Old Colonial Days and Ways

 

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Pilgrim CoupleI. Travel Was Very Limited

II. Pilgrim Way of Life

III. Colonial Homes

IV. Cottage Industries

V. Young Ladies in Colonial Times

VI. Schoolhouse and Meetinghouse

Travel Between Colonies was Limited

MANY were the varieties of New England life before the American Revolution. Each township maintained its own peculiar laws; clung to its own peculiar customs; cherished its own peculiar traditions. Never, perhaps, except in Greece, were local self-government and local patriotism pushed to such an extreme. Not only did commonwealth hold itself separate from commonwealth, but township from township, and often, village from village. Long stretches of uninhabited land effectively divided these self-reliant communities from one another. "The road to Boston," says one of the most graphic of New England's local historians,* when speaking of the route from Buzzard's Bay, in 1743, was "narrow and tortuous - a lane through a forest having rocks and quagmires and long reaches of sand, which made it almost impassable to wheels, if any there were to be ventured upon it. Branches of large trees were stretched over it, so that it was unvisited by sunlight, except at those places where it crossed the clearings on which a solitary husbandman had established his homestead, or where it followed the sandy shores of some of those picturesque ponds which feed the rivers emptying into Buzzard's Bay. Occasionally a deer bounded across the path, and foxes were seen running into the thickets." Such roads, picturesque as they were, naturally discouraged travel. Occasionally a Congregational council called together the ministers of several towns at an installation or an ordination. Once a year the meeting of the General Court tempted the rural authorities up to the capital; during a week's time a few travelers may have ridden by on horseback and stayed at the village inn; now and then a visitor came to town, making no little stir, or perhaps a new immigrant settled on the confines of the parish. But there were then no Methodist preachers, with short and frequent pastorates, and no commercial travelers, with boxes of the latest goods, who could serve as conductors of thought and gossip from village to village and make them homogeneous. America was not then a land of travelers. "What little travel there might have been, was often still further discouraged by local ordinances, and in many a town, a citizen had to have a special permit from the Selectmen before he could entertain a guest for anything over a fortnight. Thus one father was fined ten shillings for showing hospitality to his daughter beyond the legal period. In many a spot in early New England the protectionist principle was so thoroughly localized that the importation of labor, as well as of merchandise, was rigorously restricted. Towns so insulated naturally took on distinctive traits. Even religious customs, literal scripturalists as these people were, differed in different places. The Puritan Sabbath began on Saturday night in one commonwealth, on Sunday morning in another. In brief, no picture of any one town can serve as a picture of any other.

* Mr. W. R. Bliss, in his "Colonial Times on Buzzard's Bay," an excellent depiction of early New England life, from which other quotations will appear later in this work.

The Pilgrim Lifestyle

To describe a typical Puritan home, therefore, is not easy. Yet it is not impossible. For the New England Puritans were a peculiar and easily distinguished people. The fundamental differences in character which set them off from the rest of the world, are far more prominent to the eye than are the local differences which divided town from town. A Connecticut settler, or even a Rhode Island Baptist, might be taken for a Massachusetts Puritan, but a Knickerbocker could be mistaken for neither.

colonial plowTo begin with, the New Englanders were the most truly benevolent and unselfish people of their time. They had hardly set foot on New England's shore before their history was marked by a magnanimous act of genuine forgiveness of injuries. It was in the middle of the landing at Plymouth Rock, when the colony was prostrated by illness and was exposed to the worst inclemencies of a new and inclement climate. Destitute of every provision which the weakness and daintiness of the invalid require," so runs the description of a well-known historian, "the sick lay crowded in the unwholesome vessel or in half built cabins, heaped around with snow-drifts. Old ShovelThe rude sailors refused them even a share of those coarse sea-stores which would have given a little variety to their diet, till disease spread among the crew and the kind ministrations of those whom they had neglected and affronted brought them to a better temper." There could be no better example of Christian forbearance than this. At the start the Indians also came within the scope of the Puritan's charity. He nursed them assiduously in times of small-pox, rescued many a child from a plague-stricken wigwam, helped them through times of famine, Christianized and partially civilized some of them, and in business dealings treated them not only justly but with a sincere though tactless kindness. The Puritan's home life was unselfish; he was profoundly regardful of his children, though he evinced that regard not by indulging them, but by painstaking discipline and a rigorous thrift, the better to provide for their future. It was a French Jesuit of the last century who testified that the New Englander, unlike the Canadian, labored for his heirs. Flax WheelThese early settlers made staunch neighbors. They were ready at almost any time to leave their work to drive a pin or nail in a young homemaker's new dwelling-house as a token of their good will, while they found their greatest pleasures in such means of mutual helpfulness as corn-huskings, quilting-bees, and barn-raisings. They were, no doubt, exacting and unsympathetic masters, but in the commands which they enjoined they kept in view the moral welfare of their slaves and servants as of far greater importance than their own material prosperity. Never were slaves better treated than in New England.

