A Glimpse at Simple Homesteading Life in the 1800s
Homestead Farming Was Not for the Faint of Heart
By Kathy Belt – In the September/October 2012 issue of Countryside, a reader wanted to know what homesteading life in the 1800s was like. Here’s my reply. I am a bit of a history nut. I have spent many years engaged in accurate historical re-enactment. (Think Ren Faire but with no turkey legs.) So your question about what simple homesteading life in the 1800s looked like prompted me to write.
First — when talking about life in the 1800s, do you mean the early 1800s? Before the advent of canning, telegraph, railroads, and sewing machines? Or are you talking late the 1800s? If the latter — just talk to any member of an Amish community about their simple homesteading lifestyle. If you are talking about the early 1800s — that’s a completely different matter. I would recommend visiting historic Williamsburg, Virginia.
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There are numerous diaries that have been left behind by the folks who “traveled West” and the hardships of simple homesteading they endured; as well as diaries of those who “stayed behind” in the civilized world of chamber pots and chimney fires. Reading these diaries gives a very good insight into how people lived.
Are you interested in the day-to-day life of agrarian people as opposed to those who live in the city? If so—I recommend becoming a homesteader without electricity, power tools or indoor plumbing.
Also take away modern medicine, familiarize yourself with a healing herbs list and learn to recognize gangrene. Go to the grocery store for only flour, coffee, and sugar. Grow your own linen (hemp is preferable to flax for durability and comfort), and wool. Simple homesteading of this era means you learn how to knit, spin and weave, and use only your own feet (or those of a horse) for transportation. Dig your own well, do your own blacksmithing and starve in the winter when you’ve had a bad crop year.
If you truly want to try life in the 1800s, be expected to have 18-20 children, all born at home, and have half of them die before the age of five because of dysentery, typhoid, scarlet fever or measles. Be prepared to get up with the sun and read by the light of your drafty fireplace. (Yes, the Franklin stove was invented in the late 1700s, but it weighed so much, most folks who went west didn’t take it with them. Of course, if you stayed in one of the “big” cities, you would have access to whale oil or kerosene for your lights.)
Be prepared to slaughter pigs and use everything except the “oink.” (Think pickled pig’s feet.) And you had better spend all day Sunday at church.
Let’s see — what else — oh yes, hygiene. It didn’t exist. There was usually a pan with water in it (that you carried from the well in a bucket) for rinsing your fingers before meals and washing your face in the morning. Everyone washed in the same basin of water. There was one bathtub full of water that everyone used for their Saturday night baths.
And ladies — would you like to know the origin of the phrase “on the rag?” Just one of the many uses of the rag bag. I heard a nurse tell a story that happened in 1950. An old “bachelor farmer” came into the hospital and had to have both pairs of long johns cut off him. He had had them on so long, his hair was growing through them.
Babies wore cloth diapers (if they wore anything at all) and the diapers had to be boiled before hung on the line to dry. Yes, even in the winter. You’d hang them out so they froze, take them down and snap them so the water crystals would fly out, then bring them in and hang them from rope you strung from one side of the house to the other.
Clothes for the rest of the family? One dress for momma for church, and one dress for the rest of the week. One pair of pants and a shirt for poppa for church, and one outfit for him for the rest of the week.
The rest of the simple homesteading family — hand-me-downs. Clothes were remade and remade and remade until they ended up in the rag bag. Remember those funny pictures of baby boys wearing dresses? Yup! The ultimate in recycling. By the way ladies — there’s no underwear from the waist down — but there are chemise, corsets, corset covers, and then a blouse on top, and the skirts were multi layered—up to 16 layers.
Animal husbandry for simple homesteading? You’d better like being pecked by chickens, trying to solve mastitis without antibiotics, treating thrush (on your horses feet) with iodine, and trimming the hooves of everything that walks. Roosters need their spurs clipped, dogs need their claws shortened and so do cows, goats, horses, sheep and just about anything else you can think of except fish.
Don’t forget you should not drink water that is “downriver” from where the animals drink. And if you want your animals to work for you, they need to be fed before you are. You had better have good neighbors to swap seed and semen with. Remember, this is before artificial insemination and top seed companies. And animals are dangerous. Just because they are cute, doesn’t mean they are safe. Horses kick and bite. Bulls can gore you. A pig will eat you. Roosters’ spurs are sharp. I do hope you know how to sew up cuts and have alcohol (that you made yourself) to wash out wounds.
