263. Our Country One Hundred
Years Ago. Let us now take a hasty glance
backward for a century and note the vast changes that
have taken place in the matter of daily living during
this time. Very different was the country in
which our forefathers lived from that with which we
are familiar. To be sure, there was a fringe
of villages along the coast from Maine to Georgia.
Fifty miles back from the Atlantic the country was
for the most part an unbroken wilderness.
A few hundred settlers, and perhaps
a hundred log cabins, made up a village where now
stands the great city of Cincinnati. Indians and
buffaloes roamed over the rich plains of the West which
to-day furnish grain for Europe. Only seven of
the states then had well-defined boundaries.
Thousands of the marvelous inventions and discoveries
which have added so much to the comfort and convenience
of life had at that time no existence.
264. Newspapers. Forty-three
newspapers managed to survive the war of the Revolution.
Even the best of these were mean-looking, and printed
on poor paper. For the most part, they contained
but four small pages, and were issued not oftener
than two or three times a week. As to quantity
of printed matter, they could not sustain comparison
for one moment with the newspaper of our time.
There was no such thing as an editorial
page. All kinds of queer advertisements there
were; as, for runaway slaves or stolen horses:
tedious letters appeared, written to the editor from
distant points: treatises on geography and morals
abounded instead of news. To fill out space,
the editor would occasionally reprint some standard
historical work or book of travels.
That material which gives the modern
newspaper its peculiar value and is now known under
the general name of “news” was unknown.
There were few or no facilities for gathering facts
as to the happenings of events or the doings of individuals,
communities, and nations; and certainly no pains was
taken to forward such material for publication.
265. The Postal Service and
Letter-Writing. In the early colonial times
there was no such thing as an official postal service.
Up to the time of the Revolution there were certain
means provided for carrying letters, but they were
The postmen used to travel some thirty
to fifty miles a day in good weather. Letters
were sent from New York to Boston three times a week
during summer, and twice a week in winter. Six
days and even more were required to make the journey.
One pair of saddlebags easily contained all the mail.
If such were the scanty mail accommodations
of the chief cities, we can imagine what they were
in the small country towns. Sacks of letters and
papers are now easily carried in one afternoon farther
than they were then transported in five weeks.
After the war, Washington had an extensive and important
correspondence with the influential men of the country.
In many of his replies he complained of the tedious
delay in receiving his mail. Well he might, for
his letters were sometimes longer in going from Mount
Vernon to Boston than they would now be in reaching
In remote sections the post-rider
was often a decrepit man or some crippled soldier.
One old postman used to improve his time, as his horse
jogged slowly along, by knitting woolen mittens and
stockings. There was no special protection to
the service. Letters and packages were opened
and freely read or examined by the carriers. So
common was this evil that the great men of this time
used to correspond in cipher.
We may be sure that when it cost much
to send letters, and the difficulties of forwarding
them were so many, the letter-writers of those days
took special pains to write long epistles, full of
news. People learned most of the news of the
day from distant places, whether it pertained to politics,
society, or gossip, through faithful correspondents.
Imagine a busy merchant in one of
our great cities writing a business letter, but giving
most of the space to the results of the last election,
or the doings of the state legislature. The telegraph,
the telephone, stenography, and the typewriter of
our day have revolutionized business communication
and much of personal correspondence.
266. The Stage Coaches. During
the war of the Revolution, stages stopped running
between distant cities, and horseback traveling was
resumed. When peace was declared, the “coach
and four” again took the road. Boston and
New York were then the two great commercial centers
of the country; yet during Washington’s first
term two stages and twelve horses carried all the
passengers by land between these two cities.
The stage coach at this time was not
much better than a huge covered box mounted on springs.
There were no closed sides, glass windows, steps, or
doors. It was not to be compared for one moment
with the far-famed Concord coaches in after years.
In summer an ordinary day’s journey was forty
miles, but in winter only about one-half of this distance.
The stage started early each morning often
at three o’clock and its daily time
limit was about ten at night. Often the passengers
were forced to get out and help lift it out of the
mud or a deep rut. If there were no unusual accidents
or mishaps, it reached New York, from Boston, at the
end of the sixth day. Even at this snail pace
the good people used to wonder at the ease, as well
as the speed, with which the journey was made.
It is no wonder, then, that a journey
to any remote place became a serious matter.
Prudent men, when ready to set out for a distant point,
arranged their business affairs for any emergency,
made their wills, and, after a formal dinner at the
tavern, bade their family and neighbors a solemn farewell.
267. How Fires were put out. The
law at this time compelled every man to take an active
part in putting out fires. He was obliged to keep
at least four leathern buckets hung up at some convenient
place in his house or shop, with his name painted
on them, together with a big canvas bag. When
an alarm of fire was raised, either by vigorous shouts
of “Fire! fire!” or the ringing of the
church bell, the good citizen seized his fire buckets
and his canvas bag, and, guided by the smoke or flame,
started for the scene of action.
There were no idlers at an old-time
fire. Some rushed into the building with their
canvas bags and filled them with such movable goods
as could be readily carried in them. A double
line extending to the water was formed of men, boys,
and even women. One line passed the full buckets
to those who were nearest the fire, while the other
line returned the empty vessels to the well or river.