The Puritans were strenuously intent on making the world, not only better, but, as they thought, happier. It was to guard the more solid pleasures of a pure homelife and of an honest pride in one's country, that they bulwarked themselves against the encroachments of sordid self-indulgences. But they went about their task in crude fashion. They recognized, for instance, quite wisely, that there is no more insidious enemy of happiness than vanity, which makes a man utterly miserable whenever he is ignored and only uneasily pleased even when he is admired the most, but they tried to eradicate vanity from the human heart not by planting something better in its place, but by such petty sumptuary laws as prohibiting the wearing of lace. They simply attempted to cut off whatever might minister to vanity's indulgence. Their chief reliance for improving the condition of the world was in a countless number of minute restrictions and self-limitations. The more law there is, however, the more there needs to be, for prohibit nine-pins and soon there will be a new game of ten-pins to prohibit also. So it was with the Puritans. Restriction was placed here and restriction was placed there, until restriction became constriction and grew intolerable. The children were never allowed to lose sight of parental reulations, the parents of township ordinances, the town of state laws. But it was in the number and pettiness of these laws, not any cruelty in them, which made them intolerable, for the humanity of New England's legislators is evinced in the fact that there were only ten crimes punishable with death in New England when there were one hundred and sixty in Old England. The New Englanders were swaddled, not chained. The best that was in them did not have full play, but it had more play than it could have had in any other country, except Great Britain and Holland.

Colonial Homes

Dutch HouseFrom the start New England was a country of homes. The typical New England dwelling was the work of several generations. It had begun perhaps as a solidly built but plain rectangular house of one story and two rooms. In one of them the good wife cooked the meals on the hearth and simple cooking was never better done; laid the table, as meal-time approached, with the neat wooden bowls, plates, platters, and spoons and primitive knives of the time, or, the meal over, received a neighbor dropping in on a friendly errand, or perhaps the minister making the rounds of his parish. This was the living room, the centre of the family life. The other room contained two great bedsteads with their puffy feather-beds, while the trundle-bed in the corner betrayed the presence of little children in the household. If the family was large, a rude ladder led the way to a sleeping-place in the garret.

Slowly but faithfully the farmer added to the size and to the comforts of his home. What a place the hearth soon became! " In the wide fireplace and over the massive back-log, crane, jack, spit and pot-hook did substantial work, while the embers kept bake-kettle and frying-pan in hospitable exercise." Here was the place for the iron, copper or brass and irons, often wrought into curious devices and religiously kept bright and polished. In front of the fire was the broad wooden seat for four or five occupants, with its generously high back to keep off the cold. This was the famous New England settle, making an inviting and cozy retreat for the parents in their brief rests from labor, or perhaps for lovers when the rest of the house was still. On each side of the hearth, in lieu of better seats were wooden blocks on which the children sat as they drew close to the fire on winter evenings to work or read by its blaze. Perhaps, in some corner of the room could be seen the brass warming-pan, which every winter's evening was filled with embers and carried to the sleeping chambers to give a temporary warmth to the great feather-beds. There was a place near at hand for the snow-shoes, while matchlocks, swords, pikes, halbert, and some pieces of armor fixed against the wall showed that the farmer obeyed the town ordinances and kept himself prepared against Indian raids.