Housing. If you are living like a “pioneer,” expect a drafty cold house with snow on the bed, no glass in the windows and two rooms. One room is the bedroom, the other is for all other functions, including mending the harness, sharpening and oiling your tools, spinning, and weaving, cooking and relaxing in the evening.
If you were smart, you put in a loft (heat rises). Up there you will find two beds. One bed is for mom and dad and the baby, and the other bed is for everyone else. Half the heads on the pillows at the “head” of the bed and half the heads on the pillows at the “foot” of the bed. The bed will have ropes tied about every foot going across, and three or four ropes going from head to food. This is your “box spring.” Your mattress will be a piece of thick cloth (ticking) that is stuffed with straw or corn husks or something of that ilk. The featherbed (if there is one) goes on top to keep you warm.
If you are “city folk,” instead of simple homesteading you’ll have curtains around your bed to help keep body warmth in. You might be smart enough to make a house that has good chinking between the logs. In which case, you have to worry about “cabin fever”—which is really another name for carbon dioxide poisoning, because you haven’t opened the door enough to bring in oxygen after the fire and all the people use it all up.
Here’s something else you can do in your spare time—boiling the horns from the cows so they can be flattened and used to make into spoons and the “glass” in the lantern. That’s after you oil and mend all the harnesses, clean all the glass lanterns of their soot, and drop a live chicken down the chimney to break loose all the creosote. (Yes—I know folks who do it.)
Cooking. If you are living “out west,” you’ll be using dried buffalo dung for fuel. If you happen to live where there is plentiful wood, you get to chop down trees. As in, with an ax. There are saws, but most of them take two people. Look up bucksaw and “Swede” saw. Then you hitch up your horses to haul it out of the woods, chop it into smaller pieces, stack it and haul it into the house whenever you need heat. (Cooking, keeping warm, keeping the wool warm so it will spin, etc.) Ten cords of wood should last you a winter. A cord is 8′ x 8′ x 4′. With a chainsaw it takes me two weeks solid to cut 10 cords.
And the only food you have is what you grow or kill. If there is a drought or a flood, or the locusts hit your garden, or you get sick and can’t carry the water from the well to water the garden, you’re going to go hungry. By the way, you will probably only have two or three metal pans, a Dutch oven (or something that can be covered with coals), a frying pan and a boiling pan. (For 17 people, remember). In simple homesteading, lots of cooking is done in crockery or wrapped in leaves and stuck in the coals.
Expect to eat a lot of soup, especially for breakfast. And if it’s before the time of Napoleon, nothing canned. It’s all fresh, dried, salted, or fermented (think sauerkraut). Hopefully you have dug yourself a well wide enough you can keep stuff cool if you don’t have a springhouse or a root cellar. One of the reasons to make cheese is to use up all the milk you ended up with by milking by hand — after you weaned the calves. Another chore that isn’t fun — flour. If you grow your own grain, you’d better know the difference between a snath and a blade and how to sharpen the latter.
Have we talked about shoes yet? Before the American Civil War, there were no “left” and “right” shoes. Or rather, they weren’t made that way, but after wearing them often enough, they developed “left” and “right.” The country songs that talk about getting a “brand new pair” when the kids go off to school is pretty accurate — for the 20th century. Before that, you went barefoot most of the year. If you lived in the city and were a lady, you had satin slippers to go dancing in. Yes, satin material. No insole. No sole. Just a piece of satin material sewn into a slipper shape.
By the way, did I discuss disease yet? You know all those vaccines that are pushed on you as a child? All those were diseases that killed or crippled. Polio, measles, mumps, chicken pox, small pox, influenza, diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, whooping cough, trench mouth, milk fever, goiters, warts, and worms. All those and all the “little” problems that we face such as arthritis, heart attacks, and diabetes, were out there with no cure. But there was opium!
Because of the high death rate among children, the “average” lifespan was 35. If you survived childhood, you had a good chance of living to be 60 or even 70. But by that time you were so worn out by all the work, you were ready. By the time you were 40 your skin was very wrinkled, you had lost most of your teeth, and every joint hurt—all the time.
Yup, life in the 1800s: the “good old days.” I’ll stick with homesteading today.
Two of my many sources are:
America Eats, by Williams Woys Weaver, Museum of American FolkArt, Harper & Row Publishers, 1989
Everyday Life in the 1800s, by Marc McCutcheon, Writers Digest Books, 1993
Originally published in Countryside January / February 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.