Life in Colonial America
The History Cat Classroom
A Day in the Life of...
Let's start off by saying that in colonial times the earlier you arrived in the New World, the harder life was. During the 1600s colonists began their new lives with whatever they brought over, the rest they had to make by hand. Colonial homes either started off as cave dwellings or by imitating Indian dwellings made of tree bark and skins.
If you had lived back in colonial times, there's a 90% chance that you would have been a farmer. This work was not for sissies. Trees had to be cleared by girdling and burning. Fields plowed, seeds were sown, irrigation ditches built, barns raised, roads cleared and pretty much every other backbreaking task that might be needed to re-create an Old England in a New World.
But of course, thousands of people were willing to risk explosive diarrhea or bear attacks to own land. Land was wealth. Back in England, only 20% of the people owned land, while the rest were tenant farmers paying high rents to greedy landlords. In the New World, the farming may be hard work but at least it was your hard work. In colonial America, farming was looked on as an honorable job done by an industrious people. Thomas Jefferson even once said that those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.
Whether you lived in South Carolina or Connecticut your day was pretty much spent working. Chances were good that you would spend your days doing some farm related activity. Remember that an overwhelming 90% of all colonists worked on a farm in those days so it was in your best interest not to be a jerk to your neighbors.You might even say that colonial life was pretty much a community affair. When a house needed to be built, or a barn raised, a field planted the community would pitch in and make it a festival.
Colonial farmers, no matter if you lived on a large New England farm or a small plot of land in North Carolina grew enough corn, barley, or rye to feed their families and earn a little extra to buy a nice comfy hardback chair. Colonists had English currency to spend but the most common way of paying the doctor or buying a new dress was by bartering for it. Bartering worked like this: you had a surplus of eggs (everyone loves eggs) so you agree to pay Doc Jones in eggs for treating your kid's sniffles. Often farmers couldn't do all the work themselves (even with 8 kids). So, the whole community came to pitch in during big events like a barn raising or harvest time. Of course, it was expected that you would show up when a neighbor needed your help (another example of the barter system in action).
Farmers in colonial days pretty much relied on their own labor to get things done. Men were expected to mend the fences, make tools, do the farming work, and hunt to put meat on the table. (It was no big deal to see a boy as young as 6 out stomping through the woods with a musket.) Women and girls were in charge of home and hearth drawing water, churning butter, mending torn clothing, weaving, making candles, in addition to the daily washing, cooking, and taking care of the youngins.
A small-time farmer was considered doing pretty well for himself if he could afford to buy a slave or two. In colonial times every colony legalized slavery.
Pennsylvania Cave Dwelling. 1680s
Howard Pyle Collection. Delaware Art Museum
Click on the photo to take an interactive tour
Colonial houses were small and rough places. Most homes had two levels. One great room- called a great room or Hall where the family did everything from cooking to sewing to sleeping. The great room was dark and smoky from the fireplace that was constantly burning. Colonial homes had one window that would be covered with a piece of cloth- glass had to be imported from England and was expensive. The upper story was reserved for the loft where the children slept. Most homes had a few pieces of furniture- a table, a few chairs, bedding, and cupboard to story dishes. Because almost everything has to be imported colonial families were excellent recyclers. Clam shells were reused as spoons, pig's bladders as bags, and corn husks as bottle stoppers, just to name a few uses.
"Colonial kids used wheat or the sticky resin from fresh cut spruce trees for chewing gum. The gluten in the wheat
becomes gummy when it is chewed."
All in a Day's Work
Women were responsible for caring for the children, cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, gathering herbs. Even the kids were expected to pitch in. Young boys helped their fathers in the fields or were apprenticed to a master to learn a trade. Girls learned their skills from their mothers. In colonial times, the attitude was that idleness was the devil's work. People who refused to work might have to wear a sign announcing that they were an Idler or spend a day in the stocks.
