Better lives for women

I tend to think of the 1700s as static in terms of women’s lives but of course it wasn’t. Although Colonial women spent significant time spinning, weaving (if they had a loom) and making candles, as the century wore on households transitioned from frontier living where everything had to be made in-house to a time where necessities could be purchased. Of course the coastal cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston enjoyed a higher standard of living even before the Revolution. Clothing or fabric, furniture and other luxuries were imported from England and the daughters of affluent households, well staffed with servants and/or slaves, had no need to use the wheel. They did ‘fancy’ work: embroidery of other decorative needlework.

But I digress.

By the late 1700s even rural communities, even in Maine, had access to items which could be purchased – such as dress goods – that would make a woman’s life easier. (Salem with its fast merchant ships and ties to the Orient, imported cloth of all kinds from cotton muslin to silk, cashmere shawls from India and more. Some of these goods made it away from the coasts. It is no surprise to learn that Salem at this time was the wealthiest city in the United States.) Labor could be hired to help in the fields and in the house. Will Rees, traveling weaver, was not the only (male) weaver who went from house to house plying his trade. (Women weavers were bound to their homes.) Spinners could also be hired, Usually widows or unmarried daughters in a large family, these women would spin for an agreed upon price.

But what about the frontier women. The frontier continued to push west and, by the late 1790’s, was pushing past Pittsburgh. Contemporary observers of Pittsburgh were vastly critical of the dirty streets, through which hogs ran unheeded. Most of the houses were wood or frame, but brick was beginning to take over. Glass for windows was imported at large expense. For women, moving to town no matter how dirty, made their lives less arduous. Tasks could be given over to the candlemakers, the washerwomen, dressmakers and shoemakers. Galatin (an important figure during the Whiskey Rebellion) was a weaver. By 1807 there were six professional bakers. In fact, by the 1800’s, the wealthy began building mansions outside of town and Pittsbugh began offering social and cultural opportunities.

The frontier had moved west to Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois.

Housekeeping – 1790s Laundry

 

Housekeeping  – 1790s – Laundry

Another really labor intensive and, to my mind, awful job was laundry. Water was heated in one of those large heavy kettles and the wet laundry was stirred in it. Water had to be carried from the well and if no well had been dug, from the nearest spring. Clothing was scrubbed clean on a washboard.

washboard

This is an antique. I am probably the third or fourth generation to own it. This is a small washboard, probably used for lingerie. The washboards used for heavier clothing would have been much larger.

Of course the laundry detergents we use now did not exist. Usually soap was made from wood ashes and fat. The wood ashes were soaked in a barrel. Why, you may ask. Because wood ashes contain lye. Mixed with fat, lye makes a hard and very harsh soap. Getting one’s mouth washed out with soap must have been incredibly unpleasant!

On the frontier, this lye soap was also used to wash bodies. Lydia, since Rees travels regularly to cities like Salem and Philadelphia, and also because Maine was not the frontier in the 1790’s, would have access to other soaps. Castile soap was made with olive oil and was first created in Spain -thus the name. One of the first manufactured soaps for skin was Pears soap and it was made with glycerine. (Ivory, the so pure it floats soap, was not produced until the 1840s. But I digress.)

Since clotheslines had not been invented yet,  laundry was usually draped over bushes or shrubs to dry –  that must have been fun in the winter. The Shakers invented a variety of methods to dry clothing indoors. If you visit Hancock Village you can see one method with a kind of folding screen like contraption. We can also thank them for inventing clothespins – the kind whittled from one piece of wood with two prongs.

Wealthier women hired a laundress who washed the linen – and later the cotton – sheets and clothing. (For those literary people, Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle was a laundress as was Emmett Otter’s mother). Until calico came in vogue, (since it was cotton it could be washed) only the body linens were laundered. The silks and velvets were not. (Can I say yuck?) After a few wearings they were passed down to a favored servant. Contemporary accounts describe how these pieces of clothing, gowns mostly, were cut up and the still wearable pieces added to other dresses or made over into other clothing.

