HOME LIFE IN EARLY DAYS.
MAKING.—DOMESTIC PURSUITS—SOCIAL CUSTOMS—SINGING SCHOOLS.—WRITING SCHOOLS.
IN this chapter we propose to say
somewhat about certain household occupations which have either passed
wholly into disuse, or are only occasionally exercised by a few elderly
persons. We are mindful of the fact that most of these are of so recent
employment as to be well remembered by many who do not call themselves old
by any means, but considering also that in a half century hence these
employments and domestic pursuits will be only traditionary, their details
will then become interesting, and will add value to our narrative.
We have mentioned the domestic
manufacture of woolen and linen cloth without giving any account of the
process by which the flax and wool were converted into fabrics for wear.
Flax seed was usually sown about the
first of May, broadcast like grass seed, and in new cleared land it grew
luxuriantly. Hemp seed was also sown, but hemp was used only for coarse
goods. Flax has beautiful flowers of clear blue, and the plants are
graceful, while hemp grows rank and the blossoms are dull. When the flax
was ripe, which was usually about the middle of July, it was pulled up by
the roots, and laid out carefully to dry in the sun for a few days, and
was turned two or three times a day till thoroughly cured. The stalks were
then drawn through a coarse comb with teeth of wood or wire, fastened in a
plank, to detach the seeds which were carefully saved for seed or for
sale, as there was always a demand for them. The stalks were then tied in
bundles, the band being around the seed end, the base of the bundle being
spread out. Sometimes the flax was not tied, but was much easier handled,
thus. It was then spread on the ground, the tops all one way, and kept
thoroughly wet for several days until the hard and woody substance forming
the stem of the plant was rotted, and the leaves would fall off when
shaken. This step in the process completed, it was then dried, and tied in
bundles, the next thing being to "break" it.
The "flax break" was a heavy log of hard wood about
five feet long,. a hewed side being set level about three feet from the
ground, and several long slats were firmly fastened to it, lengthwise on
the upper or flat side. A similar set of slats, set in a heavy frame, and
far enough apart to go into the spaces between the lower slats, was hinged
to one end of the log, and heavily weighted at the other. The flax was
laid on the lower slats, and the upper frame, or knives, as they were
often called, was brought down with great force upon the stalks. A second
beating was made with a "break" in which the "knives" were set close
together. Beating flax was very hard work, and used as a unit of
comparison with all other kinds of toil. Flax was then "swingled" by being
beaten over a block of wood with a long wooden instrument shaped like a
dirk, to take out any woody particles which had escaped the impact of the
break. Breaking and swingling were done in the open air in sunny weather,
when the flax was as dry as it could be. Thirty-five or forty pounds of
flax was a good day’s work for a strong man to swingle.
We may understand how strong and tenacious the flax is
to stand all this beating, but it is by no means yet prepared for
spinning, for the next process was called "striking" when the fibers were
made into bundles and pounded with a beetle, after being cleaned, and the
fibers were then drawn through an instrument called a "hetchel." This was
made of strong iron prongs, about five inches long, sharpened at one end,
and inserted upright in a board. About fifty of these were set in a base
of hard wood five inches square, and the flax, slightly wetted, was drawn
through them, towards the operator, when all the woody particles were
combed out, as well as all the short and defective threads, and the tow
separated and removed. Sometimes the flax was drawn through several
"hetchels" of successive degrees of fineness, and the fine filaments which
survived this process were laid out in long strands, ready for spinning.
A few flax wheels or "little wheels," as they were
often called, are preserved in Ryegate, and are beautiful specimens of
workmanship. In the early years most carpenters had a lathe, and did very
good turning, but the making of flax wheels was a special trade, and a man
who made them usually did nothing else. We wish it were possible to
preserve the names of some of these skillful artisans, but none are living
who remeinber them.
The wheel was turned by a treadle, and the spinner kept
her fingers moist with water while at her task. When spun, the threads
were wound on a reel, forty revolutions of which, about eighty yards of
thread, made a "knot," twenty knots making a "skein," and to spin two
skeins was a good day’s work.
