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A American Lady's Occupations Seventy Years Ago by Ethel C. Gale


We are looking over sundry trunks and boxes, the careful and the careless gatherings of three generations. There are law-papers in dusty files; familiar gossipy letters from brothers and sisters and college chums; dignified letters from reverend judges and law-makers; letters bursting with scandalized Federalisms, and burning or melting with long-forgotten joys and sorrows. We have read some thousands of these papers, and begin to be very uncertain about the times we are living in. What indeed is this year of our Lord? We have a dim recollection that we have been wished a happy New Year in 1875, yet we are living and thinking with the boys and girls of 1776, who have grown to be the men and women of Jefferson's time.

To make things more misty to our comprehension, we are sitting by a dormer window in a high, "hip-roofed" garret of a mansion built just before the Revolution, and the air is redolent of ancient memories. The very cobweb that swung across the window just now has a venerable appearance, entirely inconsistent with the fact that the housemaid's broom was supposed to have whisked across these beams but yesterday. But then the housemaids of to-day, as everybody knows, are, as a source of perplexity and vexation of spirit, always to be relied upon, but never to be relied upon for anything else. And with the thought we sigh for the "good old days" and the "good old servants" of our grandmothers.

Happy grandmothers! so blessed in their simple, quiet lives, unvexed by ever-changing fashions and domestics! What did they know of trouble whose best silk gowns remained in fashion from year to year, and whose cooks never treated them to an empty breakfast-table, and a cool "I thought I'd be a-lavin' this marnin', mum"? Happy grandmothers!

Thus thinking, we pick up a little rough paper-book with marbled covers from the corner of the old hair trunk where it was long ago thrown by some careless hand. The little tumbled book proves to be a diary. Not a record of a soul's strivings and pantings after a higher life, or a curiously minute inquiry into the possible reasons which induced the Almighty to allow Satan to afflict Job, but a simple daily note-book, the memoranda of a housekeeper. The old letters had been to us what the newspapers of to-day will be to the great-grandchildren of the present generation. The diary carried us back into the immediate home-life of seventy years ago.

The diarist had been a fair and stately dame in her day, and it is easy to remove her from the frame where her portrait hangs on the walls of the south parlor, and fancy her seated in the same room before the crackling fire jotting down the memoranda of the day. She is a pretty sight, we think, sitting in her straight-backed mahogany arm-chair, with her feet on the polished brass fender and her book resting on the little stand, which also holds the two tall silver candlesticks with their tall tallow candles, for wax candles are saved for gala-nights, when diaries are not in requisition. She must have been nearly forty years old when she wrote in this little book, but we see her as her portrait shows her, very young-looking in spite of her stateliness, enhanced though it is by the high turban of embroidered muslin edged with soft lace falling over the clusters of fair curls on her temples, and by the black satin gown, short-waisted and scanty, relieved only by delicate lace frills, which shade the beautiful throat and the strong, white, shapely hands. The shadow on her face as she gazes into the fire is not marvelous, for it is winter in her quiet Connecticut home; the post comes but twice a week; her husband is representing his State in Washington, and her only child is studying in distant Yale. Perhaps, though, the shadow is not that of pure loneliness. Is there not some perplexity in it? And something also of vexation? Yes, and it is the very vexation of spirit which—in the face of Solomon's venerable testimony to the contrary—we had fancied to be peculiar to our own evil days. Almost the first entry in this quaint little diary is to the effect that "Jim was sulky to-night and gave short answers." A little farther on we find that "Yesterday Jim went away without leave, and stayed all night;" which delinquency, being accompanied by a suspicion of drunkenness, caused the anxious dame to "send for General T—— to come and give Jim a lecture." Lecturing, however, was not then so popular as now, and Jim appears to have profited little by the veteran general's discourse, for on the very next night he repeats his offence. We have reason also to fear that Jim's honesty was not above suspicion, for we read that Betsey, an American woman who acted as assistant housekeeper and companion, "found in Jim's possession a red morocco pocket-book which I had given her, but"—alas for Betsey!—"with the contents all gone."

Other entries to the effect that madam one day lost her key to the wine-cellar, and the next day discovered the bibulous Jim in the said cellar "sucking brandy through a straw inserted in the bunghole of the cask," and that, "furthermore, Jim had confessed to having stolen and sold a coffee-basin for rum," do not tend to raise in our estimation this pattern of an ancient darkey. This time it appears that madam did not need to call in the aid of General T——, for she admits that she herself "lectured Jim severely;" sarcastically adding, "he professed penitence, but that did not hinder him from stealing another basin to-day."

