Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Zap! You Are Now in 1862, and it's Spring! What Do You Do Now?

(This posting is a culmination of two other postings I wrote previously with additional info also added on March 9, 2014)

Taking a little breather from spring cleaning
Spring time has always been a time for preparing for the rest of the year; a time for a new beginning. A time for leaving the winter darkness & cold to a time for sunny warmth & renewal.
In our modern society, spring cleaning and outdoor preparedness still exists, but not quite in the same way. Today when the sun shines and the temperatures begin to climb into the 40's, 50, and even 60's what do so many think of doing? Yes - that modern spring ritual, shopping! Seriously! My own wife has said (and this is almost a verbatim quote): "It's beautiful outside! It makes me want to go shopping!"
And she's not alone. There are many others who think the same way (and I thank God I am not one of 'em!)
But it wasn't quite like this a few generations ago. In fact, why don't we take a peek into the past, at the way the coming of spring was "celebrated" by women and by men in the mid 19th century:

Ahhh…March…the month of springtime… the sun is out, temperatures are rising, the snow has either melted or is beginning to melt, the hyacinths and daffodils are poking through...
Here in March, the house is very dirty; spring has always been the time for a ritual turning out and thorough cleaning of the entire house, from cellar to attic. Spring cleaning entails more domestic disruption and manual labor than its autumnal counterpart. It was said that if you had ever witnessed the hurry, bustle, confusion, and noise of a house-raising or a ship launching you could have some idea of this house cleaning business. Therefore, “a husband, however beloved, becomes a perfect nuisance during this season of female rage.”
The ashes and soot from constant fires for cooking and warmth - combined with the soot from candles and oil lamps - is on nearly every surface, the mud of fall and winter covering the soles of shoes are now ground into the floors and rugs, firewood chips and slivers lie throughout, especially in corners...the kitchen and family parlor (or sitting room) have been the center of activity for months, and the remnants of spinning, sewing, whittling, and other wintertime activities are in desperate need to be cleared away. 
Pictures have been removed and, once the carpet is un-tacked and lifted, the walls will be scoured

Each room in turn is emptied and scrubbed and freshened with new whitewash and the furniture rubbed and polished. Susan Leslie recalled her mother awaking before dawn to begin her housecleaning. “The two parlors, dining room, entry and staircase are all carefully and thoroughly swept before six o’clock. She then calls up her domestics, if they are not already up.”
 Heavy drapery is to be taken down and be replaced with the summer curtains, fresh blinds replace the filthy ones that have taken on the winter's grime, and the windows need to be washed. Removing the ashes from the fireplace and sweeping and scouring the hearth desperately needs to be done. The rugs must be taken up and given a thorough cleaning by being brought outside, looped over a clothesline and beaten mercilessly, raising a cloud of dust as bad as the worst dust storm. Carpets were un-tacked while every square inch of the floor underneath was swept and mopped, then afterward fresh straw matting was laid down before the carpet was reattached “to make it soft, I guess” (from Catherine Havens upon her remembrances of her sister’s mid-nineteenth century best parlor). To do this, every piece of furniture in every room had to be moved either outdoors or to a different room. Although straw for matting was quite popular, a number of folks felt it wasn’t good for the carpeting due to causing uneven wear. 
Wall hangings were removed and the dust scrubbed from the frames. Walls, too, were wiped thoroughly in each room while it was emptied.
The furniture that had been removed needed to get the 'winter' removed as well. The upholstered pieces were beat much like the rugs, and the wooden articles were oiled and polished.
The feather beds were aired outside for at least two days so each side could be moistened by the dew and dried by the sun before being put away for the summer and replaced with straw mattresses.
The removal of winter stoves and the cleaning of chimneys commences, and the cleaning of pantries and bins are also necessary to help keep it as clear of bugs and rodents as possible..      
White garments and linens need a proper wash. The difficulties of drying clothing thoroughly in freezing weather has resulted in badly yellowed sheets, shirts, and undergarments. Linens that had been hung to dry before the fire have holes from flying sparks and need to be mended. Woolen clothing worn for weeks on unwashed bodies really smell. Flannel undergarments have begun to itch instead of providing comfort.
And how is your spring cleaning going?

