Home Life in the 1870’s & 1880’s [1]

By A. B. Amis, Sr.

The home life of  the people was one of much toil and privation, especially for the  women. The spinning wheel and the loom were articles of furniture  and implements of industry in nearly every home. And as one passed a  farm house in the afternoon he would hear the drone of the wheel or  cluck of the loom, as the housewife busied herself about the making  thread or cloth to clothe the family. Then after the cloth was woven  she had to cut, fit and make the garments; and the only tools she  had for the work was the needle, thimble and scissors. The sewing  machine was then a luxury none could afford.

And the making and  fitting of those clothes was a thing never to be forgotten by any  boy who had to endure it. I remember that when my mother would make  me a coat or pair of pants it was to me a time of torture. She would  cut the various pieces of cloth and then make me stand straight  while she pinned them on me to see if they would fit. Sometimes a  pin would stick me and I would jump and get the whole works out of  order. She would trim a little here and a little there and fix and  pat, and pin, until she thought it would fit; and then she would  baste the pieces together and I had to try it on. Then there would  be more trimming and fixing and basting, and I had to try it on  again, and every time I had to stand perfectly still and straight,  which was a positive torture to me. But when the job was finished I  had a suit that lasted until I outgrew it. It simply would not wear  out at all. It seemed that the longer one wore a suit of home spun  jeans the thicker it got until finally the pants would almost stand  alone.

All the every day  clothes for the whole family and the Sunday clothes for the women  and girls were made at home. The men could buy their Sunday suits  ready-to-wear at the store; but ready-to-wear clothing for women  was a thing unknown. Socks and stockings were all home knit; and  after supper and at all other times when the housewife was resting  she was busy with knitting. And I have often seen them nodding with  sleep after supper while the needles kept clicking.

The shoes for home  wear were usually made and repaired at home. And after supper, in  the fall and winter, while the wife would be knitting the husband  would be making and repairing shoes for the family or for a  neighbors family. Some of those old farmers were first class  shoemakers and put in their time at night and on rainy days at that  trade. Boys were not supposed to wear shoes, except in winter, until  after they got big enough to go see the girls; and one pair a year  was all they got. But when they were discarded in the spring they  never wore them any more because before fall came the shoes had got  too little for them.

The  cooking arrangements were crude and inconvenient, though the results  obtained by the old-time housewife, in her cookery were often  magnificent. Cooking stoves were unknown in that part of the country  until about 1875 or 1876 when some stove peddlers sold a number in  our neighborhood. Prior to that time the cooking was done by  everybody on the fire place; and for a long time after that many  families continued to do so. Some because they were too poor to  afford a cook stove, and others because they said the food cooked on  the new fangled Yankee contraption did not taste good.

When cooking on  the fireplace the housewife would put the vegetables with a piece  of pork or bacon in a pot which had a heavy lid with a rim around  the edge of it. The pot was then swung on a hook or crane over the  fire. Live coals, bark and chips were placed on the lid and it was  left to boil until the food was cooked. This method of cooking was  known as boiling the pot, because everybody knew what would be in  the pot. The meat was fired in a long handled skillet which had  three legs on the underside so it would sit over a bed of live coals  raked out on the hearth. The bread, biscuits, pies and other  pastries were baked in the spider which was very much like the  skillet except that it had a heavy iron top, like the pot, so that  live coals and chips could be piled on it so as to make it bake  evenly from the top as well as the bottom. A roast was cooked in the  pot used to cook vegetables. Potatoes were roasted in the hot ashes  or baked in the spider. It was all very crude and required a lot  of hot, hard work for the housewife, and also for the boy of the  family to supply the necessary chips. One of my earliest  recollections is that I never could find any but little chips that  would last any time hardly. Toting in chips and later, toting in  stovewood was the nightmare of my boyhood days. In fact, there was  only one thing that was worse, and that was having to wash my feet  after I was sleepy, before I could go to bed at night.

 [1] Excerpt from Recollections of  Social Customs in Newton and Scott Counties, Mississippi,  Fifty Years Ago, 1934, Republished by Milton McMullan,  December 1990.

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