Tag Archives: women

White Flour and the American Family

Flour was one of the earliest products in America to become industrialized. The commercialization of flour was to play a critical role in transforming the lives of women and the structure of domestic life in America.

Automated flour mills began appearing just after the close of the Revolutionary War. These mills required about half the number of laborers required by traditional grist mills, and the new technology produced a finer, whiter flour than had been possible with more traditional methods. The high price of white flour, combined with reduced labor costs, made commercial mills a booming business in closing years of the eighteenth century.

White flour, stripped of its germ and bran, did not readily deteriorate during shipping. Therefore, most of this early white flour was produced for export to war-ravaged Europe; very little commercial flour was sold domestically during this period. American families continued to grow and process their own grain, and locally-produced whole-grain corn and wheat meal continued to be staple foods.

The domestic production and use of whole-grain flour required the contributions of each member of a household. Men and boys were traditionally given the job of hand-grinding corn and wheat. If the grain was to be hauled to a mill for grinding, this was father’s job. Because the grain began to deteriorate quickly after milling, the tough jobs of hauling or hand-grinding grains kept husbands and sons busy throughout the year. Mother had it a little easier, because baking with coarse flour was a straightforward process: liquid and leavening were added to the meal, and the batter was then baked or fried into a simple quick bread.

The booming export market for American flour eventually collapsed when the Napoleonic hostilities in Europe ceased. At the same time, the opening of several major canals in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states made it cheaper to transport flour domestically, while also making the small-scale production of flour less profitable. So flour from merchant mills began to replace the product of local grist mills in the early nineteenth century. By the outbreak of the Civil War, flour milling was the leading American industry, and homegrown and locally-ground grains had largely disappeared from American tables.

Commercial white flour did not deteriorate as rapidly as home-grown flour. Therefore, it did not need to be continually hauled and milled; large quantities could be purchased at a time and stored. The switch to store-bought flour relieved men and boys of one of their most time-consuming domestic chores, the grinding and hauling of flour.

White flour was also used very differently than whole-meal flour. White flour could be made into pastries, cakes, and white, fluffy loaves leavened with yeast. Soon, quick breads came to be regarded as fare fit only for the lower classes, while white bread became one of the first “status symbols” of the industrial period in America. Unfortunately, cake baking and the production of yeast breads required much time, heavy labor, and attention to detail. All this work, of course, fell exclusively to the housewife.

In short, the advent of industrialized flour meant that the nineteenth-century housewife was spending a lot more of her time working in the kitchen than her grandmother had, while the role of her husband and sons in domestic activity began to disappear.

The switch to white flour helped to make the industrial-era American home into a place of idleness for men and children, but where “woman’s work is never done.”

(Cowan 46-53)

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Division of Household Labor in Pre-Industrial America

The question of which member of a household performed each particular task of housework was, in pre-Industrial America, strictly determined according to gender, age, and social status.

Although some household tasks, such as milking cows, carrying water, and peeling potatoes, were shared by both men and women, many more jobs were considered either “men’s work” or “women’s work.” We might assume that men were expected to perform tasks requiring brute strength, while women did the jobs that required finesse, but this is not quite the case. In fact, this particular division of labor seems to have been determined more by custom, in a way that looks almost arbitrary today. For example, the making of cider and mead was a man’s job, while women made beer and wine. Men repaired the clothing that was made of leather, while women mended clothing made of fabric. Women had small side jobs to fill in the slow times of their day (sewing, spinning) and so did men (whittling, chopping wood). Men had jobs requiring physical strength (hauling wood), and so did women (doing laundry).

These customary rules were broken only in times of extreme necessity. Men and women were simply not well trained to do the jobs that belonged to the other gender. A man could, in time of need, make his own shirts, or a woman repair her own shoes without fear of disgrace, but he or she would inevitably do a clumsy job owing to the fact that these jobs required skills neither would have had the opportunity of developing.

Therefore, whenever possible, the more usual solution in case of emergency was to simply hire the work done by someone else of the appropriate gender. Since children began learning gender-appropriate tasks at a young age, it was extremely common to “loan” children to other households to perform the necessary work. Although there were always many young immigrant men and women who could well perform household labor, the easy availability of land meant that most of these eventually chose to set up their own households rather than go into service in the home of another. This was the “servant problem,” and it was partially solved by the institution of slavery. Still, slaves were expensive, while borrowing a young niece or nephew to help with childcare or harvesting cost only a little room and board. This custom allowed households to function smoothly while keeping the sexual division of labor intact.

