“The Art of Housewifery”
In my book, Courageous Kate, A Daughter of the American Revolution, there is a chapter called “The Art of Housewifery.” Not all of the chores that were part of these times are described, but a good many are. In my second book, Fearless Martha, a Daughter of the American Revolution, there are more descriptions of the ways eighteenth century women ran their homes. Mothers taught their daughters at an early age how to keep a household running smoothly. The chores were endless, and many hands were needed to make light work. (Both books are available at Hub City Press http://www.hubcity.org/ – , Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.)
The Revolutionary War women that lived on the small farms were busy from before daylight to after dark. Maybe that is where the saying “a woman’s work is never done” originated. The farmer’s wife saw to the dairy, the chickens, the vegetable and herb gardens, cleaned house. She cured and preserved meats, made soap and candles, dried vegetables, spin thread to make cloth for clothes from her own flax, prepared meals, and doctored her family.
As I was learning about this myriad of daily tasks, I visited Middleton Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina. A large millstone was there to entertain visitors. The pole in the middle of the two stones was stout, and the stones were at least a yard wide. Turning the pole crushed the corn kernels, and this was no easy task. My whole body was involved in turning the pole; I quickly remembered the motions of the dance, the Twist, from years ago. I have to admit my practice at this didn’t last long, and my husband was kind enough not to laugh.
My grandparents owned a dairy farm in Kentucky, and I was always fascinated with the milking process, though I didn’t have a lot of personal luck. I admit I was leery of the cows after getting swatted by several of their tails at different times. There was no choice during the eighteenth century for this task, because milk was used for drinking, making butter, and cooking. Also, the cows had to be milked every day because they produced up to five gallons of milk daily. Churning is an easy, but tiring process. It sometimes took almost an hour of plunging that dasher up and down in the churn to turn that creamy milk into butter. (My husband and I have butter molds from both sides of our families that we treasure.)
When I taught kindergarten, we made candles at Christmas. It seemed an endless task for my eighteen students to walk around the table dipping their string into the hot wax. I went to Michael’s to buy the wax, but that was not available two hundred years ago. In the colonial days, the hard fat of cows or sheep was melted for the wax or perhaps bee’s wax was used. Bayberries were often added to give off a pleasant scent when burning, but almost a bushel of berries was needed to make just a few candles. Believe it or not, many women could make as many as 200 candles in one day. I did read that mice liked to eat candles, so the housewives had to store them carefully.
I enjoy using my crock pot to make stews or soups. The smells after several hours of cooking are an encouragement that supper is in process. In those earlier times, a large, iron pot filled with meat and vegetables would also cook all day in the fireplace. The chickens would have come from the yard, or the deer meat from a hunting expedition. The vegetables were from the kitchen garden and any herbs from the herb garden. The wife took care of scalding and plucking the feathers of the chicken. She would have prepared the ground, planted the seeds, weeded and watered the garden, and then picked her vegetables and herbs. Sometimes the family would eat on this stew for several days, with daily additions. Everything took a lot of time. Nothing was wasted. This old rhyme describes how a stew might keep on cooking. “Pease porridge hot. Pease porridge cold. Pease porridge in the pot nine days old. Some like it hot. Some like it cold. Some like it in the pot nine days old.”
John and I met Revolutionary War reenactors at Cowpens National Battlefield the other weekend, and I learned about another time-consuming task called cording. I was not familiar with this, but learned quickly that with the help of a lucet that one cord could be put together to make a stronger, square cord. These cords were used for women’s stays, drawstring bags, button loops, and anything else that needed a tie-together. A sewing basket would have cords in various stages of completion. (There are several internet sites available to find more information about this task, as well this YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y5K7FiT2Og to help you learn this craft.) From the little bit of experience I have had with holding the yarn and the lucet, expertise making this necessity would take practice.
Speaking of the reenactors, they have learned to share this time period with us with much proficiency. They are always willing to share their knowledge and know-how of these times and the tasks that both men and women needed for survival. It is a worthwhile drive to visit any of their many campsites at Revolutionary War events, and I encourage you to do so. From the food they cook to the tents they set up, they will help open your eyes to an ordinary day in the lives of our early American families.
These are a few comparisons of housewifery between the eighteenth century and the twenty-first century; there are many others. With the well-being of their families hanging in the balance, these strong and courageous women did their jobs of taking care of both hearth and home. They left us a legacy of the importance of seeing to our households, and it is one to remember and follow their models.
Suzanne Adair asked me to create a post for her blog for the week of July 4, 2011. This encouraged me to begin a blog myself, so I am sharing with you what I wrote. Be sure to check out Suzanne’s blog for more information on the Revolutionary War.
Author of Courageous Kate, A Daughter of the American Revolution
Winner of the 2007 DAR Historic Preservation Award
Author of Fearless Martha, A Daughter of the American Revolution