Some days (most days?) Americans appear obsessed with measuring time and packing as much activity as possible into each second.
During school and career years, large portions of my time were measured and observed by others. Some tasks were dependent on the timely completion of work by others. For example: I could not do procedure B until another person completed procedure A. And another, usually impatient, person wanted the results so they could do procedure C.
If this sounds like a supply chain — you’ve got the right idea.
Keeping track of time is not a new thing for Americans. The settlers brought time pieces along in their wagons of goods.
A clock takes center mantle in this reproduction of a 1830’s home.
In past decades, construction in the American Midwest tapered to next to zero in the winter. For two, three, or four months the construction workers were idle. A few carpenters worked inside jobs and electricians and plumbers continued to make repairs. (Plumbers more than usual if temperatures dropped after the electric went off.)
A different sort of construction became obvious. After each fresh snowfall the kids came out. Forts were popular to give interest to the snowball fights. Snow angels appeared in the yards. (The trick was not to disturb your fine work when you stood up and stepped away.)
And then there was the old stand-by.
My father helped in the construction of this fine specimen. I was about five years old.
Touring historic homes is an activity I enjoy. However, as I get older, I discover that I’ve seen (sometimes used) historic items.
Consider the door on the right. Yes, the one with the locked chain to keep tourists (and others) out of the structure.
My great aunt — and others in my hometown — had a similar door to her house. It was a handy place to sit when all the lawn chairs were full of adults. She didn’t use it often but the residents of this historic, early 1800’s home would have.
It went to the cellar. Yes, cellar, not basement. Think dim, cool, and full of shelves, bins, and crocks of supplies. Open the doors wide and walk down the five or six steps. Is it daylight? Did you bring a lantern? Careful where you step! Creatures may have slipped in to enjoy the cool, pounded dirt floor.
Imagine being the child sent to get the potatoes, carrots, and onions for the kitchen. I’d fill my basket quick. How about you?
My great aunt’s home — build nearly a century later — also had an interior set of steps to the basement. Much better during winter storms.
How many generations of your family can you record by name?
Did they live in the same city or region as your? The same state? The same country?
Different groups brought their regional habits and forms of entertainment when they moved.
While during the day many of the families socialized with others doing work or business — the home became the center of activity in the evening. Especially in the days before electricity, telephones, and the “modern” distractions.
Study the photo and imagine. Papa (or grandfather) enjoying his evening pipe while others in the family tour the world with pictures on the stereoscope, read, or sing by lamplight.
In the Midwest farming community where I grew up — many of the houses (town or rural) had the entrance into the kitchen. Often this was via a back porch — sometimes open, sometimes enclosed. This was the door that was used.
Yes, every house had a front door which often opened to the living room. But the traffic pattern here was light. A knock on the front door signaled strangers.
Step back a few generations and the same pattern emerges.
Time was spent in the kitchen — by residents and visitors. This is where the women did a great amount of work preparing food for either immediate or future use. Family and guests gathered around the table for meals. Visiting and evening tasks were accomplished close to the heat and light of the fire.
This two room frame house with a central fireplace was a common floor plan in the 1830’s. The kitchen side of the fireplace was at the literal center as well as the functional heart of the home.
Storage is necessary for every household. You need a safe place — away from insects and vermin — to store food for tomorrow, next week, next month.
Today we have freezers, refrigerators, staples sold in cans and jars, and the ever present plastic container with a secure lid (when you can find it) to keep food for future meals.
But what about before every home had electricity? What about the homestead where you couldn’t get to town more than once a month? And town didn’t have the well stocked stores of today.
Earthenware. Crockery. Pottery.
Storage jars, many with lids, of this material have been made and used almost since man tamed fire.
This museum collection shows examples from the latter portion of the 19th century. Our household, and most in the neighborhood, had a few “crocks” in various sizes. A great-aunt used one for her cookie jar. (On the back porch–always ask first.) Ours were missing lids, but a dinner plate with a weight (rock) served well when my brother made a batch of wine.
Do you read historical novels? Or biographies set in previous centuries?
I’ve been reading them in some form or another since I pulled “On the Banks of Plum Creek” from the school library shelf. One of the many things which fascinated me in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and others, is the way common chores and household tasks were performed.
As an adult, I enjoy touring historic homes and seeing first hand some of the items in daily use. Some of them were very clever. Some I was familiar with. (It happens when you grow up on a small farm using second, or third, hand equipment.)
And every once in a while I’m touring a place and have an AHA moment.
The lady of this house kept her fine needlework in this corner to take advantage of the good light from the window. Candles, and later oil for lamps, was too precious to use for this task.
American pioneers may have had less than the merchant and well-to-do residents in a city — but they had dishes. Some of them brought over from Europe. Others were manufactured more local.
It was common for the kitchens in the first half of the 19th Century to have a corner cupboard. This is where the dishes were kept. It used a minimum of floor space — important in a small cabin. The pioneers were also aware of the taxes.
Taxes? A corner cupboard?
Yes — taxes were not always assessed as they are today. At various time and various places the tax collector counted windows, doors, or rooms. A closet counted as a room — they used shelves with half (not full) doors as a “clothes press” or a free standing wardrobe. A built in kitchen cupboard would count as a room if it had three sides and a door — hence the corner cupboard.
Plates, platter, bowls, cups, and a teapot. Everything necessary to set a table for guests on the frontier.
Fireplace cooking is cumbersome. And heats the kitchen (sometimes the whole house) as much in summer as in winter. What felt good in January can drive a person from the room in July.
The cast iron cook stove solved some of these problems. And the companion piece — the parlor or heating stove — solved others. A stove uses less fuel. The flat cooking service accommodated any cast iron or metal pan with a flat bottom. Gone was the hook to hang the kettle. Thanks to a small, but well placed, oven, baking became easier. And what farmer or worker doesn’t appreciate some fresh bread after a day’s labor?
On the American frontier houses were small and families were large.
And the frontier continued to move West. At one time it was Western Pennsylvania or Western Virginia. Then it became Ohio and Tennessee. The future states on either side of the Mississippi took a turn. And then the Great Plains — after a short interruption for settlers taking the Oregon Trail or heading for California gold fields.
But no matter which future state the pioneers settled, a few things were constant. The cabin, or house, or soddy needed a kitchen. And until well into the 1840’s that meant the heating-lighting-cooking all-purpose fireplace.
It what is now the American Midwest in the 1830’s you could get an idea of where the newcomers hailed from by where they put their fireplace. Those from the south put them on one end of the cabin. Families from New York and Pennsylvania put them in the center, opened both sides, and heated the bedroom.
Remember I said the houses were small. It follows that storage was limited. Forget knick-knacks or “prettys”. The mantle was for practical things — platters, candles, the clock, and hooks or pegs for tongs and ladles.
Can you smell the stew in the pot? Bread is in the Dutch oven.