Velya Jancz-Urban started her presentation of the not-so-good life of the Colonial American housewife by touring us through her 1770 farmhouse in Woodbury, CT. She and her family continue to uncover colonial wonders in the house, so far revealing the beehive oven, the original hearth, and a storage area, as well as the “Indian” door–a faux door that wouldn’t fool much of anyone, much less an Indian who would be attacking the house.
The Colonial Goodwife, or Goodie Urban, we might call her, then filled us in on the un-niceties and inconveniences of the life of the Colonial woman, from menstruation, childbirth, child rearing, diseases, and what not.
Here are some tidbits I found especially interesting.
Colonial women typically got their first periods around age 17 and married at about 22, both older than I imagined. She would have her first child 16 or so months later and continue, presuming she survived, until her last child would be about the same age as her first grandchild–on average 6-10 children. When pregnant or breast feeding (basically her whole married life), she wouldn’t have a period.
Still she had to be prepared. If you were to time travel, I’ll share the method of dealing with your period I think you’ll like best. Take your sheepskin with you. You can wash it out and reuse it, and it sounds better to me than cheesecloth stuffed with milkweed and moss or some of the less cleanly methods I won’t mention here.
Velya shared several recipes and concoctions for birth control. I’ll spare you, other than to say, it takes a lot of work, and faith. So if you do as most did, you’ll be pregnant a lot.
My favorite birthing aid for a difficult childbirth is the “quill baby”–dousing your feather pen with something that will make you sneeze. A whiff and you’ll sneeze that baby right on out. Right.
In New England, not just any ol’ lactating woman could be your wet nurse. For example, if you have a boy, you would only hire a wetnurse who had birthed a boy. Otherwsie, your boy would be feminized. You can tell that good help is hard to find.
I knew about swaddling for infant and toddler safety and all children wearing dresses without undergarments to help with cleanliness. I didn’t know about the ‘pudding’ stage of clothing, to help with those tumbles. The pudding cap would prevent your child from becoming a puddin’ head, and the big round tube around the child’s stomach and bum, well, that softens the blow.
Small pox left people’s faces pockmarked. I didn’t know that they used paper beauty marks (often hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs) to cover the the pocks.
Children were given dolls in coffins, to learn about death through their play.
I knew about dogs that worked in the home by walking on treadmills that turned spits of meat in the fire., much as donkeys worked in mills to turn the gristmill. Velya showed us a picture of the now-extinct Turnspit Dogs, which she called household “slaves.” Indeed their lives were so bad, often forced to walk on hot coals to speed up their work, that the ASPCA was formed in response.
Although this is also cruel, the image is a funny way. One way to clean your chimney–remember this when you go back in time–is to drop two chickens down it. Their startled, flapping wings will clean your chimney right up. Forget poisoning a young boy with soot warts, by lowering him down. Use your chickens.
So go ahead and set the dial on your time machine. You now have all the facts you need to make a good colonial life. Or you can be lazy like me and dwell in the present.