“No farmer or his wife need fear any king when on every home farm was found food, drink, medicine, fuel, lighting, clothing, [and] shelter.”
-Alice Morse Earl, “Home Life in Colonial Days,” 1898
We Americans are an independent-minded bunch. It’s a characteristic we trace right back to our founders, who had the self-determination to lead a misfit nation to war with one of the mightiest powers of their time.
One thing we tend to forget when we talk about the founding generation, though—and what might honestly be the single biggest evidence of their independence—was the way they lived their day-to-day lives.
The men and women who founded this country were able to live independently using home-spun skills that most Americans have long since lost.
But it’s never too late to get those skills back!
In honor of Presidents’ Day this week, here are twenty of the skills our founders knew that we’d be wise to learn.
Where a pulley system wasn’t handy, some colonials would craft a homemade “well sweep” to pull out water.
In cities, at least, water was used as much to dispose of waste as to drink—which is why colonial Americans were big alcohol and tea consumers.
However, a colonist out on the frontier could dig a 15 to 75 foot well—by hand! There were no utility companies or electric pumps. Just good old-fashioned elbow grease, posts, buckets, and shovels. And where a pulley system wasn’t handy, some colonials would craft a homemade “well sweep” to pull out water.
Make Survival Foods from Scratch
From dried meats to hard tack and pemmican (both of which date back to pre-history), colonial Americans made foods from scratch that lasted months or even years without refrigeration. These foods packed protein, fat, carbs, and vitamins that helped fuel a much more physically demanding lifestyle than the one we live today.
Home Remedy Wellness
For our colonial forbearers, healing was done at home, and mostly practiced by women. By and large they used the bounty of medicinal herbs planted in their gardens for the task. Feverfew, for example, was used to relieve headaches, body aches, and fevers by placing the leaves on a person’s head. Southernwood was used for upset stomach. Calendula was placed on cuts.
Some of the remedies grown in those early American gardens are still used by herbalists and even doctors today.
Start a Fire
Lighting fire was a daily chore shared by men, women, and children alike. According to Alice Morse Earl’s 1898 guide to colonial life, “Nearly all families had some form of flint and steel…and a tinder of some vegetable matter to catch the spark.” Some families were even said to have used old linen and undergarments as kindling.
For salted beef, a family would “sprinkle the cuts well with salt and six hours later hang up to drain.
According to D.M. Kinsman of the University of Connecticut, “ One of the most formidable problems facing [early] Americans was the preservation of meat. In New England, the “three S’s,” salt, smoke, and snow, were the standard meat preservatives.
For salted beef, a family would “sprinkle [cut meat] well with salt; six hours later hang up to drain; then rub well with salt and lay in a salting tub.” The beef was then covered and turned daily. The remaining brine was salvaged for later use by boiling and scumming. Pork, bacon, and hams were preserved in the same way.
Hand Make Bricks
Our colonial forbearers used the same materials for crafting bricks that had been applied to the task for thousands of years: simple surface clay.
Clay was worked into loaves, then placed in a brick mold (sizing was often regulated by law to ensure quality and uniformity). Once shaped, the brick was removed from the mold and laid out in a warm, flat, sunny spot to dry. They were then stacked to dry for a few more weeks till they were ready for the kiln.
Because sugar was such an expensive commodity in the colonies, many Americans successfully foraged for sweeteners in the woods and fields near their homes. Colonists gathered honey from hollow tree trunks (honey bees were imported to North America from Europe in the seventeenth century) and extracted sap from the maple tree (lovingly called the “sugar tree”) with a simple notch cut in the trunk.
Build Temporary Shelter
With nothing more than a wood axe and hatchet, many colonials on the early American frontier could build a study survival shelter in a day with nothing but material pulled from the woods.
By first felling a few small trees with an axe, stripping them of their bark, carving notches, and stacking the logs, walls were built to a suitable height. Spaces between the logs were then filled with mud, moss, and bits of wood. Bark made for a hearty shingle material as well as a primitive rope for fastening walls.
The first step in soap making was to generate some lye, which they would do by setting ashes in a barrel and pouring water through it.
Until relatively recently, soap was mostly a homemade commodity. The colonials made it by storing the refuse from cooking grease, butchering by-product, etc., as well as wood ashes from the fireplace.
The first step in soap making was to generate some lye, which they would do by setting ashes in a barrel and pouring water through it. An old-time receipt says: “The great Difficulty in making Soap come is the want of Judgment of the Strength of the Lye. If your Lye will bear up an Egg or a Potato…it is just strong enough.” Some lyes, called “chamber lye” actually used urine in the lye making process.
The grease and lye were then boiled together. It took about six “bushels” of ashes and 24 pounds of grease to make a barrel of soft soap. The soap produced by this process was like clean jelly, with little to no grease.
Wash Clothing by Hand
Aside from making their own soap and lye, colonial women and children hand washed their own clothes. Laundry was often soaked in lye mixed with hot or cold water. This method, called “bucking,” and was good for breaking down grease, loosening dirt, and whitening yellow linen.
Dirty clothes were placed in a tub and lye was poured over it. In the absence of prepared lye, a piece of cheesecloth was placed over the tub, ashes were placed over the cloth, and hot water was poured over the entire thing. The resulting lye would be collected, reheated, and poured through again.
“Bucked” clothes were covered in soap and either hand rubbed or (according to some accounts) scrubbed with rocks over boards.
Clothing was dried on lines, over fences, or on the ground in areas cleared for that purpose.
A spinning wheel called a “clock reel” or “spinner’s weasel” which would spin the fibers into long, even thread.
In the early days of this country, many farmers raised wool and flax (or hemp), and women spun them into thread and yarn. Flax harvested for thread was pulled up by the roots, laid out carefully to dry for a day or two, and turned several times in the sun.