But the refractory Jim, we think, must have been the exception which proved the rule that all servants prior to the late Celtic invasion were models of deportment. Accordingly, we are not surprised to find that Betsey was a handmaiden held in high estimation, and that "old Jack" was a servant whose shortcomings were offset by his general good conduct and affectionate heart. But we find also that there was a certain Sally, who could be tolerated only because of her great culinary skill; and an uncertain Silvy, who appears to have been in mind, if not in fact, the twin-sister of Jim, with a spice of Topsy thrown in.

The trouble in those days was not the prospect of suddenly losing cook or nursemaid, but that there was no getting rid of either. The fact of slavery was, under the act of 1793, slowly fading away from Connecticut, but all its habits remained in full force. "I wish I could send Jim and Silvy away," writes madam, "but the poor rascals have no place to go to."

Silvy was a tricksome spright that delighted in breaking bottles of the "best Madeira wine and spilling the contents over the new English carpet" when the mistress had invited the parson's and the doctor's families to dinner. This, though of course it was "not to be endured," might have been accidental, and so was very "tolerable" in comparison with Silvy's next exploits of poisoning the beloved house-dog and throwing by the roadside the bottle of wine—possibly emptied first—the jar of jelly and the fresh quarter of lamb which had been sent to a poor and sick old woman. These two offences, occurring on the same day, we are sorry to confess, incited the stately, white-handed dame to do something more decisive than to "deliver a lecture" to Silvy. It is demurely recorded that "for these two misdeeds I whipped Silvy." What effect the whipping had upon that somewhat too frolicsome damsel we are not informed, but madam admits that it made herself ill, and adds that "if Silvy does not reform it is impossible to see what can be done for her, for she will not listen to remonstrance. Betsey is not strong enough to punish so strapping a wench, and it does not seem right that a man should be set to whip any woman or girl, even a wench, else Jack could do it."

However, Jack's own patience having been tried by the refractory Silvy, he seems to have taken the matter into his own hands, for his mistress tells us how she was scandalized, on her return from church, by "finding Jack whipping Silvy," while that young lady was "screaming vehemently, so that all the people passing by could hear her." As Jack had discovered Silvy engaged in the amiable diversion of breaking the legs of the young calves by throwing stones at them, one can have a little charity for his summary action, although, as madam gravely remarks, "he might at least have waited until Monday."

The calves, by the way, had an unlucky winter of it, and were especially shaky about the legs. We find that a few weeks later "Jack having neglected to repair the barn floor, as he had been directed, a plank had given way and three of the calves' legs had been broken by the fall." We have felt a deep interest in the fate of these calves, but with all our anxiety have failed to discover whether three calves had all their legs broken, or only three legs in all had been sacrificed to Jack's culpable neglect.

By this time we begin to think that madam would have been just as well off if she had not kept so many servants, and to wonder what they could have had to do. Perhaps it was the idle man's playmate that made the trouble. But a little farther reading in the old diary dissipates this illusion. If anybody thinks that our grandmothers must have been cursed with ennui because they did not attend three parties a night three times a week, with operas and theatres to fill in the off nights, they are mightily mistaken.

Of sociability there could have been no lack in this rural neighborhood, for besides a ball or two madam records numbers of tea-drinkings and debating clubs, and meetings of the Clio, a literary club, at which assisted at least two future judges of the supreme courts of the States of their adoption, and several other men and women whose names would attract attention even in our clattering days. Visiting, too, of the old-fashioned spend-the-day sort had not gone out of date—was indeed so common that madam one evening enters in her journal—whether in sorrow or in thankfulness there is nothing to tell us, but at least as a notable fact—that she had "had no company to-day."

But it was not company that occupied all the hours of so busy a dame as our diarist. Though she had not to remodel her dresses in hot chase after the last novelty of the fashion-weekly, she had to superintend the manufacture of the stuff of which her maids' gowns and her own morning-gowns were made, to say nothing of bed-and table-linen, etc. Bridget in our day seems to think that to do a family washing is a labor of Hercules. Yet seventy years ago before a towel could be washed the soap wherewith to cleanse it must be made at home; and this not by the aid of condensed lye or potash, but with lye drawn by a tedious process of filtering water through barrels or leach-tubs of hard-wood ashes. The "setting" of these tubs was one of the first labors of the spring, and to see that Silvy or Jim poured on the water at regular intervals, and did not continue pouring after the lye had become "too weak to bear up an egg," was a part of Betsey's daily duty for some weeks. Then came the soap-boiling in great iron kettles over the fire in the wide fireplace. Apparently, this was not always a certain operation. Science had not yet put her meddling but useful finger into the soap-pot, for madam sadly records that on the twenty-first of May she had superintended the soap-boiling, but had not been blessed with "good luck;" and on the third of June we find the suggestive entry, "Finished the soap-boiling to-day." Eleven days—for we must of course count out the two Sundays—eleven days of greasy, odorous soap-boiling! We think that if we had been in madam's slippers we should have allowed Sally, Silvy and the rest to try the virtues of the unaided waters of heaven upon the family washing, and when this ceased to be efficacious should have let the clothes be purified by fire. But upon second thoughts, no: it was too much trouble to make those clothes.

