A Glimpse at Simple Homesteading Life in the 1800s

Homestead Farming Was Not for the Faint of Heart

simple-homesteading

By Kathy Belt – In the September/October 2012 issue, a reader wanted to know what homesteading life in the 1800s was like. Here’s my reply. I am a bit of a history nut. I have spent many years engaged in accurate historical re-enactment. (Think Ren Faire but with no turkey legs.) So your question about what simple homesteading life in the 1800s looked like prompted me to write.

First—when talking about life in the 1800s, do you mean the early 1800s? Before the advent of canning, telegraph, railroads, and sewing machines? Or are you talking late the 1800s? If the latter—just talk to any member of an Amish community about their simple homesteading lifestyle. If you are talking about the early 1800s—that’s a completely different matter. I would recommend visiting historic Williamsburg, Virginia.

There are numerous diaries that have been left behind by the folks who “traveled West” and the hardships of simple homesteading they endured; as well as diaries of those who “stayed behind” in the civilized world of chamber pots and chimney fires. Reading these diaries gives a very good insight into how people lived.

simple-homesteading

Are you interested in the day-to-day life of agrarian people as opposed to those who live in the city? If so—I recommend becoming a homesteader without electricity, power tools or indoor plumbing.

Also take away modern medicine, familiarize yourself with a healing herbs list and learn to recognize gangrene. Go to the grocery store for only flour, coffee, and sugar. Grow your own linen (hemp is preferable to flax for durability and comfort), and wool. Simple homesteading of this era means you learn how to knit, spin and weave, and use only your own feet (or those of a horse) for transportation. Dig your own well, do your own blacksmithing and starve in the winter when you’ve had a bad crop year.

If you truly want to try life in the 1800s, be expected to have 18-20 children, all born at home, and have half of them die before the age of five because of dysentery, typhoid, scarlet fever or measles. Be prepared to get up with the sun and read by the light of your drafty fireplace. (Yes, the Franklin stove was invented in the late 1700s, but it weighed so much, most folks who went west didn’t take it with them. Of course, if you stayed in one of the “big” cities, you would have access to whale oil or kerosene for your lights.)

Be prepared to slaughter pigs and use everything except the “oink.” (Think pickled pig’s feet.) And you had better spend all day Sunday at church.

Let’s see—what else—oh yes, hygiene. It didn’t exist. There was usually a pan with water in it (that you carried from the well in a bucket) for rinsing your fingers before meals and washing your face in the morning. Everyone washed in the same basin of water. There was one bathtub full of water that everyone used for their Saturday night baths.

And ladies—would you like to know the origin of the phrase “on the rag?” Just one of the many uses of the rag bag. I heard a nurse tell a story that happened in 1950. An old “bachelor farmer” came into the hospital and had to have both pairs of long johns cut off him. He had had them on so long, his hair was growing through them.

Babies wore cloth diapers (if they wore anything at all) and the diapers had to be boiled before hung on the line to dry. Yes, even in the winter. You’d hang them out so they froze, take them down and snap them so the water crystals would fly out, then bring them in and hang them from rope you strung from one side of the house to the other.

Clothes for the rest of the family? One dress for momma for church, and one dress for the rest of the week. One pair of pants and a shirt for poppa for church, and one outfit for him for the rest of the week.

The rest of the simple homesteading family— hand-me-downs. Clothes were remade and remade and remade until they ended up in the rag bag. Remember those funny pictures of baby boys wearing dresses? Yup! The ultimate in recycling. By the way ladies—there’s no underwear from the waist down—but there are chemise, corsets, corset covers, and then a blouse on top, and the skirts were multi layered—up to 16 layers.

Animal husbandry for simple homesteading? You’d better like being pecked by chickens, trying to solve mastitis without antibiotics, treating thrush (on your horses feet) with iodine, and trimming the hooves of everything that walks. Roosters need their spurs clipped, dogs need their claws shortened and so do cows, goats, horses, sheep and just about anything else you can think of except fish.

Don’t forget you should not drink water that is “downriver” from where the animals drink. And if you want your animals to work for you, they need to be fed before you are. You had better have good neighbors to swap seed and semen with. Remember, this is before artificial insemination and top seed companies. And animals are dangerous. Just because they are cute, doesn’t mean they are safe. Horses kick and bite. Bulls can gore you. A pig will eat you. Roosters’ spurs are sharp. I do hope you know how to sew up cuts and have alcohol (that you made yourself) to wash out wounds.

