Because colonial society was agrarian, many specific tasks were performed annually as the seasons changed. Men and boys worked outdoors, with the many commitments of farming. Almost all tasks which were done inside the house or were specifically concerned with cooking were under the management of the wife and the other women and girls. Tasks which were either preliminary to the women’s work or were basically too heavy were set up by the men and boys. Some of the rote, laborious tasks were made more tolerable by the companionship of the people involved and by the games and competitions in which they engaged during the work. Sometimes, at the conclusion of a task, there might be some little celebration or the opportunity to sample the “fruits of their labors” which would surely give them a sense of satisfaction.
For farmers, spring was the beginning of the year. It was time once again, to resume the cycles of farm life. The dreary winter months were behind, the food supplies were almost depleted and the house was dirty and soot covered from being constantly inhabited. There was almost a sense of urgency to begin anew. Seeds were sown, animals gave birth, nature came alive, the house and the landscape were improved for another year. It was a time of much work, and planning for the coming year.
was a major undertaking in a colonial home. The house sustained heavy use during the winter when the family remained indoors and in close quarters. The fire, which had been burning constantly for months, would leave layers of soot and fine ashes on everything. Floors would have been abused by much tracking of mud and sand from the outdoors. Sweeping alone couldn’t reach the imbedded dirt. Much of the laundering had to be postponed until the warmer weather so heavy fabrics would be able to dry outdoors.
Many women would remove all furnishings from the rooms to the outside so they could thoroughly scrub walls, ceilings and floors. Some would white wash, which was cleaning with water to which lime, soap and fine sand for abrasion had been added. Once the inside was sanitized, the furnishings were then cleaned or laundered and placed back into position. The whole process could last from several days to weeks.
another important task, was the starting point for the long process of making wool fabrics for clothing or bedding. If a family was fortunate enough to own sheep, this was the first step of many which were done at intervals over the course of the year. When the weather became warm enough, the sheep were washed. They were then sheared within a few days. The fleece was carefully separated so the matted and tangled sections were set aside to be spun into coarse yarns. The lighter, whiter fleece was put into bundles to be dyed. Dyes were made from a great variety of natural findings. Barks, berries, flowers, leaves, herbs and even insects provided a wide variety of colors. After dying, the fleece was carded, placing the fibers in the same direction. At this point, the wool was ready to be spun into yarn which could be woven or knitted into clothing or blankets.
was a task mainly done by the men and boys. They would leave for several days to stay at the sugar camp, out in the woods. This was done between mid March and mid April. The sap of the maple trees, flows upward in the sunshine and down with the evening frost. A tap or spout was put into the tree and a bucket was placed beneath it. The sap was collected and boiled in large kettles, then skimmed and strained. This process of boiling, skimming and straining was repeated many times until the syrup became clear. Many grades of sugars from dark course blocks to light syrups were obtained for the family to use throughout the year. The hard wood fires, sustaining the boiling kettles, burned continuously until the work was completed. This would become a time of celebration, with the women and girls joining the men and boys for games and tasting the sweet sugars.
Because of the fair weather and longer days, summer was considered the season to get things done. The men and boys spent long hours in the fields. Women and girls did much cooking, gardening, and food preservation.
Drying herbs and fruit
began almost as soon as they would mature so as to have plenty for the rest of the year. Of course, fresh herbs and fruit were wonderful treats of the summer. Herbs were usually simply bundled and tied, then hung from the rafters in the kitchen or the attic. Herbs were used in cooking, to make teas, for dyes and were also believed to have many medicinal benefits. It was quite an educational process for the woman to learn the many and varied uses of the herbs. Fruit was sliced and spread in single layers to dry. It was then strung onto twine and hung near the hearth. It might have also been stored in cloth bags to be reconstituted at any time during the year. Apples grew abundantly. Apple pies and other treats could be readily prepared from the dried fruit at any time of the year. Many other native fruits were dried in similar fashion to be used throughout the year.
began in early July. The seeds were planted in the early spring and were usually tended by the children. The children’s smaller feet and fingers allowed them to do the weeding without damaging the fragile plants. The men and boys, however, cut the mature stalks and placed them in the sun to dry. Once dried, the seeds were removed to be saved for the next planting. The flax was broken to remove the hard parts of the stalks and separate the fine fibers. The fibers were then hackled, which was pulling through iron teeth, and bundled. The women would then wash the fibers many times to bleach them. Once dried, the women and girls could begin the spinning process. Spinning was usually postponed to colder months when the women had to remain inside the house.
Autumn was the season for harvesting, the time when the long hours of summer work would yield its rewards. Many of the season’s activities were focused upon the particular crop being harvested. This was the peak time of the agrarian cycle.
could involve an entire community. Corn had become the primary staple crop of New Englanders. The crop was usually the largest of the harvest season.
Corn was used for many purposes. Besides its most obvious use, the grain, many crafts and tools were created from the husks, stalks and cobs. When the corn harvesting was completed, again, it was often a time of celebration.
was another of the tasks of the autumn. Goose feathers were collected to stuff bedding. Sometimes the small soft feathers were plucked from the live goose, which was very difficult as the bird would be fighting mad. Sometimes the goose was killed first. When all the feathers were removed the down was stripped from the lower part of the quills for quilts and soft bedding. The quills were set aside to be used for pens. At the conclusion of this event the family was often rewarded with a delicious roast goose dinner.
Smoking and preserving meats
was accomplished before the long winter months. The food was secured for indoor winter storage and there were also fewer animals that would require feeding and care. This was often a delicate balancing game. When an animal was slaughtered, it provided a huge variety of meat products. All parts of the animal were used. Typically, there was no waste.
natural foods from the woods went on throughout spring, summer and autumn. Berries, nuts, edible vegetation, etc. were preserved and stored in readiness for winter. This was the time of year when food was most abundant. Therefore, this became the time of thanksgiving. The colonists felt rewarded for their hard labor and the grace of God, leading them to better lives which they sought in the new world.
Indoor work, especially for the women and girls, was the order of the day in the winter months. Men and boys worked outdoors during the short daylight hours mainly doing repairs and other farm maintenance. Keeping warm, around the central chimney and the huge kitchen hearth, was in itself an on going task until the spring.
Tending the fire required expertise. All members of the family seemed to, in some way be involved with the task of keeping the winter hearth continuously burning. Appropriate tools had to be selected for the various placing of logs, coals and ashes.
Wood had to be appropriately selected, cut, seasoned and stacked. Kindling had to be gathered and stored. Furnishings were often huddled around the fireplace so people could be near enough to stay warm. Sometimes, people slept dangerously close. Proximity always created hazards. House fires were a serious concern for loss of property, injury, or death.
Sewing, spinning, mending, knitting and other types of needlework kept the women and girls busy. Since much to this type of work kept the women stationery, much could be accomplished during the winter months. There was virtually no end to this work. It went on continuously. Their fingers were never idle. The women taught the girls when they were very young. A young woman was expected to be expert at needlework in order to be a good wife. There are numerous types of needlecrafts, which were so complex and time consuming, they have nearly become lost arts.
Although the winter season was much less labor intensive, it was not idle. It was the time when family members prepared to repeat the cycles which were essential to their agrarian life style. Tools and utensils were made or repaired. Clothing was constructed or mended. Furnishings were cared for. Plans were made, during these shortest, darkest days, for the beginning of another year, in the spring.