as anything good shows up. That fall, a small account book belonging to John Giddings of Exeter turned up in California. The accounts registered were for the years 1765 to 1783.
John Giddings (or “Giddinge,” “Gidding” or even “Giddinges” depending on how he decided to spell it that particular day), was a physician who lived in the old part of Exeter on the corner of outer Water and Salem streets. Along with his medical practice, Giddings owned a wharf down on the river and kept up a lively trade in goods shipped in from England and the West Indies. The account book listed all his customers, what they purchased and how they paid. It was a treasure-trove of information for genealogists. We couldn’t wait to get at it. But it was small, measuring only about 3-inches by 4-inches, with tiny, tight handwriting from the Colonial period. If we were going to use this book in any meaningful way, it would have to be transcribed and typed.
The initial work was handed over to our loyal, if somewhat long-suffering, volunteer, William Gustin. We photocopied each page and enlarged it to a readable format, and then Bill began the painstaking task of figuring out what the heck John Giddings was talking about. The first thing he noticed was that nobody ever paid with cash. Accounts were paid mostly with wood and each type of wood was carefully noted: red oak plank, hemlock joyce, 1,525 feet of pine board, barrel staves, shingles. Occasionally payment would be the very nonspecific “fish” and sometimes someone else would pay off the account; “paid by 200-feet board per Jere Prescott.” So we were a pretty cash-free society back then.
Far more interesting was the type of goods Dr. Giddings imported for the townsfolk. The most expensive imports were fabrics, and these were listed not simply as “woolen cloth” or “linen cloth,” but with names like “bayze,” “callicose,” “kersey” and even “ozenbriggs.” To make any sense of this, Bill had to decipher the handwriting, correct for the relaxed Colonial spelling habits and then figure out the meaning of the word. With the help of our 1890 Oxford Unabridged Dictionary and a crossword puzzle book, Bill managed to find almost all the references he needed.
Most entries were not that difficult to find, however, because the townies primarily bought rum and molasses. Entry after entry listed these two items in greater abundance than anything else imported to Gidding’s wharf. When it was time to type the book into a document file, Bill would read off the entries while I typed them into the laptop. “Rum,” he would read, “4 pounds, six shillings. Next entry: rum and molasses, three pounds, nine shillings. Next entry: sundries, salt, and rum, eleven pounds, no shillings. Next entry: salt beef, corn, buttons, molasses, pig iron…;” and just as I was beginning to think he’d given up the drink, “and rum, sixteen pounds, five shillings.”
There were a remarkable number of exotic foodstuffs brought into the town, including limes and chocolate, but we were stymied when several entries for “garlic” appeared on the lists. Garlic wasn’t used much in New England cooking — it doesn’t mix well with all that molasses and rum, I suppose. And this garlic was expensive — sometimes costing up to 20 pounds. By our estimates, that would be boatloads of a seasoning that wasn’t used very often and could easily be grown on a manure pile if it was needed. It took Bill weeks to finally track down a reference for “garlix or garlitz — linen cloth from Germany.”
Dr. Giddings died sometime in the early 1780s and his widow signed the later entries in the account book. His house is gone, one of those lost treasures of Exeter, but you can still see it if you don’t mind traveling to Dearborn, Mich. It seems that when Henry Ford was creating his Americana museum in the late 1920s, his agents traveled throughout New England looking for antiquities to bring a bit of authenticity to the Midwest. Gidding’s house, which had later been occupied by Secretary of State Pierson, was chosen, purchased, dismantled and moved to the Greenfield Village display at the Henry Ford Museum.
Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.