My parlor, all nice and clean and a-waiting for warmer weather

For farmers, February's last days are like the 21st century's New Year Season. Accounts and diaries are closed and inventories are made. There is talk of spring and the new farm year. All farm calendars and diaries, almanacs and agricultural manuals begin appropriately with March.
"The new year is at our door," says a diary entry of the period, "spring is with us in March when we are yet sitting by the fireside..."
The American farmer, who drinks cider daily at his table instead of water or milk, is never-less a sober man. But mead and 'hardened cider brandy' are always in order, no matter what the after effects, during the March preparations for the coming seasons of labor.
Now, before we get into the actual outside chores for the coming of spring, let's look a little at our everyday lives of the mid-19th century men:
Boys still under the age of ten not only know how to expertly use firearms, but also learn how to handle an axe and keep it ready for use. The axe, aside from his rifle, is perhaps the most important tool that a man could have. And just as girls help their mothers with the housework, boys work next to their fathers in the fields.
In appraising the future of a farm, fences are reckoned a prime necessity. Almanac after almanac starts the month of March with "Look to your fences." March is the ideal season for storing up firewood and splitting fence-rails. March winds dry out the winter-cut logs in the woods, making them easier to haul in. 
"The differences in saving between green and dry wood," says the 1821 farmer's Almanac, "will pay the expense of sledding, besides the extra trouble of kindling fires." 
Split-rail fencing around a farm is often worth more than the land itself. In 1850, the fencing for a three hundred acre farm cost nearly ten thousand dollars (at the current 21st century price level).
Although March is the month for hauling in and cutting up wood, the actual felling of trees for fence material is often done during the second running of sap, in August. By way of a wooden mallet, rails are always split by hammering on them with wedges, never by striking them with an ax. (The use of wooden hammers is now almost a lost art, but the workshop of a century and a half ago had a great variety of them).
Timber cut at the proper season, or dried in the proper season, and split at the proper season, is so easily cleaved with a wooden hammer and wedge that the work offers profound satisfaction and is peculiarly fascinating. Abraham Lincoln knew this relaxing pleasure, saying that some of his "best thinking was done when working hardest at splitting rails."

I see items a farmer may need, just in case his tools from last year cannot be mended
The March chore of laying up new fuel wood also heralds the end of winter, the season of the hearth. Besides heating and cooking equipment, there are always a few pieces of wood present, being seasoned by the winter fire. Special wood for ax handles and other farm tools is laboriously dried at the fireplace, and even lightly charred for strength. Special pieces are often left near the fireplace for as long as a year, to render them properly seasoned.

No American season is more definite than sugaring time. The right time is usually between late February/early March through early April when the sap is flowing properly. The nights are still cold enough to freeze sharply and the days warm enough to thaw freely. The thermometer must not rise above forty degrees by day, nor sink below 24 degrees at night. It is this magic see-sawing between winter and spring that decides the sugaring season.
To collect the sap, holes are bored in the maple tree, followed by the hammering in of a wooden tube called a spile. Under the spile a wooden bucket, made by the local cooper, is placed to catch the clear watery sap. Each day the buckets of sap are emptied into one large barrel, which is hauled back to the boiling area.

Painting by Eric Sloane

There, three iron kettles made by the local blacksmith hang over fires. In the first kettle, the watery tasteless sap is vigorously boiled over a roaring fire. The water will gradually evaporate, leaving behind a thicker, sweeter liquid. This is then ladled into the second kettle where it is gently boiled to thicken more. Constant stirring keeps it from burning. This thick, sweet syrup can then be poured into crocks to be used on porridge or cakes. Or, it can be ladled into the third kettle. If this is done, the liquis will then, over a smaller fire, be carefully stirred until it turns into sugar. The sugar will be packed into wooden boxes and tubs to be used in the coming year.
Sugaring is hard work, but we try to make such a cheerful season of it that the whole family looks forward to sugaring, making it more play than work.
And, of course, one of the best parts of maple syrup making is testing the outcome!

