Historically Speaking: A day in the life of an early rural homemaker
By Lily Kongslien
As I sit down to breakfast I cannot help but think back to my own mother and her life and duties as a homemaker. With our modern coffee makers, microwave ovens, electric and gas stoves with instant heat, hot water heaters and modern efficient furnaces how simple our life is today compared with yesteryear.
I am going to use my own mother as an example of the early rural homemaker. Her day started early in the morning, usually before any other family members arose – starting the fires and getting the house warmed for the others to comfortably rise and get dressed for the day. Of course, the day before there had to be a good supply of kindling and wood in the wood box for the coming day. If it was a “normal” day, not washday, ironing day or baking day, the supply of wood was sufficient; otherwise extra wood was needed and of course this depended on the time year, whether winter or summer.
Breakfast for the family consisted year round of a hot meal; hot cocoa, hot cereal (usually oatmeal or cornmeal) and freshly stewed prunes in the winter or fresh berries or fruit in the summer On Sundays we always had either pancakes or French toast, with eggs and bacon for our father. When my brother and I got up, our father was already up and out tending to the animals or on a job away from the farm (in that case mother had all the outside duties to do, with our quick help before going off to school). After we had our hot breakfast and did our prescribed chores we then donned our school clothes and prepared to go to school. Mother had already made our school lunches—usually sandwiches, cookies, an apple plus a jar of fresh milk (in the winter this would almost be frozen before we got to the schoolhouse). Sandwiches were either peanut butter or venison and mother always had cookes on hand, many kinds. She saw to it that we were warmly dressed, according to the weather, and would wave us off on our skiis across the river in winter or up the road in nice weather. Now she could turn her thoughts and efforts to other duties.
Quite often my father took jobs away from the farm to supplement our income so mother was left with the bulk of the farm duties to do during the day, especially during the school season. In the summer, with gardens and fields to tend, we kids were expected to help, but we still had lots of time for play. My parents were not hard on us as some were, but they did expect us to do as we were directed as far as daily chores during school days and summer vacation.
There were many outside chores to tend – feeding the chickens, the dog and the foxes (they were fed morning and night), milking the cows, watering and feeding them. In the winter, to cut down on the amount of water needed pumped each day, a hole would be chopped in the ice at the rivers’ edge and there they would drink, and they consumed a LOT of water each day. The foxes demanded a lot of time, as in the winter the water and had to be emptied of ice and filled with water so they could drink during the day. And all the while she had to feed the stoves, both the kitchen range and the front room heater to keep the house as cozy as possible during the cold days. In the summer it was next to impossible to keep the house COOL since the kitchen range had to be used for cooking and baking and was also a source of warm water (usually not hot)!
When the homemaker finished her “inside” work, bed-making, cleaning and dish washing, she then had the garden to plant in the spring, to weed (and get rid of the pesky potato bugs) in the summer. The fall was a time of harvesting and canning. Before this was the berrying season and the gathering of the garden produce. The cellar had to be stocked with bins of potatoes, carrots, squash, onions, rutabagas, turnips and pumpkins and she was busy canning vegetable such as peas, beans, tomatoes, corn; preparing jams, jellies and marmalades and pickles. We must not forget the task of getting the cabbages ready for the sauer kraut barrel. Sometimes mother would come with us as we went berrying for strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, June berries, pin cherries, choke cherries and last of all in the fall the rosy-red cranberries. Not only did the picking take time, but then came the canning, jelly-making, making of preserves and marmalades and the bottling of choke cherry juice which was sweetened and eaten on our pancakes.
Mother had the job of cleaning the fish we caught during the warm summer afternoons, and then we all enjoyed a meal of fresh fish for supper. Again, the kitchen stove was used to cook these meals but we were lucky to have a nice screened porch which became our dining room during the hot summer days. While we were eating and the fire in the kitchen range was dying down, dishpans of water were heating on the stove to use for dishwashing after the meal.
In the summer days mother did not have time to do inside things such as her beloved handwork, which included knitting, crocheting, tatting or embroidery. Most of the handwork was done during the long winter evenings. The larger part of her sewing, whether makeovers or from patterns on new material, was done during the winter when her outside work was not so demanding. Mother was not a great reader, as was my father, but she did have her women’s magazines and kept a steady correspondence with her mother and sister in Denmark. I really can’t remember her ever sitting in a chair without a ‘task’ in her lap, whether it was creating something with her hands or mending, patching, darning or making some little novelty to give away as gifts. She was always the last to go off to bed, seeing to the stove, and even preparing some of her early morning tasks ahead of time, even though she was the first one to rise every morning,
She was never too busy to listen to us and our problems or triumphs, or to instruct or praise us in whatever we were attempting to accomplish. Her days in summer and winter were always busy as she cared for her family. She did, however, take some time for herself, fixing her hair in a pretty fashion and always wearing a fresh starched apron while doing housework. When I think of my mother I recall the verses in Proverbs, chapter 31, “…she gets up while it is still dark and provides food for her family… she is clothed with strength and dignity… she speaks with wisdom…” I am sure many of you can relate this to your memory of your own mother. Truly, the homemaker of years gone by is a great example of love and caring and giving of herself totally to her family.