Housing. If you are living like a “pioneer,” expect a drafty cold house with snow on the bed, no glass in the windows and two rooms. One room is the bedroom, the other is for all other functions, including mending the harness, sharpening and oiling your tools, spinning, and weaving, cooking and relaxing in the evening.

If you were smart, you put in a loft (heat rises). Up there you will find two beds. One bed is for mom and dad and the baby, and the other bed is for everyone else. Half the heads on the pillows at the “head” of the bed and half the heads on the pillows at the “foot” of the bed. The bed will have ropes tied about every foot going across, and three or four ropes going from head to food. This is your “box spring.” Your mattress will be a piece of thick cloth (ticking) that is stuffed with straw or corn husks or something of that ilk. The featherbed (if there is one) goes on top to keep you warm.

If you are “city folk,” instead of simple homesteading you’ll have curtains around your bed to help keep body warmth in. You might be smart enough to make a house that has good chinking between the logs. In which case, you have to worry about “cabin fever”—which is really another name for carbon dioxide poisoning, because you haven’t opened the door enough to bring in oxygen after the fire and all the people use it all up.

Here’s something else you can do in your spare time—boiling the horns from the cows so they can be flattened and used to make into spoons and the “glass” in the lantern. That’s after you oil and mend all the harnesses, clean all the glass lanterns of their soot, and drop a live chicken down the chimney to break loose all the creosote. (Yes—I know folks who do it.)

Cooking. If you are living “out west,” you’ll be using dried buffalo dung for fuel. If you happen to live where there is plentiful wood, you get to chop down trees. As in, with an ax. There are saws, but most of them take two people. Look up bucksaw and “Swede” saw. Then you hitch up your horses to haul it out of the woods, chop it into smaller pieces, stack it and haul it into the house whenever you need heat. (Cooking, keeping warm, keeping the wool warm so it will spin, etc.) Ten cords of wood should last you a winter. A cord is 8′ x 8′ x 4′. With a chainsaw it takes me two weeks solid to cut 10 cords.

And the only food you have is what you grow or kill. If there is a drought or a flood, or the locusts hit your garden, or you get sick and can’t carry the water from the well to water the garden, you’re going to go hungry. By the way, you will probably only have two or three metal pans, a Dutch oven (or something that can be covered with coals), a frying pan and a boiling pan. (For 17 people, remember). In simple homesteading, lots of cooking is done in crockery or wrapped in leaves and stuck in the coals.

Expect to eat a lot of soup, especially for breakfast. And if it’s before the time of Napoleon, nothing canned. It’s all fresh, dried, salted, or fermented (think sauerkraut). Hopefully you have dug yourself a well wide enough you can keep stuff cool if you don’t have a springhouse or a root cellar. One of the reasons to make cheese is to use up all the milk you ended up with by milking by hand—after you weaned the calves. Another chore that isn’t fun—flour. If you grow your own grain, you’d better know the difference between a snath and a blade and how to sharpen the latter.

Have we talked about shoes yet? Before the American Civil War, there were no “left” and “right” shoes. Or rather, they weren’t made that way, but after wearing them often enough, they developed “left” and “right.” The country songs that talk about getting a “brand new pair” when the kids go off to school is pretty accurate—for the 20th century. Before that, you went barefoot most of the year. If you lived in the city and were a lady, you had satin slippers to go dancing in. Yes, satin material. No insole. No sole. Just a piece of satin material sewn into a slipper shape.

By the way, did I discuss disease yet? You know all those vaccines that are pushed on you as a child? All those were diseases that killed or crippled. Polio, measles, mumps, chicken pox, small pox, influenza, diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, whooping cough, trench mouth, milk fever, goiters, warts, and worms. All those and all the “little” problems that we face such as arthritis, heart attacks, and diabetes, were out there with no cure. But there was opium!

Because of the high death rate among children, the “average” lifespan was 35. If you survived childhood, you had a good chance of living to be 60 or even 70. But by that time you were so worn out by all the work, you were ready. By the time you were 40 your skin was very wrinkled, you had lost most of your teeth, and every joint hurt—all the time.