Meal times in colonial days were no microwave dinner. Women had to get up before daybreak and begin preparing the meal. First water had to be fetched and boiled. The bread was made from flour that had to be ground by hand. Meat was fresh-probably butchered only a few days before. Pork was the cheapest and most available meat. Pickled meats and dried fruits are eaten at almost every meal. Seriously, they loved to pickle everything from cabbage to flowers.
Picture a colonial family sitting down for dinner. In colonial times chairs were imported or handmade; either way, they were expensive–most colonists were lucky if they owned a bench or two. The table was a longboard set up on two tresses and may be covered with a cloth- hence the term 'room and board'.
The adults sat and the children were expected to stand, or they might have their own table where they still would be expected to stand. In general, colonists put a greater emphasis on age than youth.
Colonial City Slickers
By the early 1700s, the colonies were growing and prospering, which meant that things in American were looking a lot like, well, a new England.
The settlers renamed their towns after places they had left behind like New York, Boston, New London, Dover, Plymouth, the list goes on. You might be wondering why, if they were so homesick, they left Europe at all. It does seem like one big huge hassle with the work, and the Indian wars, and the starving, and what not. The answer: life was even more miserable for the poor back in good ole England.
In 1750, nearly all colonists still lived on farms. Not much had changed in those 100 years since Jamestown and Plymouth. Even still, in those days there weren't that many settlements that could call themselves real cities. In 1760, the five largest were:
New York- 18,000
New Port (Rhode Island)- 5,000
Depending on where in the colonies you were, a trip to the nearest town might be less than a mile (like in New England) or more than 10 miles (in the southern colonies).
Towns during colonial times were lively places. Churches were the main place to socialize. However, men wanting to get away from the wife and kids for a bit would head to the town meeting hall to debate the issues of the day. Newspapers brought word from home and the other colonies. Most newspapers were published weekly and only a few pages long. After a long day of debating, men would head to the tavern where they could grab a meal and pint of ale.
Down by the sea was where you could find the commercial district. The port was the life of any colonial city, crammed with ships bringing goods and people back and forth from England. Warehouses and markets lined the wharf. This is also where you would find the poorer homes and seedy taverns.
Being made of wood, colonial buildings were a fire hazard waiting to happen. Which if you were waiting for one, you often didn't have to wait long. A stray ember from a fireplace was enough to set half the city on fire. Back in the days before fire trucks and Dalmatians, the business of putting out fires was a community affair. When a fire broke out the church bells would ring wildly (or you could just follow the guy shouting fire! fire! The whole neighborhood would grab whatever could hold water and begin racing into a fire line where buckets were passed from the river or well to the source of the fire.
If you were the artsy or handyman type colonial cities were the places where you might be able to earn a decent living. Colonial businesses were family affairs passed down from father to son through an apprenticeship. In the early 1600s, colonists had to buy everything from England. By the mid-1700s most cities had their own cobblers, coopers, blacksmiths, butchers, weavers, and other craftsmen. The wealthier residents worked as physicians, lawyers, and merchants.
The first official postal service began in 1639. By the mid-1700s most large towns and cities had a postal service that brought news from one colony to the next. The original courier service would be a guy on a horse or a wagon and if you were looking for overnight service, forget it. That is, until Benjamin Franklin, the Postmaster General for the Crown, reorganized things that had overnight riders between New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. As a rule of thumb, a letter from New York to Charleston might take a week to arrive.
Rivers and the Atlantic coast were the easiest and fastest way to travel back then. All early colonial towns were built along a body of water to receive shipments of goods coming in from England.
The most common form of travel was your own two feet. This was not too bad for the New Englanders who lived close together, but in the southern colonies where people might live miles from the nearest farm, church, or town this could be an ordeal. For this reason, southern culture put an emphasis on entertaining visitors whereas the northern colonies tended to be wary of strangers. Some New England towns passed laws banning strangers from shopping at certain stores.