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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Housing in the 1800's America

Houses in the 19th Century were not the way we know ours to be today....three bedrooms, two baths, family room, kitchen, dining room, maybe even an office. Oh, and don't forget the two-car garage. Or the carpet, tile, indoor plumbing, electric lights.

When you think about the size of the country and the population, it's easier to understand that most of America did not live in what we would consider a 'nice-sized' house. Keturah Belknap, in her diary reprinted in COVERED WAGON WOMEN, describes the house her husband built in the prairie land of Iowa. It was 24 feet x16 feet. (pp. 201) Most frontier homes had dirt floors. Or, if they were lucky, a puncheon (plank) flooring. Even in the city and larger towns, a great many citizens didn't have their own homes. They lived in crowded tenements or boarding houses.

Whether a tiny frontier cabin or a tiny tenement, the options were normally the same. Usually only the parents had their own bedroom, with infants or toddlers sharing the room. Older children shared not only a room, but a bed. Sometimes as many as five youngsters slept together. On other occasions, the bed would be shared with houseguests, or by houseguests. EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE 1800'S says that “Even travelers barely acquainted with one another slept together at roadside inns.” (pp. 92) When one had multiple bedrooms and hosted a large gathering of people, the custom was to put the men together in one room and the women together in another, sharing beds or bedrolls. Only the wealthy slept in “amply stuffed feather beds; the poor made do with straw mattresses.” (pp 92)

Kitchens were used for both preparing and cooking food and for warming the house. Until the invention of the cast-iron stove in the 1820's, the cooking was done in the open hearth. In their early days, it was mostly the rich who could afford these items that were made to cover the fireplace and burned one-third less wood. They were also waist high, so a woman didn't have to stoop to check the food. By the 1850's most homes except those on the frontier and the very poor had cast-iron stoves. Keturah tells us “I had never cooked a meal on a stove.” (pp 203) Instead, she cooked a meal for 12 “by the fire.”

Bathtubs, let alone bathrooms, were nearly unknown. Though the first tub was installed in a Boston hotel in the late 1820's, only hotels and wealthy households had them as fixtures by the 1850's. EVERYDAY LIFE tells us “previously, a round, wooden or tin tub was hauled out onto the kitchen floor or onto the bedroom and filled with hot water from the fireplace or stove.” (pp 92) Having seen some of these tubs in antebellum home tours, I can tell you that one could not sit back and relax in them, as we often read of romance heroes doing.

Chamber sets consisted of a basin and pitcher for washing, a cup for brushing the teeth and a chamber pot. EVERYDAY LIFE explains that hotels provided the sets in the 1830's, with homes using them by the 1840's. (pp 94).

Since there was no electricity or a flick of the switch to provide lights, households used several different methods to illuminate the household after dark. Candles were the most common throughout the country, especially during the first half of the century. Lamps were used as well. Whale-oil lamps made of tin, brass or pewter were used through the 1880's. Lard-oil lamps became popular in the 1840's. Kerosene lamps were widely used after 1865 and replaced whale-oil lamps for the most part. Kerosene tended to produce a smoky, torchlike light.

So, we can see that life was not at all full of the conveniences we have today, but you already knew that. What one modern convenience would you miss the most if you had to go back in time? Leave a comment and you could win a copy of my novella “Salvation Bride,” my mail-order story set in 1873 Texas. Can determined doctor Laura Ashton heal Sheriff David Slade’s pain before the dark secret in her past turns up to steal his Salvation Bride?

EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE 1800'S: A Guide for Writers, Students & Historians, by Marc McCutcheon

COVERED WAGON WOMEN: Diaries & Letters From The Western Trails, 1840-1849, edited by Kenneth L. Holmes

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats
Heartwarming, Sensual Westerns


Jannine said...

Nice article. You asked what one modern convenience I'd miss most. Well, it's not one but two. I'd miss my bed and the bathroom the most. If I am ever asked to go camping, I'd make sure there was a hotel nearby to sleep at night and to shower and use the modern conveniences. LOL, I couldn't survive in the 19th century, at least not the way my heroine's do.

Katie Hines said...

As much as I want to mention a computer, I'd have to say I agree with Jannine: definitely a bathroom, and most specifically a toilet.

Paty Jager said...

