The success of a Colonial family's day often depended on whether you got a good fire going. First, you had to know how to recognize different types of wood because some burn faster or give off more heat than others. Then, you needed strong muscles to chop, split and haul the wood.
Since matches weren't invented until the late 1800s, fires were started with flint and steel. Flint, a type of dark stone, was scraped against a piece of steel to get a spark onto tinder. Tinder was any fast-burning material you could find: cotton, rope fragments or pine needles. From that, you built your fire, leaving plenty of space between the logs to let air move through. If you did it right, the fire would burn a long time. The coals could then be banked at night, making it easy to restart the fire in the morning by stirring and lightly blowing on the ashes before adding new logs.
Need a new dress or a new pair of pants? It might take you a year of planting, harvesting, retting, scutching, hackling, spinning and sewing to get them. Sounds a bit more complicated than running to the mall, doesn't it?
Growing a tall sturdy plant called flax was just the beginning. The flax would be soaked in water for several days to soften it (a process called retting). Next, you would use a flax brake, shown at right, to separate the outer part of the flax from the inner fibers. Using a wooden knife, you brushed the fiber against a scutching board to get rid of the hard pieces of stalk. Then by pulling the fibers through a bed of nails (hackling), the long thin fibers were separated from coarser shorter ones. This is called towing, and that's how blond people came to be called towheads. Tow is pale yellow.
Finally, the smoothed silken flax was ready for spinning into linen thread. But you were still a long way from getting that new outfit.
The thread first had to be woven into cloth. Then you could start sewing the new pair of pants or dress. Now you know why many 18th-century children had only two or three outfits.
Need a new winter coat? First, shear a sheep. Shearing doesn't hurt; it's like a haircut. Maybe you'd like to add a little color to your coat. Dip the sheared fleece into some boiled berries, nuts or plants to add color. You could get a nice deep brown by using black walnuts.
Wool has a lot of tangles, so you would have to comb (card) the wool to get it ready for spinning into yarn. Then the yarn was woven into cloth.
Little happened on the Colonial farm without the use of lard and tallow. (Lard comes from pig fat, tallow from sheep or cows.) Both were made by melting animal fat (called rendering) in a small amount of water, stirring constantly for several hours to keep it from burning, until it turned to a rather foul-smelling liquid. Imagine your home filled with the smell of rotting meat. Yuck.
As the fat cooled, it formed a thick layer on top of the pot, ready to be skimmed off for use in medicine, cooking, protecting leather goods and making candles or soap.
Think about this when you step in the shower tonight. To make soap, animal fat (tallow or lard) was boiled with lye and salt, then poured into a wooden box and left to harden (cure) for several months. But first, you had to make the lye by filling a barrel with wood ashes and slowly pouring water through until a reddish brown liquid ran out of a hole in the bottom of the barrel. The liquid (lye) could burn your skin like acid. So making soap was not only time-consuming, but dangerous too.
Since the light bulb wasn't invented until the 1800s, Colonial families that wanted to read or sew after dark had to make their own candles -- or sit close to the fire. Tallow was used in candle making because lard is too soft. Like soap making, this process could take all day. Wicks, usually made from flax, would be dipped over and over again (often dozens of times) in melted tallow. Every time you dipped, you had to let it cool before you could dip it again. As the layers of tallow built up, you shaped and straightened the candles gently with your fingers.
Making the Bed
Did you ever wonder about the phrase "don't let the bedbugs bite"? Or "sleep tight"? While some tour guides will point to the Colonial era, the first recorded use of each term shows up much later, in the late 1800s. However, understanding how one "made the bed" in Colonial times helps you understand why that explanation exists.
For many families, making the bed meant sewing together a canvas-like material called ticking, then filling it with straw, feathers or even cornhusks -- whatever you had. Since you were using natural materials, sometimes a few bugs might end up in your mattress. An herb such as sage or wormwood added to the bedding would help keep them away. (Don't let the bedbugs bite.) And often your mattress rested on what was called a bedstead -- a rope stretched in a crisscross pattern from one side of the bed frame to another. This rope required periodic tightening so it wouldn't sag. (Sleep tight).