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“Counterpains,” “dimajohns” and a judge?

So The Legal Genealogist was poking around in old records again last night, trying to feel better about the fact that the law school class I teach was scheduled at the same time as The Genealogy Road Show so I was going to have to wait to see it.

And ran right into a conundrum.

counterpaneThe document I was looking at was an inventory dated 13 February 1879 of the personal effects of Susan Armstrong, deceased, in Robertson County, Tennessee.1 She was likely the woman shown on the 1870 census as age 68, living in the household of Joe Armstrong in Robertson County.2

The inventory — described as a “Report of Sail” — listed all of the items of personal property that the deceased woman had owned and that her administrator, William Armstrong, had sold.

In the report, the administrator told the court that he had sold beds and bed clothes and tables and chairs and candle stands and a clock. And once you figure out some of his spelling, you know that he sold a coverlet (“cover lead”), blankets (which he spelled with at least two Ts and sometimes more), a bed spread (“spred”), a shovel (“shovell”), a calf (“calef”), fodder (“foder”) and five barrels of corn (“coarn”).

And then there are the things that leave you scratching your head.

As a 21st century suburbanite, I confess that I had no clue what was being sold that the administrator alternately spelled as “counterpain” and “counterpane.” Turns out that a counterpane is a particular type of bedspread, the word literally meaning an embroidered quilt.3

And it took me a while to figure out, first, that a “dimajohn” is really a “demijohn” — and then to figure out that it’s “a large narrow-necked bottle usually enclosed in wickerwork.”4

But I’m still stumped with one.

On the first page of the four-page inventory is one of the least expensive items that sold in the sale. Only a pair of buckets and a candle stick or two sold for less. It went for the grand sum of 15 cents. And I have absolutely no idea what it was.

Here’s the entry, with the arrow:


The first thing we do, as genealogists, when we come across a word like this is ensure that we’re reading it right. Here, there doesn’t seem to me to be much question that the word is “Judge.” It’s easy to see, comparing the word to the names on the left, that the first letter is a capital J. The very distinctive curlicue at the top of the letter matches the J of Josephus and is very distinct from the F of F S Briggs.

The administrator always carefully put a dot over a letter i in a word, so the letter following the J isn’t an i. Looking at the word “quilt” written below, it’s likely a u.

So here’s one for you, dear readers: could a Tennessee administrator in 1879 who wasn’t the world’s best speller have possibly meant “jug”? And, if that’s not what he meant, then what in the world — or in 1879 Robertson County, Tennessee — was a 15-cent “judge”?


  1. Robertson County, Tennessee, County Court, “Report of Sail of the 13th of Feb. 1879,” Estate of Susan Armstrong (1879); Robertson County Archives, Springfield, Tennessee; digital images, “Tennessee, Probate Court Files, 1795-1927,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 23 Sep 2013).
  2. 1870 U.S. census, Robertson County, Tennessee, population schedule, p. 188(B) (stamped), dwelling 56, family 56, Susan Armstrong; digital image, ( : accessed 23 Sep 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1556; imaged from FHL microfilm 553055.
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 23 Sep 2013), “counterpane.”
  4. Ibid., “demijohn.”
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