Sunday, March 9, 2014

Springtime - A Victorian Celebration of the Season of Rebirth

~ Updated again in 2020
I have written a posting specifically of springtime in the 18th century,  therefore returned this post to its original Victorian nature. 


 "Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man.  When tillage begins, other arts will follow.  The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization." 
~ Daniel Webster

In our modern day,  when the first signs of spring come forth and the sun shines with temperatures hitting the 40,  50,  and even 60 degree mark,  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.
We are all familiar with the term  "spring chores"  and  "spring planting,"  I am sure,  and in our modern society,  spring cleaning and outdoor yard work still exists,  but not quite in the same way.  In fact,  why don't we take a peek into the past and see the way the coming of spring was   "celebrated"  by men and women in the 19th century in American history:

…March,  April,  May…the months of springtime… the sun is out,  the snow is melting,  temperatures are rising,  the hyacinths and daffodils are poking through...
As living historians,  we make attempts at bringing the past to life,  and, therefore,  many of our discussions when we gather together should concern our everyday lives of the days of old;  instead of wanting to go shopping in the beautiful weather as our modern counterparts would like to do in this season of rebirth,  we should,  instead,  discuss what we need to do and what we have already accomplished for the coming growing season,  for it is spring time, you know,  and spring 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 and cold behind and look to a time for sunny warmth and renewal...rebirth.  It will set the pace for all of the seasons to come.

For farmers of the 19th century,  February's last days were like the 21st century's New Year Season.  Accounts and diaries were closed and inventories were made.  There was talk of spring and the new farm year.  All farm calendars and diaries,  almanacs and agricultural manuals begin appropriately with March.
Look to your fences.
Now,  before we get into the actual inside chores done by the women of the home for the coming of spring,  let's first take a look at the everyday lives of the men in centuries past,  who will spend most of their time outdoors:
Boys still under the age of ten not only know how to expertly use firearms,  but also learn how to handle an ax and keep it ready for use.  The ax,  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. 
For the sustainability of a farm,  fences are considered 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 cost for fencing a three hundred acre farm would be,  at the current 21st century price level,  nearly ten thousand dollars.
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.
Maple Sugaring at Old Sturbridge Village - photo courtesy of Vicki Stevens

Maple Sugaring at Old Sturbridge Village - photo courtesy of Vicki Stevens
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 liquid 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
If 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.
And here is what's in the bottle of  Spring Tree Maple Syrup  that is also in front of me:
100% pure maple syrup.
Now,  what would you rather put into your body?
Methinks that the Log Cabin syrup is somehow not quite as original as they say...
Okay,  I'm off my soap box now.

From mending fences and tools to tapping the trees for syrup,  the next big job a farmer has is hauling manure from the manure pile in the barnyard to the field where he will later plow and plant.  The gutters behind the cows are cleaned daily and the mixture of straw and manure becomes an ever-growing pile in the barnyard.  No matter how much one may love cows and horses,  I can almost guarantee they will simply despise having to shovel manure into a wheelbarrow and then haul it out to the manure pile.
Farm boys of the 19th century
But it has to be done.  From November through the end of  March,  while the animals spend their nights in the barn,  it needs to be done. 
And then,  once spring planting preparations begin,  the farmer again will have to haul the pile,  load after wheelbarrow load  (or piled onto a horse-drawn cart),  out to the planting field.  This is a back-breaking ordeal,  for carrying a heavy load of manure through the crevice-filled field is no easy task.
Then comes the duty of spreading...I would venture to guess this was probably the worst job in a farmer's year.

Now it's time for plowing.  This is another challenging tilling necessity.  The process of plowing is an unbroken link to the past,  one of which is carried on today, though with much greater ease than in days of old.  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.  Back and forth, walking literally mile after mile.  Arms,  as use to plowing as they are,   will still ache nightly,  and they ache even worse come the next morning when the farmer,  once again,  will find himself behind the two plow horses in the cool of the morning,  digging the cast iron mould-board tool into the ground to turn up the soil that had laid dormant and frozen all the long winter.
Plowing the kitchen garden at 1880s Firestone Farm
In 2014 I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to plow behind a team of horses,  something I've never done before but had wanted to experience for years.  Since this ancient chore was new to me,  I wasn't quite sure what to expect,  and what I found was that it is much tougher of a chore than I imagined;  my legs felt as if I had run through wet sand with 15 lb weights on each ankle.  However, my arms and upper torso felt great.   I did a couple of furrows,  which was all my legs could handle  (this modern city boy is not in the same physical shape as a 19th century farmer,  that's for sure!),  but, thanks to the good folk at Firestone Farm inside Greenfield Village,  I now can say I plowed behind horses.
The best part?   I didn't make a fool of myself  (seriously - I was nervous about that!) - I was told that I did very well and kept my furrows straight.
And that means a lot to me - it was the highlight of my historical year.
Yes,  that is really me plowing behind a team of horses at 
Firestone Farm.  That's Steve guiding the horses next to me. 
What an awesome experience!

