Family and Community Colonial Life
Family and Community Colonial Life
The family was the most important unit of society in colonial America. Communities in the New World were quite small at first, and for a long time they remained relatively small compared to the size of the same cities and towns today. Most people were related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the village. These family relationships connected the colonists to one another in a network of close bonds.
Every member of a family contributed to its welfare. Farming jobs were divided along gender lines, with men and boys doing the heavy outdoor chores, such as plowing and taking care of livestock, while women and girls did the equally demanding indoor work of cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, spinning, weaving, and raising children. Children were given chores to do by the age of five; even a small child could set the table, weed the garden, and feed the chickens. At age eight or ten, town boys were often apprenticed to masters, receiving free room and board in exchange for their labor while learning the trade on the job. Girls remained at home with their mothers, helping to take care of their younger siblings and learning how to manage a household.
In towns and cities, men worked at such jobs as printer, blacksmith, wheel- wright, innkeeper, or lawyer. Businesses were small; an innkeeper might have five or six wage-earning employees, or he and his family might run the inn on their own. Urban women worked as hard as farm women at the demanding job of running a house and raising children. Some earned wages as servants, dress- makers, schoolteachers, or midwives. If an innkeeper died, his wife would often carry on the business and take control of the profits. Widows were allowed to own property; many of them became quite wealthy.
Life expectancy in Colonial times was low. It was higher for men than for women, because pregnancy made women vulnerable. Childbirth was a risky procedure in the days before modern sanitary practices. A high percentage of young women died in childbirth, or of infections contracted during childbirth, and a high percentage of children died in the first two years of life. Women frequently burned to death in their own homes, or were severely injured, when their long skirts caught fire at the open hearths where they did their cooking. Illnesses that could easily be cured today with penicillin or antibiotics killed many people of both sexes. People married in their mid to late teens, and young brides usually became pregnant very quickly; more children meant more pairs of hands to help with the work, and the more children a couple had, the more were likely to survive to adulthood. If a father of several children was widowed, he usually lost no time in marrying again so that his children would have a mother; men might go through three or even four wives in a lifetime. Widows also often remarried; since they usually inherited their husband’s property and sometimes his business, they were very desirable marriage partners.
Northerners lived longer than southerners because the marshy, humid southern climate was ideal for the growth of bacteria and the spread of germs. The unsanitary conditions in which slaves were forced to live also contributed to the unhealthy atmosphere. This meant that a southern family was more likely than a northern one to include relations such as stepparents, half-sisters and half-brothers, and so on.
On a farm, of course, the working and living areas were identical. It was the same in the towns; a shopkeeper would have his business on the ground floor of the house, with the living area on the floor or floors above. The blacksmith probably lived in a house next door to his forge. At most, a city dweller would live only a few minutes’ walk from his office. Family members ate together and attended social occasions and church as a group; social activities were not segregated by age and gender as they are today.
Even among the dour Puritans and Pilgrims, Colonial social life was full and fun. A birth or wedding was always cause for celebration. People also gathered for harvest festivals, holiday feasts, and other large parties. In the colonies, there was little spare time, but work was often combined with play. For example, when farmers harvested their corn, the whole village would gather for the “husking bee.” Everyone would husk the cobs of fresh corn that would be dried to make flour for the coming winter. The workers sang, joked, and laughed to make the time pass enjoyably. The women of the village provided a hearty sup- per for the workers, and when anyone found a red ear of corn, it was used as bait in a “kissing game” among the younger people. Similarly, during the brief maple-sugaring season in the North, everyone in the community would come together to harvest the sap, cook it, and turn it into sugar and syrup. Festivities—including sampling the tasty sugar—accompanied the hard work.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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