Grinding Corn

Colonists Grinding Corn

For like all frontiersmen, these farmers never felt secure. The Indians, instigated by the French, and exasperated by the cheating and bullying English adventurers, who had crept into New England against the colonists' will, were not only the cruelest of foes, they were the most treacherous of friends. They had pillaged and destroyed more than one secluded and unsuspecting settlement, murdering, torturing, or carrying into captivity, as they pleased, the peaceful inhabitants. The big, vague rumors of such midnight raids exercised their uncanny spell over many a household as it gathered about the hearth of a winter's evening. There was the Deerfield massacre, for instance. Just before the dawn of a cold winter's night the Indians fell upon the fated village. They spent twenty-four hours in wanton destruction, slaughtered sixty helpless prisoners, and carried a hundred back with them for an eight weeks' cruel march to the north, during which nineteen victims were murdered on the way and two were starved to death.

Cottage Industries

French HouseSuch was the story associated with the arms upon the wall; but a happier story was told by the ears of corn, the crooknecks, the dried fruit, and the flitches of bacon hanging from the beams and ceiling of the room. They were a perpetual reminder of Thanksgiving Day. If the Puritan discountenanced Christmas observances as smacking of "papishness" —  he showed by the Thanksgiving Day feast, his appreciation of the good things of earth. It was characteristic of the early New Englanders to make much of little things. The housewife was rightfully proud of her simple but nice cooking, and her husband of his plain but substantial produce. There is something appetizing in the very thought of their homely but choice dishes, their hasty-pudding, their Yankee breads, their pumpkin and mince pies. These simple people cultivated to an unsurpassed extent the wholesome pleasure which comes from a full appreciation of nature's wealth of gifts. They were lovers and cultivators of the wholesome fruits. It was a custom often observed in New England to give a favorite tree or bush a special and appropriate name, as a token of affection and so to make it seem the more companionable. The Puritan, indeed, had strong local affections and attachments. He found his pleasures in what came to his hand and madeSilk Winding pleasures often out of the work he had to do. He provided little that was even amusement for his children, but this misfortune was alleviated by the abundant outlet for youthful energies which they found in the activities of the household. There was little time which could be spent in mere amusement. The home was a hive of busy workers. The planting, cultivating and harvesting of his crops consumed perhaps the smaller portion of the farmer's time. Cattle raising for the west Indies and sheep growing took much of his attention. He was something of a lumberman, as well, and still more of a mechanic. Perhaps he bought iron rods and, when debarred from outdoor labor, hammered them into nails at the kitchen fireside. It was much more important, however, that he should have some skill at carpentry. Often too, he carved out of wood his table dishes. In the diverse industries of his house was the germ of many a nucleus factory. From his wife's busy loom came homespun cloth for the family. In the kitchen were distilled her favorite remedies. The children of the family were not only kept busy; they were kept thinking; their inventive faculties were constantly on the alert. Hardly a week passed but a new device was needed. Early in the history of New England, to be sure, there were tanners who would keep half the skins they received and return the other half in leather, brickmakers, masons, carpenters, millers with very busy wind-mills, curriers, sawyers, smiths, fullers, malsters, shoe-makers, wheelwrights, weavers and other artisans to do the work of specialists in the community, yet the farmer did not a little for himself in every one of these trades. His home was an industrial community in and of itself.

The fisherman who dwelt upon the sea-coast needed quite as active and versatile a family as did his inland brother. He left them to build the boats, hoop the casks, forge the irons, and manage the many other industries pre-requisite to the complete outfit of a vessel for a long and hazardous voyage. At any time they might be obliged to support themselves entirely or be thrown upon the town, for all fishing out at sea is a dangerous vocation, and whaling had its peculiar perils. Occasionally a boat and crew were sunk by the tremendous blows with which some great whale lashed the sea in his death agony. Now and then one of these tormented giants would turn madly upon his pursuers. Then, so says one careful historian, "he attacked boats, deliberately, crushing them like egg-shells, killing and destroying whatever his massive jaws seized in their horrid nip. His rage was as tremendous as his bulk; when will brought a purpose to his movement, the art of man was no match for the erratic creature." One such fighting monster attacked the good ship "Essex," striking with his head just forward of her forechains. The ship, says the mate, "brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf." She had already begun to settle when the whale came again, crashing with his head through her bows. There was bare time to provision and man the small boats before the vessel sank. The crew suffered from long exposure and severe privations, and only a part of them were ever saved.