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!
It was after plowing that the farmer would use the harrow to further spread and even the dirt out for planting.  The purpose of a harrow is to break up the clumps of soil and to provide a smoother finish to the land,  making for better planting and growth.  Back across the field mister farmer would go,  and when he finished in one direction,  he would harrow  (or drag)  the field crosswise to smooth it further.
Henry Ford once commented that children knew more about wars than about harrows,  even though harrows did more to build this country than wars.  Hence part of his reasoning for his creating the Greenfield Village open-air museum as well as his oft-repeated  (out of context)  "history is bunk!"  statement:  "History as it is taught in the schools deals largely with...wars,  major political controversies,  territorial extensions and the like.  When I went to our American history books to learn how our forefathers harrowed the land,  I discovered that the historians knew nothing about harrows.  Yet our country depended more on harrows than on guns or great speeches.  I thought a history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk and I think so yet."
Harrowing,  though not quite as physical as plowing,  is still 
a labor-intensive chore that must be done before planting,  
as can be seen here at 1880s Firestone Farm.

Meanwhile,  back at the house - - - - - - - - - - -
The chickens are laying again!
(Firestone Farm)
With March and April signaling the end of the winter season,  you would most likely be using up things in the root cellar;  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.
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.  
For vegetables,  you would have the last of the potatoes,  winter squash,  carrots,  onions,  and dried beans,  though it would not be long before you'll have fresh asparagus  (in May). 
There might 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 jellies,  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 this time,  but if anyone has information to the contrary I'd be happy to see it.
Not much left in the Firestone's cellar - apple sauce,  apple 
jelly,  apple jam,  apple butter - planting season can't come 
soon enough!
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).  Since I planned my breeding,  my sow is farrowing and we have piglets to raise.  If you are willing to be a bit more adventuresome there is also lamb and veal,  meaning if one doesn't make it,  guess what?  I'll have suckling pig or lamb to eat for Sunday dinner  (newborn animals that didn't make it were not wasted).  I could still have fresh beef maybe,  but most likely there wouldn't be any left.  Salted beef would be much more likely.

Don't worry...this little lamb made it!
Staking out the kitchen garden
(Firestone farm)
This is the time to plan and prepare your kitchen garden.
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.  
By the way,  it would be the month of May when you may start to see radishes,  lettuce,  asparagus,  and new peas popping up.
May is also when you would 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.  
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 also 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.
"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."
By late spring  (early June)  your kitchen garden should be 
flourishing nicely as can be seen here at Firestone
But the sowing process and outcome was frustrating at best.  There is an old proverb that I recall hearing in my youth from my own farming grandfather 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 immediate 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 1880s 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 at Firestone Farm!

Shearing Sheep
Sheep shearing time always feels like the start of a new year.  Maybe because it does happen in spring,  and spring has traditionally been considered more of a new year to the farmer than New Year’s Day.  It is also because we know lambing is coming up next.
Shearing sheep is usually done only once a year so that the sheep are free of their heavy wool coats for the hot summer months.  You would not want to shear the animals too early in the spring,  however,  for fear of not-so-fair weather for the animals.  Going from a full thick winter wool coat to almost no coat can be a bit stressful,  and more so if the weather is cold.  Since lambing occurs in the late spring or early summer,  shearing often takes place in April.  A sheep without her fleece is pretty naked looking!  This annual ritual also has the benefit of producing salable wool or,  if you're like my wife,  spinning it into yarn yourself. 
Most farmers prefer to have their sheep sheared before lambing commences - usually about a month before.  The ewes are still a few weeks away from full pregnancy so the process is little easier on them.
Shearing before lambing helps to keep the animals cleaner during birthing as they won't have a full fleece for blood and afterbirth to collect in.  Some farmers also believe the lambs have an easier time finding the udder on a shorn ewe.