Just in case you are interested in maple sugaring

(Iffin you don't mind, I'm going to step on a soap box for a moment here. I have in front of me a bottle of Log Cabin Original Syrup. Here are the ingredients: corn syrup, liquid sugar (natural sugar, water), salt, natural and artificial flavors (lactic acid), cellulose gum, preservatives (sorbic acid, sodium benzoate), sodium hexametaphosphate, caramel color, phosphoric acid.
This is what's in the bottle of Spring Tree Maple Syrup that is also in front of me: 100% maple syrup.
What would you rather put into your body?
Okay, I'm off my soap box now

By the time springtime arrived, people were nearing the end of their winter storage of the food from last fall's harvest and were looking forward to the season of growing. Sarah Bryant often noted in her diary when the hens began to lay, and wrote the dates of the first blossoming of plums, peaches, apples, and cherries in her orchard.
Her diary records the first sowing of grains and garden vegetables, including when she saw the first peas and cucumbers peaking through. 
And, as so many of her time (and even in our modern times), she often worried over the threat of the damage a late frost could do during blooming season.

A number of years ago my friend, Wendi Schroeder, wrote a wonderful piece on foods of the season that I included in a post. It's an excellent description of what you would put in your kitchen garden, and I would like to present here what she had to say about springtime (with a few additional notations from me): 
March and April signal the end of the winter season so you would most likely be using up things in the root cellar. However, some of the winter vegetables have begun to rot, and the apples are getting soft. Mushy potatoes will be made into starch, and the winter's accumulation of fat needs to be made into soap before it turns rancid.    
This is the time to plan and prepare your kitchen garden.

Plowing the kitchen garden
In the meat category, ham is popular since it is getting warmer and whatever is left in the smokehouse isn't likely to keep much longer. (I personally suspect that's how Ham for Easter got to be so popular). If you are willing to be a bit more adventuresome there is also lamb and veal (newborn animals that didn't make it were not wasted). 

Don't worry...this little lamb made it!

Fresh beef maybe but most likely there wouldn't be any left. Salted beef would be much more likely.

For vegetables, you would have the last of the potatoes, winter squash, carrots, onions, dried beans, and perhaps fresh asparagus if you grew it.

There would also be fresh lettuce especially if you had cold frames or hot frames to grow them in.

Pickled items of all sorts would be on the pantry shelves, cucumber pickles, watermelon rind pickles, sauerkraut, pickled peppers, pickled onions etc…

For fruit you would have jellys, jams, and the last of your cellar apples. Raisins would be around, but they would have been imported. I can't find evidence that grapes were grown in Michigan during the War, but if anyone has information to the contrary I'd be delighted to see it.

As a side note…this is what you plant in your kitchen garden in April or May in Michigan: onions, potatoes, peas, lettuce, leeks, cabbage, and asparagus. If you plan your breeding, your sow is farrowing and you have piglets to raise. If one doesn't make it you have sucking pig to eat for Sunday.

Ok, moving on to May.
You would start to see radishes, lettuce, asparagus, and new peas perhaps.
You plant tomatoes and peppers and beans and corn and squash and pumpkin and melon and cucumbers and whatever else your little heart desires to put into the ground. 
(Thank you Wendi!)
By late spring your kitchen garden should be flourishing nicely

One of the big back-breaking jobs for farmers in the spring was hauling the manure from where it was gathered and stored by wheel barrow across the bumpy, sometimes muddy, ground out to the field, where it would be dumped and spread. This was not anyone's favorite job, though it had to be done. This job could take the better part of two weeks or more to complete.
Following this was the plowing and harrowing of the main field. 
The plow, of course, breaks up and turns over the soil to make it smoother for planting. It is one of the oldest of farming tools.
Though I've never plowed before, I've watched it being done plenty of times and can see just what a job it is. I would love an opportunity to plow behind a horse - not only to see just how hard it actually is, but to be able to say I've done it.
Ahhh...maybe one day...

