They are so elusive, those people.
In my mind I have a picture of Thomas Springer and his wife Elizabeth. Their faces are lined, though they are still in their thirties. I can't make out the features exactly, but their skin is roughened by outdoor living, and perhaps they don't have all their teeth. For some reason I see them smiling. It is a shy smile because they are not used to visitors, especially from another century.
I am standing in a Washington museum, in the low-ceilinged chamber, 19 by 23 feet, that was their living room and kitchen, and I try to put them there with me, they and their two little girls Mary and Ann . . . and three other shadows reported by the census of 1800: a female and two males, ages 16 to 25.
(Were they stepchildren? Indentured servants? Did they even live in that house, or in the older place next door where the four black slaves lived?)
The room's whitewashed beams are roughly squared by the ax, chinked with Delaware mud. I look at the broad fireplace, cut down considerably at that from its original width, and the tables and chairs, the dishes and the iron kettles, and above, through the bared joists, I see where the modest brown-painted bedstead used to stand, though it has been moved downstairs now.
The Springer house is part of "After the Revolution," a remarkable exhibit at the National Museum of American History that seeks in the most literal way to break through the invisible wall separating the present from the past. It is a good place to come, in this frantic season of spending. You notice right away how few possessions people had in 1800. Even prosperous farmers like the Springers didn't own things the way we own things today, things we never needed and hardly know we have. There is something restful about this place, with its bare walls and uncluttered shelves.
I was shown photos of the house as it appeared before being stripped and dismantled and moved to the museum. A very ordinary house, with a mansard roof and a modern overlay of asbestos shingle siding and an old-fashioned pump out back, it looks like a dozen other small farmhouses that you pass on your way to the Delaware beaches. It doesn't look that old.
But it is old, all right. The frame, anyway. Thomas Springer built it soon after he got the land in 1788 and moved in with his bride Elizabeth two years later, according to Barbara Clark Smith's fascinating and most useful book, "After the Revolution," written in conjunction with the exhibit. There was already a log structure on the site and possibly a small log barn. It had a history even then.
Thomas' great-grandfather Carl Springer, the records show, was born to a prominent Swedish family in 1658, eventually moved to London to complete his education, and there was overtaken by history. He was kidnaped and brought to Virginia, sold as an indentured servant, "like a farm animal that is driven to market," he later wrote. Earning his independence, he joined a settlement of Swedes in the Delaware valley and prospered.
By the time Thomas came along, the family was well established in New Castle County. His father gave him 170 acres on Mill Creek, and he bought some more himself about the time he moved in. By the turn of the century he had four slaves, Will, Ace, Amelia and Sarah, making him one of the wealthier farmers in northern Delaware, where slaves were the exception. Tax records indicate he raised grain on 90 acres for livestock, of which he seemed to have plenty, for in a day when $132 could buy six cows, 12 sheep, two horses and some poultry and hogs, Thomas' livestock was valued at $644. He also had 30 acres of forest, an orchard and lots of pasture.
Wealth begets wealth: With so many acres he could rotate his crops; with so much livestock he could manure his land. Since he lived only six miles from Wilmington, he could have found other ways to make money too.
"Farmers in the southern two counties of Delaware bred cattle in the forests and marshes," Smith reports, "then drove them north to be fattened for marketing in Wilmington and Philadelphia. Moreover, ships outbound from Philadelphia often stopped at the town of New Castle, near the Mill Creek farm, to take on livestock for export. The Springers might have taken advantage of the rich meadows along the creek and their proximity to town to specialize in fattening cattle from the south."
It was a hard life nevertheless. The women worked as hard as the men, in the kitchen, the garden, the orchards, and while Elizabeth no doubt assigned tougher chores to the bound servants and the slaves, she remained responsible for the smooth running of the household.
The details of early American farm life are familiar to most of us, the daily jobs that changed inexorably with the seasons, the constant attendance on animals, the planting and harvesting, the ingenious use of byproducts that found a purpose even for the chaff from the wheat, the almost hourly concern for the weather that could send the whole family into the fields at a moment's notice to gather in a crop before a storm broke.