As Eric Sloane wrote:  "Whether it is a skyscraper or an old covered bridge,  an oil station or an ancient gristmill,  these patterns of everyday life always reflect American culture.
Farm life offers the complete satisfaction of knowing that each day's work has been truly productive,  a joy scarce in present times.  In the old days, whether you were a blacksmith,  a butcher,  a carpenter,  a politician, or a banker, you were also a farmer.  Before setting out for the day,  there were chores to be done that often took as much time as a complete day's work for the average man of today."

Inside the home, the women of the house were no less busy.
Here in the warmer months of mid-to-late spring,  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.
Scrubbing the winter-wear clean to be put away 
for the summer
Taking a little breather
from spring cleaning...
...but not to go shopping!
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. 
In the sitting room at Firestone Farm,  wall hangings have 
been removed and,  once the carpet is un-tacked and lifted,  
the walls will be scoured
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 something awful.  Flannel undergarments have begun to itch instead of providing comfort.
And if that weren't enough,  the women of the farm home would also head out to help the farm hands as necessary.
And how is your spring cleaning going?
A restful moment after a good day's work

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Now,  I must tell you that this is about as quick an overview of a farm family's life in springtime 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 
"Our Vanishing Landscape" by Eric Sloane
"Barnyard in your Backyard" by Gail Damerow
"Daily Life in Colonial New England" by Claudia Durst Johnson
Farmer's & Housekeeper's Cyclopedia 1888

These books give wonderful and detailed information about the seasonal nature of living in times past.
For some of the planting information,  I must thank my very good friend  (and 21st Michigan member)  Wendi Schroeder.
And to my farm presenter friends at Daggett farm and especially Firestone Farm,  both located in Greenfield Village - thank you all so very much for your willingness to pose for my camera as well as for sharing your information.  You are all so special to me.
If you find yourself wondering what it's like to spend a year on a colonial farm,  click HERE 
Also,  if any of my readers 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.

Until next time, see you in time...

~   ~   ~


Dinie said...

Hi, I just found your blog and this is wonderful. Another good resource, albeit from a man's point of view, is 10 acres enough. It is one of my very favorite books. It is a wonderful view of the planting views that were employed and he gives a budget for things as he goes along. I did do a convert it to todays dollars and he still got a pretty good deal. How he ever saved it all up is beyond me.
I am in MN so a lot of what you say applies here as well. Even though Minnesota wouldn't have been a state yet and would have been more wild and untamed at that point in history. I am enjoying your blog. I look forward to reading more.

Historical Ken said...

From a previous post before the updates:

GinaBVictorian said...
Hi Ken, Thanks for a very informative post, I think I have been failing to Spring Clean properly according to your post. *winks*
I know this doesn't have anything to do with your post, but I thought you might know something about bell pulls. I bought an old needlepoint one (original wire still inside) with the hardware on each end and I'm trying to figure out how it was actually attached to the wall to actually ring the bell in the servants room or kitchen once the bell pull was pulled. Do you know how that works?
Thanks so much,

Elaine said...
I'm not certain we'll be cleaning the house from top to bottom, but we're tapping the maple trees soon. You want to come make syrup?

Historical Ken said...
Gina B - - - I actually have one of those though I'm using it as a wall hanging.
The one I had seen a number of years ago at the Village was attached by a wire through a hole in the ceiling.
Hope this helps!
Elaine - - man! I would love to learn maple sugaring!
And to the both of you: Get cleaning! (LOL)

Miss K said...
All of this talk of food is making me excited for Greenfield Village. Is it just me or did food taste better back then too?

Historical Ken said...
Ahhh...Miss K - -
The food DID taste better back then - - - MUCH better - - for I have been there and tasted it myself first hand!
And maybe this year you, too, can eat at the Eagle Tavern and see if I am right!

Daibhre said...
Eric Sloane! Recognized that sketching style immediately. Awesome references, learn from, and just plain fun to look at - highly encouraged. (Thanks again, Ken, for a great blog.)

troutbirder said...
Utterly fascinatng blog. Glad I found it. We have an intact general store complete with reenactors in our local state park (Forestville in Minnesota). It looks very much like the red brick building in your picture...:)