Home Sweet Home
.....in the Nineteenth Century
by ~ Karen Frisch
Few of us picture the comforts of home without a TV, a well-stocked refrigerator, and a comfortable sofa with an afghan for chilly evenings. Our ancestors' homes reflected a different lifestyle. Their home sweet home often wasn't even theirs. Those in cities often rented space in a boardinghouse or tenement.
They would have loved it if food were as easily available as it is for us today. If they were lucky, summer's harvest of fruits and vegetables would last through winter. Many women spent hours preserving and canning in oppressive kitchens at summer's end without air conditioning.
A simple afghan wouldn't do. Their fireplace or stove had to be stoked continuously so the family wouldn't be without heat on cold winter nights. Wood or coal had to be hauled indoors for the stove. During the second half of the century the coal furnace in the cellar had to be tended regularly for heat to be maintained.
Great-great-great-grandma didn't linger over her cold bath with the pitcher and washbasin she kept in her bedroom. The set included a cup to brush her teeth and chamber pot to relieve herself if she woke during the night. It wasn't until a generation later or more that her daughter was able to enjoy the luxury of a bathtub in her home.
Average families who had to be careful how much water they used, would drag a large tin tub into the kitchen. The tub would be filled with water heated on the stove or fireplace. All family members would take turns bathing in it.
Late in the century many updated homes had a gaslight. Most had kerosene lamps, which were welcomed because they were so much safer than candles. It wasn't until the last decades of the 19th century that people in some areas began to enjoy conveniences like the telephone, the phonograph, and electricity.
Families had to economize on space. Before the days of walk-in closets, clothes were hung in a wardrobe. Often, the walls of the home were decorated with women's handiwork. From needlepoint to embroidery, hangings featured mottoes or floral designs stitched with desirable virtues. The sentimental Victorian woman wove the hair of family members into framed pictures as well as jewelry.
Life for the pioneers who chose the frontier was far more rugged. These hardy, self-reliant individuals lived in more rustic conditions than their Eastern counterparts. The new towns of the West had none of the comforts of established Eastern cities. Homes had dirt floors or planking if the family had any money. Sometimes the family slept together on a mattress of straw.
Many Western mothers were not only preserving fruits and vegetables but also smoking and drying meat their husbands brought home. The store in rural Oklahoma where Great-great-great-grandma shopped probably did not sell ready-made clothing but rather cotton and other fabrics she could purchase to sew her family's wardrobe.
Unless the family was wealthy enough to hire outside help, children were expected to help with the household chores that were so plentiful during their childhood. Boys were given the dirty, more physical tasks such as cleaning ash from the wood stove, stoking the coal furnace, or pumping water outdoors.
Girls were expected to perform the typically domestic tasks such as trimming the wicks and cleaning the chimneys of lamps. They also made beds, aired the sheets, and cared for younger children--tasks that prepared them for their future roles as mothers.
Karen Frisch has spent years getting lost in cemeteries. With a background in Victorian studies, teaching, and writing, she has traced her lineage back thirty generations. Her interest in genealogy began as a child when her grandmother gave her a collection of old photographs from Scotland.
(Written by Karen Frisch and Copyright 2003 MyFamily.com Inc. All rights reserved)