Probate Inventories and Sample Selection Bias: Evidence from the Eighteenth-Century Cape Colony

Johan Fourie, Stellenbosch University
Anne McCants, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Leone Walters, Stellenbosch University

In the absence of modern household surveys, probate inventories – the inventories list of moveable assets of deceased individuals, recorded for the purpose of inheritance division – offer insights into the material well-being of households and the distribution of wealth of past societies. Although these sources have not been used uncritically, claims of representativeness are difficult to evaluate. We offer an alternative. This study employs two novel historical data sets from a settler society at the southern tip of Africa. We match probate inventories of settler farmers in the Stellenbosch district of South Africa's Cape Colony with detailed panel tax censuses. By comparing reported wealth in these two sources, we calculate the extent of selection bias in probates. Our paper contributes to the literature in two ways. First, we test whether wealth estimates calculated from probate inventories can indeed be used as a measure of the general standard of living of a society. Given how ubiquitous probate inventories are in pre-industrial estimations of living standards, our preliminary findings caution against the overconfident interpretations of wealth estimates based on probate inventories alone. Second, the household-level census information at our disposal reveals the types of biases the use of probates are likely to insert. Probate inventories are not merely truncated at the lower end of the distribution but instead have more targeted selection effects.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 133. Presidential Session: Household Wealth and Well-Being