Voice of the People: Daily Life in the Antebellum Rural Delaware County New York Area

Family and Daily Life

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Introduction | Letters/Diaries/Newspapers, etc

Family and Daily Life: Introduction

by Nancy S. Cannon

Topics covered in this section include the people, food, drink, clothing and communication.

1855 illustration of boy, kitten, womanA social history is not a catalog of dates, laws, and institutional arrangements formulated by celebrated individuals.  Rather, social history deals with the daily lives of representative men and women, their hopes and fears; their struggles and triumphs.  In that spirit, this section examines the family and daily lives of the people in the rural antebellum Delaware County New York area.  Its main characters are the common people whose lives are largely recorded on the yellowed pages of letters and diaries hidden in dusty attics or in books long forgotten. The people represented here may have missed inclusion in the history books, but many of their stories are quite remarkable.

Lucy Ann Lobdell, tells her story here in an excerpt from her book published in 1855, Narrative of Lucy Ann Lobdell, the Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan Counties, NY. A prisoner of her place and time, she relates that dressing as a man and hunting for her livelihood was the best way she could support herself after being deserted by an abusive husband. 70 miles north of Lucy's hunting grounds near Hancock, NY, Susan Fenimore Cooper of Cooperstown, daughter of the well-known author James Fenimore Cooper, represents a life free from want. Excerpts from her book, Rural Hours, published in 1850, provide an in-depth view of nature from the pen of one with the luxury of time to write of such mundane matters. Perhaps a more typical woman's story would be that of Eliza Mead of Walton, NY.  Eliza kept a diary from 1853 to 1869; her diary tells her daily routine from sewing to visiting friends to traveling to Richfield Springs seeking a cure for some mysterious malady. George Jayne, a student at Fergusonville Academy in Fergusonville, NY, wrote his sister Charlotte back home in Orange, NJ describing his life at school (ball was his favorite sport). Seeking a brighter future in California, Harvey Seaman, tells his tale of trip by sail around Cape Horn in 1851; he wondered if he would ever see his family and friends again. John Teed from Tompkins, Delaware County received a letter in 1819 from his brother in Chester, NY informing him that a family member, James Teed, had been hung for murder. Samuel Sherwood in 1842 wrote to his son William in Delhi a letter any father might have written: he wanted to know what William planned to do with his life (and offered some suggestions).

What was life like for people in the rural Delaware County New York area prior to the Civil War? In general, people made do with less than we have today. Agriculture provided the backbone for the economy in the Delaware County area. In the earliest part of the period, farm people lived at a subsistence level. Food, clothing, and other necessities were produced at home whenever possible. Gardens, farm crops, wild fruits, orchards, and livestock supplied food. Family members, generally men and boys, often hunted and fished. Since no refrigerators existed, preservation entailed storing the produce in root cellars or by drying or salting. Ice, harvested from lakes and ponds in winter, was kept from melting in ice houses lined with a heavy layer of sawdust. Not only could ice be used to keep food from spoiling, ice cream provided an occasional summer treat. Home produced fabric (wool or linen) often supplied money for the family in a cash scarce economy.  Due to the immense amount of labor that went into the production of cloth, worn-out clothing acquired new use as a rag. Less affluent people sometimes went barefoot whenever fashion/practicality/weather allowed--illustrations from the time often show barefoot children. Farmers could pay cash for the products they purchased at local stores; however, some stores would also take farm produce such as rye, wheat, butter, eggs, beeswax, deacon skins, rags, dried apples or whatever else the farmer had available.  Farm people may not have always had much, but they realized there were others less fortunate. Delhi farmer Nathanial Arbuckle wrote poignantly in his diary, December 31, 1854: 

This is the Last Day of the year 1854 and a Beautyful Sabbath it is     It has Been a Very Dry warm Summer with Light Crops Making Provision high     the Sufferings of the Poor very Greate     but we who till the Soil for a Living   whose heards give Milk    whose fields Give bread    whose flockes Suply us with Atire   whose trees in Summer yeald us Shade + in winter fire  have no reason to Complain but have Cause for thankfulness that we are as well Provided for as we are     therefore let us be thankful

But not everyone worked as a farmer. Then, as now, people had businesses that created relative wealth for a few individuals. The wealthy could afford whatever meat and produce were available; fabrics such as silk and cotton could be purchased by anyone who could afford them. Tailors created garments in the latest fashion.  Food and dry goods purchased by local merchants in New York City were resold in local stores. By the mid-nineteenth century, factory made products lowered the cost so even middle income people could afford factory made fabrics and utensils. Considering the relative geographic isolation of the area, the variety of goods is remarkable.  Fish from the Hudson River, oranges, lemons, coffee, chocolate, rice, tobacco, figs, and molasses were imported from New York City.  A student at Fergusonville Academy asked for a care package with a favorite treat: prunes. Tavern keepers purchased liquor from New York City or from local brewers. No legal drinking age had been established. Alcohol abuse became such a problem that temperance (anti-drinking) organizations evolved.