Such tales as this reached inland and attracted boyish lovers of adventure to the sea. There were other and different tales of the sea, as well, to allure them tales of great wealth amassed in the India trade, of prizes captured from the French by audacious privateersmen, or of pirates, then scourging the sea, or, more boldly still, entering Boston harbor and squandering-their ill-gotten gains at the Boston taverns. The ocean was then the place for the brave and the ambitious. It is a significant fact that probably the first book of original fiction ever published in New England was "The Algerine Captive," a story of a sailor's slavery among the Moors. Yet this story was long in coming. New England produced no fiction of its own and reprinted little of old England's until ten years after the close of the American Revolution. In the early farmhouses, the library consisted of two or three shelves of Puritan theology. As time went on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a few ecclesiastical and local histories, one or more records of witchcraft trials, and some doggerel verse from the New England poets were added to the dry and scant supply of reading. Yet the enterprising and imaginative reader, though a child, could ferret out not a few exciting episodes from such uninviting volumes as Josephus's "History of the Jews," or Rev. Mr. Williams's record of Indian Captivity, while by 1720 a few of the more fortunate little ones had a printed copy of Mother Goose jingles for their amusement. But, although this was all the reading the farmer had for the newspapers were wretched and were seldom seen fifty miles from Boston—it must not be supposed that he underestimated the value of books. He read far more than the modern farmer does indeed all he could afford to get and had the time for; the clergy of the time often had substantial libraries of one or two or even three hundred volumes; while in the Revolutionary period, any young lady in a well-to-do family could easily obtain the best writings of Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift, Thomson, and the other classic writers of the eighteenth century.

Young Ladies in Colonial Times

Indeed, the "young lady," as the feature of human society, was not altogether neglected, even in earlier times. To be sure, she could not dance without shocking most, if not all, of the community; she could not act in church charades—for all dramatic exhibitions were forbidden by law; but in the intervals between her sewing and her housekeeping cares, she played battledore and shuttlecock with her sister or friends, or practiced the meeting-house tunes on the old-fashioned and quaint spinet or virginal. If she were so fortunate as to be born in the eighteenth century instead of the seventeenth, she was regularly escorted by her swain to the singing-school, which not only furnished training in psalmody, but was the occasion of much social companionship among the young people of the village, and of not a little match-making.

These gatherings often started incidentally other intellectual interests besides those of music, and books were discussed and recommended. Here was the birthplace of the reading circle and the modern lecture system. Awkward and restrained as their society manners were, the Puritans were a social people; jealously as they preserved their home-life, they joined quite as readily as do modern farmers in general village pleasures. The barn raisings for men, the quilting-bees for women and the merry corn-huskings and house-warmings for both, were not the only social gatherings of young and old. Every ordination, or installation of a new minister; it came seldom, to be sure, was the occasion of feasting and a sociable assembling by the congregation. Training day was another time when the township was full with excitement. Every male citizen of the village, from the boy of sixteen to the man of sixty, was compelled on these occasions to shoulder his musket and march in the militia. An awkward squad of amateur soldiers they were, as they paraded the village, complacent and valiant in fair weather, but bedraggled, crestfallen and wofully diminished in numbers in wet. Yet the women and children were proud of them and followed along the route. In honor of the occasion special booths were erected for the sale of gingerbread and harmless drinks to the on-lookers. The tavern too was kept busy, for every settlement of any pretensions had a tavern, where the passing traveler might get refreshment for himself and his horse. Here the selectmen planned the village policy for the consideration of the town-meeting. Here too were held public debates between rival theological disputants, sitting over their mild spirituous beverages. Here too was disseminated the latest news from Boston and the old world.

Schoolhouse and Meetinghouse

The two other public buildings of the place were the school-house and the meeting-house. As early as 1647, every Massachusetts village of fifty house-holders was required by state law to maintain a school, in which the catechism and the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic should be taught, while every town which boasted a hundred householders was obliged to establish a grammar school. But New England was not dependent upon these schools alone for her education. Massachusetts and Connecticut each had its college, in which learned and often eminent men trained the more ambitious youth of the land. One hundred thousand graduates were among the early emigrants from England and mingled with the people, while in the first days of the church, the pulpits even in the smaller towns, were almost without exception filled with men accomplished in the best learning of the time.

