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Colonial Theme: Page 2

July 21, 2010 23:41 by Barbara Shelby

Page two is brief overview of history and information on Colonial daily life, school, food, and clothing. Be sure to check out both pages.  The combined data is not only informative but will help you make the most of this theme! (Click here for all the activities of page 1)

The image to the left is the Noah Webster House, built about 1748. It is the restored birthplace and childhood home of the great lexicographer, Noah Webster. The house was once part of a 120-acre farm.


This is a late 18th century tobacco farm in Virginia. It is the Claude Moore Colonial Farm of Turkey Run -- a living history museum that portrays what low income family life was  in Colonial Days...


COLONIAL AMERICA: 1607 to 1776
Colonial America generally refers to that period of history prior to the American Revolution dating back to the establishment of North American settlements controlled by various European powers including France, Spain, the Netherlands, and in particular, Great Britain. It commenced in 1607, and ended with the onset of the American Revolution and the subsequent founding of an independent United States of America.
THE FIRST PERMANENT SETTLEMENT in North America was the British colony at Jamestown, in 1607, in what is now the State of Virginia.  Although of questionable success, Jamestown set the stage for other chartered incursions into the New World, including the Pilgrims of Mayflower fame who, seeking refuge from religious persecution, soon followed in 1620, settling near Plymouth Rock in coastal Massachusetts.
In rapid succession, prosperous British colonies sprang up along the Atlantic coast, from Maine in the north, to Georgia in the south.  Swedish and Dutch colonies also took shape in and around New Amsterdam in what is now New York State, while France and Spain continued to slowly expand their vast territories to the north, south, and west.
As more and more people arrived in the New World, territorial disputes invariably arose between the competing European powers, as well as with the several Native American tribes whose homelands the Europeans had co-opted as their own. Colonial America history was characterized by continuous expansion, hardship and privation, prosperity, and internecine warfare.  By the end of this period, the two continental powers with the largest holdings in eastern North America were Great Britain and France.
These two nations fought for control of eastern North America in what is known as the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The British won the war and gained control of the valuable French settlements in Canada, as well as retaining control of their own highly productive colonies which stretched southward from Canada along the eastern seacoast. Those thirteen colonies included Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and would soon band together in a war of independence from Great Britain.



The thirteen semi-autonomous colonies can be grouped into three general regions: New England, the Middle Colonies, and the Southern Colonies.  Life within each region tended to evolve from the opportunities the land itself presented.
consisted largely of farming and fishing communities. Dietary staples such as corn and wheat grew in abundance, and much of it was shipped abroad.  Because of its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the abundance of natural harbors and interior waterways, New England evolved into the hub of transport and commerce between colonial America and Europe, and Boston became its predominant port.
were partly agrarian and, partly industrial. Wheat, barley, and other long grains flourished on rolling farmlands of Pennsylvania and New York.  Foundries in Maryland produced pig-iron, while factories in Pennsylvania produced paper and textiles. Raw materials and bulk products were shipped overseas and commercial trade was plentiful.
were almost entirely devoted to large scale labor-intensive agricultural production, whose characteristic feature became the development of plantations, large privately-owned plots of land comprised of farmlands dedicated almost exclusively to cash crops in high demand, including tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton. Plantations served as agricultural factories whose production demands induced landlords to maximize profitability in high-risk ventures.  Thus, the tragic trade in human slavery -- long a staple of the British Empire -- was introduced in 1639, expanding rapidly throughout the south alongside the geometric rise of the wealthy land barons, whose power and influence would extend across the greater part of the next two centuries.

Many colonial New Englanders believed that religion -- and in particular, Christianity in its various manifestations -- should be an integral part of every child's education.  To that end, parents taught their children to read the Bible, and to endeavor to adhere to their interpretations of its teachings.  However, New England villages established the first public grammar schools in which young men were taught Latin, mathematics, language composition, and other subjects needed to further their education toward a profession, or to secure a useful trade. 
The emphasis was largely upon self-reliance, pragmatism, industry, and the adherence to Christian theology.  Higher education was private and reserved for the wealthy few who could afford to send their young men abroad to study. 