Electricity had not yet been harnessed as an energy source to be used in the home. Imagine a home with no electric lights, washing machines, refrigerators, televisions, or computers. Candles provided the main source of artificial light until 1858 when kerosene from Pennsylvania became available (those who could afford it also used whale oil lamps). Indoor plumbing as we know it did not exist. Although a few farm houses in the hill country had spring water running through them, most houses and barns did not have running water. Or, to put it differently, the running was done by a person, not by a machine. Hand pumps placed over shallow wells provided lots of exercise for whomever had the task of pumping water. Hollowed out logs (pump logs) sometimes served as water pipes. People generally did not take showers. Whole body bathing required bringing in buckets of water from a spring or other water source, heating the water on a wood stove or over a fireplace, then dumping the water into whatever container was to be used for bathing. Daily (or even weekly) whole body bathing was not the norm for many individuals. People often washed themselves with water from a large bowl; the contents of the bowl were then dumped into a slop pail which was emptied outdoors. Clothes, when and if they were washed at all, were washed by hand with a washboard. Long skirts had hem tapes that could be removed for cleaning without washing the entire garment.  Since no clothes driers existed, clothes were sometimes spread on the grass to dry in the summer sun.  People living in the subsistence mode made their own soap using lye and animal fat. Those who could afford it could buy soap at the local dry goods store. The lack of running water indoors also meant that no indoor toilets as we know them existed.  Outhouses (usually located near the house) contained a hole dug in the ground covered with a wooden toilet seat. When nature called in the middle of the night (it might be cold and dark outside depending on the season, the weather, and the phase of the moon), people would use a chamber pot (a ceramic or metal bowl). The contents were dumped into the outhouse in the morning.   The job of emptying slop pails and chamber pots often went to young children (in the case of less-affluent families) or hired help (due to the huge number of immigrants from places such as Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century, even middle income families could sometimes afford domestic help).  The poor sanitation caused diseases such as cholera and typhoid to spread very rapidly at times.  Infectious diseases sometimes wiped out many family members in a short time.

Communication devices such as telephones, radios, television, and the Internet had not been invented. Family members often would wait months before they would get a handwritten letter from a loved one; family members lived in Europe as well as distant territories such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California.  News to the Delaware County area from the outside world traveled via letters and newspapers by way of stagecoaches and later, railroads. (The New York and Erie Railroad, with a station in Hancock, was completed in 1848). For example, in the mid-nineteenth century mail from New York City to Delhi would travel by steamboat up the Hudson River and then be transferred to a horse-powered stagecoach in Catskill where it would be hauled by way of the Catskill/Susquehanna Turnpike over the mountains to Delhi. Taverns, located every mile or so along the major roads, provided the opportunity for word-of-mouth communication.

By necessity, traditional farm families worked close together as a unit of production.  Each member of the family, including children, had a role to play in insuring the economic survival of the family. Families tended to be larger than today.  Not only were extra hands always needed on the farm, but the mortality rate for infants and children was high. Many women died in childbirth. Divorce was rare; the death of a spouse rather than divorce most likely ended marriage and set the stage for remarriage.

The antebellum Victorian culture gave rise to the Cult of True Womanhood which depicted piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity as the cardinal feminine virtues.  Then as now, however, not all lifestyles conformed to the cultural norm.  Lucy Ann Lobdell, for example, obviously ventured beyond the gender sphere prescribed by the Cult of True Womanhood.  Likewise, the Fugine Society (anti-church and free love) in Davenport  mentioned briefly in Munsell's History of Delaware County and John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida Community deviated from the sexual repression common to the Victorians. Nonetheless, the familial norm in Victorian America and the microcosm of Delaware County was the two-parent/dependent children nuclear family.  The primary material further illuminates structure, function, and emotions in daily life.

For further examples, proceed to Family and Daily Life: Letters/Diaries/Newspapers, etc.

For Further Reading

Boydston, Jeanne.  Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic.  New York: Oxford University Press.  1990.
Cott, Nancy F, ed. No Small Courage: a History of Women in the United States.  New York: Oxford University Press.  2000.
Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. by Peter Eisenstadt.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 2005.
Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: the Women's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  1975.
Flick, Alexander C, ed. History of the State of New York.  New York: Columbia University Press.  1934.
Alexander C. Flick was a New York State Historian
Gould, Jay.  History of Delaware County, and the Border Wars of New York. Roxbury: Keeny & Gould, Publishers.  1856.
Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site.
History of Delaware County, N. Y.  New York: W. W. Munsell & Co. 1880.
Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site.
Jones, Louis C. Growing up in the Cooper Country: Boyhood Recollections of the New York Frontier. Binghamton, NY: Syracuse University Press. 1965.
Murray, David, LL.D., ed. Delaware County New York: History of the Century, 1797 - 1897.  Delhi, NY: William Clark, Publisher, 1898.
 Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site.

Illustration from: Abbott, Jacob. Rollo's Vacation, Phillips, Sampson, & Co.  1855.  (frontispiece)

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