Yup, life in the 1800s: the “good old days.” I’ll stick with homesteading today.

Two of my many sources are:
America Eats, by Williams Woys Weaver, Museum of American FolkArt, Harper & Row Publishers, 1989
Everyday Life in the 1800s, by Marc McCutcheon, Writers Digest Books, 1993

Originally published in Countryside January / February 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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Comments
  • I don’t believe the farmer’s body hair had grown through his pants. He had to pull them down to do his business and simple walking shears any hair that gets stuck in the pants. Unless the poor man was bed-ridden and he emptied himself into a bag.
    Also, according to government statistics all the infectious diseases mentioned in this article, were in a deep decline by the time vaccinations took off. The three reasons were: chlorinated drinking water, food refrigeration, and personal hygiene.

    Reply
    • Marylou S.

      I agree with the second paragraph of this comment, but as for the long john story, in that day they were made with flaps in the back, so he had no need to pull them down. Also, toilet paper was not a well-known item, so yeah, he probably was “stuck” to his underwear, but not necessarily because his hair grew through it. Although it could have. But it did make a good story, didn’t it?

      Reply
      • Marylou S.

        All in all, I thought this was a pretty accurate description of life in those days. And a well written article.

        Reply
  • All the negative and fable like information is interesting – to some extent, BUT it also gives a very very bad impression of rural life and farming in general now. I understand that the article is meant to contrast the 1800’s with 2013, but it ignored all the good points of both times and made the production of food seem like the worst job on the planet – which it isn’t. We were created to turn earth into paradise by working with the plants and animals, not to destroy everything.

    Reply
    • I agree with the post above.

      I am surprised that almost no one has challenged what is written in the article. It is negative & is not balanced. It paints a picture of everyone having these particular problems & always having dire circumstances. It was not always the case. It is written in a sensational tone which leads the reader to think even normal everyday things were outrageously awful and vastly different from today’s hardships, which is not fully true. It sounds as though it was written by an inexperienced modern city (perhaps even a pampered/disillusioned rural) person who lacks knowledge of a real working small family farm and much of real history.

      Bulls still gore, people still have worms (they don’t always know), things still need to be trimmed on animals. Mastitis is cured by letting the calf sucking (back then and now). Antibiotics are not the savior of farming nor family life. Things die. Chimney fires still happen. There is no cure even today for heart attacks, diabetes, nor arthritis. There are many herbs and prolific weeds that are very effective in treating these things…wisdom of old (!) often lost on the modern folks because they have the modern snake oil “research.” Good knowledge existed. People were often smart, resilient, creative people who sought it out & passed it on. I suspect that more rural-to-homesteader folks knew more & had more useful skills, basic and specialized, than city-to-homesteading homesteaders.  Those will have had the most problems. This still rings true today.

      The bachelor story was not the norm, nor was the baby & warming oven (mom’s chest is actually warm enough and many knew that even then). Half the babies & children dying was also not the norm in all areas. Big families shared the work load (many hands make light work). Spending all Sunday at church? A hardship? I don’t think that was the norm either, and it would have been VERY local and welcomed in most cases…if there even was one, and it would be a social outing and otherwise meeting place.

      People still rise early and go to bed late on farms…in fierce blizzards and deep cold and have to dig out sometimes by hand. It is still hard work. Not everyone has conveniences, and it isn’t always by choice.

      People were NOT all ignorant, nor stupid. At least, my grandparents & their parents were not. They didn’t have money, but were so very rich. They would back me up on my comments and grunt at many of yours. They could teach you a few things, I am sure.

      These “stupid” types of people you speak of still roam the earth today…and they are the ones who will not listen to good advice & fail to learn on their own (prepare & search out) before a problem rears it’s head. Some may have been as you say…but not all. I am familar with homesteading stories as well…and hardships…and adaptations, invention,  ingenuity and determination. They were unlike many today. They had character that people now lack in spades. Those were my ancestors. My grandparents were true homesteaders, by the way. My grandfather & his grandfather lived to 96. My grandfather still chopped a cord of wood in an afternoon…WITH AN AXE of all things…at 93! He said hard work=good sleep. This statement is jam packed with meaning and lessons for stressed out insomniac/workaholics of today.

