~Updated June 18, 2017~
Temperatures in southern lower Michigan in July can easily reach into the mid-to-upper 90's, sometimes for weeks on end, and will even touch the triple digits here and there.
When you include the high humidity it can really be miserable.
|Having a picnic on a day when the temperature reached triple digits.|
And so did our ancestors.
But I would bet many of you may be surprised at just how much closer your own childhood was to those who lived 150 years ago in comparison to life here in the 21st century.
Most of us over the age of 50, I'm sure, can remember the days before air-conditioning - whether in the window or central - when the only means of cooling off during extremely hot summer days and evenings was to jump in the lake or pond, by means of a hose or running through the sprinkler, or, as my mother did for us, give us a cool-down bath. The electric floor and window fans, on the steamiest days and nights, did little more than push around the hot air.
And yet, we survived, didn't we?
Well, it's still like that in my house.
And we're still surviving.
You may recall a posting I wrote on Spring and all of it's chores, including Spring Cleaning and farm preparation. (Please take a few minutes to read it if you haven't, for it is a wonderful segue into today's post)
Spring cleaning was one of the most important chores of the calendar year. The women, for instance, had a major job ahead of them: this was to scour the entire home from top to bottom, and the women of the house left no stone unturned.
One of the items that I did not mentioned in my spring posting is the cleaning of the fireplace. This is due, in part, to cool weather striking as late as the end of May or early June and, in many cases, this chore would be put off til the last minute.
But once the sultry heat of summer hit and remained, it was time for that chore to be taken care of, which included emptying ashes, having the hearth thoroughly scoured, and then cleaning and polishing the andirons and fire tools and wrapping them in old newspapers for storage in the garrett or shed. Sometimes vases of varying flower-types were placed in the empty fireplace opening during summer, or else it was covered completely by a fireboard.
|Notice that this fireplace cover also has embroidered flowers draped in the front|
we’re hot in all these clothes.|
And so were our ancestors…
Compare that to what one living in a 21st century summer might wear...there is no comparison.
And, as reenactors, what is our number one question we receive from spectators?
(All together now) "Aren't you hot in all those clothes?"
On those hot summer days, we especially are!
So just what did the folks from the 18th and 19th centuries do when the temperatures rose to uncomfortable highs?
Not unlike us in our modern day, people from the past did what they could to cool off, but to a more subtle degree rather than today's 'let it all hang out' attitude. For instance, in the Currier & Ives print below of a man plowing his field you will see he is not wearing his sack coat. If you have ever plowed a field - or watched someone do the chore - you will know just what an exerting job it is. And even on the coldest days the man with the plow will work up a sweat, so you can imagine how hot he must've been on a 90+ degree day. But the person guiding the oxen, who is not working quite as strenuous, is wearing his complete ensemble.
|Currier & Ives: American Farm Scene No. 1 - 1855|
So as the Victorian farmer plows in the heat of late spring or summer, removing his sack coat - and sometimes even his waistcoat - was very common. And more than likely the garment was hanging nearby in case a visitor stopped to talk to him. One must always be ready to look proper.
Here is a wonderful description of the attempt to tolerate heat from one who lived during the mid-to-late 19th century, Alice Grey Emory Wilmer (1855 - 1936):
"It was the hottest July ever. The trees and the tall boxwoods sagged under the weight of the air, which lay along their branches like heavy flannel blankets that had been washed, wrung out and set to dry in the sun. One could imagine steam rising from them. All day the locusts jeered at us, gloating at the discomfort caused by the soaring thermometer."
By mid-July, the first of the summer harvests were ready, and this was almost as joyous a time for the farming family as the fall harvest, for the abundance of wheat and early vegetables was cause for celebration!
~Using a scythe to harvest summer wheat~
Besides wheat and fresh vegetables, some fruits were becoming abundant, including watermelon. To Anne Warder, who, in 1786 had never tasted watermelon, wrote that it was like "sweetened snow."
Within a few decades there was scarcely a summer where one didn't enjoy this "sweetened snow" taste!
This was cause for a summertime thresherman's dinner celebration!
For the farmer, later June and into July are the times for haying. The alfalfa, clover, and timothy hay mixture reaches its knee-high height about now, and just as the clover and alfalfa plants begin to flower, it's time to cut the hay. Whether by hand with a scythe or, in the later decades of the 19th century, the horse-drawn hay mower, the farmer headed to the hay field.
The old saying, "Make hay while the sun shines," is very true, for there was around a three week window from start to finish to make hay. So if the day was sunny and warm, what was cut in the morning could be raked by mid-afternoon.
Then came the tedious task of "making hay." Using a pitch fork, the hay would be piled into four-foot high and wide stacks, and these bundles would be carefully constructed so they would shed rain and stand up to strong wind.
