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Monday, October 18, 2021

Early American Autumn Chores

by Denise Weimer

As we ease into October, follow the wood smoke on a leaf-laden, cool breeze back to a homestead on the Colonial or Federal frontier. We’d probably pass the men and boys in the field, busy with the harvest of whatever crop might be grown in that area. If we stuck our head in the door of the cabin, what would the women be up to? I came up with a few fall chores they might be about. Can you think of more?

Preserving – Meats were smoked, salted, and pickled for winter. The women turned fruit into jellies and jams and also pickled peas, carrots, turnips, and parsnips. Pumpkins might even be dried and hung from the rafters.
Soap-making – This task used grease saved from butchering and cooking and lye, which came from ashes kept in a large barrel. When these were boiled together with constant stirring in an outdoor pot, the whole yard would smell horrible. Lye from six bushels of ashes and twenty pounds of grease only yielded a small barrel of jelly-like soap.

Candle-making – Stinky, rancid deer suet or bear grease was uncovered after being saved for several months and placed in an iron kettle on the fireplace. It took about six hours to melt. Tallow was rendered through a cheesecloth, straining out the solid particles. It was then either stored for future use or transferred to another pot for reheating and dipping candles. Some families had large, tin candle-makers. Wick strings were doubled and strung over a narrow stick called a candle rod, then twisted tightly. The housewife dipped the wick into the melted tallow, then rested the rod on a rack until it cooled and grew hard. This was repeated over and over—often over the course of days—until the candle grew thick enough. Families might hang candles from the rafters until they were needed.

Beef-buying – Those who raised beef cattle might expect a buyer between the end of summer and September each year.

Corn-shucking – Separating the ear from the husk could call for a bit of merriment, with neighbors joining together to visit over the chore, feast, quilt, and sometimes, dance. Finding a red ear of corn could mean a chance to steal a kiss from one’s favored belle.

Baking – Let’s clear out the memory of all that grease and tallow and scent the air with a pumpkin and apple pie as we close today’s visit to the past. From The Compleat American Housewife 1776 by Julianne Belote:

Pare a pumpkin, and take the seedy part of it out; then cut it in slices; Pare and core a quarter of an hundred of apples, and cut them in slices. Make some good paste with an Egg, and lay some all around the Brim of the Dish; lay half of a pound of good, clean Sugar over the bottom of your Dish, over that a Layer of apples; then a Layer of Pumpkin, and again so untill the Pie is full, observing to put Sugar between every two layers, and all the remaining Sugar on top. Bake it half an hour, and before you send it to the Table, cut it open and put in some good fresh butter.

Other sources: Revolutionary War Journal Online, “Lighting Colonial Homes – Candles & Much More.” With These Hands They Built a Nation: The Story of Colonial Arts and Crafts by Lois Lazarus.

Represented by Hartline Literary Agency, Denise Weimer holds a journalism degree with a minor in history from Asbury University. She’s a managing editor for the historical imprints of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and the author of a dozen published novels and a number of novellas. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses!

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