We are not yet through with the preparations for the washing. The ancient housewife could not do without starch for her "ruffs and cuffs and fardingales," and for her lord's elaborately plaited ruffles. Yet she could not buy a box of "Duryea's best refined." The starch, like the soap, must be made at home. "On this day," writes our diarist, "had a bushel of wheat put in soak for starch;" and in another place we find the details of the starch-making process. The wheat was put into a tub and covered with water. As the chaff rose to the top it was skimmed off. Each day the water was carefully turned off, without disturbing the wheat, and fresh water was added, until after several days there was nothing left but a hard and perfectly white mass in the bottom of the tub. This mass was spread upon pewter platters and dried in the sun.

Another sore trouble was the breadmaking. The great wheat-fields of the West were not then opened, and we find that the wheat was frequently "smutty;" hence, that "the barrel was bad," which must sorely have tried the soul of the good housewife. Woe be to Silvy if that damsel did not carry herself gingerly on the baking-day when the long, flat shovel removed from the cavernous brick oven only heavy and sticky lumps of baked dough, in place of the light white loaves which the painstaking housewife had a right to expect!

In the absence of husband and son the care of a large farm fell upon our madam's shoulders, and the details of cost and income are dotted through the little journal. We can imagine the lady, gracious in her stateliness, marshaling old General T—— and Colonel C——, two veterans of the Revolution, out into her barnyard to get their opinion as to the value of her fat cattle, and the concealed disapproval with which she received their judgment that forty-five dollars was a fair price for the pair, "when," as she quietly remarks, "I considered that fifty dollars was little enough for so fine a pair of fat cattle; and in fact I got my own price for them the next day."

Fifty dollars was a much larger sum then than now. Imagine how many things could be bought for fifty dollars, when butter brought but ten, veal three or four, beef six or seven cents respectively per pound, and a pair of fat young chickens brought but twenty-five cents! There is one article upon whose accession of price we can dwell with pleasure. Madam records discontentedly that it "took two men all day to kill four hogs, notwithstanding that she had spent fifty cents for a half gallon of rum for them to drink." Fancy the sort of liquor that could now be bought for a dollar the gallon, and the sort of men that could drink two quarts thereof and live!

It is heretical, of course, to hint a syllable against the open wood-fire which crackled and flickered so beautifully while our madam wrote about her cattle and pigs and Jim and Silvy, but in truth we cannot envy our ancestors the care of those fires. With three yawning, devouring fireplaces constantly to be fed, and an additional one for each of the guest-rooms so often occupied during the winter—for this was the visiting season—there was no lack of business for Ralph, a white man; and his colored coadjutors, Jack and Jim. When we look at the still existing kitchen fireplace, nine feet in width and four in depth, we cease to blame Jack for neglecting to mend the barn floor. We only wonder that he found time to whip Silvy.

Among the occupations of the women one great time-consumer must have been the daily scouring, so much woodwork was left unpainted to be kept as white as a clean sea-beach by applications of soap and sand. Probably a good deal of this hand-and-knee work fell upon the unfortunate Silvy, as well as the polishing of the pewter plates, the brass fenders, andirons, tongs, shovels, door-knobs, knockers, and the various brazen ornaments which bedecked the heavy sideboards and tall secretaries.

Seventy years ago, when gas and kerosene were not, and wax candles were an extravagance indulged in only on state occasions, even by the wealthy, the tallow dip was an article of necessity, and "candle dip-day" was as certain of recurrence as Christmas, though perhaps even less welcome than the equally certain annual Fast Day. Fancy an immense kitchen with the before-mentioned fireplace in the centre of one side. Over the blaze of backlog and forestick, and something like half a cord of "eight-foot wood," are swinging the iron cranes laden with great kettles of melting tallow. On the opposite side of the kitchen two long poles about two feet apart are supported at their extremities upon the seats of chairs. Beside the poles are other great kettles containing melted tallow poured on the top of hot water. Across the poles are the slender candle-rods, from which depend ranks upon ranks of candle-wicks made of tow, for cotton wick is a later invention. Little by little, by endlessly repeating the slow process of dipping into the kettles of melted tallow and hanging them to cool, the wicks take on their proper coating of tallow. To make the candles as large as possible was the aim, for the more tallow the brighter the light. When done, the ranks of candles, still depending from the rods, were hung in the sunniest spots of a sunny garret to bleach.