After a day or two of drying in the field, these bunches would then be hauled to the barn by hay wagon to be unloaded and stored.
The hay was nearly always stored on the second floor of the barn, making it easier to drop it down to the bottom as needed.
Haying season would stretch into late July, allowing a week or two to catch up on chores that had been overlooked. For instance, even though farmers would mend their fences before the planting season, the wood barriers always needed attention. This could very well include new fence posts along with the labor of digging postholes, which was a very difficult task.
Summertime is also the time for growing. In the 21st century it seems that growing a vegetable garden has become all the rage. Many people are tired of chemical-laced produce bought from the store and are now harkening back to more healthy and traditional time.
Here is the summer portion:
June is when strawberries are in season. Your meat poultry is coming along nicely, but they aren't quite big enough to eat yet. But the laying hens are going gang busters and the cow is giving lots of milk (or the goats). You are still eating lettuce and radishes. This is a great salad month.
This is when you shear the sheep and take the wool in to be washed and carded for spinning…unless you do this all at home. You also plant your cabbage and peas for the fall garden about now.
July: The peas are getting ripe. You have new potatoes (which are very small). Blueberries are in season. You might get some cabbage out now, and the Broccoli is ready to eat. You have some meat chickens (born last fall) that are big enough to eat, so you start butchering them one or two at a time as you want one for dinner. Early raspberries are in now too. It's too hot for the lettuce to be doing well, so it's rather scarce.
August: You are starting to get beans. A melon or two is ripened, and if you planted short season corn it should be coming in towards the end of the month. More potatoes, these are larger, especially if you planted mid-season varieties. Tomatoes and Peppers are starting to come in and they pretty much overwhelm you at the end of the month. Peas are in completely and they start to wane early in August. The pigs are growing nicely and you are getting really tired of poultry and salted beef and pork. However, the fish are biting and fresh fish can be had whenever someone has the time to go catch some. You can harvest onions now too, or you can leave them growing until cold weather.
|Harvesting summer vegetables|
The importance of caring for your garden in the pre-electric era cannot be overstated. It was their lifeblood, and the farmers & their families would risk life and limb to save what they could, for otherwise loss of property and starvation could become a reality. Jean Fritz describes this situation very adequately in the young teen book about life in the 1780's, The Cabin Faced West:
All at once the sky itself seemed to drop down on Hamilton Hill. The rain came in one great sheet and lashed the hill first from one side, then another. In the cornfield, people and cornstalks both bent low.Mr. Hamilton tried to shout orders, and when he couldn’t be heard he ran from one to another. He sent Mrs. Hamilton and Ann home. He and the boys stayed to finish the corn and take it to the barn.
Ann and her mother fought their way step by step against the rain. When they reached the door of the cabin, Ann turned to look at her vegetable garden. There were her poor peas tossing back and forth, crumpling with each new sweep of the rain! The straight little rows were being dashed to the ground.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Ann said to her mother, and started off for the garden.
“It’s too late,” her mother called. “We’ll rescue what we can later.”
Ann dropped to her hands and knees in the mud beside the tattered pea vines. She picked what she could find and filled her soaking apron. Each time her apron was filled, Ann went to the cabin and emptied the peas inside. Each time, in spite of her mother’s urgings, she went back to the vegetable garden. The neat little garden lay tattered and broken, but Ann worked on.
Then the wind started. It blew the rain right off the hill and set to work on the trees. Branches snapped and crackled, and Ann picked up her last apronload and went to the cabin.
As she opened the door, her mother and Mr. McPhale stood ready to bar it quickly behind her. She dropped the last apronful of peas on top of the others she had brought in.
Finally the wind stopped. The three Hamilton men burst into the cabin.
"Tell us," Mrs. Hamilton said, "what is left on the hill?"
"We have much to be thankful for," Mr. Hamilton said. "We were able to save a good part of the corn. The late crop we have, of course, lost. There will be much work to do over again in the south field. I see Ann has saved many of the peas. Some potatoes and pumpkins may yet be rescued..."
~ For the women of the mid-19th century, from what I was told by a local clothing historian, it was the removal of some of the underpinnings (down to their petticoat) that helped, in part, to relieve them ever-so-slightly from the oppressive heat. Women could also unbutton the front of their dresses one or two and maybe three down, roll or push up their sleeves, and remove undersleeves if they happen to be wearing them.
Of course, while taking a stroll a parasol was a necessary accessory to keep one's face out of the sunlight.
|An 1880s summer harvest|
Alice Grey Emory Wilmer gives a wonderful example of summertime on the farm during the summer harvest in the early 1870’s. She was asked to supply the men out in the fields with water:
“Ned and Jack hoisted the water barrel up on the cart for me, and from then on each morning I filled it at the pump, hitched up Boney (the horse) and set forth on my rounds.