Even then the process was not complete, for several
washings, rinsings and bleachings were necessary before the thread was
ready for the loom. In early times, and perhaps in Ryegate it was
considered the proper thing for a young woman about to be married to be
able to show her wedding outfit, spun, woven and made up by her own hands.
The immigrants from the north of Ireland who came here about the opening
of the 19th century, brought some new ideas which were readily adopted by
Ryegate people. But the cultivation of flax, and the manufacture of
linen ceased lorg ago in this town, and the mechanical processes which we
have described are now carried on by machinery in those parts of the
country where flax is raised in great quantities.
Some years before the linen industry died out in this
part of the country, spinning machines came into use, and superseded the
hand process. In 1834 William Chalmers, who had been a linen spinner in
Scotland, came to Newbury, and later, imported spinning machinery from the
old country, and carried on the business of thread and cordage making for
many years at Corinth Centre.
The manufacture of the finest grades of linen cloth was
considered a fine art a century ago, and Mr. Miller mentions several
ladies of the olden time who were skilled in it, and beautiful specimens
of their work are carefully preserved by their descendants, who often know
nothing whatever of the way in which they were made.
In preparing wool for making cloth, the fleece was
carefully picked over, and all the rough pieces thrown out, when it was
washed, and dried.
Before weaving came coloring, and there were secrets in
the art which were handed down from mother to daughter as a family
inheritance. The dyes were nearly all vegetable ones, and there were
plants and barks which were especially valued. The account book of Thomas
Barstow, before cited, mentions only one commercial dye—indigo—which
retailed at two shillings or 34 cts. an ounce.
Some people always kept one or two black sheep, and
mixed their fleece with white wool, making a pretty grey called "sheep’s
grey." It would thus seem that the "black sheep in the flock" may be made
of good use after all.
Before spinning came carding and the wool being
carefully greased was manipulated with cards like cattle cards. The
process was thus: The operator took a card in her left hand, resting it on
her knee, and drew a tuft of wool across it a number of times till the
wire teeth were full. Then with a second card, slightly warmed, the wool
was deftly worked into a "roll" for spinning. Wool combing was a different
and more trying process, and it was not much employed in Ryegate, but the
thread produced by it was superior to any other. It is doubtful if any one
is left who can card wool, as the process went out of use with the
introduction of carding machines, but forty years ago there were old
ladies who would take the cards and work up a few rolls when they ran
Carding machines were introduced from England by a man
named Standrin, first manufactured near Boston, Mr. Asa Gookin being
associated with him in the business. Mr. Gookin made and patented several
improvements and about 1799 they removed their business to Haverhill, N.
H., and made carding machines at the falls on the Oliverian, north of
Haverhill Corner, then, and for many years after, a center of
manufacturing enterprise. Their machines soon drove out hand carding and
were sold to all parts of the country and Canada One of Mr. Gookin’s
machines was in use in this vicinity within a few years.
Spinning is still carried on in Ryegate, although to a
limited extent, and it is not necessary to describe a process which has
been unchanged for centuries. Spinning, unlike weaving, was entirely
woman’s work, and there are elderly ladies here who remember that they
learned to spin when too small to reach the wheel, and had to stand upon a
plank. When the spindle was filled the thread was wound upon the reel,
each revolution making two yards. Forty turns or eighty yards made a knot,
and seven knots a skein. To spin six skeins was a good day’s work for a
smart woman. In the illustration of the ancient kitchen of the James
Whitehill house the flax-wheel, the spinning wheel and the clock reel are
In many houses a room was set apart for weaving,
sometimes a small building was erected for the purpose. Looms may still be
in occasional use, and are, literally heirlooms, as a well constructed
loom will outlast several generations of operators. A loom had to be
accurately constructed to do good work, and there were weavers in early
days whose work, on specially constructed looms, seems marvelous. Gen. A.
H. Hill in his account of Groton for Miss Hemenway,
tells of Archibald McLaughlin, who invented a loom on which his wife wove
a coat in one piece, sleeves, collar, lapels and all. This coat was taken
to Washington by Gen. Mattocks and exhibited to Congress, who presented
the inventor with a reward of fifty dollars for his ingenuity. It would
seem that inventive genius so unusual should have been encouraged to
direct its labors into channels which would have brought the inventor both
fame and wealth. He went west in 1837.