Fun information, Anna Kathryn. One week each month I live in a 16x20 cabin while irrigating. I can say a small house is easier to keep clean and you don't tend to hoard anything unnecessary! LOL

It has an outhouse and I have to get my water from a well- so other than having electricity I'm living the life my heroines do.

Shannon Robinson said...

Hi Anna! Great post - thanks for sharing. I love reading and writing about the nineteenth century. It's such a fascinating, albeit extremely harsh, time period. I'm a history fanatic anyways and love to learn more about what people used, what they wore, and how they lived in those times. Thanks for helping my curiosity! :)
One thing I would have a hard time being without is the bathroom. Yep, that is definitely a luxury I take for granted. :)
Thanks for sharing!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Thanks for sharing your comments. Wow, Paty, that actually sounds like a fun weekend. I would miss the indoor plumbing, too. I might could do without electricity, but I'd have to move away from the Houston area....too hot.

You know, it wasn't until AFTER air conditioning was invented that places like Arizona and Neveda became hot spots for living, no pun intended. People didn't move there until they could cool off their houses.


Lise said...

A great piece. What made it the most fun to read, however, is the fact that those "olden" days aren't as far from us as you would think. As a child I spent summers at a summer cabin in PA that had an outhouse, an ice box (with the requisite block of ice delivered weekly by the ice man and his horse-drawn wagon). We got our drinking water from a well a few cottages down and did not have running water. Dishes and flushing were done by use of buckets of water from the lake. And we had kerosene lamps that were frequently used - whenever we had a storm the power went out. One actually set the curtains in the kitchen on fire when I was just a little girl and I can still remember my grandmother grabbing my brother in his little basket and running out with him. And at my paternal family's home in Vermont, we had the coal chute, a veeery old cast iron cook stove and the hitching posts were still right where they had been when the house was built during the American Revolution. In fact, I met and knew my great, great, great Aunt Maude. She was 103 years old when she died in 1963 and had been alive during the Civil War. It makes the breadth of history seem far less huge! Thanks for a terrific piece that really "took me back".

Eliza Knight said...

Fascinating Anna!!! For about a week my girls were sharing a bed last week because we're in the process of moving them in together to make a nursery in the other room for the upcoming baby, and I told them that's how kids used to sleep in the olden days. They thought it was pretty cool :)

That pic of the stove was beautiful!

Susan Macatee said...

Great post!! Just as my time traveling heroine does in my upcoming novel, Erin's Rebel, I would definitely miss having a flush toilet. A shower would be a definite second.

Eliza Knight said...

Oh, I forgot about the modern convenience...I've lived without electricity for days when we've had storms, and its doable. I can still write with pen and paper, but the biggest thing I think I'd miss honestly, is the ability to communicate with all my writing friends, so its kind of a combo with the internet/computer.

Barb said...

Wonderfully informative piece. You share so many interesting things of that era and I learn so much from your postings. I too camp but we have hot showers and a public bathroom nearby which is wonderful. Our female ancestors did not have it easy--some of mine were with the first white settlers of Texas and the stories passed down offer a harsh look at the times. Barb

Victoria Gray said...

Without a doubt, the modern convenience I'd miss most is the bathroom. After that, I'd say the computer and the Internet. Even though I lived much of my life without it, now, I don't know how I'd get along without information and friends at my fingertips, 24/7. Trying to write a novel longhand would be a challenge I wouldn't want to face, either. :)

Nancy M said...

The modern convenience I would miss the most is the washing machine. I have done diapers and sheets in a tub and can tell you it is easier to bathe oneself than sheets.
I have also stayed in places where one had to use a chamber pot at night and go to an out door privy during the day. I did freeze and caught the flu then. Nevertheless, I still say, one can manage that easier than washing clothes and sheets in a wash tub.

Valerie R. Oakleaf said...

Fascinating Anna Kathryn! I guess I have a mansion in comparison to the "old" days.
I, too would miss the bathroom. Could probably live without the running water but MAN I would miss the toilet!!

Cynthia Owens said...

Fascinating post, Anna Kathryn! And I agree with Lise about the "olden days" not being so far away. A friend of mine who has relatives in Galway, Ireland, said his family there cooked on the open fire when he was a child. As for modern conveniences I'd miss, it's a toss-up between running water and a computer to keep in touch with all my "far-away friends" and my fellow romance authors.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Wow, thanks for all the comments. Honestly, this post just got thrown together today when I realized I had to post. But I had two great refrences and some memories to refer to, so it wasn't so bad.

