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Pioneer Housekeeping Makes Our Chore List Look Puny!

With so many things to get done in a day, it’s hard to imagine even more to do! But, the settlers had a much longer list than we ever did. A pioneer woman had to do a whole more just to keep her family clothed and fed. Her equipment was different, and her soap might be homemade. While the men were tending to the crops, animals, and buildings, the women were doing a whole lot more housework than we would ever have to these days. It took a lot of strength to make it work back then!

rustic cabin - pioneer cleaning

Via/ Flickr

There were a number of chores that were required just to maintain a pioneer family’s tools. For instance, a family with a wood stove would need to blacken it regularly with stove black (graphite and glycerin or a similar formula), a chore Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about in Little Town on the Prairie– an attempt to clean the house for Ma ends with spilling stove black on the floor.

Caroline and Charles Ingalls

Caroline and Charles Ingalls. Via/ Wiki Commons

Wash Day

washboard and washtub- pioneer chores

Washboard and washtub. Via/ Flickr

Laundry day was once a week because it took days to process the clothing. Traditionally Mondays were set aside for washing, thus allowing for the most time to get the clothing all clean and pressed before the next Sunday. Starting with the lightest color of clothing, the clothes would be submerged in a soapy pot of boiling water, often using lye, then finished washing on the washboard. Next in were darker colors, until she would get to the heaviest clothing. Anyone who’s ever agitated laundry by hand or removed stains on a washboard will understand just how hard of a task this really is! They’d be hung to dry and then the next day was ironing day.

Ironing in starch advertisement 1885.

Starch advertisement, 1880s. Via/ Flickr

An iron would be heated on the stove and the laundry items would be sprinkled with water. The advertisement above is for store-bought starch, but many pioneer women would not have been able to find or afford this kind of product. The day after was usually for mending the clean and pressed clothes. The chores for the days of the week were brought over with the Pilgrims and dictated the weekly chore schedule for most pioneer women. It’s the same way our mothers did it and many women still do it this way today.

Preparing Meals

Food was made from scratch, but what they had available was highly variable. Settlers would have brought with them only easily-preserved basic foods and general stores where not established in every town on the frontier. Foods like salt pork and cornmeal were significant elements of their diet.

Settler family in front of their wagon.

Settler family in front of their wagon. Via/ National Archives

Baking cornbread could be an arduous affair in an iron Dutch oven, coals heaped on top to bake it evenly. Or, a settler might be lucky enough to have an oven and could bake in a way we would find more familiar. During the Civil War the Union troops relied on hardtack and so did many pioneers. A first-hand account of the many ways to eat hardtack (and a recipe) can be found here.

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