When children, relatives or servants were present in a home to help with the housework, labor was divided not only according to gender, but age and class as well. It is important to remember that in most households, the housewife worked side-by-side with the lowliest slaves; only the extremely rich could afford to leave all the work to others. Hierarchies were maintained through the specific tasks performed by each member of the household. In general, children were expected to perform the tasks that required the least skill or organizational ability, such as fetching water and milking cows. Servants did the most physically arduous jobs, like scrubbing floors or doing laundry. Jobs which required creativity, judgment, experience and organization, like preparing meals or making clothes, were reserved for the housewife herself. Each task carried an implied social status.

Although housework has been traditionally considered “women’s work,” the daily reality of agrarian life meant that men as well as women were required to contribute to the efficient running of a household. The reciprocal nature of the contributions of each member of a household meant, among other things, that for most adults marriage was nearly indispensable, and certainly a very different institution than it would become as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

(Cowan 26-31)

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A Day on the Oregon Trail

The earliest emigrants on the Oregon Trail set a basic pattern that would be followed, with some refinements, by wagon trains making the same journey in the decades to come.

On May 20 of 1843, that first group gathered near Independence, Missouri, to hold an organizational meeting and elect a captain. The next day about 875 emigrants assembled, with 120 wagons and the oxen that were required to pull them (oxen had proven better suited for this purpose than either horses or mules). The group hired a retired mountain man as a guide, and the next day they all set off.

A typical day would begin at 4 a.m., when the emigrants would be awakened by a volley of shots fired by the wagon train’s sentinels. Quickly they would strike their tents, hitch up their teams, and take their places in the column of wagons. The wagons were divided into platoons of four, often groups of friends or extended family. Because the wagons in the rear of the train would be exposed to all the dust kicked up by those in front, each platoon moved forward one place in the order each day. But if one wagon were late getting started, its whole platoon would lose its place in line. This tended to encourage speedy preparation!

During the day, the guide would lead a party of riders ahead of the group to choose the best route, and to make any improvements the route might need, such as filling in deep ruts. Other riders would range out to hunt game, while women and children would ride in the wagons or, more often, walk alongside. When the guide party found a suitable location, the whole train would halt for lunch; during this hour everyone ate, rested, and watered the animals. A bugle would summon them to resume the day’s march.

Near sunset, the guide would lead the party to a suitable camping place, and the teamsters would circle the wagons. The front of each wagon was chained to the back of the one ahead of it, to make a corral; the animals were secured in the center of the circle, which formed a defensive barrier against any Indians or other dangers that might be about. Then the men would tend to their stock or dig wells for fresh water, while the children collected buffalo chips for fuel and the women cooked the evening meal. A little fiddle or banjo music might round out the day, but bedtime was generally early for everyone but those who had sentinel duty.

The ox-drawn caravan could cover about fifteen or twenty miles in a day. That first group reached its destination, in the valley of the Grand Ronde, on October 1. During the four-and-a-half months of the migration, although four men of the group had died from illness or drowning, the party’s total numbers had increased: more than that many babies had been born along the trail.

(Woodworth 72-76)

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The First Oregon Settlers

In the first four decades following the Revolutionary War, the American frontier crept steadily westward across the continent, to the Mississippi River and beyond, reaching the western part of Missouri and eastern Iowa by the 1830s.

There, Manifest Destiny paused for a time. After all, further west lay the Great Plains, a sere and desolate wasteland, and beyond that were the Rockies. Although Lewis and Clark had followed an overland route to the Oregon coast in 1805, their experience was an epic adventure beyond the resources of the typical frontier settler. For thirty years after Lewis and Clark, no settlers braved the dangers of the Far West.

Religion provided the initial catalyst for settlement in Oregon. In 1831 a small group of northwestern Indians, curious about the white man’s country, traveled to St. Louis for a visit with William Clark, then serving as U.S. Superintendent of Indian Affairs. A story began to circulate that the Indians, while in St. Louis, had requested that the white man’s “Book of Heaven,” as well as some suitable instructors, be sent back to their homeland in the Northwest. Soon, many devout Christians began planning missionary journeys to Oregon.

One of the first was 30-year-old Methodist pastor and schoolteacher Jason Lee, who traveled overland with some fur traders to establish a mission in the Willamette Valley. Another early missionary was physician Marcus Whitman, who became famous for successfully removing an arrowhead from mountain man Jim Bridger’s back. Whitman and his wife Narcissa, along with a group of fellow Presbyterians including missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding, traveled west to plant a mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. Narcissa and Elizabeth became the first white women to cross the Rockies; their letters home helped to popularize the overland journey to Oregon as a practical, accessible family project.