There were weavers who wove very intricate patterns,
and in the History of Windharn, N. H., it is mentioned that a piece was
woven using fourteen treadles, giving many combinations of color. Weaving
need not be described here, but a word may be said about the shuttles,
some of which are carefully preserved. There was a man in Danville whose
name the writer can neither recall or ascertain who made shuttles which
were considered superior to all others, just why is not remembered.
Reed making was a special art and the reeds or "sleys,"
as they were sometimes called, were thin strips of cane or metal, inserted
side by side, fastened at both ends in strong parallel strips of wood, as
long as the width of the loom permitted.
The warp threads were passed between each pair, and the
number of these to the inch indicated the fineness of the cloth, or the
"set of the web" as it used to be called. For very fine linen there might
sometimes be sixty of these thin strips to the inch. Reeds for common
weaving of woolen cloth had about twenty strips.
John Cochrane, who lived in Newbury near the Bradford
line, was a reed maker, and supplied the reeds for looms over a wide
extent of country. A daughter of his, who died in Newbury, Jan. 16, 1909,
in her 102d year, recalled, when in her hundredth year, how she
accompanied her father when a child of seven years, in one of his rounds
through Ryegate, Barnet, Peacham and Danville, where he stopped at nearly
every house to inspect repair or replace the reeds in the looms, which
were then found at every farm.
The weaving itself was comparatively plain and simple
work, but experience, patience and constant care were indispensable to
properly wind the warp upon the beam and have each thread carefully drawn
through the harness and reed. The number of yards woven in a day depended
upon the fineness of the cloth. In weaving broadcloth of about thirty
threads to the inch, three yards was a good day’s work, in which the
shuttle was thrown over three thousand times, the treadles pressed down,
and the "batten" (the swinging frame in which the reed was secured) was
swung against the cloth the same number of times. In weaving intricate
patterns where several colors in both warp and filling were used, all the
skill and experience of the weaver were called into action. On many farms
there was a small piece of grassy ground, near the house and contiguous to
a spring or running brook called the "bleaching-field," which may in one
or two instances still bear the name, and near which the linen cloth was
spread out for bleaching during several weeks, and slightly wetted each
Some one has remarked that between the sowing of the
seed and the time when fine linen was ready for making up, the product
passed through no fewer than thirty different processes, occupying about
eighteen months. It was the great amount of labor put into the work that
made the high price of fine linen.
We must not fail to note that such domestic arts as
spinning and weaving gave employment incidentally to many persons, from
carpenters who constructed the looms to cabinet makers who made
flax-wheels, shuttles and the like.
"The light of other days" was a tallow candle in an
iron candlestick, whose absence was supplied by a block of wood with a
hole to receive the candle. Dr. Currier remembers attending a writing
school kept by John Bigelow in the Whitelaw schoolhouse, which was lighted
by tallow candles stuck in potatoes. But in general the evening light came
from the open fire, the candle being used to read or work by or to go
about the house with. Most families had brass candlesticks for ornament of
the parlor mantle, and for use on state occasions. To burn more than one
candle at a time bordered on extravagance. In our time, when many of our
houses are flooded with brilliant light by a turn of the fingers, such
evenings seem far away, yet people not yet turned of sixty can remember
when candles furnished almost the only light in the houses. Candles are
still made by being run in moulds, but in early days they were made by
dipping, which is almost a forgotten art. A smart woman with sufficient
assistance in keeping up a fire and handling the heavy kettles, could dip
about two hundred candles in a day.
It cannot be ascertained at what period oil lamps came
into occasional use in this town, certainly not before 1820, as Mr.
