Monday, October 18, 2010

And We Think We Have It Tough

I’ve tried many times to explain why I’m so interested in colonial home crafts. Truth is, there are many reasons, but I often cite the increasingly technological world around us as the primary one. Still, I’ve knitted, crocheted, cooked and baked since a very early age. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series had a deep impact or me – or did it? Which came first, my interest in how people lived a century or so ago or reading about them?


Two women sharing the housework in the late 1800s
Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Whatever sparked my interest, do not think I’m trying to romanticize the tasks that, frankly, made life pretty darn hard back then. A typical woman’s life in the late 1800’s consisted of work from dusk ‘til dawn. Work done without modern conveniences like standing mixers, washers and dryers, vacuum cleaners or even refrigeration. In urban areas she might also hire out to do housework, laundry, sewing, or work in a factory. In the country, she not only cared for her home and fed her family meals fixed from scratch every day on a wood-burning stove, but grew much of that food, sewed, knitted, spun and wove to make clothing for her family, cared for children – and livestock – and often helped her husband with other farm chores. She sometimes made a little extra income for the family by selling extra butter or eggs from her flock.

Multitasking? Hardly a recent concept. And not only did she have to work her tail off, she had to perform her tasks really well. Survival might depend on it. 

I do, perhaps. romanticize the actual colonial skills. The ability to make your own clothes, grow and cook your own food, or build a piece of furniture from scratch is amazing to me. The idea that these basic abilities might be lost is tragic. But with the resurgence of interest in many different home crafts, that loss is unlikely to occur. In fact, because of the luxury of being able to specialize, some creative souls have taken traditional home crafts like cheese making, quilting, baking and knitting to new heights, offering delectable artisan foodstuffs and beautiful pieces of artwork.

But make no mistake: We are incredibly fortunate to have the technology that we do.


“Part of the family of George Padroni, near Sterling, Colo. They have 9 children and some hired help. Only one child in school …This is 6 yr. old Lena, who works some too. The 8 yr. old boy pulls and piles beets. 9 and 12 yr. old boys run the pulling machine, (the mother said, "We all got to do all we can.") 11 yr. old girl piles and tops and does housework. 13 yr. old girl piles and tops. Says she hasn't hurt herself with the knife this year, but did last year. The whole family begins work from 5 to 6 A.M. and works until 6 P.M. and after, with time off for dinner. Pedroni has been living here for 20 yrs., owns several hundred acres, about 100 in beets. Is said to be well-to-do. Location: Sterling [vicinity], Colorado.”

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Yesterday I made spaghetti from scratch. I made the noodles from egg-and-flour dough. Made the sauce from garden tomatoes cooked down, pureed, and then cooked down for four more hours with handfuls of herbs, chopped onion and celery, and a bit of brown sugar. The meatballs originated as a tired roast from last year’s beef, ground and added to bread crumbs, egg, garlic and basil.

Still, that was easy peasy compared to a hundred-plus years ago. I used a standing mixer to whip up the pasta dough, and then the pasta attachment to extrude the spaghetti. I used the grinding attachment to grind the meat, a convection oven to brown the meatballs, a blender to puree the tomato sauce, and a gas stovetop to slowly cook that sauce down. Not to mention the dishwasher.

Believe me, I appreciated every hard-worked-for bite of the finished product. But as much as I enjoyed making that meal from scratch, I did it by choice. I also washed and dried four loads of laundry with hardly any effort at all. Vacuumed the house. Watched a football game and a baseball game on television – and still had time to edit two chapters and begin reviewing a friend’s manuscript. 

The best of both worlds. Talk about lucky!


  1. Cricket, I've always been fascinated with the old-time ways of living, and the old chores. I think I'm quite a bit older than you. I'm 56, so I actually remember some fairly old ways of doing things. One house we lived in when I was six only had a wood-burning range, and I remeber my mother getting mad when the fire went out during cooking time because she had to be doing something else, for instance taking care of my baby brother (youngest of four; I am the oldest). She washed the diapers in a wringer washer and hung them on the line. And I could go on. Your post has inspired me to remember these things. For a while I was writing Mom's memoirs, with her doing the reminiscing, but we haven't done it in a while. Must get back to it. (Mom's 78)

  2. You're only ten years older than I am, Diana. ; ) I love that you're writing your mother's memoirs. Passing on stories like that is a good way to keep the past alive.