But all these employments were as play compared with the home manufacture of dry goods. Ralph, Jack and Jim had no time for such work, so two other men were all winter kept busy in the barn at "crackling flax" and afterward passing it through a coarse hetchel to separate the coarsest or "swingling tow." After this the flax was made up into switches or "heads" like those which we see in pictures, or that which Faust's Marguerite so temptingly wields. These were deposited in barrels in the garret. During the winter the "heads" were brought down by the women to be rehetcheled once and again, removing first the coarser, and then the finer tow. This must have been a fearfully dusty operation. It makes one cough only to think of "the inch depth of flax-dust" which settled upon Betsey's protecting handkerchief while she "hetcheled."

The finest and best of the flax was saved for spinning into thread, for cotton thread there was none, excepting, possibly, a little of very poor quality in small skeins. The small wheel that we see in the far corner of the garret—just like Marguerite's—was used for spinning the fine thread. A larger wheel was used to spin the tow into yarn for the coarse clothing for boys and negroes or for "filling" in the coarser linens. All the boys, and very often the men—perhaps even our M.C. himself—wore in summer trousers made of linen cloth, for which the yarn was spun at home by the maids, and was then taken to the weaver's to be made into cloth. Part of the linen yarn was dyed blue, and, mingled with white or unbleached yarn, was woven into a chequered stuff for the curtains of servants' beds and for dresses for the maids and aprons for their mistresses. In view of the fact that all the bed-linen and most of the table-linen was thus made at home, one cannot wonder that a house-wife's linen-closet was an object of special care and pride.

If there were at that time any woolen manufactories in the United States, their powers of production must have been very limited, while foreign cloths could only have been worn by the gentlemen, and by them probably not at all times, for a few years later than the date of madam's diary we find that English cloths were sold at the then fearful prices of eighteen and twenty dollars per yard. So sheep must be kept and sheared, and their wool carded, rolled and spun. As linen-spinning was the fancy-work of winter, so wool-spinning was that of summer. Back and forth before the loud-humming big wheel briskly stepped the cheerful spinner through the long bright afternoons of summer, busily spinning the yarn that was to be woven into cloths and flannels of different textures. Busily indeed must both mistress and maids have stepped, for not without their labors could be provided the coats and trousers, the undershirts, the petticoats and the woolen sheets, to say nothing of blankets, white or chequered, and the heavy coverlets of blue or green and white yarns woven into curiously intermingling figures, all composed of little squares; and last, but not least, the yarn for countless pairs of long warm stockings for the feet of master and man, mistress and maid. For as a legacy from dying slavery the servants were still unable or unwilling to provide for their own wants, and the house-mistress had frequently to knit Jack's stockings with her own fair fingers, as well as to "cut out the stuff for Jim's pantaloons," which she will "try to teach Silvy to sew."

Did we think that we had reached the last purpose for which the homespun woolen yarn was required? We were mistaken, for here is the entry: "To-day dyed the yarn for back-hall carpet. Remember to tell the weaver that I prefer it plaided instead of striped."

Economy of time must, one would think, have been the most necessary of economies to the old-time housewives. With so many things to do, how did they find time to make those marvels of misplaced industry, the patched bed-quilts? Our diarist, rich as her closets were in blankets and linen, left but few bed-quilts to vex the eyes of her descendants, yet we read that "Betsey and I quilted a bed-quilt this afternoon"—their fingers were surely nimble—"and in the evening"—happy change of employment!—"Betsey finished reading aloud from Blair's Lectures. To-morrow evening we shall begin the Spectator. My husband has sent us by private hand Mr. A. Pope's translation of the Iliad and Odyssey, but it has not yet arrived. Strange that a private hand should be slower than the post!"

And indeed the slowness of the post had been a source of frequent disquietude to our madam during this lonely winter, for very lonely it was to the waiting wife and mother, notwithstanding all her occupations. "'Life's employments are life's enjoyments,'" she sadly writes on the night before Christmas, "and surely I have not a few of them; but with my beloved husband and son far from me I cannot half enjoy my life. I have given the servants their presents to-night" (though living in Puritan Connecticut, our madam was of Hollandish stock, and did not ignore the Christmas festival), "and paid them eighteen pence apiece not to wish me a Merry Christmas to-morrow, for little merriment indeed should there be for me."

Yet she was a cheerful soul, this stately madam who sadly gazes into the fire on the Christmas Eve of seventy years ago—a cheerful, loving soul, and a kindly (notwithstanding her chastisement of the delinquent Silvy); and after all the winter wore not unhappily away.

With the opening spring husband and son returned to gladden her heart, and we close the little diary with a smile at once of sympathy and of amusement as we read that while madam had intended to meet her loved ones with the family coach on their landing from the sloop at Poughkeepsie, thirty miles from her home, she was "so detained by reason of the depth and vileness of the mud that it was full fifteen miles this side the river" (Hudson) "that our coach fell in with a hired carriage coming this way. The road was so bad that we had difficulty in passing, and it was not until we were almost by that my dear husband noticed his own coach. There was some trouble in getting from the one carriage to the other, but when all were safely in the coach there was much rejoicing, you may be sure."