We learn of these things from diaries and account books, from the tools themselves that have come down to us, some of them found in collapsed barns, a few still in use or stowed away in some corner of a working farm. They don't tell us much, most of them. A wooden maul, its head splayed fantastically like some giant dandelion, its handle darkened by the sweat and skin oil from generations of farmer hands, speaks of nothing but endless, mindless labor. A spinning wheel (the Springers owned two, indicating that they processed wool for sale) has an extremely worn treadle that looks as though it didn't belong, as though it had been tacked on late in the life of the machine. One imagines Elizabeth complaining about it to Thomas when he came home one evening, and watching with concern and tactful suggestions as he rigged up a new one for her.
A barrel churn is listed with the estate. This could be a tiny clue to the Springer family life: most farmers of the day used the old plunger type churn, much less efficient and far slower.
Making butter took a long time. You saved the milk that came last from the cow, for it had the most butterfat, and you set it aside overnight for the cream to separate. The skim milk was used to feed people and pigs, but the cream went into the churn along with a bit of salt or sugar to keep it tasting fresh.
Churning was a boring chore, however newfangled the churn. (As a kid I used a patented Swedish paddle churn as late as the '40s, and it was still boring.) When butter finally did form, it had to be pressed to squeeze out the whey. It was then salted and stored in a cool springhouse. A productive cow could be counted on for about two gallons of milk a day, from which a pound of butter could be extracted.
Did the Springers eat it all themselves? Wouldn't they make enough butter to sell at Wilmington?
As their neighbors became dependent on them for butter, they came to rely on the neighbors: They took their wool yarn to a professional weaver nearby, and he in turn brought the rough cloth to a fulling mill, where water-powered hammers pounded the weave to soften it.
"There was probably a professional dyer in Wilmington," Smith writes, "but if Elizabeth preferred she could make her own dyes by gathering, pounding and then boiling roots, bark, berries or flowers in her large kettle."
Nevertheless, year by year, the family was drawn into an increasingly complicated marketing system that put them in contact with unseen strangers in other American cities, then Europe, South America, the West Indies, possibly China.
At the peak of their prosperity Elizabeth Springer died, from causes we do not know. Thomas remarried soon after, in 1802, his 22-year-old wife Margaret Wells bringing a dowry that seems to have included an eight-day clock, a most valued item in those days.
In 1804, at age 40, Thomas himself died, leaving Margaret "the white-faced cow" and a third of his estate for life. The family came apart quickly. Two slaves, Will and Ace, were sold and may have wound up in the textile mills of Delaware. The two daughters, Mary and Ann, moved away, Mary to marry and run a farm and tavern on the Dover Road, Ann to live in Middletown, where she married in 1814.
By 1820, both daughters had left the state, presumably to join the great American migration westward. The widow, Margaret, remarried and moved to New Castle to become a town housewife.
In 1805 the Mill Creek farm was sold at auction to a David Eastburn, and after a few years he rented it to a tenant farmer . . .
The downstairs room has a bed, a few chairs and separate tables for breakfast, tea and dinner; a linen chest, a cupboard containing the plain white china from England that some Springer doubtless bought in Wilmington, some locally made pots, a pewter mug, a candle box.
For cooking (an outside kitchen was added at some time) there are the big iron pots, a mortar and pestle, grain measures. Around the room, each in its special place, would sit the family's household gods. A copper teakettle. An ax. A child's picture puzzle, perhaps the only bought toy the child had. A sampler done by a 9-year-old girl. A horn lantern, its delicately shaved translucent window so brittle by now that it must not be touched. A cradle with one rocker broken off.
But the people are gone. I touch the walls they touched, I stand and turn and fill the space they once filled, I peer up the stairs they mounted every night for a lifetime, and I try to picture them, sore and stiff from the day's labor, groaning a bit as they climb. I can almost smell the woodsmoke and bacon and fried onions. Almost hear the thump of bare feet above, the cracking of old boards, the soft creaking of mattress cords as they sag under the couple's weight. Thomas is almost here, almost (not smiling now), his head full of the little scenes from that anonymous day -- that one particular vanished day -- of the cow that had trod on his boot in the mud, the sharp word he had snapped when Ace dawdled over harnessing the horses, the way the setting sun made him squint as he searched the west pasture for a missing calf. And Elizabeth, smiling at the thought of the berry pie she and her daughters would make to surprise her husband on his birthday, her face all at once turning remote and inward as she listens to the sudden pain in her vitals.
You feel so close, standing there in the whitewashed room. You can almost see them, the family, the farm, the whole little world. But they are gone.