At that time, under an agreement reached in 1818, the vast, amorphous Oregon Country was being held in “joint occupancy” by both Britain and the United States. This arrangement worked well only as long as the region was largely unoccupied. But as soon as settlers began pouring in, Oregon’s ownership became an issue. In the fall of 1838, Jason Lee made a speaking tour of the East, bringing tales of a Columbia River teeming with salmon. Inspired by his powerful lectures, a group of seventeen men from Peoria, Illinois decided to head west for the specific purpose of wresting Oregon away from the British.

Calling themselves the Oregon Dragoons, the group elected as their leader lawyer Thomas J. Farnham. Bearing a banner with the legend, “Oregon or the Grave,” the group set out in May, 1839. They planned to follow the famous northern fur-trading route, later known as the Oregon Trail, which combined directness with relative ease of travel.

However, the journey did not prove an easy one. The group, which became known as the Peoria Party, spent three stressful weeks of travel just to reach Independence, Missouri. While there, Farnham changed his mind and decided to follow the more southerly Santa Fe trail instead. Unprepared for the prairie’s terrifying weather phenomena, the group struggled miserably. Food supplies ran short; three members of the group quit and returned home.

Squabbling within the group became increasingly intense; during a heated quarrel, one man was accidentally shot in the side and badly injured. This forced the group to make even slower progress. Then the group voted to depose Farnham as leader and elected another man. Sioux raiders stole two of their horses. Three more members quit the group.

In Bent’s Fort, Colorado, the strife among the Peorians reached a crisis. The wounded man, another man, and former leader Farnham were all voted out of the group. Two other men decided to join Farnham’s faction, and the two separate groups set out separately for Oregon. Finally, both groups splintered further into ones and twos.

Nine of the original seventeen eventually reached Oregon. Far from being conquerors, the men, worn thin and ragged by their trials, arrived merely as settlers. Their experiences hardly seemed to bode well for American migration to Oregon. Yet by the time Farnham and the others finally arrived in Oregon, at least ten different towns back east had already formed “Oregon Societies” for the purpose of settling the region.

(Woodworth 57-62)

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San Francisco in the 1850s

A traveler arriving by boat to San Francisco in the 1850s would have been greeted by a weird sight: hundreds of square-rigged vessels drifting empty in the bay, abandoned by would-be gold hunters who had no further use for them.

San Francisco was discovered by the Spanish in 1769. A desolate area of sand dunes and hills, for nearly a century it boasted little more than a chapel and a few huts. In 1848 its population was around 500. In that year, gold was discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill, and by 1850, the sleepy village had exploded into a boomtown of 30,000 people.

The area was a natural port. The first prospectors to arrive lay planks between the wharves to serve as makeshift bridges; these soon became city streets. Beyond the wharves lay hundreds of tents and shacks constructed from boards ripped from abandoned boats. The buildings were connected by swampy dirt roads and hastily-constructed sidewalks made of flour sacks, old stoves, tobacco boxes, and in one instance, a grand piano.

By 1853 this shantytown was one of the biggest cities in the nation, with 46 gambling halls, 144 taverns and 537 places that sold liquor. Rowdy young men roamed the streets, looking to spend their gold as fast as they found it. Fortunes were made by those who sold goods and services to the miners; eggs went for a dollar apiece, a pound of butter for six dollars, a pair of boots for a hundred. Many of the newly-rich moved directly from shacks into mansions.

Ninety-two percent of the population were men between fifteen and forty-four years of age. The mere rumor of a female arriving in town could cause the saloons to empty and a crowd to gather at the docks. With only one woman to every dozen men, brothels flourished; the going rate was 100 dollars a night, roughly the price of a house.

Violence in the city was rampant; although a police system was put in place, disputes over land were most often settled by force. Mob rule prevailed, and vigilante groups defied public authority, intimidating or even abducting and imprisoning those foolish enough to serve as public officials. The murder rate hovered at about five murders every six days. It was a particularly dangerous place for new arrivals from Australia; viewed by the locals as rabble from a penal colony, they were often accused of crimes and hanged without the benefit of a trial.

Despite these wild-west tendencies, from the beginning San Francisco also had a strong progressive element. The opportunity for adventure and sudden wealth drew not only capitalists and criminals, but intellectuals as well. By 1853 the city supported a dozen newspapers and a strong community of writers, and was home to more college graduates than any other city in the United States. It quickly became the most cultured city on the West Coast, with many of the roughest-hewn gold prospectors also avid theatergoers. From its earliest days, San Francisco was tolerant, even fascinated, by anything different; then, as today, the city balanced peril with progressiveness, crime with culture.