Seems we'd mostly miss the convenience of running water, not to mention, I think, potable water (I hope I spelled that right)...but water that is drinkable.

And I too would miss the computer, easy access to communication. Just think, it took MONTHS for letters to get back home, now it takes seconds.

I'll draw for a winner tomorrow. If you didn't leave your e-mail, please do so. I can't award a prize if I don't know how to reach you.


Penny Rader said...

I don't mind sharing a bed and I write my first drafts in longhand, but I'd rather not give up running water and a bathroom. Not to mention a/c for our hot summers. Guess I'm not so good at picking just one luxury I'd miss most. I would've made a lousy pioneer.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Congrats to Susan for winning my drawing for Salvation Bride. And thanks for all visits and comments.


Anonymous said...

hi just read your artical, Im male , and have lived as a yuong boy in the hills, we had a well to draw water, a out house to do , u know, in the winter ,you would freeze your butt off, but when you gotta go you gotta go , a fire place to keep you warm, but getting up in the midle of the night to restock it, and then get up before su n up to do it again, no electric, Ah thoughs were the day`s ,Know count the cost of water and electric, And its still going up,

Kelly said...

Hi thanks for the information. I've been facinated recently by the 1800's. It all started one day in a historc cemetary near my home in R.I. A gentlemans headstone caught my eye, he had passed away exactly 100 years to the day of my mothers birth. She had recently passed away so it kinda freaked me out. Then I got curious, I wanted to know what this man was like, how he lived etc...Your information helped describe this perfectly...THANK YOU!!!

Anonymous said...

Great Story !

I am from a family of ten children.

We lived in a two bedroom house, no bathroom only the outside privy, no running wateri (carried our wtater in from the wellh.

We each had our chores to do Monday thru Friday after school.
Saturday we cleaned and worked our gardens, canned and butchered for out meat as well as hunted and fished to feed our family.

Mother made our clothes and then she would alter the hand me downs.
Dad had an old shoe lathe and would repair our shoes, only one neew pair year at the start of the school year.

We went to church on Sundays and we were taught to respect our elders and say yes mam and yes sir.

I now have a lovely 3,500 sq foot home, but I wouldnt change one thing about my past, I hit as a cherished memory. It molded me into who I am today.

Living with very little taught us a lot about love, respect and sharing.

Anonymous said...

by the way Im not illerate.
My cursor keeps jumping when I type.. wonderful modern technology !

Anonymous said...


Cookie said...

What a great article. Its fascinating how little was needed to get by. A home under 400 sq ft was more then enough to raise a family. Now its homes 10 times that size, 2 car garages. I often wonder what my great great grand parents would think of how we live today.

I've often thought of moving off grid in a small cabin. Yes, its nice having electricity, indoor plumbing and running water. Having a well, outhouse and solar power doesnt seem so bad to me. I'd miss the internet and laptop. Its nice being able to keep in contact without having to wait for snail mail.

So in my little cabin in the woods, I'd love to internet access (satelite or cell service maybe?), enough solar power to charge the laptop, run a small fridge and a few lamps.

Thank you for posting, I'm going to see if my library has either of those books for further knowledge.

Have a great day.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Without a doubt I would miss modern refrigeration for food more than any thing else !

Mewenn M said...

Thank you a lot for this post, it was really informative and useful for the project I'm working on at the moment.

Anonymous said...

The lack of indoor plumbing would be the toughest convenience to do without. Having to haul water from a stream, river, lake or well, to have water for drinking, bathing, cooking, cleaning, etc., would be one HARD chore !!!!! I don't know how people did it back then. One things for sure. People were a LOT tougher prior to the 20th century. Wer'e ALL cream puffs today !!!!!

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Sharon Hodge said...

I am old enough that when I went to visit my grandparents I could use the outhouse. They had indoor plumbing at that time, but as a kid the out house was cool lol I could live without the electricity and indoor plumbing, but I'd miss the toilet paper.

Sharon Hodge said...

I am old enough that when I went to visit my grandparents I could use the outhouse. They had indoor plumbing at that time, but as a kid the out house was cool lol I could live without the electricity and indoor plumbing, but I'd miss the toilet paper.