|The Family Cemetery
Why You Really DON'T want
to Have Lived in the 19th
|Without a doubt there were some really good things about 19th
century live: community, an emphasis on family life and (in many
cases) a more shared culture.
But there were some really bad things about life at that time.
Today, many families are broken by divorce. In the 19th
century, the family was more likely to be broken by death.
It was not uncommon for a man to lose his wife in childbirth. He
would then usually marry again (sometimes to his wife's sister).
Parents might lose half of their children. Diseases that are
easily treated today were fatal then, and most children had to
run the gauntlet of whooping cough, measles, mumps, chicken
pox or even scarlet fever or smallpox.
Without antibiotics, even a small cut or a cold could prove fatal.
Many people died as the result of accidents: runaway carriages,
catching fire, steamboats exploding, falling into wells, dangerous
machinery, and wild animals.
Today, it is national news if a few people die from an illness or
bad food. In the 19th Century, thousands of people died every
year in cities like New Orleans.
That Old Time Religion
21st Century church-goers might hardly recognize their faith
200-150 years ago. Church buildings were few and far between in
the wilderness, and a community might have a service only a few
times a year.
Camp-meetings, outdoor revivals, were common. These
emotional and enthusiastic worship services brought Christianity to
the frontier. These events were popular social occasions, and were
one of the few opportunities for women, children and minorities to
address the public.
Many of these camp-meetings were held by Methodist Circuit
Riders. These men, following the example of John Wesley, almost
lived on horseback and traveled from one community to another,
spreading the Gospel.
Baptists, Presbyterians, and other groups also participated in
camp meetings. At times, pastors from different denominations
preached, baptizing their converts at the end of the campmeeting.
Very popular during these camp-meeting was a particular kind of
singing called Shaped Note or Fa-So-La singing. This unusual
music must be heard to understand how it differs from modern
singing, but it was extremely popular in the 19th century. Traveling
teachers often set up temporary "singing schools" to teach the
method. This music is preserved today by groups who still sing
this way, using the traditional hymnbook called the Sacred Harp.
The Straight and Narrow Way
Once accepted into a Protestant denomination, the convert was
expected to show a change in life. In many Congregational, Baptist,
Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, dancing, drinking,
swearing, card-playing or going to the theater were banned as
worldly. The Episcopal church was a bit more lax.
Among the early Congregationalists and Presbyterians (and to a
perhaps less extent among other Protestant groups) Sunday was
considered the "Christian Sabbath." Among the most strict
families, food was not cooked, fires were not lit, and no play,
laughter, secular songs or books were allowed on Sunday. Even
among the more lax denominations, it was not uncommon for
stores to be closed on Sunday.
Today there are a wide range of federally-sponsored safety-nets.
This was not the case in the 19th Century. Instead, the poor,
widows, and the handicapped looked to the state, country, church
or their family and neighbors for help.
A certain amount of charity was private or practiced through a
church or denomination. Charity was one of the tasks assigned to
ladies, and middle-class women formed Dorcas sewing societies
(to sew for the poor), missionary societies, organizations to help
servants, and visiting committees to visit the poor. Churches,
religious organizations, and individuals founded orphanages,
homes for genteel but poor ladies, colleges, schools, and other
In some cases, the county provided some aid, especially to widows
and orphans. With the higher mortality rates, there were more true
orphans left without father or mother. If possible, a family member
or even a neighbor would take in an orphan. If not, the orphan
might be sent to an orphanage.
For those in the absolute worst situations there was the county
poor-house or poor-farm. While these differed in specifics, they in
general provided the very basics of life while requiring the inmates
to work- often at tedious and almost useless tasks.
Today, many people who receive public assistance have a car, a
television, and food to eat. Some live in public housing. There are
programs to assure that women, children and babies have
nutritious food to eat.
In the 19th Century, poverty wore a much starker face. In the
cities, the poor huddled in crowded, dirty tenements with no fresh
air or clean water. In the country, families might be malnourished
and prone to parasites. The poor might have only the ragged
clothes on their back.
|How to Help the Very Poor
The ignorant poor are usually
improvident; they wast more than the
rich. We rarely find a very poor person
who has any idea of economy. The
reason is, they have never been
taught rules of any kind, and the
random manner in which they support
life prevents them from acquiring
wisdom by experience. The best and
most efficacious charity to this class
will be, that course of treatment which
shall call forth their own energies, and
encourage their improvement.
Godey's Lady's Book April 1840 p. 163