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