Realities of everyday life in the 1790s

Young America Post #2

The first thing I noticed were the icicles hanging from the roof of what looked like your everyday gazebo in the local park. Then I noticed ice on the dirt all around the base of the little structure. Then––how could I not have seen this first?––the ladies, seemingly dressed in every item of clothing they owned, carrying large buckets. I should have figured out what it was sooner, but we just don’t see those things anywhere in the contemporary America I know. I wasn’t in America, though. I was in Moldova. The scene could easily have been in America, however, about two-hundred thirty or forty years ago.

Just part of everyday life.

I’m not faulting Moldova. And I’m not saying that having to walk to a well in the winter to get your water was a problem for the Moldovan villagers. It was their life. It was what they knew. For the women (who were usually the ones who went) it was the foundation of their social life. That’s where they went to talk, to share trials and triumphs, to gather gossip. They were used to it. They might have been just as amazed to see how we lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Equally astonishing to most of us modern people is the way our forebearers lived in the years during which the Young America series takes place. Concerning water, it was much the same as the Moldovans of forty years ago. And, of course, there were also the ‘water closets,’ ‘privies,’ ‘outhouses,’ or whatever you wish to call them, outside behind the houses. Since it was too cold to go out there at night (and too dark, too) they used a variety of containers for ‘night soil’ and its liquid companion––whose contents they often simply threw out into the street from an upper story window the next morning. Chamber pots, they called them. You didn’t want to have to be the one emptying them––or to be below the window when they were emptied.

That, horse manure, unwashed human bodies, and such delicacies as rotting meat and vegetables, made for a potpourri of odors such as we seldom experience in our culture. But it was just daily life for them.

Haves-nots and haves of post-revolutionary life

The Young America blogs will be telling you about these elements of everyday life. As a foundation for learning about their lives and times, let me mention just a few things.

1) There were no electronics of any kind. No screens. No Internet. No phones. No televisions. No radios. Nothing. For communication, it was word of mouth and paper. Period. If you wanted to listen to music, you had to be there wherever it was being performed.

2) There were no public utilities. Well, almost no public utilities. By the end of this period, many cities had gas-lit street lights. But that was it. No water, no electricity, no sewage, no anything running under the streets. And not that many public streets, either. Or bridges, for that matter. There were a lot of fords. And not the kind with engines and four-wheel drive. Which reminds me that there were no engines. Some experimentation with steam propulsion was being attempted, but no internal combustion.

3) There was, however, a lot of fire. Candles lit homes heated by fires in fireplaces. Paraffin, beeswax, whale oil, wood––these were the combustibles that warmed and brightened the dark evenings and long winter mornings.

4) No refrigeration. The rich had ice cut from lakes in the winter to cool their drinks in the summer, in addition to having cool vegetable cellars and salt for preserving food. But keeping things from spoiling was always problematic for the less rich.

5) Very little, if any, mass-produced anything. Think of that: each item of clothing you had was hand-made. Dishes, pots, vases, mugs, all made by hand by the potter. Cobblers cobbled shoes on the benches in their little shops. Tinkers made pots and pans one-by-one alongside the blacksmith who was making horseshoes, nails, household utensils, lamps and lamp covers. Wine and whiskey aged in barrels made by a cooper, stave by stave, and bound together with metal hoops from the blacksmith’s shop.

And 6) getting around. Now that was a very different story. On land, on sea, through swamps, forests, marshes, great expanses of uncharted territories. We’ll get to that in another post or three.

It was a different world. One most of us may be able to imaging because we’ve seen movies of the old west (which was much nearer to us in time). That’s what we’ll cover here. In the next post we’ll hit one of these items and later I’ll give you a calendar of what’s on the docket after that. Enjoy! Enter another time and another place with me. It’s not really so different from fantasy. It just happens to have really existed.

1 thought on “Realities of everyday life in the 1790s”

  1. What I appreciate about your historical series for young people is how much a reader learns of real life through the adventures of the characters. It’s an effect way to work on building historical knowledge with teens. I have used these books with 7th and 8th graders. They get into the stories and like the characters. A side benefit is they also absorb lots of history. Thanks for all the research you put into creating your Young America series.


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