- Agriculture provided the livelihood for the overwhelming majority of Americans, regardless of race. Even people engaged in other occupations usually owned farmland as well…even a pastor, a widow, or a blacksmith had a plot of land.
- Whiskey was the easiest product to send by wagon from isolated backcountry farms. Instead of shipping grain that could easily spoil, farmers distilled the grain into whiskey themselves. The cheap whiskey worsened the U.S.’s problems with alcohol abuse.
- Small farmers sometimes moved west when their soil failed. They would usually move directly west (not north or south) so they could farm the same crops using the same techniques. But some families failed repeatedly and kept moving west until they couldn’t afford to buy land and had to rent or work for low wages.
- A season of bad weather meant major trouble for most farmers: they faced financial losses, but also hunger, cold, and the challenge of communicating with the outside world. Without telephones or electronics, messages could only be transported as fast as a person could travel—so snow slowed communication considerably.
- Indoor light was scarce; families made their own smelly, smoky candles from animal fat. A single fireplace provided all the cooking and heating for the average household. In the winter, everyone slept in the room with the fire, several in each bed.
Economics of Farming
- The main sources of agricultural labor were family members, neighbors helping each other, and (for those who could afford them) slaves. Children could perform many necessary tasks: fetching water from the well, feeding chickens, collecting firewood. In 1800, the white birthrate averaged seven children per woman.
- An ordinary farming family would either produce a good for themselves or trade with a neighbor. For a few purchases, they would visit the local storekeeper. With currency scarce, people rarely paid for their purchases using coins or paper money. Instead, the storekeeper kept an account for each customer: when a husband bought a tool, money was taken from the account; when a wife brought in an extra ham, money was added to the account.
- Most farmers would start by growing food for themselves, but as soon as possible, they would add something that they could trade, whether with a neighbor or across the ocean. This practice—growing enough for survival but also selling something—is called “composite farming.”
- Most goods were made at home, but when farmers bought items from traveling salesmen or local stores, many came from overseas: “dry goods” (wool, linen, and silk), “wet goods” (wine, gin, brandy, and rum), household hardware, silverware, guns, and China-ware (porcelain dishes from China).
Men, Women, and Community
- Two-thirds of all clothing and linens were produced in households. Such production would not necessarily be for the woman’s own family, for merchants “put out” spinning, weaving, and sewing to women to do at home for payment.
- The man was the “head of the house,” but he could not control who his sons or daughters married. The common law of “coverture” deprived married women of legal independence from their husbands, but women looked forward to marriage. Only by marriage could a woman have a home of her own, gaining the respect of her husband as a fellow farmer.
- Protestant Christianity focused on self-control and a rule-following morality. It encouraged literacy for Bible reading, broad participation in decision-making, and a sense of equality among members. This respect for religious tradition made people feel more united as a Christian community.
- Women bore children in agony and danger, making their life expectancy, unlike today, slightly shorter than that of men. To help women through childbirth, neighbors and trained midwives took care of them. Doctors, who didn’t know modern medicine, and hospitals, where infections were easily caught, were often more dangerous than helpful.
- The woman of the house often was the first to make purchases outside the local community. Wanting to introduce some luxuries into her simple home, she might buy a clock, a second book (to go with the Bible), or porcelain cups from a traveling salesman. Sometimes her husband resisted: one pastor wrote of instructing a husband to “give your wife and daughters a chance” by spending some money on the home.
Nutrition and Health
- Country people of ordinary means went barefoot much of the time. White people of both sexes wore heavy fabrics covering their bodies, even in the humid heat of summer, for they believed (correctly) sunshine bad for their skin. People usually owned few changes of clothes and stank of sweat.
- Only the most fastidious (attentive to detail) bathed as often as once a week. Since water had to be carried from a spring or well and heated in a kettle, people gave themselves sponge baths, using the washtub. Some bathed only once a year, some even less. An outhouse was considered a luxury; many people relieved themselves in the woods or fields.
- The census listed the median age as sixteen, and only one person in eight was over forty-three years old. Infants often died of diseases like diphtheria, scarlet fever, and whooping cough. One-third of white children and over half of black children died before reaching adulthood. The women had enough babies to beat these grim odds.
- The American of 1815 ate wheat and beef in the North, corn and pork in the South. Milk, cheese, and butter were plentiful; potatoes came to be added in the North and sweet potatoes in the South. Fruits were only available in season unless women preserved them in pies or jams; green vegetables were sometimes used as condiments; salads were almost never available.
- The average American was stronger, better fed, and less likely to be sick than an Englishman of similar age. The American benefited from abundant food and rural isolation from contagious disease.
Geography and Transportation
- Most Americans lived not far from the coast. Of the 7.23 million people counted in the 1810 census, only about 1 million lived in new states and territories west of the Appalachians.
- To get from New York City to Cincinnati on the other side of the Appalachians took nineteen days in 1817. (You can now fly there in 2 hours.) Travel over water was always faster; sailing along the coast, one could get from New York to Charleston in eight days. (You can now fly there in 2 hours too.)
- If you lived close to a port or a river, you could send a crop nationally or internationally; without a river, you had to depend on bumpy transportation by wagon. To transport a ton of goods by wagon to a port city from thirty miles inland cost nine dollars; for the same price the goods could be shipped three thousand miles across the ocean.
- Ocean travel was much easier than overland travel. People had been crossing the Atlantic regularly for more than 300 years. No American citizen had crossed North America in 1815 except for the veterans of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-6.
- A network of short unpaved roads connected family farms with nearby towns or docks on streams. These “country roads” were muddy when it rained, dusty when dry, and frequently impassable.