Livermore thinks there were not more than one or two at that date in
Haverhill Corner, which was understood at that time to lead in every
Illuminating gas was introduced into Boston about
1822, and its brilliant light was one of the wonders which were dwelt
upon by the privileged few who made a vist to the metropolis. An uncle of
the writer who about 1830 was a merchant in the upper part of the Kennebec
valley, was about starting for Boston one morning, when one of his
neighbors came in, an old gentleman, and asked him to make a purchase in
the city. "My eyesight is getting poor," said he, "and I cannot see to
read by candle light. Now I have heard a great deal about gas, and the
wonderful light it makes. I want to try it, and, Mr. Palmer, if you will
bring me home a shillings worth of gas, I will be glad to pay you for your
Sperm oil gradually came into use and was better than
candle light, but the lamps were smoky and ill-smelling. Kerosene was
introduced in 1858, and was preceded by several compounds, one of which,
called camphene, gave a brilliant light, but was highly explosive.
Friction matches were invented about 1832, and came
into general use within a few years. Before that time the only way to
start a fire was by striking a spark with flint and steel. It was a
principle of domestic economy never to let the fire go out on the family
hearth, and the coals were carefully covered with ashes at bed time. But
in spite of all precaution the fire sometimes went out, and there may be
one or two old people who can remember when they were sent to a neighbors
"to get some fire."
The first stove in this part of the country is
understood to have been set up about 1795, in the house of Rev. David
Goodwillie at Barnet, by his brother who was a tinsmith at Montreal.
Stoves for heating were certainly in use as early as 1800, and cooking
stoves of some kind were made at Franconia as early as 1820. In 1828, and
perhaps earlier, E. & T. Fairbanks were agents at St. Johnsbury for the
Franconia Iron Works, and kept a stock of stoves, kettles, plows and other
iron ware made at Franconia, where the industry ceased forty years ago and
In those early days when transportation of heavy
articles was expensive, such manufacturing establishments appointed
selling agents in different parts of the country, from whence their
products were distributed. In 1830 the Tyson Furnace Company of Plymouth,
Vt., erected a large building at Newbury for the storage and sale of their
products. But the early cooking stoves were crude, and not popular for
baking, and the brick oven was in general use until about 1860,
and may be still in one or two farm houses.
There will be no brick ovens left soon, and the quality
of their product will be only a tradition, but no one who ever tasted the
bread and beans which the old brick ovens produced will ever believe that
any modern range, however constructed, can produce viands which equal
their delicious flavor. The drawback was the time and labor required to
get the mass of masonry into the proper heat. The oven was filled with
finely split wood, replenished until the bricks were thoroughly heated,
the smoke escaping through a hole into the chimney. When properly heated
the fire was drawn, the oven swept, and filled with joints of meat, pots
of beans, loaves of bread, pies and cakes. The mouth of the oven was
closed, the mass of brick gave out a steady heat, and the oven could be
safely trusted to bake to a turn each article intrusted to its keeping,
the experienced housewife withdrawing from time to time the various
edibles according to the time necessary to cook them. But for common
baking the open fire was used, and various contrivances were employed to
hold the bread while being cooked. Mr. Mason says that barley, prepared in
several ways, was much used by the first settlers, and that some were slow
to like the taste of corn bread, preferring the oatmeal of their native
At no other time, and in no other occupation were all
the members of a family so closely associated as in farming in the way it
was carried on eighty years ago. The girls and younger women spread and
raked hay, and were skillful reapers, husked corn, and milked. In many
families there were elderly unmarried women, each of whom assumed the
charge of some part of the domestic economy. One such is remembered, going
about the farm, watching with maternal care over the young calves and
lambs, sure to be seen in the cold spring rains, a sturdy figure among the
hills, with a huge apron in which any chilled and shivering lamb found
warmth and comfort.
In those days of large families it often happened that
a man died leaving several small children for whom places were usually
found among the neighbors or relatives, and couples, rare in those days,
who had no children of their own, often opened their hearts and homes to
the orphans. The children of the very poor were bound out by the
authorities during minority, to receive, on coming of age, a certain sum
in cash and valuables as a start in life. Sometimes this trust was
misplaced, and once or twice at March meetings the authorities were
directed "to look into certain reports regarding the —
children." Let us hope that they went to the bottom of matters. But
there were excellent men and women in Ryegate who owed their success in
life to their careful training by those who "
took them to bring up."
In early days, and down to the time when girls began to
go to Lowell and other places to work in the mills, the only occupations
open to women were teaching, sewing, domestic service, and the care of the
sick, all very poorly paid. We have already noted the wages paid to
teachers. Tailoresses and seamstresses were a little better paid, often,
however, in farm produce, or home made cloth.
