Seventy Years Ago in New England

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Youth's Companion Vol. 72 No. 47 (November 24, 1898)

Lydia was the youngest of a large family. She had ten sisters and one brother. However, she could not remember when the ten sisters were all living at home, for some married and went away when she was a mere baby. Her father was a farmer, and her mother the daughter of a neighboring farmer.

When Lydia was about five years of age, her grandfather, her mother's father, died; then the two farms became one, and such a large one that Lydia's parents owned a large portion of the land in the township. Still they were as industrious and frugal, and taught their children to be, as if they had not owned an acre unencumbered. They reasoned that the property would not go far when divided among twelve children, and they wished the daughters to have marriage-portions and the son a fair start in life, and there was no way of accomplishing so much without hard work and economy. When Lydia was young she loved pretty things to wear as well as a girl of to-day, but if she wished to have them, she had not only to fashion them herself, but in most cases to make the material. More than all, she had to earn the means to purchase it.

A long day was required to accomplish so much, and Lydia rose at half past four. That was considered rather a late than an early hour for rising in the family. Her mother and older sisters were always astir by half past three; but Lydia was delicate, and consequently favored.

“Let the child sleep a while longer,” Lydia's indulgent mother would say when the older sisters, especially Tabitha, were disposed to grumble at such indolence. Tabitha was noted all the country round for her thrift and industry. Marvellous tales were told of her prowess in spinning and weaving. She was considered the smartest of the ten sisters; however, some of the others were not far behind, and Lydia, when she arose, was as brisk as need be.

In her little chamber, with its dormer window, which was thickly furred with frost in winter, she did not require a long time to dress, by the light of an end of tallow candle. She threw back the patchwork quilts and comfortables, and emerged from her nest in the deep feather-bed as into a polar region. She could scarcely see her pretty face in the little looking-glass for the cloud of her freezing breath. However, she did not linger to admire herself; she simply brushed her brown hair as smoothly as possible in such an electric atmosphere, and twisted it into a tight knot, surmounted by her every-day comb of horn. She had a beautiful carven shell one for grand occasions.

Then she donned her quilted petticoat and short gown and sack, and clamped down-stairs in her heavy little shoes, made by the village shoemaker. Lydia never washed herself in her own room, but at the kitchen sink. There was a wash-bowl and ewer in the spare chamber, but in none of the others. Indeed, in the winter water would have frozen so solidly in the fireless rooms that it would not have been feasible to keep it there. There was a fireplace in the spare chamber only. Once, when Lydia had the measles, she was ill in bed there for a week, and had a blazing hearth fire, and that was the luxurious experience of her life.

When Lydia got down-stairs, breakfast was already on the table. There were baked potatoes and fried pork and porridge. By half past five o'clock breakfast was over, the dishes washed and set neatly back in dresser and pantry, and the day's work well under way. The great houseful of industrious daughters was like a beehive, and Lydia, although she had risen an hour later, as busy as any of them.

There were people who thought Lydia as smart as any of her sisters. Her father, for one, felt quite certain that she was. Lydia's father doted on her. The other girls had earned their gold beads and shell combs, but Lydia's had been given her by her father. However, her sisters did not complain; they were very fond of Lydia themselves, and quite ready to admit that she was not as well able as they to earn finery.

Moreover, there was a certain glory in buying their own beads and combs which they would not have missed. Lydia, in the depths of her heart, although she was very grateful to her father, did not feel quite as proud of hers as she would have done had she earned them herself. Still, she was not one whit behind the others in the performance of all the tasks which her life seemed to set for her.

Lydia's Tasks.

Lydia earned all her own clothes, as well as made them, and she had a goodly wardrobe for those days. She was quite an artist with her needle, and not only enriched her own clothes with exquisite embroideries, but turned them to pecuniary account. More than one bridal outfit did she trim cunningly with fagoting and hemstitch and scallop and eyelet and laid work, and earn thereby a considerable sum toward her own when she came to need it. Lydia earned many an honest penny by making fine linen shirts, stitching laboriously all the bosoms and wrist-bands with a cambric needle. She also spun and wove shining lengths of linen cloth, and the story is told by her descendants of her carrying thirty yards six miles to sell to Squire Tucker's wife in Laneville.

Lydia, beside all this labor for hire, performed a goodly amount for her own and her sisters' needs. She stocked a great cherry chest with household linen for herself, and one of cedar with quilts and blankets. All of her ten sisters being married before herself, except one who remained single, she, as soon as she was old enough, assisted in their preparations, and later sewed for their families.