Some of the larger towns boasted of
a “fire engine.” This was merely a
pump mounted over a tank, which the men kept full by
pouring in water from the buckets. The rich householder
was allowed to send his slave or servant to the fire
with the fire buckets.
When the fire was out, the buckets
were left in the road, to be picked up and carried
home by their owners. Persons who neglected to
keep their fire buckets in good order and in their
proper places, or who failed to carry them home after
the fire, were fined.
268. How Sunday was passed. The
observance of Sunday began at sundown on Saturday.
The early part of the evening was devoted to family
worship, and shortly after eight o’clock all
were in bed. No work except such as was really
necessary was done on Sunday. Most of the cooking
was done the day before. Each member of the family,
unless sick in bed, went to church. The farmer
traveled on horseback with his wife on the pillion
The singers sat in the front gallery.
The boys and young men had seats in the left-hand
gallery, while that on the right was occupied by the
young women. We have read in a previous chapter
something about the tithing-man and his duties.
The short noon interval was devoted to eating a cold
No meeting-house in those days was
warmed. Old and feeble women were allowed to
use tin foot-stoves, filled with a few hot coals.
In the bitter cold months of a New England winter
it was no trifling affair to endure the actual suffering
that accompanied religious worship on Sunday.
The story is told of a good minister in Connecticut
who in the depths of winter prudently preached in
overcoat and mittens, but complained that his voice
was drowned by persons stamping and knocking their
feet together to keep warm.
269. The Minister and the Meeting-Houses. The
minister was always held in high esteem. He was
usually the most important man of the village, and
was looked upon with reverence not unmingled with awe.
His authority was almost supreme. If a person
spoke disrespectfully of him, or even laughed at his
oddities, the offender was heavily fined. The
advice of the minister was often asked, and sometimes
given unasked, on matters of business as well as of
religion. Fearless and resolute in what they
believed to be right, the influence of the ministers
of that time in public affairs was deservedly very
The minister’s salary was but
a pittance. It was never the same two years in
succession, and was rarely paid in cash. Donations
of corn, beans, turnips, and other farm products were
usually given in place of hard money.
The sermon was the one event of the
week. Every well person in the village turned
out to hear it. Copious notes were taken, and
its various points furnished topics for fireside discussion
during the week.
270. How the Doctors healed
the Sick. The village doctor, together
with the minister and schoolmaster, held a high social
rank. There were only two medical colleges in
the country, and these were not well attended.
Medical books were scarce and costly. Even the
best doctors could not boast of a medical library
of fifty volumes.
The future doctor served his time
as a student with some well-known physician.
He ground the powders, mixed the potions, rolled the
pills, cleaned the bottles, tended the night bell,
and otherwise made himself useful. If the young
student had a good preceptor and was gifted with a
keen observation and a retentive memory, he returned
to his native town or went elsewhere fairly prepared
to begin practice.
There were no drug stores in those
days, and each doctor was his own apothecary.
He ground his own drugs, made his own tinctures, salves,
and plasters. Most of the medical preparations
used then would not be tolerated to-day.
Then as now the country doctor used
to ride night and day, year after year, whatever the
weather or the condition of the roads, to attend the
good people of his neighborhood. He received,
as he richly deserved, the respect and affection of
his patients for his life of hardship and self-denial.
271. How the Schoolmaster taught
School. Besides the doctor, minister,
and lawyer, the village schoolmaster was socially and
otherwise an important man. He was usually a
student who was “working his way” through
college, and who sought, by teaching winters and working
on a farm in summer, to defray his expenses at Yale,
Dartmouth, or Harvard.
In many of the school districts he
was expected to “board round.” That
is, he lived with the parents of his pupils, regulating
his stay according to the number of the children of
the family who attended school.
In those days there were large families
and many children, and the young schoolmaster was
a welcome guest. The best room in the house, the
warmest corner by the fireplace, and the choicest food
were reserved for him. During the long winter
evenings he discussed theology and politics with the
fathers, played games with the children, and escorted
the girls to “spelling matches” and “quilting
272. The Everyday Home Life. Such
conveniences and comforts as are now found in almost
every home were then unknown. Cooking stoves,
matches, refined sugar, sewing machines, and kerosene
oil had never been heard of. The mechanic’s
home had no carpets on the floor, no pictures on the
walls, no coal in the cellar, no water faucets in the
kitchen. Fruits and vegetables, now so cheap
in their season, such as tomatoes, oranges, bananas,
celery, and dates, were either quite unknown or beyond
the reach of scanty means.
The farmers of a century ago ate plain
food and wore plain clothes. Their daily fare
was usually salt fish, salt pork, beef, a few vegetables,
and dried apples. The numerous farm implements,
which have done so much to cheapen food and to bring
thousands of acres into a state of high cultivation,
were not yet invented.
The well-to-do farmer managed to pick
up a great deal of general information and news of
the day. He was noted for an inquiring turn of
mind. He could tire out the weary visitor or stranger
on the road with numberless questions on current social,
political, or religious topics. At times he would
unbend enough to play “fox and geese” with
his children, or attend “apple bees” and