Revisited Myth # 106: They made everything for themselves in the olden days.

Ships brought  manufactured goods to the colonies

Ships brought manufactured goods to the colonies

(Also see the related Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.)

This week Katie Cannon has agreed to tackle a myth that has pestered her for years. She has more than a dozen years of experience working in history museums as well as a masters in Museum Studies, and she currently works at Mount Vernon. Katie admits she is especially fond of living history, having never quite grown out of playing dress-up.

This is something you hear all the time, about different places and times in American history. While I will certainly not dispute our ancestors’ ingenuity and skill, and many people did make a variety of objects for their own use, it is simply not true that anybody made everything— or even most things— that they used. Pre-Industrial Americans were part of a global economy and were consumers as well as producers; you can see this in all three centuries of early American history.1

The 1600s

When the first English settlers arrived on American shores, they thought they were landing in an untamed wilderness full of savage beasts and “savage” men. (Not true of course, but that’s a topic for another discussion.) This meant they were totally on their own and had to fend for themselves, right?

Wrong.

While they could not purchase the manufactured goods they were used to on this continent, they eagerly awaited regular ships bringing them European goods: cloth, thread, sugar, salt, furniture, paper, etc. etc. That romantic image of Priscilla Mullens industriously spinning wool while John Alden stumbles through wooing her? A bit difficult since there is no record of fiber processing tools in the colony until the late 1630s (and the two were married over a decade earlier).2

Here is an excerpt from a letter by Edward Winslow, 1621. He is writing to a friend and advising him on what to bring to the new colony:

“…bring good store of clothes and bedding with you. Bring every man a musket or fowling-piece…Bring juice of lemons, and take it fasting; it is of good use. … If you bring anything for comfort in the country, butter or sallet oil, or both is very good. …Bring paper and linseed oil for your windows, with cotton yarn for your lamps.”3

The 1700s

The 18th century saw the birth of the United States of America, land of the free, the brave… and the avid consumers. Prior to the Revolution, this country was heavily dependent on British imports; England even forbade the colonies from producing certain goods themselves, ensuring that they would be England’s customers.4

For political reasons around the time of the Revolution there was a push for “homespun” and other goods produced locally.5 This did not mean that everyone could be self-sustaining, however. Just think of all the tools and knowledge necessary to make every single item in someone’s home! An encyclopedia published in the 18th century shows images of craftsmen and their tools; take a look at what was required to make a single pin, necessary for sewing and fastening clothes:6

Image link: http://artflx.uchicago.edu/images/encyclopedie/V21/plate_21_5_2.jpeg

If you look through probate inventories of the time, even for those in the lowest income brackets, you get the sense of all the many trades (needing years of training and specialized tools) that went into making that inventory. Consider this inventory of Patience Gilbert from 1742; she is listed in the lower wealth category of the York County, Virginia, probate inventories.7

Her list of possessions includes:

3 kettles, 2 frying pans, 1 copper kettle, 1 brass candlestick, and other metal items that would have been made by various smiths
Several items of clothing but no loom or spinning wheel so she at least purchased the fabric if not the finished clothes
Tea that she could not have grown in this climate
A looking glass which she certainly did not make
… and so forth.
You will find similar inventories for other years, wealth categories, and locations.

The 1800s

Ah yes, the self-sufficient pioneers, heading off into the frontier for a fresh start away from any outside assistance! … or not.

Becky Lauterbach, Senior Facilitator at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park whose specialty of over 20 years is early life in 19th century Indiana, says, “they were able to get to a store in Indiana, and it probably wasn’t all that difficult. Fur traders… had been in the area for 200 years. Even the Native Americans had become dependent on manufactured goods. St. Louis, MO was the “Gateway to the West” by the 1830’s. People moving on to the “frontier” could stop there to stock up and could no doubt buy anything they needed (and plenty of things they didn’t). Most settlers never intended to be self-sufficient, but were willing to “rough it” for a while to gain the advantage of being first on the scene.”

She also provides this list of just a few items offered at an Indiana store in 1834-35:

Guns and the gunpowder to fire them
Lead – While balls could be molded easily, you needed the bar lead to start with.
Salt – so necessary for preservation.
Glass
Pottery
Metal items – tools, at least the heads, cooking pots, cooking utensils, horse shoes, nails, …
Paper
Dye stuffs for colors like blue, red, purple
Cotton – not grown in large quantities around here
Why does this matter?