She also took her part nobly in the regular household duties, which were preparations for nothing except another day's toil. She washed, ironed and baked, cleaned the fire brasses, swept and made beds.

Then beside, in those days, each season brought its own special tasks for the women of the family. They were not enumerated in the Old Farmers' Almanack, as were those for the men of the household, who were kindly instructed when to plow, when to sow, and when to garner; but they were none the less fixed and inevitable.

In the winter Lydia and her mother and sisters spun and wove and quilted for the family needs; in the spring they made soap in the great brass kettle swung on forked sticks over a fire in the south yard, and bleached the new linen cloth on the green meadows; in the summer they picked and dried blueberries and blackberries, and gathered great stores of herbs for medicinal purposes and bayberries for candles; in the fall of the year they gathered the wild grapes and preserved them, and pared and dried apples and made candles.

During her girlhood Lydia had truly very little of that temptation to mischief which Satan offers to those with idle hands. Still, she had her amusements, or rather, as she would probably have termed them, her recreations.

Lydia's Recreations.

She would have deemed it her duty to mention first among them her Sabbath days and her meeting-going, although she might have modified the expression still further, and termed them blessed privileges.

When Lydia was young, every Sunday, summer or winter, rain or shine, she went to meeting twice. The morning service lasted from half past ten until noon, the afternoon from one until sundown.

Lydia, her father, mother, brother and those of her sisters who were unmarried and at home all set forth to meeting together on a Sunday morning. Her father and mother were in the sulky in summer, in the sleigh in winter; the others always walked all the way — three miles. Lydia's father drove slowly, so they seldom parted company during the whole distance, and entered the meeting in a body; a great, godly family, intent upon the service of the Lord.

Lydia, in her Sunday bonnet, with her pretty brown hair in smooth curtain-sweeps over her rosy cheeks, sat up straight in the pew and listened to the parson's sermon, striving to fix the heads thereof in her mind. By the time the long afternoon service was over poor Lydia sometimes felt as if she were confronted with some many-headed dragon of theology, so bewildered was her girlish brain with honest struggles after a right understanding. However, there was a pleasant resting-spell at noon, when they all went to Lydia's Uncle Caleb Long's, and remained until afternoon service. Lydia's parents brought a plentiful luncheon in the sulky, and they all sat around the fire in Caleb Long's living-room, “visited” and ate, and were very sociable and comfortable.

Caleb Long had two daughters, Eunice and Rebecca, and five sons, one of whom, William, afterward married Lydia's sister Sarah.

When they all started homeward, after the second service, often some of the Long cousins with them, they were a merry company, and their fresh, young voices rang out quite unrestrainedly, for it was after sundown, and for them the Sabbath was over, since they had begun it Saturday night, and put away all their work promptly at dusk.

Sunday evening was, for Lydia, the happiest of the week. Although it was not considered in the least wrong to labor, still the heavier tasks which had been laid aside on Saturday evening were seldom resumed before Monday. Lydia and her sisters usually did some fine knitting-work, which was considered a recreation in itself, on Sunday evening.

In the winter Lydia's brother Sylvester and the Long boys often popped corn and roasted apples over the hot coals on the hearth. In the summer they all loved to stroll down the road in the sweet dusk, and they were given to sitting in a long row on a stone wall and singing “Annie Laurie” and “Auld Robin Gray” like a flock of birds. Lydia had a sweet treble voice, and many of the others sang well.

Another of Lydia's recreations was the singing school, held every week during the winter in the district schoolhouse. She never failed to go to that, dressed in her best red merino gown, her gold beads and her shell comb. Often, when the sleighing was good, Sylvester put the oxen in the wood-sled, and all the sisters rode, snuggled closely together under a pile of old quilts and blankets. When it was freezing weather, and there might be danger of being overcome by the cold during the slow progress of the oxen, they carried the foot-stove.

Lydia, much as she enjoyed the singing school and raising her sweet voice with the others, enjoyed better those slow, sliding journeys over the creaking snow-levels, uplifting her fair young face to the solemn light and mystery of the winter stars when there was a hush in the merry chatter and frolic.

Lydia often went to quilting-bees, and in the fall of the year to apple-parings. She also enjoyed the debating societies in the schoolhouse, and the spelling-matches. Lydia was a very good speller, and it was a proud tradition in her family that three times in one winter she had spelled them all down — and there were notable spellers ranged against her, too.

