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What was life like in the 1800s?

COUNTRYSIDE: In reply to the question from Kevin (Sept/Oct 2012), my grandparents were born in the late 1800s. One grandma was born in the 1870s and the other in the 1880s.

Cattle, hogs and chickens were raised on the same farm, sometimes pastured together. This is not a good idea for hogs and chickens, because chickens can get certain diseases that people can't, but they may infect the hogs. It's rare, but possible. (That's one reason I get chickens that are already vaccinated against a number of diseases. Other than that, our chickens are as organic as possible.)

If you could, you'd buy yearling cattle to start your herd. Then you'd fatten them up a bit and have them sired by the best bull you could find, which was usually paid for with the pick of the calves born. This would be an annual exchange with a variety of farmers, so the parent bull would not be inbreeding. Dairy cattle produced plenty of milk after the birth of the calf. Sometimes the cow would need birthing assistance, and it takes a strong man to pull a calf without getting a hoof bent wrong or causing harm to either animal. Every farmer had to have a working knowledge of animal husbandry and basic animal cures. My folks had a cow that wouldn't allow the calf to nurse, so they brought out the oddest-looking metal bucket. It had a cow-sized nipple on the side, so the calf could suckle. (This was in pre-plastic days. The nipple was made out of rubber.) Your beef cattle weren't for milking--their milk only lasted long enough for their calves to learn to eat grass.

In the 1800s, all your hogs needed was slop--a moistened grain food--and a mud hole to lay in. Apples that weren't nice enough for people were a treat for the hogs. Hogs don't sweat, so they can't cool off. If you set a piece of barnyard aside and get it real wet, they love this. They get caked with mud, but the air dries the mud, giving them a cooling effect.

All chickens needed was a fair piece of ground with a small fence around it so they could scratch for bugs to their heart's content. If your ground was hard, till up a portion of it. The moist dirt underneath is where the worms are hiding. Or you could moisten the dirt to make it easier for them. Chickens and other poultry don't have teeth, so whole corn is harder to eat than cracked corn. Their food is ground up in their craw--it feels kind of like a man's Adam's apple, located on their neck. After they get off of a starter feed, they need a bit of small-sized gravel and oyster shell to swallow. As you use your eggs, save the shells and break them up into small pieces, and this will also work. Do not feed them shells that look like shells, or they'll begin to eat their eggs. This also provides calcium for stronger shells.


In the 1800s the outhouse was a requirement. You moved it every once in a while and filled in the old one with dirt. It wasn't until people figured out how to bend pipes before we would have indoor bathrooms. This way everything could be carried away from the home, preventing methane gas from forming inside. For nighttime, a bucket was placed inside a cabinet--called a commode. The next day the bucket was emptied.

Wood was burned in a fireplace and was used for cooking. Trash was burned outside in a spot set aside for it. For a bath, you'd haul a lot of cold water and heat some over the fireplace.

Hired help was fairly easy to come by, at least when my mom was young. In the 1930s hungry people were just one more mouth to feed, so they'd go to where farmers were. Not all farmers had enough kids to help work the fields, so the men worked in exchange for room and board, not pay.

"Date night" was tough for my mom and dad. If Dad got to use the car, every hired man who could squeeze in, came along. With all those eyes on the young couple ready to report back to the folks' who gave them a bed and food, no hanky-panky was allowed. The men returned to their families when the weather got too cold to work the fields.

The auto was born in the late 1800s, but you had to be rich to own one. You found your mate in about a 30 square mile area, mostly because of the cost to travel.

Education was not a high priority for boys. All they needed to know was how to sign their name, a few phrases to avoid when signing something, and how to make sure they were paid the right amount for their work. Educating women was encouraged. A proper woman needed to know how to read the Bible so she could teach her children. Decorative penmanship was expected from both men and women, even when just writing income and expenses in a ledger. It was a point of honor and a sign of education.

Fields were plowed by a horse with a single plow blade. Corn was harvested by hand. The nicest, fullest, most uniform sized ears of field corn were set aside to plant the following year. Corn cobs and Sears and Roebuck catalog pages were used as toilet paper. Folks made their own hooch too--corn whiskey, apple jack whatever they had extras of, with varying recipes.

Apples that were nice were pressed into cider and when the cider got nasty-tasting, you had apple cider vinegar.

There would be a smoke house where you'd hang your meat to smoke. It would be a simple shed with a chimney. You saved your best wood for this. That standing hickory tree that died, took two men to work the saw to cut it down and with a long rope tied to the tree, was dragged behind the horse, so it wouldn't land on the buildings. But you had to guide your horse and watch yourself or one or both of you might be crushed under that tree. Once cut, it had to dry out for a year before burning. Fruit trees also made great smoking flavor. The smoke inside the shed (smokehouse) accumulated and only the smokestack let it out and brought in oxygen.

People ground their own meat, horseradish, etc. Technically this was women's work. We had a couple sayings when I grew up--"A man can work from sun to sun, but women's work is never done." Also, "children should be seen and not heard." Women milked the cow and separated the cream. Very little cream was kept, as it was salable, which gave them some pocket money; the same for eggs. Chickens tend to lay an egg a day, except in extreme cold, that was money, too. Bread was made once a week. (When I was young, Mom still did it that way.) Many meals were cooked without recipes, but if you wanted ketchup, marshmallows, sausage, etc., you had to use a recipe.

Laundry was done at the river with a bar of homemade lye soap, which could eat a hole in your clothes if it was made wrong. Meat was canned, just like everything else. The smoking was saved for things that would bring in some money (like bacon). The family would get a taste of it, but not a big taste. Steaks and bacon could be sold, along with a lot of roasts. As chickens aged and stopped laying, you'd give your friend a fond goodbye before butchering. Chicken was cheap, but even so, it was usually saved for Sundays after prayer meetings. Herbs were treasured and traded with neighbors. Floors were swept daily and scrubbed on your hands and knees at least once a week. Clothes always hung out to dry, and your hair curlers were strips of remnant cloth. You rolled the cloth from your hair ends upwards as high as it would go and tie it. If you had hair pins, you rolled your hair into small curls and pinned it in place. Makeup was only for women trying to make money using their bodies. You want bright lips? Bite your lips just enough to send the blood rushing there. Wish you had rouge? Pinch your cheeks. Want to stop aching breasts from making milk now that your baby is weaned? Soak a sheet in cold water, fold it to the size to cover the painful body part, and wrap the sheet around you as tightly as you can stand it. After a few days you will stop producing milk.

Is your neighbor's bull jumping the fence? He knows your cattle are in season; time to move them to another pasture. Have too many bulls or boars? Trap them into a stanchion and remove their testicles with a razor. They hate it, but there's no painkiller or money for painkiller. Vets were few and far between.

I live in rural Iowa and we didn't get a doctor for people, other than the occasional passerby, between the 1940s and 1960s. The one in the 1960s had been to medical school, but everyone was afraid he'd leave if we asked if he'd graduated. There are many more local doctors now, but we still get sent to specialists out of town.

Want to find a way to use those cornstalks? If you have a silo with no roof or covering, put shelled corn, cornstalks, and hay grass in layers in the silo. As you build your layers, water it down a little. The hay and cornstalks will soften with the moisture. The sunshine overhead will bake it, causing it to ferment. When you place a pitchfork full in front of your cow, it has absorbed the corn liquor. It stinks, but cows love it!

If you live in snow country, these days you can get heated water containers so the animals don't have to eat snow.
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Title Annotation:Country conversation & feedback
Author:Nichols, Diane Esbeck
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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