The church was the centre of the community's social and political life. Attendance on public worship was enforced, during many decades and in many places, by village ordinance. Church and state were curiously confused. Only church members were allowed to vote at town-meetings, and the selectmen of the village assigned the seats to the congregation, according to the peculiar regulations of the town-meeting. Customs differed in different places. In some villages, just before service began, the men would file in on one side of the church and the women on the other, while the boys and girls, separated from each other as scrupulously, were uncomfortably fixed in the gallery, or placed on the gallery stairs, or on the steps leading up to the pulpit. It was in one of these churches that the following ordinance was enforced  "Ordered that all ye boys of ye town are and shall be appointed to sitt upon ye three pair of stairs in ye meeting-house on the Lord's day, and Wm. Lord is appointed to look to the boys yt sit upon ye pulpit stairs, and ye other stairs Reuben Guppy is to look to."

In other meeting-houses, each household had a curious box pew of its own, fashioned according to the peculiar tastes of its occupants. The assignment of pew room in these places of worship was determined by the most careful class distinctions, for democratic as the Puritans were in their political institutions and commercial methods, each family jealously guarded whatever aristocratic pretensions it might have inherited. To the plain seats in the gallery were relegated the humbler members of the parish; a few young couples had pews of their own set off for them there, while a special gallery was occasionally provided for the negro slaves. There was no method of heating the edifice; to warm their feet the women had recourse to foot-stoves, carried to the meeting-house by the children or apprentices; the men to the more primitive method of pinching their shins together. When the hourglass in the pulpit had marked the passage of an hour and a half, the sermon usually came to a close, and the people in the gallery descended and marched two abreast up one aisle and past the long pew which directly faced the pulpit and in which the elders and deacons sat. Here was the money-box, into which each person dropped his shilling or more, as the case might be, while the line was turning down the other aisle. There was an intermission of service at noon, when the people ate their luncheon in the adjacent school-house, where a wood-stove could be found, and discussed the village gossip and the public notices posted on the meeting-house door. In every family the minister of the parish was received with an awe and reverence which seemed suitable not only to the dignity of his calling, but to the extreme gravity of his deportment and the impressive character of his learning. In weight and authority he was the peer of the village officials. Only the squire, the appointee of the Crown, was his superior; for he held his office as representative of the Crown. If offenders did not pay the fines imposed upon them, this village dignitary could place them in the stocks, or order them to be whipped. Persons who lived disorderly, "misspending their precious time, he could send to work-house, to the stocks, or to the whipping-post, at his discretion. He could break open doors where liquors were concealed to defraud His Majesty's excise. He could issue hue-and-cries for runaway servants and thieves. There are instances on record in which a justice of the peace issued his warrant to arrest the town minister, about whose orthodoxy there were distressing rumors, and required him to be examined upon matters of doctrine and faith. But a more pleasing function of his office was to marry those who came to him for marriage, bringing the town clerk's certificate that their nuptial intentions had been proclaimed at three religious meetings in the parish during the preceding fortnight."

The Squire's office, however, was an English, not an American institution, and did not long survive on our soil. What was peculiar to New England public life was the town meeting, held in the parish church. Every freeman of the township was obliged to attend it, under penalty of a fine. It distributed in early days the land among the settlers; it regulated, often according to communistic and often according to protectionist principles, the industries of the community; and it repressed gay fashions and undue liberties in speech and deportment. Its representatives were the selectmen and town-clerk, and were held in high esteem, from the respect due to their office.

Yet none of these dignitaries, much as they were held in awe, could permanently suppress the instincts of youth for gayer fashions and happier times. It is impossible on any rational basis to explain the inconsistent Puritan standards of right and wrong amusements. The most conscientious of Puritans would go, merely out of curiosity, to a hanging, and see no harm in it, but he looked with grave suspicion on church chimes as a worldly frivolity. Feasting he encouraged and religious services he discouraged at a funeral. Marriage he made a secular function; the franchise religious. To dancing he objected as improper and to card playing as dangerous, but he saw no harm in kissing-games and lotteries. Finally the influence of the city proved too much for him. Boston customs were imitated in the provincial towns. Young and old indulged in the fashionable disfigurements of the day. The women wore black patches on their faces to set off their complexions and the men slashed the sleeves of their coats to show the fine quality of their underclothes, and even funeral services became occasions for display. Sumptuary laws were ignored or repealed. The country towns became social centres. By the time of the American Revolution, New England was already merging from Puritanism, with its virtues and limitations, into a new Americanism, with its new merits and its new defects.

 

 

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