Dental Health in the late 18th century

First of all, there were no dentists perse. There were surgeon dentists since the people who practiced did both. (Most were men but in 1797 the Columbian Centinel lists an ad from Mrs. Dodge, newly arrived in Boston from New York and claiming expertise in “Art Dental”.) Most of these so-called dentists were itinerants (like my traveling weaver Will Rees.) Not only service people like Rees and the dentists traveled but also ministers, magistrates and other professions. The routes began to settle into regular circuits by about 1800.

But I digress.

Many of these surgeon-dentists were quacks, promising all manner of cures. Some were reputable, however, promoting dentrifice (that’s toothpaste to us) and genuinely possessing some kind of medical training.

So what did these early dentists do?

Well, without novacaine and the drills we take for granted, dentistry was a painful affair. Some reputable surgeon dentists ‘plumbed’ the teeth, scraping out the decay and filling the tooth with gold or lead. (I can only imagine how awful this must have been.) Most decayed teeth were simply extracted with a tool that resembles a corkscrew with a hook on one end. Teeth, by the way, were not pulled but drawn. Interestingly, in light of current knowledge on how dental health affects the entire body, doctors of that time already predicted one’s health would improve with good teeth. No less a personage than Dr. Rush, a Philadelphia doctor who gained fame during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793, predicted cures for several diseases once a rotten tooth was pulled. It was a case of overreach, however, since not only rheumatism would be relieved but also such ailments as epilepsy,

What about George Washington’s wooden teeth? First of all they weren’t wooden. They were ivory (carved at various times from elephant and hippo teeth,) Washington’s first set were carved of ivory with human teeth inserted and with a hole for his one remaining molar. Sounds awkward and painful both.

And while we are on teeth, Napoleon’s Josephine learned to smile with one hand shielding her mouth since several of her front teeth were decayed. As a child she had a great fondness for sugar cane.

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.

Housework – cleaning – 1798

Besides all the other tasks involved in keeping house, wives also kept the house clean. As much as they were able – the standards of cleanliness were lower than ours. (I think women of the the past, both recent and long ago, would be stunned by the clorox infused wipes we use.) But there were no vacumn cleaners then, only brooms and they were mostly twigs or broom grass tied to a pole. The Shakers again invented a machine that tied on the straw for a more modern broom – and their brooms were highly prized.

But I digress.

The brooms had to be used to sweep the dirt and the floors were scrubbed on hands and knees with the harsh soap I mentioned earlier. What about carpets? Yes, they were swept. But every Spring well – run households had an annual and dreaded Spring Cleaning. All carpets were taken and beaten thoroughly to rid them of the accumulated dust, dirt and other unsavory objects.

Floors and windows, if the house had them, were washed and bedding was aired. Anything silver was polished, and not with the handy silver wipes either. Elbow grease was the common technique. Curtains were washed and rehung.

Children were impressed into helping and more affluent women hired help, usually unmarried girls from around the neighborhood. Spring cleaning usually took several days and contemporary accounts, especially from husbands, express frustration and annoyance at the disruption.

But the lot of women, and the work expected of them, was improving. See next week’s blog.

 

More about food – Garden Sass

Women in the cities might not be responsible for smoking and drying game and pork as well as preserving other types of food but women on farms and certainly on the frontier were.

Most homesteads owned pigs and even in cities the pigs ran free. Chickens might be in coops or be truly free range, foraging for themselves. (That must have made hunting for eggs fun).

And, no matter how much acreage was in corn, rye or other grains, housewives always had a small patch of vegetables. (Many of them must of had flowers too since lists of seeds and bulbs that were brought over included seeds for peach, apricot, apple, plum and cherry trees as well as seeds for snapdragons, peonies, morning glories and tulip bulbs.)Wheat bread was expensive although wheat was grown in Pennsylvania. In Maine rye and buckwheat were the common crops. Most people ate a bread called ‘injun loaf’, a combination of rye and corn.

Vegetables grown included spinach, rhubarb, several kinds of peas, beans as well as turnips, carrots, cabbage, beets and cucumbers. In more southerly climates than Maine artichokes were popular. A variety of herbs were also grown and had to be tied to the rafters and dried every fall.

Where are the potatoes? Although a new world crop (the Incas had thousands of varieties), potatoes did not get to the colonies until late in the 1700s. They quickly became a popular crop. And where are the tomatoes? Considered poisonous a hundred or so years earlier, they were still suspect.

All the vegetables were lumped together under the term garden sass.

Sugar and salt were both expensive. Salt especially was valuable and desperately needed for food preservation. Honey was the most common sweetener – ironic since bees are not native to the New World. They were brought over with the first colonists, however, and quickly became wild. The other common sweetener was from the sugar maple – maple sugar and syrup.

One final comment: the immigrants to this country brought their own eating habits with them so there were variations in what the colonists ate, depending on country of origin. The Scottish, for example, had to give up oatmeal porridge and switch to cornmeal mush for a time.

 

 

 

Goodreads Giveaway

I am giving away ten copies of Death of a Dyer, my second Will Rees mystery on Goodreads.

In this book, Rees returns to his hometown and tries to settle down. Lydia accompanies him as his housekeeper -both are not sure where their feelings might take them. David also returns home although he and his father are still at odds.

Rees has been home for only a short time when he is asked to look into the murder of a childhood friend.

9781250033963

Housekeeping – 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.