I won’t deny that before the Industrial Revolution all items had to be made by a person, whether it was a person working with hand tools or operating a machine such as a loom. But, no single person was able to make everything they owned, nor did they have to; they could purchase items made locally or shipped from abroad, the same as we do today.

We honor the self-sufficient aspects of our ancestors quite readily; I think we should also recognize them as active consumers of a global marketplace, lest we do a disservice by diminishing the scope of the world they lived in.

Notes

1 I will be focusing on American history starting with European colonization. Pre-European contact also involved extensive trade networks, but this is meant to be a short article, not a doctoral thesis!

2 Jill Hall. “The Truth About Priscilla, Spinning in Early Plymouth Colony,” Spin Off. Winter 2010. Available online at http://www.sail1620.org/history/articles/220-truth-about-priscilla-spinning-in-early-plymouth-colony.html

3 Dwight Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1963), p. 86. Many thanks to Elizabeth Rolando of Plimoth Plantation for providing the quote.

4 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), pp. 84, 159.

5 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), p. 176.

6 The Encyclopedia of Diderot, 1751-1777. Available online at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/

7 York County Probate Inventories, provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s digital library. http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/BrowseProbates.cfm accessed January 19, 2013.

COMMENTS:

7 Responses to Myth #106: They made everything themselves in those days.
Elaine says:
February 24, 2013 at 10:42 am (Edit)
HOORAY!!!!
I’m delighted to have someone else recognize this as a myth and try to tackle busting it.
The most common related myth I encounter is women of the mid-19th century doing all the sewing, including and especially making clothing, for their family members. The historical record just doesn’t support this lovely romanticized notion. Continuance of this myth does a grave disservice to the dress-makers, seamstresses, tailors, seamsters, and ready-made merchants of this era… and especially the dress-makers who, as female business-owners, made great strides in pioneering women taking roles outside of the home as both owners and consumers.

Reply
Iain Sherwood says:
February 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm (Edit)
In every town in the colonies (of any size) there was a blacksmith, a cooper, a tinsmith, a draper (cloth seller), a butcher and tanner, several joiners (carpenter), tilers (roofer), seamstresses, tailors, cordwainers, and other ‘domestic’ trades. On the coast there were plenty of fishermen and. later, whalers (I’m from New England), and there were numerous shipyards along the New England coast building cargo ships to carry lumber and goods up the rivers and along the coast.

Reply
Daud Alzayer says:
March 24, 2013 at 11:46 am (Edit)
Not to mention the large portion of goods that were imported.

Reply
janice says:
February 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Edit)
reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingles Wilder encouraged me to feel that the women did alot of their own work. the mother weaves cloth for making coats.

Reply
Jennifer says:
March 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm (Edit)
Almanzo’s mother was just one out of many people. In upstate New York they had access to a lot. There’s a point where they talk about the fine store bought fabric Mother had used to make Sunday clothes. I had the feeling that what the family made on the farm was because they thought they could do it better and cheaper than buying. Mother’s cloth was known to be water tight and finely woven, but it is only for the boys to wear. They are not yet allowed the fine store bought. Perhaps she made it because it wore well with no holes in knees, etc.

Reply
Jennifer says:
March 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Very nicely put together piece. It is good to remember that the “good ol’ days” are not the ideal we think it is. Early in our history many items were made by and purchased from craftsmen, so our consumer history is very long.

Reply
Elaine says:
March 12, 2013 at 11:30 am (Edit)
Mrs. Almonzo Wilder also denotes how unusual it was for a family of the Wilder’s position and economic standing to have the Housewife weaving cloth.
It was simply a case of Mrs. Wilder, Sr. doing a craft she enjoyed very much… on a small scale.
Consider it similar to a Mother today who bakes cupcakes for children’s school celebrations… for her own and her friends’ children… because she enjoys it, not because her family cannot afford bakery-made ones.

 

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3 Responses to Revisited Myth # 106: They made everything for themselves in the olden days.

  1. And just in case anyone thought “the frontier” had a subsistence economy, I disproved this in my book: Johanna Miller Lewis, “Artisans in the North Carolina Backcountry,” University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

  2. Great post! I love historical novels. You gave me something to think about 🙂

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