Our Rural Heritage: So where were the women? A partial answer … busy!

Lydia Maria Child
Lydia Maria Child

By Sandy Vasko

I was recently asked to give a talk about the important women in Will County history. It proved to be harder than it sounds. The written documents we have — newspapers, journals, mortgages, etc. –really don’t mention women much, except when they died. Then they are all described as pious, loving, and well-liked.
So, where were the women?
They were there all right, but not getting their names in the paper (that would have been a scandal) or doing great deeds (unless you call doing laundry over an open fire with a stick and a kettle great). In fact, today keeping house is not really considered a great deed. But you might change your mind if you knew what it entailed when Will County was young.
The following information comes from a book printed in 1833, called the American Frugal Housewife. It was sort of on the line of Good Housekeeping in the 1960s. It was written by Mrs. Child. Lydia Maria Child was an American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, Native American rights activist, novelist, journalist, and opponent of American expansionism. Her Frugal Housewife book was required reading for every bride.
The following is her advice (or the young would say hacks) to the housekeeper of the 1830s, the same era when Will County was being settled:
If you would avoid waste in your family attend to the following rules, and do not despise them because they appear so unimportant.
Look frequently to the pails, to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs which should have been in the grease-pot.
Look to the grease-pot, and see that nothing is there which might have served to nourish your own family, or a poorer one.
See that the beef and pork are always under brine; see that the brine is sweet and clean.
Count towels, sheets, spoons, etc. occasionally; that those who use them may not become careless.
See that the vegetables are neither sprouting nor decaying; if they are so, remove them to a drier place, and spread them out.
Examine preserves to see that they are not contracting mold; and your pickles, to see that they are not growing soft and tasteless.
As far as it is possible; have bits of bread eaten up before they become hard. Spread those that are not eaten and let them dry, to be pounded for pudding, or soaked for brewis. Brewis is made from crusts and dry pieces, Soaked a good while in hot milk, mashed up, and salted, and buttered like toast.
Attend to all the mending in the house, once a week if possible. Never put off sewing. If it be impossible to do it for your own family, hire someone into the house and work with them.
When a carpet is faded, I have been told that it may be restored, in a great measure, (provided there is not any grease in it) by being dipped into strong salt and water. I never tried this; but I know that silk pocket handkerchiefs, and deep blue factory cotton will not fade, if dipped in salt and water while new.
As ox’s gall will set any color, silk, cotton, or woolen, I have seen the colors of calico, which faded at one washing, fixed by it. Where one lives near a slaughter house, it is worth while to buy cheap, fading goods, and set them this way. The gall can be bought for a few cents. Get out all of the liquid, and cork it up in a large phial. One large spoonful of this in a gallon of warm water is sufficient. It must be thoroughly stirred into the water, and not put upon the cloth. It is used without any soap. The cloth should again be washed in suds but without any soap.
Indian meal (corn) and rye meal are in danger of fermenting in summer; particularly Indian. They should be dept in a cool place, and stirred open to the air, once in awhile. A large stone, put in the middle of the barrel of meal, is a good thing to keep it cool.
A warming pan full of coals, or a shovel of coals, held over varnished furniture, will take out white spots. Care should be taken not to hold the coals near enough to scorch; and the place should be rubbed with flannel while warm.
An ounce of quicksilver (mercury), beat up with the white of two eggs, and put on with a feather, is the cleanest and surest bed-bug poison. What is left should be thrown away as it is dangerous to have it about the house. IF the vermin are in your walls, fill up the cracks with verdigris green paint. (It had arsenic in it)
Lamps will have a less disagreeable smell if you dip your wick-yarn in strong hot vinegar.
Eggs will keep almost any length of time in lime-water properly prepared. One pint of coarse salt, and one pint of unslacked lime, to a pailful of water. If there be too much line, it will eat the shells from the eggs; and if there be a single egg cracked, it will spoil the whole. They should be covered with lime water, and kept in a cold place. The yolk becomes slightly red; but I have seen eggs, thus kept, perfectly sweet and fresh at the end of three years.
Do not have carpets swept any oftener than is necessary. After dinner, sweep the crumbs into a dusting pan with your hearth brush; and if you have been sewing, pick up the shreds by hand. A carpet can be kept very neat in this way; and a broom wears it very much.
Feathers should be very thoroughly dried before they are used. For this reason, they should not be packed away in bags, when they are first plucked. They should be laid lightly in a basket, or something of that kind, and stirred up often. The garret is the best place to dry them; because they will there be kept free from dirt and moisture; and will be in no danger of being blown away. It is well to put your parcels, which your may have from time to time, into the oven, after you have removed your bread, and let them stand a day.
Mrs. Child has loads more advice, however, just doing all of the above would wear me out. But remember, gentle readers, to count your silverware and keep your feathers dry.
Brewis anyone?


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