Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Colonial Housewife

At a book discard for our local school district, I picked up some really neat history books, among others. Today, I was browsing through a book called Life in Colonial America by Elizabeth George Speare. It was written in 1963 and features information collected from diaries, letters, travelers' tales and reconstructed colonial villages to paint a "vivid tapestry of everyday life" in humble New England.

One section I particularly enjoyed reading was called "The Goodwife at Home." The author shares details from diaries kept in 1775 from two young sisters. Here's what they had to do each day:
  • spin two pounds of flax
  • washed, scoured, made cheese
  • sanded the parlor
  • knit worsted stockings
  • hatcheled and carded wool and flax (I'm not even sure what that means,without researching it)
Here's a great quote: "Reading the diaries, one wonders where they found hours enough in the day, and also whether they ever rebelled at the never-ending round of chores. Perhaps not, for they had never seen their mother or any of their young friends with idle hands."

Some other great quotes on daily life as a colonial housewife:

Regarding brides: "When a young bride crossed the threshold of her own home, she did so with confidence, taking with her a dowry of linens spun and woven by her own hand, and a sure knowledge of how to use every new pot and kettle that hung by her hearth."
(Fewer women in today's culture are being trained in the art of housekeeping from their mothers. I wonder how many marry with great confidence in housekeeping skills...I am still learning as I go along.)

Regarding strength training: "She needed to bring to her new home, as well, patience and strong muscles. The labor of the colonial housewife was backbreaking drudgery. In a frontier settlement, housekeeping was only part of her duties; she helped to clear the land and build the house and plant the crops as well. Even when she lived in a village of snug, comfortable houses, her daily tasks filled every hour from sunrise to long after sunset."

On cooking: 
"Many of the housewife's day was consumed in preparing meals. Every step of the preparation had to be done the hard way, with heavy, awkward equipment. Someone has written that the great kettles seem more suitable for giants to handle than for women. Yet in the course of her day every woman filled and lifted and toted and scoured them in her struggle to provide food for her family."
(The meals had to be prepared and cooked whether she felt like it or not. There was no Hamburger Helper for those busy or too-tired-to-cook days.)

First they had to make their own soap and then:
"Washday was a burdensome affair of hauling and heating water. The snowy white napkins and tablecloths which were a housewife's pride were only earned by painful scrubbing, especially in the days before forks. In addition, there was the daily cleaning of the kettles, the scouring away of grease and black soot with sand or rushes. The hearth had to be kept immaculate, and the floor swept and covered with a fine layer of clean sand which served in place of a rug."

On bathing:
"In cool weather, all water for family bathing also had to be hauled and heated. A hot bath in a tub before the roaring fire must have been a real luxury, and we can scarcely blame our ancestors if perhaps this was not a very frequent affair." 

On clothing and bedding:
"In most colonial households every single garment worn by the family had to be made by the women from the raw flax and wool produced on their own land. In addition, they wove all the bedding, the window and bed hangings, the rugs, and even the twine. The long process from plant to cloth is unbelievably complicated and wearisome, yet women for thousands of years had taken it for granted, and so did women in America."

(Today, I browsed JC Penney and Motherhood Maternity online, as well as ebay, in search for a new pair of maternity capris).

"Women could never afford to have their hands idle for a moment." 

And yet, on the art of making a beautiful home:

"There was so little beauty in the lives of colonial women--perhaps one cherished heirloom, a silver candlestick brought in a trunk from England...The longing for lovely things showed in the pride women brought to their daily work, the scouring to keep the pewter gleaming, the endless bleachings when natural linen would have served their families just as well, the hot hours over sticky, vile smelling dye pots to produce a bit of color. And somewhere in their unimaginably busy days, women found the time to create pretty things" (such as embroidery, lace, crochet, quilts, flower gardens). (Bold mine)

In reading this, I am filled with such an appreciate for these hard-working women. What an inspiring example they can be for us today. Reading about their lives makes me even more grateful that we live in a much easier time, which I think I easily take for granted. Today, there are countless sources for clothing, linens, and any other cloth we need. Sewing can be a fun hobby, not a skill vital to our family's survival. When we need new socks, I just add that to the list and swing by that aisle at the store. I don't have to prepare wool and then knit the socks. I can cook as elaborately, or as simply, as I desire; and if I don't feel like cooking on any given night, there are so many options: pulling something from the freezer or the cupboard, going to a drive-through, going out to eat, even just eating a bowl of cereal.  I throw our laundry in the washer and the dryer without so much as a second thought, fold it and put it away (sometimes with a sigh), but how many times easier do I have it each day than if I were a colonial housewife? It's no wonder they so cherished the Sabbath rest.

While these women could have had much to whine about, I like to think they chose not to. Perhaps they were too busy for such inward focus. Perhaps they felt an important sense of worth, instilled with the knowledge of how vital their daily work was for their family's well-being (and survival). I love the quote that their desire for beauty in their homes came through in the pride they brought to their never-ending list of tasks.

At the start of each new day, sure I have some tasks to accomplish. But I also have plenty of time for leisure pursuits. I can choose to take the boys on a walk to the park. We can go to events in town (in our motor vehicle, no less). We can go to the pool, if we want to. I can surf the web. I can call a friend. My family isn't going to starve and risk having nothing to wear if I neglect all chores imaginable and decide to fill the day with fun instead.

While I celebrate the freedom our modern era affords in terms of time for leisure opportunities, I am challenged by the example provided by the colonial housewives. If they could do all they did in a day, I think I can certainly step up my home management a notch or two. After reading their stories, I feel ashamed to complain--even if it's just inwardly--about not wanting to clean up the kitchen after dinner (or any other task I would rather skip to be able to go relax). Not only can I do those tasks, I can do them with pride. My day is still infinitely easier than theirs. We're 21st century women, but we can still learn much from those who lived before us.

(sharing with Raising Homemakers for the Homemaking link-up)


  1. MomofthreeJune 08, 2011

    Wow! I will be thinking about this for quite a while and start shifting my attitude to be a bit more appreciative of the luxuries God has provided us modern women with. Thanks for this post!

  2. Love this post...I find myself staring at wonder at the fields and woods around our home and think how hard it was for hubby's ancestors to have worked and cleared it by hand...As we bucketed water to berries and back corn rows very thankful that our garden hose at least reached 30 feet closer to them than the faucet and we did not have to hand pump the water but have an electric well.
    But yes after reading your post, I will think twice before grumbling about emptying the dishwasher.
    Blessings Kelsie