Monday was wash day, Tuesday was ironing day. (Wednesday was sewing or mending day for those interested.) Flatirons were heated by the fire and when it reached the proper temperature was used. When it cooled it was put back into the fire and another iron was taken from the hearth. The Shakers also invented a chemical to put into the clothing before ironing to reduce the wrinkling: this was many decades before it was used in the World.

When I think of how much laundry my small family generates and imagine trying to keep up with a large family I shudder. And on laundry day, cooking meals still had to be done. Any free time was spent on spinning or, if a loom was owned, on weaving. Since looms were very expensive not every household had the money to purchase one – that is why itinerant weavers like Rees had jobs. Looms of course were passed down – and that is the genesis of the word heirloom.

Many women – I read one statistic that put the number as high as 50% – could not read or write. Girls did not always go to school. They were too busy working in the home.

I think it bears repeating also that women worked usually with a heavy infant in their arms or a toddler at their heels and were probably pregnant besides.

Housekeeping circa 1798 – Food preparation

Without refrigeration or canned goods, food was prepared from scratch, usually three times a day. Breakfast might consist of mush, pancakes, eggs – familiar food. Supper was a usually a light meal of leftovers from the noon dinner or mush and milk.

 

So cooking was all day, every day. Churning butter and making cheese, smoking meat (men did the butchering but women took care of the meat afterward) and all the food preservation had to be fitted in around the basic cooking. Churning butter, for example, was a time consuming process. It was usually handed off to a child but since it took skill to pat the butter into crocks this was a task reserved for Mother.

 

Cheese making was another skill. Everything had to be spotless and the temperatures just so.

 

Women prepared meals over an open fire or on the hearth of a fireplace.  (The average household used between 30 and 40 cords of wood a year – equal to about one acre of timber). Stoves had been invented by then. Immigrants who came from countries with wood shortages brought tile stoves. Ben Franklin invented a stove in 1741 – but that were not designed for cooking. The 1800s saw the development of stoves – heavy cast iron devices that h led eventually to the large ranges – but they did not take off until after 1815 or so, until then women cooked over an open fire. If the fire went out during the night, a child might be dispatched to a neighbor for a coal. Otherwise a tinderbox might be used. I’ve seen people demonstrate cooking over an open fire. One woman, who is very experienced at these demonstrations, took three hours to get the fire started.

 

As we all know an even temperature is not possible with an open fire. Some of the early fireplaces had ovens for bread and other baked goods built into the brick surround. It must have been quite an art to determine the right temperature for bread or other food. It also explains the boiled desserts and breads: i.e. Boston brown bread or the boiled puddings. So much easier to boil something in a mold without worrying about the temperature. Think about A Christmas Carol by Dickens and the Christmas dinner at the Cratchit house. The turkey had to be roasted elsewhere and the Christmas pudding was boiled.

 

Baked goods, while I’m on the subject, were stored in crocks but without plastic wrap, went stale pretty quickly. Baking therefore had to be undertaken several times every week.

 

Most women used the hearth as a cook surface and a variety of pans to cook on it near the fire. The spider, a three-legged pan, was one such piece of equipment used to bake food. The Dutch over was another. Placed on the hearth, they baked the food slowly in the heat from the fire. Women could then turn their attention to other chores.

 

Fireplaces had look swinging handles that could be pushed over the fire to heat water or cook stew. Some of the big pots that women were lifting from floor level, however, weighed 60 pounds. Yes, sixty, and that’s empty. Now add water and meat.  Add that to the likelihood of burning, not only the food, but you as well and cooking was certainly a challenge. So much for the weaker sex.

 

A final note: The stoves and ranges, although an advance over cooking over an open fire, were known to be temperamental. Contemporary accounts from that period talk about the necessary training a girl had to have before she could really use one of the stoves.