      I could jeep going on about the things written in this article. It is not the full truth (there are also leading sensational “partial truths” listed) and many of the things mentioned are no different than life for some folks even today. Some listed “hardships” are just work…plain & simple. Some was just life…and they did actually have spare time sometimes.

      But…I think that this brings up enough things not properly addressed in this article and my comment is plenty long enough. I think more balanced “research” is warranted. Honor your history. Be balanced. Give them credit. They earned it. You would best stick with today’s most modern version of  “homesteading” as you said. From what you chose to write, you would not have lived happily nor long.

      Reply
      • Agreed. As an amateur textile historian, I can tell you that much of what was said about women’s dress in this article is inaccurate or simply not true. Women would wear bloomers, which was the equivalent of today’s underwear, so no woman was truly bare bottomed under her dress. 16 layers of skirts? Only for the most wealthy women – 16 layers would be excessive even for a queen! The average farm woman would have an overskirt, a petticoat (perhaps over hoops on Sundays), and bloomers. If that. Poor homesteaders would make due without petticoats if necessary, depending on the fashion of the time.

        There are many other issues with the article that others have addressed, so I’ll stop there.

        Reply
  • Johann F.

    Many folks seeing being off-grid or homesteading that someone has to live like caveman.
    Those old times are behind us, our knowledge in many fields has advanced. So why should anyone that is off-grid or homesteading have to live like a caveman? You know….there are many off-gridders and homesteaders that have TV’s and computers now and painting pictures on rock walls to pass time is history.
    But ’til today many folks think that living off-grid or being a homesteader that it is a live style of a hermit.

    Reply
  • Very well written article. Coming from a poor family in the 1950s, I lived without hot water unless we boiled it. the out house was a ways from the house. I was always scared at night, that the coyotes would get me. I had to have one of my older sisters or mother take me. Sometimes we didn’t make it all the way out there. We had one tub of bath water for all of us. My father shaved in a wash basin in the living room. The laundry water had been boiled on the small gas stove in the kitchen.
    I remember when we got the phone on the 10 party line.
    We did have hand me downs and a sewing machine and used cars that my father kept running with bailing twine and grease.
    I like my conveniences of today better. I do burn trash mail and cut branches from trees for romantic heat. The gas furnace does the rest. I don’t throw my pet chickens down the chimney. They would be forever traumatized and stop laying.
    I appreciate the article. It helps me count my blessings. Thanks

    Reply
    • I literally laughed out loud about the traumatized chickens… good story Marylou S. it definitely had me enthralled!

      Reply
  • writing a western and this put a nice, gritty, realistic edge to my research. thanks

    Reply
  • Carbon monoxide is another by product of fire places that are not ventilated properly which makes you sleepy and die not carbon dioxide. The long johns had the trap door for their business so anything is possible ……..

    Reply
    • houses were so drafty that carbon monoxide was not a problem. If you notice, CO wasn’t even that much of a problem until the 80’s and 90’s as houses started getting built better and more air tight.

      Reply
  • The chickens those homesteaders were raising included a variety of Games, hardy birds willing to scratch their own living out of the barnyard. Some had White Faced Black Spanish chickens, a popular breed back then. Those with English ancestry might have had a flock of Dorkings. Chicken breeds have proud history. Learn more about historic breeds in my books, available at the Countryside bookstore and online, http://countrysidenetwork.com/?s=Heinrichs&s_cs=true.

    Reply
  • Learn more about how our forebears lived by visiting a Living History Museum in your area. The Association of Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums brings together those interests. Some have flocks of historically accurate poultry and other livestock. http://www.alhfam.org/

    Reply
  • My sister and I were reading the history of our great grandfather last weekend who settled in Comanche County Kansas in 1880. His accounting did not have the level of detail this article did, but there were many corollaries. He described the homeplace about 26 miles from the nearest town and having to open five gates on the wagon trail between home and town. The way he described the day they could afford a Surry you’d have thought it was a Cadillac. And when my grandfather was born they put him in the warming tray of the wood stove to keep him warm because he was born prematurely. Having grown up on a farm I can’t imagine how hard some of the tasks must have been with only manpower and horses to keep a pioneer’s ranch running. They take “poor” to a whole new level, yet as on previous commenter noted, parts pf his journal describe having fun nonetheless, with lots of love in the family and neighbors.

    Great article.

    Reply

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