We’ve all said it, or at least thought it at some point, that we would have liked to have been born in the early years of this country, when life was simple. I know I’ve often thought about life in the 1800s, especially as I walk through an old homestead cabin. So, that got me to wondering, what was life like back then.
It’s hard to fathom, for such a civilized society as ours, how people survived back then. We’re talking before electricity, air conditioning, and indoor restrooms. In fact, only the high-class folks had “chamber pots”; the rest of the people had to go outside to the outhouse. In fact, it wouldn’t be until aroud the 1930s that indoor plumbing would make its way to rural America. Still want to go back there?
When we think about the 1800s, we really have to make a distinction between the early 1800s and the late 1800s. Why? In the early 1800s, many items that made the late 1800s more bearable hadn’t been invented yet, such as telegraph, railroads (though the first modern railroad was invented in 1803, it wouldn’t make its way to the US and the west until several decades later1), or sewing machine. Therefore, meat preservation and hygiene were still done using centuries old methods. Let’s break down there eras some more.
If you want to experience what life was like in the early 1800s especially in the western homesteads, have 18-20 children at home with half dying before the age of five due to dysentery, typhoid and scarlet fever, and measles. When you slaughtered an animal, every inch of the animal has a purpose.
Hygiene, at least how we know it today, didn’t exists. Because of the lack of indoor plumbing, water was carried in (while avoiding the part of the river downstream from where the animals drank) to a single bathtub which was used by every member of the family for baths. These baths often only occurred once a week, at best, and that was on Saturday night in preparation for church on Sunday. Besides that one bath, hands and faces were cleaned from water in a basin, also shared by the entire family.
Fabric was expensive and clothing was all hand-made, so each member of the family would have two pairs of clothes; one for church and one for the rest of the week. Instead of buying more when something ripped, momma would fix or patch it and make it last.
More often than not, the animals were fed before anyone else and the chores were done before school or any other activities took place. The term “cabin fever” today denotes being stuck in the house too long. In these days, cabin fever was truly deadly. What it meant was what we know as carbon dioxide poisoning. Simply, if the house was built firmly and there was thick chinking between the logs, no oxygen could get inside unless the door or window was open. So, between the fire in the winter sucking most oxygen out of the one room house and the natural breathing, there would be no oxygen, only carbon dioxide.
True, living in the early 1800s was hard, and in some ways unbearable, with the vast array of diseases and problems that could occur. Yet, life was simpler. Simpler doesn’t always mean easier. Today, we are spoiled by refrigeration, electricity, and even indoor plumbing. Sure, many illnesses that would run rampant through a 1800s western settlement aren’t heard of anymore.
When I think about living in this time, it’s not the hardness of life I focus on; it’s the life period. Families working together, each one having a part in the success or failure of the unit. Father’s taking care of their family instead of running from responsibility. Mother’s showing the love to her children that only a mother can.
The closeness of the siblings as they run around the animals and in the hay loft, imaginations running wild. Then, at the end of the day when all the work had been done, the family would come together and enjoy dinner together. While they might have had more to worry about, this life I’m speaking of seems so much purer than the way modern society says we should live.
Though your closest neighbor may be a mile down the road, you still knew who they were. And every Sunday, you would gather together at Church to give thanks for the blessings of the week and to pray for the next. If you ask me, we could use a little more of country livin’ and a less Xbox playin’.