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.

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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.

 

Gloves

One of the things that fascinates me is the history of small homey items. They all have a history.

Gloves, for example. They have been around for millenia. Truly. A mural from Knossos (Crete) shows two boxes. One has something on his hands that look like boxing gloves.

People wore gloves in the middle ages. The word glove is from glof.

Elizabeth I used gloves as a fashion statement, wearing gloves ecorated with lace, as above, jewels and embroidery. One source claims she took them on and off to draw attention to her beautiful hands.

 

Unknown Lady from Elizabethan Period with Gloves - Courtesy Wikipedia ...

Queen Elizabeth 1 gloves are seen for the first time in public and on ...

 

During the Regency period, as women’s sleeves got shorter, gloves got longer, going to the elbow and beyond.

During the Colonial and Federalist period, gloves were a popular wedding gift.

Even now, in our contemporary period, gloves can be important. Think Michael Jackson and his glove. Or, in a more sobering example, the importance of the glove in the O.J. Simpson trial. So the humble glove has had quite a history.