Women’s health in the 1700’s

Pregnancy took an enormous toll on women. Besides the tremendous – and physical work – of running a household, women helped in the fields when needed. Childbirth was dangerous and it was not uncommon for a farmer to bury three wives.

We think that midwives handled the lying-in and birth for the mothers. Not exactly. Both Ministers and doctors attended. (I suspect male doctors were already moving into this sphere, although it is usually assumed that did not happen until the mid-1800s. But why the Ministers? A review of some of the early diaries indicates that a significant number of men were both Ministers and Doctors. What about the ones who weren’t?)

But I digress.

In any event, from the writings of these men, it is clear that they treated women for a variety of ailments. From the 1700s the Commonplace Book of Thomas Robie of Salem reveals that as a physician he stepped into to prevent and promote abortion (!) and to speed and ease delivery of the baby. Because many women experienced soreness of the breasts after childbirth (and this is still true), he recommended a concoction of “Millepedes with the heads off, stampt in white wine or beer” to be taken every morning and evening. (Can I say yuck now?)

Another male healer,  parson, also treated complications of pregnancy and menstrual disorders. His cure for cramps? “. . .every night you goe to bed smell your fingers after you have picked the stinking sweat that is between your toes.” Ugh!

Many of these men did consult with female healers when unsure what to do. Although these women, relying on herbal medicines and lore passed down orally from mother to daughter, were frequently illiterate, a survey of diaries show that the men regularly borrowed recipes from the them.

For all that women were legally dependent, unable to inherit without express willed instruction from her husband, she nevertheless was extremely important in the house. Her illness or death devastated the household. She was a major player in the economy of the family besides caring for children and performing the household tasks that were essential for survival. Perhaps because mortality was so high, every life was precious.

Next up: Herbs and remedies.

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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.

 

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.