Homemaking, Toys, Home-schooling,
Cleaning, 19th Century Medicine,
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|Information for Students, History Buffs, and Modern
The Unit Study is designed primarily for students, and contains
very detailed information as well as activities, questions,
The sites below are intended for general history buffs and
homesteaders. The Unit Study contains questions and exercises
and is meant mostly for students.
I. The Agrarian, Local, Limited-Money Lifestyle
Life on the 19th Century farm/homestead was radically different than the life most of us
are accustomed to today. The farm family (as opposed to merchants and townsmen) had
very limited cash to spend. As the old saying went, they turned over every penny twice
before spending any money.
The American monetary system was still based on the silver and gold. This means that
money was backed by precious metals. The Government could not simply print more
money as it can today. The amount of gold and silver held by the treasury limited the
amount of money in circulation.
Money was usually in short supply and of course there were no credit cards. Credit might
be offered by a local merchant or a cotton factor, but was at the creditor's discretion. By
contrast, in the past few decades credit has been extended to most Americans, even to
college students. Credit WAS important to the 19th Century farmer/planter; some
depended on credit to buy the seeds and tools needed to make a crop, but credit in
general was not as widely used as it is today.
Cash was reserved for taxes, critical needs, and essential services, and was used very
carefully. Rather than buying items, most of the family's basic needs-food, clothing,
shelter, water, sanitation- were met through the farm or by labor on the farm.
Today, people's basic needs are often met either by a store or, in the case of water and
sewage, by a town or city.
As we shall see below, the homestead was not completely self-sufficient. Local
community artisans and craftspeople supplied specialized wants. While many farmers
practiced a number of skills, they still usually depended on the local blacksmith, gunsmith,
saddler, wheelwright, cooper, and shoemaker. Some families might also hire the
services of a professional weaver or seamstress/tailor. In areas where there were Native
Americans, settlers sometimes traded for pottery or other goods. While items from far
away WERE available, a large percentage of items were locally made.
Look at some of the goods around your house. How many of them were made locally?
How many of them actually come from countries thousands of miles away?
As cash was scarce, at times barter was still practiced.
The 19th Century farmer/homesteader often functioned with a completely different
worldview and set of values. In the limited-money society, thrift was a virtue. Reusing
items was normal, and many goods were expected to last a life-time.
Today, buying is almost considered a virtue, and many goods are purposefully
produced with a short life-span.
II. The Homestead was NOT Completely Self-Sufficient
While the 19th Century farm/homestead was able to produce much of what the family
needed, even it was not totally self-sufficient. In order to be truly self-sufficient, one would
have to adopt the lifestyle of the Native American tribesmen before European arrival: little
or no metal-work; making pottery, using stone and wooden tools and weapons. While
some of the mountain men adopted much of the Native American lifestyle (apart from
using firearms) most home-steading families expected a slightly more
technologically-advanced way of living.
The most basic items a home-steading family might bring or buy include:
A gun, bullet mold, lead for bullets, black powder, cloth scraps
A felling ax for cutting trees
A hoe (unless the homesteader would make one from a deer shoulder-blade)
Some type of cast-iron cooking vessel(s) & a few utensils
An all-purpose knife
Salt (for cooking or preserving meat) Sometimes a settler would have a salt-lick or
salt-works nearby. Then he would not have to buy salt.
Saltpeter (for preserving meat, also a component of gunpowder)
If the homesteader has a horse or oxen, then a halter, lead, bridle,
saddle, harness, ox yoke, etc.
Periodically, sometimes once a year and sometimes more often, the settler would make
his way to a town where he could purchase lead, black-powder, salt, and possibly some
"luxury" items such as sugar and white flour.
The most important tool the homesteader brought was his/her knowledge-base on a
wide variety of topics: how to hunt, grow a garden, build a house or barn, dig a well, tan
leather, or spin thread. The more skills the pioneer/homesteader possessed, the better
equipped he was to not only survive, but thrive.
III. Work Was Considered a Virtue
Leisure time in America is expected and highly valued. Most modern Americans expect a
limited workday, with time off for vacations.
The 19th Century farmer or homesteader had no such expectations. Work often began
before sunrise and ended after sunset, with family members sometimes continuing to
work into the night if enough light was available.
Industry, rather than leisure, was considered a virtue. The Protestant Work Ethic was
very strong, and work was considered necessary to keep children from getting into
trouble. Even when a person sat down in the evening, he or she often had something to
do. Women often spun, sewed or knitted, while men might whittle or do some indoor task.
In middle-class families, sometimes a family member would read aloud or play an
instrument while the others talked or worked.
(Note: Upper-middle and wealthy women functioned under a different and conflicting
ideal of behavior. The "lady" in certain segments of society was supposed to be exempt
from menial tasks, although she might manage her servants, do charitable work, and
follow artistic pursuits and fine needlework.
There was plenty of work to do if the household and farm were to function properly.
Farming families were often large: the more children meant more hands to help with the
IV. Farm Life was not Always Nostalgic or Easy
People often remember their childhoods in rosy terms. Years after they were grown, many
city-dwellers remembered their childhoods growing up on the family farm. Farm life
seemed simpler and more innocent compared to adult life in the dirty, noisy cities.
We have to remember, however, that these adults were remembering their childhood,
when they themselves were more free from care.
For adults, while 19th Century farm life had definite benefits, it was not as rosy as it was
often remembered or pictured in popular 19th Century literature.
Crops sometimes failed, animals died, and the family went hungry or
the family might lose their farm. There were no pesticides, and people lost
gardens due to insects or diseases. Veterinary medicine was in its infancy, and
people lost animals to disease and injury.
There were few social safety nets in the 19th Century; poor families
had to depend on the charity of family, neighbors, and the church.
Even into the 20th century some people showed signs of nutritional
deficiencies such as rickets, and parasites (worms) in children were
Some families had to go to a local poor house or poor farm; these
were not pleasant institutions.
There were many occasions for injury and accidental death.
Work was very hard, and people's bodies showed it.
In some areas, there was a great deal of ignorance and backwardness.
Not all farm families were educated; some were completely illiterate.
Some farm families had little knowledge of the outside world; some never
traveled over a few miles from home.
In some families, there was a lack even of basic cleanliness, or knowledge
of why this was important.
Path to the FIELDS
|Cotton factor: A middleman who
helped the farmer sell his cotton, and
also arranged for the purchase of
|Barter: trading one good or service
for another, without the exchange of
|High School students interested in
economics might enjoy studying more
about the gold standard & silver
standard of currency. Our money is no
longer based on any type of precious
metal, but is fiat currency.
|Why do you think that Americans now
value leisure so highly?
|What is the Protestant Work
Ethic? Research this to find out.
|Click here for a diagram of the
Homestead as an Integrated Unit of Production