It was pleasant creaking along under the trees. I wore a large straw hat and opened my parasol when we emerged into the blistering heat of the fields. It took eight or nine men to harvest 40 acres of hay in a day.
|19th century farm boys worked as hard as the men|
(these are a few of our reenacting boys replicating life on the farm)
The men stopped working when they saw me coming, wiped the perspiration from their faces with their forearms, and stood in line waiting for their turn at the dipper.
Later in the week when the threshing crew arrived, it was bedlam. The enormous ungainly machine clanked up the lane, pulled into the field by a team of six mules. The steam engine was fired up with a clatter you could hear all of the way up at the big house and seemed to shake the shingles on its roof. Men were feeding the sheaves into its hungry maw, while more men were filling bags with the stream of kernels it disgorged, tying them, loading the wagons and driving them, heavy, to the granary, where still another crew was waiting to unload and stack the bulging sacks.
Harriet recruited women to help her in the kitchen. An enormous breakfast and an equally large noontime dinner had to be produced. I rolled up my sleeves to do my share. The kitchen and summer kitchen throbbed with heat from the cook stoves. Dishes clattered. Hurrying bodies bumped into one another as we carried platters to and fro. By evening every muscle was screaming ‘no-no-more,’ aware the ordeal would have to begin again at dawn the following day.
And then it was over. The threshing crew moved on to the next farm, the extra hands paid off. There was quiet and satisfaction of knowing we had made a good crop."
|Threshing in the late 19th century|
Of course, while taking a stroll a parasol was a necessary accessory to keep one's face out of the sunlight.
|Many women would also wrap a cold, damp cloth around their neck, and might even soak their feet in a bucket of cool water.|
Beating the Heat: just as the family had seated itself as close to the fire as possible all winter to keep warm, it now moved closer to windows and doorways to breathe in cool air.
However, extreme heat proved to be more of a challenge. Alice Grey Emory Wilmer stated, "Soon after breakfast, Aunt Amy would close the windows and draw the blinds to shut out the day's fierce heat, as Grandmama instructed her to do many years ago. No one had ever questioned the efficiency of this. The rooms were so dark and airless that after reading a few pages, a headache would begin..."
I've found in our modern times less and less people opening their windows and, instead, keep them closed tight so the cool "fake" air from their air-conditioner doesn't seep out.
In the cool of the evening many times the folks from the past would move about the streets to meet and greet with neighbors and acquaintances...
|...while others were satisfied to sit upon their porches
and stoops, admiring the spectacle of the throngs of passersby, for
"not a street or alley was there, but what was in a state of
In 1857, Caroline Barrett White complained that "The mosquitoes are so plenty. I counted one hundred in Julia's parlor tonight."
Martha Forman wrote in 1820 that her walls were covered with the vile blood-suckers "as plenty as bees in a hive."
The heat of summer only added greatly to the discomfort of those who lived back then, and one was compelled to keep their doors and windows shut tight to make the attempt to keep these winged pests out. This only made the heat of a summer night even more unbearable, therefore making sleep nearly non-existent.
The extinguishing of any light from oil lamps and candles proved to be necessary as well "for if you do not, you will find yourself eaten up by mosquitoes."
But, if you preferred to have some light, be prepared; Mary Almy wrote on a hot August night in 1778, "frightful dreams and broken slumbers, listening to the noise of a fly or mosquito as they hummed around a candle."
Twenty or more yards of mosquito netting or pavilion gauze covered beds and cribs. According to descriptions from the time these pavilions looked like "a transparent bonnet box" or a "kind of box without a bottom" and were made of coarse open canvas, silk, gauze, or check muslin, some with varying assortments of designs.
|18th century pavilion gauze|
Some women in the deep south went so far as to actually wear the pavilion gauze: "Many ladies are accustomed, during the summer months, to get into a large sack of muslin tied around the throat," wrote Harriet Martineau, "with smaller sacks for the arms, and to sit thus at work or book, fanning themselves to protect their faces. Others sit all the morning on the bed, within their moscheto-curtains."
Some folks would at times place this sort of covering on their windows as blinds or screens. In this way they kept the the heat and glare of the sun out, as well as protected their carpets and furnishings from fading.
All of these precautions to prevent the pests from entering, however, did not always work, as James Stewart found out. "I, again and again, found that the enemy had broken through the protecting curtain, and had not left me altogether uninjured."
Alice Grey Emory Wilmer recalled, "At night the mosquitoes whined around the netting which kept them and whatever vestige of air that might be moving from our beds."