Housekeepers of our day must sigh for those days when
the best possible domestic help could be had for seventy-five cents a
week, and this, as old account books show, was the common price seventy
years ago. In special cases a dollar a week was paid, and, not
infrequently domestic service continued for years. There was an instance
in Bayer-hill where a woman was the trusted and beloved housekeeper in one
family for thirty-five years, and the tie which bound her to the household
was as strong as that which bound its members to each other.
The cash expenses of a family in fair health in those
days were so small, that almost all the money which came in was clear
gain. At the sixtieth wedding anniversary of Nathaniel Roy and wife of
Barnet about thirty-five years ago, it was stated that the family,
although well-to-do and hospitable, had not in all those years, bought a
pound of sugar or meat or flour. The farm had produced all that the
household required, and this was a common case. Mr. Miller mentions a
family in this town in which the cash expenditures did not average more
than twenty-five dollars a year during thirty years. All was produced or
obtained by barter.
These things are within the memory of many not yet old.
But such have been the changes, and so many are yet to come, that sixty
years hence it will be hard to conceive conditions like those we have
Ryegate as it then was, constituted a self-supporting
community, and if the town had been surrounded by a wall or turned into an
island and put out to sea, its inhabitants would have got along about as
well as before.
But after all is said that can be said, we live in
better days. Our houses are better built, we are better clothed, our roads
are better, and although we may not have a greater plenty of food, we have
a greater variety of it, and we draw upon distant states and foreign
countries to supply our tables.
Communication, then slow and tedious, is instantaneous.
In those days a journey to Boston and back required almost a week, and a
trial of endurance. We breakfast in Ryegate, dine in Boston, and are home
before sun set. The standard of living is higher; the facilities for
reading and education are incomparably better; our opportunities are
vastly greater. And when we have concluded these comparisons, and
congratulated ourselves upon all these changes, most of them for the
better, some personal questions arise which are not easy to answer or to
It is the testimony of all whose memories extend
through many years that there is at the present time nothing like the
sociability which people had in earlier days—that families do not visit as
people did then, that there is not the interest felt in neighborhood
affairs, and that in time of sickness or trouble people do not help each
other as they used to do, but call in strangers who for hire perform those
offices which were once rendered by the kindness of neighbors and friends.
That this is true cannot be denied, but the cause lies in the changed
conditions of society, and we do not believe that hearts are less warm or
sympathetic because people are no longer dependent upon personal meetings
to learn of each other’s welfare, or because they hire a trained nurse in
sickness, rather than depend upon the good offices of neighbors and
Two institutions,—writing schools and singing
schools—which, in other years had a large share in the social life of the
young people, seem to have passed away, and there is little on record
concerning either, but Mr. Goodwin remembered both as being held at the
Corner as long ago as 1827. Writing schools were serious and practical in
their nature, and their attendance was limited, but the witchery of the
singing school drew the young people from far and near. The entertainment
there provided was innocent of harm, practical and uplifting. Many thus
received their first impressions of music. In these gatherings pleasure
and instruction were about equally mingled; where acquaintances were made,
friendships formed, and around which gather the happiest memories.
The psalmody of those days in Ryegate gave little
encouragement to elaborateness in church music, but there were some fine
performers upon stringed and wind instruments. Seventy years ago,
according to Dr. Currier, there still remained several skilled
manipulators of the bagpipes, and there have been some fine performers on
the cornet and the violin. Gen. Whitelaw, according to old letters, was a
creditable performer upon the latter instrument, and the fame of Willie
Brock, son of Dea. Andrew Brock, has come down to our day.
"When Willie fiddled, sir, folk had to dance whether
they liked or no, they couldna help themselves." There must have been
something marvelous in his playing if we may judge from the accounts of
old people, and his fame was by no means local, as he was often called
upon to furnish music at assemblies as far away as Plymouth and Littleton.
After him Robert Henderson and others were well known.
Balls and dances were discountenanced by the more
serious portion of the community, yet such there were, and the old taverns
usually had a large room which was set apart for such gatherings.