Some of the best triumphs of Lydia's life were gained in that little schoolhouse, its windows thick with frost and its timbers snapping, with its red-hot box-stove throwing out scorching waves over those near by, while those on the outskirts shivered in waves of cold instead. How Lydia's cheeks glowed, how her eyes shone, how her red lips trembled, against her will, with smiles when she stood in the floor, tried and proven, the queen of all the spellers there! Lydia could not take part in the debating societies. Girls in those days never raised their voices in public, but she assisted her brother Sylvester to prepare his speech when they argued concerning “Which is the mightier, the pen or the sword?”

Sylvester pleaded in favor of the sword, and Lydia listened to him with great pride, and secretly wondered if he would not make another Daniel Webster, and if, should his argument get abroad, it would precipitate war with the old country.

That same winter Lydia's cousin, Sam Long, took part in a debate, and she enjoyed that, although she did not consider that he equalled Sylvester.

Beside all the other bees, there were husking-bees, — romping festivities in the country barns, — and Lydia attended them without fail. She and her sisters often had bees of their own, and cooked wonderful suppers for their guests, heating the brick oven, and baking great batches of pies and cakes and Indian puddings.

One special recreation of Lydia's girlhood was Thanksgiving day, of course. Then all the married sisters, with their families, came home, and Uncle Caleb Long and his family were always invited.

For days at the Thanksgiving season the brick oven was never cool, and riotous plenty, which amounted almost to prodigality, took the place of the thrift and economy which Lydia and all the family had learned to observe as a condition of prosperity.

“We have enough every day, but Thanksgiving day it shall be enough and to spare,” said Lydia's father. Lydia took great delight in lavishness with the raisins in the mince pies, and utter recklessness as to sugar and eggs in the cakes, although at other times she was quite noted for bringing about such satisfactory results with so little outlay.

Lydia's Thrift.

Lydia, so the story was told in her family, used the same cambric needle for her fine sewing during three years, and the same darning-needle for mending during seven. When the darning-needle, at the close of its seven years of faithful service, lost its eye, Lydia made for it a fine head of red sealing-wax, and used it for years longer as a shawl-pin.

Lydia is said to have worn the same bonnet to meeting, winter and summer, from her ninth to her seventeenth year — eight years and three months in all. The bonnet was of a very fine straw to begin with. Lydia's mother had feared it was an extravagance. She charged her little daughter to be very careful of her new bonnet, for it must last her many years; and she was literally obeyed. One Sunday in August, not long after Lydia had her new bonnet, she was wearing it proudly home from meeting, when a thunder-shower came up suddenly, and threatened it with utter destruction. Lydia cried out, when the first big drops of rain began to fall, “Oh, my bonnet, my bonnet!” The chaise was not in attendance that day; Lydia's mother, not being well, had remained at home, and her father had walked. She could not shelter her bonnet under the friendly roof of the chaise. There was not a house for a mile; it seemed at first as if it were fated.

“That green and white ribbon will run and stain the straw. Your bonnet will be spoiled, but there's no help for it,” said Sister Tabitha, grimly. “Run as fast as you can, Lyddy!”

But to Lydia came a fertility of resource born of desperation. A vision of her beautiful bonnet covered with unsightly green stains flashed before her eyes, and she made up her mind that it should not be.

She stopped running, pulled off her bonnet, and sat down beside the road, with her back against the stone wall. Then she gathered up the skirt of her gown like a bag, put the bonnet inside, put her shawl over that, then, to complete her protection, bent her small self over the whole. There she sat, the rain pelting on her bare brown head and her uncovered shoulders, until the shower was over. How thankful she was that she had been obliged to wear her merino gown that day, although it was warm, on account of her chintz meeting gown requiring to have a tuck let down, and her mother not discovering it until after sundown on Saturday night! How thankful she was, too, that her mother had made her carry her little shawl, lest an east wind come up and she take cold in her delicate throat!

Lydia sat there, fairly brooding over her bonnet, while the rain fell and the thunder rolled. She kept her eyes tightly closed, and saw the lightning only through her lids. Luckily the shower was of short duration, or Lydia might not have lived long to wear her bonnet. When it was over, she got up and hastened home, still holding the bonnet in the skirt of her gown, lest the drops from the wet trees spoil it, after all her trouble.