Plowing up ground that has lay dormant, hard and snow-packed for nearly a half year is just about as strenuous labor as anyone could ask for!

Henry Ford once commented that children knew more about wars than about harrows, even though harrows did more to build this country than wars. 
It was after plowing that the farmer would use the harrow to further spread and even out the dirt for planting. Back across the field the farmer would go, and when he finished in one direction, he would drag the field crosswise to smooth it further.

Harrowing, though not quite as physical, is still a labor-intensive chore that must be done before planting.

"When the oak leaves are the size of a field mouse's ear, then it's time to plant the corn," said one old-time farmer.
Another said that the whippoorwill offered another reminder for corn planting, calling soon after sunset when the days begin to warm (usually in May).
Planting the crop was a critical step with no room for error. Missing a section of a field could cause a huge problem: no seed in the ground, no crop.
For hundreds of years, farmers sowed grain by hand; shouldering a bag of seed, the farmer walked up and down the tilled field, fingering the seeds from side to side. As a 19th century farmer said, "On spring-plowed fields it was heavy traveling for the man who carried grain and sowed by hand. Of course, it was heavy work, even traveling over fall-plowed ground, with the grain hung over the shoulders, and the steady swing of the right arm throwing the grain as the right foot advanced, and dipping the hand into the bag for another cast of grain as the left foot advanced."
But the sowing process and outcome was frustrating at best. There is an old proverb that I recall hearing in my youth that best describes the planting of seeds:

One for the mouse, 
one for the crow, 
one to rot, 
and one to grow.

It was Jethro Tull, an English agriculturalist, who is credited with inventing the first practical seed drill back in 1701, allowing farmers to plant their crop much easier and more uniform.
Then in Wisconsin in 1860, brothers George and Daniel Van Brunt patented a design for a combination drill and cultivator that was pulled by a team of horses. This was an immediately success and gained in popularity throughout the early 1860's. By the end of the Civil War the Van Brunt Company was producing 1300 grain drills a year.

This farmer looks to be using a horse-drawn grain drill, which distributed seeds quickly and evenly and then covered them over. Grain drills were a  vast improvement over spreading the seeds by hand.
Soon this field will be filled with corn and wheat, and it won't be long before it will look like what you see in this next photo...
Welcome to the merry month of May!

Now, I must tell you that this is about a quick an overview of a farmer's life as I ever did see, but this is a blog post to give the reader an idea of what life was like in another time, not a book or an encyclopedia.
However, if I piqued your interest a little on these subjects and your are interested in reading a more thorough account of this life, I would like to suggest the following books (from which I combed the information found herein) for your research and reading pleasure, for they go into a much deeper depth:

"The Seasons of America Past" by Eric Sloane 
Farmer's & Housekeeper's Cyclopedia 1888
These books give wonderful and detailed information about the seasonal nature of living in times past.
Also, if you are interested in old farming tools, check out this post HERE

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Many of us who live in the 21st century know so little of the everyday life of our not-too-distant ancestors. I know of a few friends who still carry on some of these traditions, such as maple sugaring, much in the same way as was done over a century ago.
It's to these 21st century artisans that practice the customs of long ago that this posting (and this entire blog) is dedicated to.



Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

This post makes me want to get up from the computer and go clean the house, lol! They had it so much worse back then, with the soot, rodents, etc. I can see why domestics were so necessary. If only I could afford domestics now, I could stay on the computer and blog all day...


Historical Ken said...

I know...I wish our 19th century domestic was our real domestic here in the modern age.
For the same pay...