By contrast, although many young women learned to read, initially they were not allowed to attend grammar schools, but were instead encouraged toward obedience, chastity, and domesticity.
SIMPLE ONE ROOM SCHOOL HOUSES were the norm for most grammar schools which were often located in small villages, or at key crossroads in the surrounding countryside.  Heating came from large fireplaces, and later, cast iron stoves.
TEACHERS often had few tools and little formal training. 
Because teachers were not well trained, students spent most of their time reciting and memorizing lessons.  All grades were taught in one room, at one time, by one teacher, sometimes with as many as seventy students in a single classroom.  Primers were generally shared among students.  Chalk and practice slates were also shared. Students wrote with quill pens in copybooks that were sometimes fashioned at home. The first schoolhouses did not have desks or chairs.  Rather, students sat on chairs or backless benches, or in their absence, on the floor.  Smaller, younger students sat in the front, while older, taller students sat further back.   
Connecticut established the first six-month school year.  Boys generally attended school only during the winter months when there were fewer farm chores for them to do, while girls and younger children attended school during the summer.  Students ranged in age from four to twenty years.   Additionally, as children were still considered to be essential contributors to their family's economic welfare, if their parents needed them to work at home, they did not attend school, and most were required to do daily chores before and after the school day. (See page 1 regarding chores and activities)

The center of family activity colonial homes was the kitchen.  With its large fireplace and hearth, it was the busiest and warmest room in the house.

COOKING (Food and recipes on page 1)
Most cooking utensils were made of cast iron.  Large kettles could be very heavy.  Skillets were sometimes equipped with legs so they could be placed directly over the fire.  Some colonial kitchens had wood-fired ovens.  To place baked goods in the oven a long flat shovel called a 'peel' was used.

This is a typical fireplace from the colonial settlement at Jamestown. What you're seeing in this picture is half of the entire cottage/house.

The earliest fireplaces were simply places where you set the fire. There might be an opening in the wall or roof to let out the smoke. Later a smoke hood would be added to channel the smoke up and away from the room, and eventually the fire place evolved into what we think of now as a fireplace.

Women often began cooking the daily meals before dawn as they could take hours to prepare. They built wood fires in the fireplace, carried water indoors using wooden buckets, picked vegetables from their gardens, milked cows, gathered eggs, or hung and salted fresh meat to cure. Large breakfasts were  served only after the other family members had completed their morning chores.  Generally speaking, the day's main meal was served at mid-afternoon.
When not attending to faming duties, men trapped, fished, and hunted wild game.  Meat was generally boiled, seared over an open flame, or simmered in stews.  Colonial families also owned domesticated animals to provide their households with milk and eggs, and grew their own fruits, vegetables, and grains.  They also learned how to use herbs such as thyme, sage, marjoram, and dill that grew in the surrounding wilds.  Natural fruits and berries were also harvested during their appropriate seasons.  Waste was considered a sin.

American colonists got their food from several places.
People who lived on the Atlantic coast often caught fished and hunted whales. They sold fish and whale blubber at fish markets, which were usually down by the docks.  Eventually, whale hunting became a major industry along the east coast.  Gigantic sperm whales were particularly prized for their reserves of natural oils which were used lubricants in developing industries.  Prior to the development of refined petroleum in the 19th century, whale oil was burned in lamps worldwide because of its ability to produce clean, bright, white light. 
Unlike the Southern Colonies where the climate and terrain favored the development of large plantations dedicated to the production of a single cash crop, New England colonists and farmers from the Middle Colonies grew a variety of crops on smaller parcels of land,  Wheat, barley, corn, rice, and tobacco grew in abundance and provided a basis for barter and trade between the Colonies and Europe. The preponderance of navigable inland waterways facilitated this trade.

Colonists loved sweets and desserts. 
Pies, cobblers, and cakes were commonly served at the end of a meal.  Apple Tansey was a favorite.  This sugary dessert was made from apples covered with a sauce made of beaten eggs, cream, nutmeg, and sugar.  Maple syrup was used to sweeten foods, especially popped corn.  Various teas were made from native roots and leaves.  Cider was made from peaches or apples and fomented into a popular alcoholic beverage.  The colonists also drank locally distilled beers and ales. (Also see page 1 for foods and recipes)
Winter famine was greatly feared, and unfortunately, was all too common, especially if one was unprepared for the long, harsh winters typical from the mid-Atlantic region upward into Canada.  Therefore, it was very important that food stocks be prepared to last through the winter months.  Meats were pickled, salted, or slow smoked for storage.  Apples, peaches, and pumpkins were peeled, sliced and hung to dry. Canning in tins or glass jars, or pickling in brine-filled wooden casks, were common methods for long term food storage.  Roots, tubers, potatoes, and other staples were stored in underground cellars, far below the killing frost line.



Colonists made much of their own clothing, using wool, linen, and tanned animal hides. The colonists grew flax to make linen thread, and raised sheep for wool production.  Clothing was generally limited to two sets, one for every day, and one for Sunday.  Every person in the family worked on clothing. Children would gather berries and roots to make dyes to color the thread. Colonists liked brightly colored clothing.  Yellow, red, purple, and blue were their favorite colors.  Thread was sometimes dyed with poke berries and used to make brilliant red capes for woman and girls.

Women and young girls spun woolen thread at foot-peddled spinning wheels.  Girls were encouraged to learn how to knit stockings, caps, and warm winter gear.  Boys and men also produced hand-woven fabrics on household looms from which woman and girls would sew clothing for an entire family. 