A coarse comb was fastened on a plank where the stalks of flax were drawn through to break off the seed boles. The stalks of seedless flax were tied in bundles and then watered to rot the leaves and soften the fibers. What remained was dried again and broken on a “flax-brake” multiple times to separate the fibers, which were then pounded until soft.
When the right texture was achieved, the flax was “hackled” or combed through with a brush of fine-toothed metal bristles. It was then ready for the spinning wheel called a “clock reel” or “spinner’s weasel” which would spin the fibers into long, even thread.
Weaving in the colonies was done with a hand loom. “Any who passed through a New England village on a weekday or rode up to the door of a Pennsylvania of Virginia house, would probably be greeted with a heavy thwack-thwack from weaving on a hand loom,” said Alice Morse Earl.
Using thread or yarn (often crafted at home) women of the colonies would weave a linen that was remarkable close woven and simple in its pattern and style.
A revolving churn (pictured here) or an upright churn was used to separate cream into butter and buttermilk.
Butter churning was a staple skill for most of our founding mothers. It was introduced to the Americas as early as 1607, by the Jamestown colonists, and by the eighteenth century “the care of cream and making butter was the duty of every good housewife and dame in the country.”*
Butter was made by first placing milk in pans to let the cream rise to the top. Once removed, cream was allowed to sour by sitting at room temperature for about a day. The soured cream was then put into a churn and mixed until a solid (butter) and a thin liquid (buttermilk) formed.
Read the Skies for Weather
Our colonial forbearers used the winds and the skies to predict weather with surprising accuracy. Weathervanes, for example, were used to track wind directions. If the wind tracked with the movement of the sun (east to west), colonists planned for clearing skies. If west to east, they knew clouds were coming.
And on the topic of clouds, any good early American farmer, soldier, or sailor would know how to read them. A wispy cirrus cloud, for example, set above a “mackerel”-colored sky portended veering winds and precipitation. As the popular sailors’ rhyme taught,” Mare’s tales and mackerel scales make tall ships take in their sails.”
For those at home, a sun dial was used to tell time during the day. For those in the fields, wilderness, or at sea, methods like counting hand lengths between the horizon and the sun were used.
Tell Time without a Watch
For most American colonists, clocks and pocket watches were far too expensive to own. George Washington had a French Louis VII-style clock at Mt. Vernon that had to be imported from Europe at a steep cost.
The same went for pocket watches. According to historian Richard Newman, “Only the very wealthy could afford a personal timekeeper and watches particularly through the first half of the 18th century.”
So how did the founding generation tell time? Mostly, as people had for eons: using the sky. For those at home, a sun dial did the job during the day. For those in the fields, wilderness, or at sea, an old method of counting hand lengths between the horizon and the sun could give a rough calculation of the number of daylight hours remaining. At night, the same rough calculation could be made using the alignment of the North Star to the Big Dipper.
Make a Straw Hat
Long before they were widely imported into the colonies, straw hats and bonnets were crafted at home from spear and redtop grass that was dried and braided or weaved into all variety of shapes and fashions.
Bonnets were often bleached. One set of written instructions directed the maker to bore holes into the head of a barrel, string newly made bonnets to the inside of the head, seal the head up on the barrel, and leave the bonnets hanging inside. The barrel was then to be set over coals for a time. According to the instructions, the bonnets would come out bleached.*
Many household and farm items were crafted from the knives and skilled whittling of boys and men.
Unlike in England, where most forests were cleared as early as the bronze age, the American frontier was thick with trees and foliage.
“It was so emphatically a wooden age in colonial days that it seemed almost that there were no hard metals used for any articles.”* Ploughs were of wood. Cartwheels were often completely made of wood. Brooms, buckets, churns, tubs, fencing, stakes, scythes, axe handles, and other crucial household items were often wholly carved of wood as well.
For many colonial households, these items were crafted from the knives and skilled whittling of boys and men. “The boy’s jack-knife was a possession so highly desired, so closely treasured in those days when boys had few belongings.”*
Hunt with Traps
For the earliest European settlers in America, deer was so plentiful that some families lived on venison alone for most of the year. Turkeys and pigeons were also widely hunted for meat, mostly with a rifle.
Smaller game like squirrels and rabbits were caught for meat as well, often using traps. In America, trapping was a major industry, with the Hudson Bay Company doing business in furs on a global scale. While professional trappers would have carried metal devices, settlers and their descendants would have been proficient in basic snares, pit traps, and dead falls.
Build and Cook in an Earthen Oven
Using nothing more than sand, paper, clay, straw, some bricks, a canvas tarp, and water, early European Americans could build an earthen oven in a matter of days. To begin, the builder would select a properly flat, hard surface. A brick or stone surface was best, though there are records of ovens built on tables and even wagons!
The builder started by molding the sand to the shape of an oven. Wet paper was then placed over the sand. A mixture of two parts sand and one part clay was mixed and placed over the paper layer.
Once set overnight another layer mixed with grass and straw for binding was laid over top of it. After a number of days, the sand was dug out. A number of fires needed to be lit and tended in the oven to harden the body—and voila: a durable earthen oven ready for baking!
Let Us Know What You Think!Do you have any other skills we would be wise to learn? Let us know in the comments below!
"typical well sweep in New Hampshire ca 1900" by over 25 MILLION views Thanks is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
"'Hard-tack' crackers issued as rations to the Union soldiers and the supply line called the 'cracker line'" by hatrick is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
"Salted Meat" by SLV Native is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
“Butter churn, marked Waide & Son, Leeds is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. By User Musphot on Wikimedia Commons. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/
"p-60-a-017" by NeenahHistory is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
*Earle, Alice Morse. 2010. Home Life in Colonial Days. MVB E-Books.