Biting bugs of the crawling variety also disturbed the summer slumber; bedbugs were prominent throughout the U.S. "Oh blast the bedbugs and mosquitoes," cursed a traveler in 1855 New England. "I wonder if there is any country where they don't live. It must be a happy place..."
Bedbugs got so bad in Edward Carpenter's bed that he actually got up and left one evening and slept at another house because the "bed bugs have got so thick we can't sleep here."
For this reason it was suggested that at least once a week bedsteads be washed at the joints where the pests usually lived.
Ants were another problem, and placing the legs of the sideboards and food safes in tin cups of water was suggested, though this practice was disastrous to the furniture. Another suggestion - one that would be safer for the furniture - was to put out a bowl of walnuts where the ants would soon "gather upon it in troops" and could then be disposed of by dumping the contents of the dish into the fire.
Flies were as big a pests as the mosquitoes, especially where there was fruit and food, and were attracted to the wonderful aromas wafting through the open screen-less kitchen window, seemingly giving the insects an invitation to come and eat. Covering food with cloths was a common way to keep the flies off, though once they found their way inside the home, they multiplied and swarmed throughout. Many times the youngest children made a game of waving feather-fans about the kitchen to keep the food protected.
|A sketch from 1860 - would you like some food to go with your flies?|
It seems that from what I am writing here, summer was a literal hell for our ancestors.
This is far from the truth.
Being that they were accustomed to life without our modern amenities of electric fans, air-conditioning, and window screens, they knew no different, and therefore accepted their so-called plight without question.
A carriage ride in the country was a common summertime pleasure that many who lived in the towns and cities enjoyed partaking in, as was the opportunity for an afternoon swim in a nearby pond or lake. When you think about it, this is no different from you or I taking a drive in our car out to the country either for a nice scenic outing or to go to the beach.
|Currier & Ives print - not sure of the name.|
|The mayor gives a ceremonious speech to welcome Independence Day|
|Houses as well as stores and other businesses hung flags, buntings, and streamers.|
Carriages and carts were also decorated in red, white, and blue. Even aprons worn by the ladies were in the patriotic colors. Pictures of eagles were hung in windows of homes and shops. Brass bands played patriotic numbers such as 'Yankee Doodle'...it was a celebration second to none.
"All the stores were closed, but ladies and gentlemen were walking up and down and talking. Then...a Congressman stood up on a platform. Slowly and solemnly he read the Declaration of Independence.
Many were picnicking in the churchyard (and) there was a lemonade stand by the hitching posts. All the flags were fluttering and everyone was happy, because they were free and independent and this was Independence Day."
(From 'Farmer Boy' by Laura Ingalls Wilder)
|Independence Day was celebrated every bit as much - if not more - than Christmas during the mid-and later part of the 19th century.|
|Ringing in the 4th of July!|
|Making ice cream - an Independence day treat!|
And what a treat it was!
|The farm family certainly enjoyed this rare summertime treat of ice cream|
By the 1830's, ice houses - wooden structures used to store ice throughout the year in the age before electric refrigeration - were pretty standard across the land. Some were underground chambers, usually man-made, close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes or rivers. Most that I have seen or read about, however, were above ground buildings with insulation.
|Heading to the ice house...|
In preparation for storage, the icehouse would be packed with various types of insulation including a new five-inch base, usually of sawdust or straw, while the previous year’s insulation, old and pungent-smelling, was shoveled out and used for fertilizer. In this manner, the ice would remain frozen for many months, often until the following winter.
|The stream where the ice was gathered the previous winter is directly behind this ice house.|
And there you have a snippet of summertime life from days gone by. Only a snippet, mind you, for we can never fully understand unless we can fully experience this time. But, as living historians, we can at least make the attempt to show life as it was in hopes of passing on the understanding of the times gone by.
A book dedicated to the season should be written to cover the many facets of the season. You'd be surprised how I had to scour numerous books in my collection to find what I have written here.
I hope you enjoyed it. And for those of you who reenact or do living history I hope you will include some of this information to liven up your presentation.
Now...enjoy your summer!
Until next time, see you in time...
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The following are my sources for this posting. Much of what I have here comes directly - sometimes word for word - from them:
Our Own Snug Fireside by Jane C. Nylander
At Home: The American Family by Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett
American Yesterday by Eric Sloane
Forgotten Arts &Crafts by John Seymour
Expansion of Everyday Life 1860 - 1876 by Daniel E. Sutherland
Seasons of America Past by Eric Sloane
~Plus my friends that work at Firestone Farm at Greenfield Village~
Click HERE to read about wintertime in the19th century
Click HERE to read about springtime in the 19th century
Click HERE to read about autumn in the 19th century
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