(Chang 34-36)

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From Courting to Dating

Dating was invented in the 1920s.

Up through the beginning of the twentieth century, American courtship was carefully monitored. A girl would receive her gentleman caller on the front porch or in the family parlor, in the company of at least one adult chaperone. The couple would talk, read together, or play board games; on rare occasions they might be allowed to attend a church social or musical performance together, but always in view of nosy neighbors and family friends.

Under this system of courtship, women were in control. They selected the times and days for visits, did the inviting, and set the limits. All men could do was play along.

During the same period, even in the big cities, there was virtually no urban nightlife in America. After the sun went down, the night was lit only by the dim glow of gas lamps, and few respectable persons would dare to venture out after dark.

But by the first decade of the twentieth century, all that started to change.

The first challenge to the courtship system was America’s infatuation with the bicycle. These new contraptions made it easier for couples to slip away beyond the monitoring eyes of parents. Then came the telephone, which made it possible for young people to talk more freely, more often, and with more privacy.

Then came the automobile.

In the first years of the twentieth century, cars were considered unsafe and impractical. They didn’t work very well, and only millionaire hobbyists owned them. Drivers were limited to speeds of eight miles per hour, and some local ordinances required that each car be preceded by someone on foot, who was to warn pedestrians by waving a red flag.

But by the 1920s, cars were becoming commonplace; one-fifth of all Americans owned one of the new mass-produced automobiles. Suddenly, young people were never home anymore. Increasingly, they spent their evenings not in the family parlor, but in a car parked at Lover’s Lane.

In the same decade, for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in the countryside. More and more young people were leaving the family farm every year, and flocking to the newly-electrified cities.

Many of those new urbanites were women. By 1929, more than half of all single American women were gainfully employed, and many of them lived in large cities, alone and unsupervised, in boardinghouses or private apartments.

Thanks to mechanization, working people found that their hours dropped, while wages rose. Young people suddenly had more time on their hands and more money to spend. And they had all kinds of new public amusements on which to spend it: dance halls, movie palaces, amusement parks and baseball stadiums sprang up everywhere.

These amusements were meant for men and women to enjoy together. Popular amusement park concessions included romantic rides like the Tunnel of Love, and scary rides meant to induce mock terror and encourage clinging and hugging. In the dance halls, women stayed out late, smoking, drinking and carrying on with men, engaging in the new dances with their wild movements and close embraces.

Instead of paying calls, young men and women were now going on “dates,” a term that social commentators still  placed between quotation marks in the immediate pre-War years.

In contrast to the more circumscribed rituals of courting, the new dating culture led to increased sexual frankness and experimentation.

Although women were earning more money then ever before, wage and employment discrimination were rampant. Most working girls could barely earn enough to survive, and could not afford to go to movies or amusement parks on their own, nor afford the fancy clothes such activities required. So dating soon evolved into a system whereby men paid for dinners, movies and admissions, and women were unofficially expected to provide some physical and romantic attention in return.

The unwritten expectation that women would reciprocate sexually in return for indulging in social opportunities was completely new. Since dating was centered on public leisure activities that cost money, it took away much of the power women had held under the courtship system, and instead gave the advantage to men, who had the money to spend.

(Zeitz 29-38)

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Socks for Soldiers

During the Civil War years, women in both the North and South fought alongside their men, although not on the battlefields. The weapon of choice for women was the knitting needle.

Both armies had difficulty providing their soldiers with enough socks. It was reported that each soldier wore out one pair of socks per week. Soldiers were often forced to go barefoot, suffering with blistered, swollen, infected feet, from wearing their boots without socks. Machine-made socks, although widely available, wore out quickly and were considered inferior to the handmade article.

So the call went out throughout the country: the soldiers needed socks. Aid societies organized sock drives, sock patterns were distributed, and women knitted enthusiastically and incessantly. Some women made hundreds of pairs; those who were able to knit in the dark would work late into the night. Mary Chesnut wrote in her diary in the summer of 1861, “I do not know when I have seen a woman without knitting in her hand.”

It was difficult to obtain enough quality yarn. Wool was undoubtedly the best fiber available, but especially in the South toward the end of the war, it became increasingly hard to get, and women made use of cotton yarn, which was considered only just better than nothing.

Nevertheless, socks were collected by the hundreds and sent to military camps and hospitals. Many women included notes of Christian instruction, encouragement, and jokes along with the packages of socks, which must have lifted the spirits of many soldiers. The practice sometimes led to further correspondence, and even offers of marriage.

(Bassett 8-10)

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