CLOTHING AND THE WORD 'UNDRESS'... 'Undress' in the 18th century referred to the everyday, utilitarian working clothes. Much of the following clothing is of for 'undress' and not more formal.

MEN wore long stockings and knee-length pants called breeches, linen blouses, and long buttoned waistcoats similar to today’s vests, and topped by a long woolen coat, split at its back to accommodate riding.  

They sometime wore WIGS made of human hair, goat hair, or horse hair.  Wigs were made to fit tightly on the head and prized for the quality of their materials as well as their size.  One's social status might be determined upon the basis of whether one were a wealthy "big wig" -- a term that endures even today-- or considered to be poor -- due to the condition of one's wig made of ordinary powdered thread. 

UP TO THE AGE OF FIVE, YOUNG BOYS were often dressed identically to young girls in loose-fitting gowns. After the age of five, boys were dressed in attire similar to their father's. 

A philosophical movement toward less restrictive dress for children occurred during the second half of the eighteenth century.

At the same age, YOUNG GIRLS were previously encouraged to dress more like grown women. Around the mid-eighteenth century, the concept of dressing children to resemble "little adults" began to give way to clothing designed specifically for their needs. By 1760, for dress wear, instead of wearing the tight dresses styled similar to those of grown women, little girls and boys who were not yet breeched were attired in more comfortable white cotton or linen frocks that had drawstrings tied at the back, low necklines, and often were decorated with wide, colorful sashes around the waist.

Late in the 1700s, boys began to wear suits with long trousers rather than knee breeches, a fashion that won favor about twenty years before it was accepted by adult men for dress wear. Throughout the century, the time when a little boy went from skirts to pants, which was called, "breeching," occurred anytime from age three to seven and was symbolic of his first step toward becoming a "little man."


A mob cap was undress (casual) headwear; becoming popular in the 1730s and worn in some form into the next century. It had a puffed crown placed high on the back of the head, a deep flat border surrounding the face, and side pieces carried down like short lappets, which could be left loose, pinned, or tied under the chin. The flat border usually was frilled or had lace.


A shift was the undermost garment worn by children and women. It served the same purpose as the man's shirt. Made from various qualities of white linen, it had either a drawstring or plain neck, as well as drawstrings or cuffs at the elbows. It could be plain or lace trimmed

In order to enhance their feminine curves, wealthy women sometimes wore corsets into which were sewn whalebone stays.  These stiffened undergarments were then tightly laced to draw in the waistline. Working-class women did not wear these undergarments because they made everyday labors impossible. 

BABIES of both genders sometimes wore a small soft pillow tied with ribbon around their middle to keep prevent injuries from falls.  These pillows were referred to as 'pudding'.


The shoe image is of dress shoes-not for utalitarian undress.

Shoes were made of silk fabrics, worsteds, or leathers. Depending on current fashions, they may or may not have had elevated heels. They would fasten by buckles, clasps or, if very utilitarian they might have ties. The everyday footwear was made to fit either foot; there was no right or left, and the shoes offered little or no support. 


Have children come in Colonial Attire...the image to the right is made with clothing that children of this century put together on their own.

All costumes can be made inexpensively from clothing you have at home. Below are some guidelines for your basic costume. If you choose to dress as a trades person, you can add additional garments such as aprons, scarves, or hats.

Costume Ideas for Dressing as a Colonial Person:
Make a bonnet

•Boys should wear breeches (pants) and a loose fitting white button-down shirt. Breeches can be made from old pants cut at the knee and folded into a cuff. Baseball pants are another alternative. (When my son was younger and needed to dress for a Colonial Theme-we simply took dark sweat pant with an elastic band at the ankle. They were easily pulled up under the knee. Barb)
•White soccer socks should meet the cuff of the breeches.
•A vest was also commonly worn over the shirt.
•Boys should also wear shoes and not sneakers to complete their costumes.

•Girls should wear a long skirt and blouse or a dress that is made from plain or simply printed fabric.
•Girls can also wear aprons and a white mob cap depending on their trade.
•Girls should also wear shoes and not sneakers to complete their costume.


Although American colonists had parks in their communities, they were not like today's parks where children frolic on manicured playgrounds.  Rather, they were similar to the smaller plazas around which many European cities developed.
In colonial America, these centralized parks were referred to as 'the commons', because they were held in common by the members of the local community. Unlike their cobble-stoned European counterpart, the common areas of colonial America were comprised of large grassy knolls, often containing a source of natural water. 

Cattle often grazed in the common. The common also contained the village meetinghouse, or town hall.  Commons were especially popular in the New England colonies.  In fact, Boston, Massachusetts still has its original old common at the heart of its modern metropolis.

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