Lydia's mother was never quite sure whether she should have commended the child for obeying her and taking such care of her bonnet, or punished her for being so careless of her health. As it was, she compromised by immediately taking off Lydia's wet clothes, putting her to bed, and making her drink some hot ginger tea, sweetened with molasses. As Lydia did not like to go to bed so early, and was fond of sweet ginger tea, this course savored of both punishment and reward; so the desired end might quite reasonably have been considered to be gained.

Lydia wore the bonnet with the green and white ribbon all summer. In the fall a brown lutestring ribbon was substituted as being darker and more suitable for cold weather. When spring opened again, the brown was changed for the green and white. The two ribbons, worn turn and turn about, lasted Lydia three years. Then she had a plain blue ribbon for summer and a purple one for winter, which served her turn well for three years more.

Then the bonnet having been twice bleached in the meantime, she had a white ribbon for summer wear and a red one for winter, which in two years' time out-wore the bonnet itself. It came at last to mending. Lydia tried that faithfully, but a bonnet was a difficult thing to mend; she was obliged to have a new one. She endeavored not to feel proud when she came out in it, trimmed with the two seasons' old white ribbon, carefully washed, and a little wreath of fine pink rosebuds in a blond lace ruching under the brim.

Lydia was very methodical and dainty in all her ways, and all her little possessions were guarded as carefully and providently as her Sunday bonnet — especially her shoes. Lydia had a pretty, slender foot, and owned a pair of little red morocco shoes with buckles, of which she was very proud. They were her Sunday shoes, of course, but she never dreamed of walking in them the three miles to meeting. She always carried her best shoes, and wore her common ones until within a few rods of the meeting-house. Then she stopped, put on the fine red shoes, and hid the others in the stone wall until her return, when she exchanged again, and went home as she had come. This thrifty habit led, it is said, to Lydia's gaining a husband.

Lydia's Romance.

Lydia was in her twenty-first year, when she went to meeting one beautiful Sunday in May, and met with a misfortune, which led, as misfortunes often do, to good fortune in the end. Lydia, when she came near the meeting-house, stopped as usual and changed her shoes, tucking away the old ones under the stone wall, and putting on the red morocco ones, in which she stepped bravely along to meeting.

Lydia looked unusually pretty that morning in a new rose-colored chintz gown, cut low to show her dimpled shoulders in a worked muslin spencer, and her bonnet with pink rosebuds around the face. Many glanced admiringly at her as she walked up the meeting-house aisle, and one young man, Jabez Hall, had his attention distracted from the sermon, and looked at her oftener than he looked at the parson.

When Lydia started homeward, after the second service, and stopped at the hiding-place in the stone wall to get her old shoes, they were not there! She could not believe it at first. Thieves were almost unknown in that vicinity; it seemed incredible that the shoes could have been stolen, and on the Lord's day, too; but they were gone, and the mystery of their disappearance was never solved.

Lydia lingered long, searching for her shoes. Her sister Tabitha searched, too, but finally went on, telling her that there was no use in looking longer. “You can never wear your red morocco shoes again if you tramp three miles in them, but there's no help for it,” said Tabitha.

But Lydia had no mind to wear her best shoes and spoil them. She waited, pretending to search still, until Tabitha was well down the road, and there was no one else in sight. Then off came her red shoes and her fine stockings, and for home she started, barefoot.

Lydia had gone, walking in the grass to save her feet when she could, about a quarter of a mile, when she heard the tramp of a horse behind her, and stood aside to let Jabez Hall on his big gray pass. But Jabez stopped to exchange a friendly word, and the grass was short, and although she strove to crouch a little to conceal them, Lydia's little bare feet showed below the hem of her pink chintz, and the outcome was that she walked no farther barefooted that night, but rode home in state on the gray horse, while Jabez, carrying the precious red shoes, walked by her side.

Their banns were published three weeks from that day. Jabez, so the story goes, had long admired Lydia, but his mother had been bitterly opposed to his marrying. She feared that his wife might be extravagant, and waste the property which he had inherited from his father, who had been one of the richest men thereabouts. Jabez's mother was a strong-willed old woman, who still had much of the property under her own control; and the young man had not ventured to run counter to her wishes, although he had loved pretty Lydia.

However, when he went home that Sunday night, and told the story of Lydia's walking barefooted to save her shoes, and pleaded his cause, his mother relented, and Lydia wore the red morocco shoes, five years old at that date, but as good as new, to her wedding, and walked in them, so to speak, out of her girlhood.