It’s been a pleasure this summer to reread the whole series of “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although the books are written at a grade-school level, they vividly capture the simple joys and hardships of American pioneer life in the 1870s and 1880s. I’ve been marveling at how the role of women and the value placed on their labor has changed in those 134 years.
In Laura’s day, women’s work was absolutely essential to the survival of the family. Their skills, creativity and resourcefulness in making meals, preserving food, keeping the home tidy and organized, making clothing, etc. contributed significantly to the family’s happiness and prosperity. For farmers and homesteaders like the Wilder and Ingalls families, the work was physically hard and — during certain seasons — without much rest.
Early harvest: “There was no rest and no play for anyone now. They all worked from candle-light to candle-light. Mother and the girls were making cucumber pickles, green-tomato pickles, and watermelon-rind pickles; they were drying corn and apples, and making preserves. … Even the apple cores were saved for making vinegar, and a bundle of oat-straw was soaking in a tub on the back porch. Whenever Mother had one minute to spare, she braided an inch or two of oat-straw braid for making next summer’s hats.” — “Farmer Boy”
After the late fall/early winter butchering: “All the next week Mother and the girls were hard at work, and Mother kept Almanzo in the kitchen to help. They cut up the pork fat and boiled it in big kettles on the stove. When it was done, Mother strained the clear hot lard through white cloths into big stone jars. … Then she made the headcheese. … Next Mother made mincemeat. … All this time [Almanzo] was grinding sausagemeat. … Mother seasoned the meat and molded it into big balls, and Almanzo had to carry all those balls into the woodshed attic and pile them up in clean cloths. They would be there, frozen, all winter … The end of butchering-time was candle-making.” — “Farmer Boy”
Gradually those tasks became less burdensome with the advent of time-saving appliances and mass production. I’ll be the first to admit I love my dishwasher, gas stove, refrigerator, clothes washer and dryer. But somehow being able to do more in less time — and with less effort — has diminished the value of running a household.
Caroline Ingalls didn’t want her girls to demean themselves by doing men’s work — which at that time meant working in the field or taking care of livestock. But sometimes they had to do it, if it meant the survival of the family. “She did not like to see women working in the fields. Only foreigners did that. Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men’s work.” — “The Long Winter”
Most of us aren’t homesteading. I certainly can’t on my postage-stamp city lot. But I think that spirit of creativity and resourcefulness hasn’t been totally lost. We may choose to get in touch with our roots by raising some of our own food, preserving it, keeping a few chickens, sewing, knitting, crocheting, or cooking from scratch.