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Rise of Industrial America
Rural Life in the Late 19th Century
House Calls


In earlier times, many services that are now offered at central locations were more mobile, sometimes even delivered to people's homes. The first excerpt below is from Votes for Women, 1848-1921; the second is from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . What services are described in each reading? What hardships did the person experience in providing services? What advantages did this kind of "movable" service have? What disadvantages? Try to find evidence in American Memory that other kinds of services were also provided door to door in the late 19th century.

Life's Story, by Mary E. Ryerson Butin

Automobiles were unknown and not until years afterwards came into use. We drove horses and had a beautiful span of high stepping sorrels and two single driving horses, one of them the veritable "old dobbin", but in this case a beautiful dapple gray, on account of which we named Dottie and which, with phaeton, I made in absolute safety my nearby calls. It was with tears in later years that we consigned her to green pastures where she ended her days.

Many of our calls were to distant parts of the country, at times taking two or three days to make them. Then too, a call to one patient usually resulted in a neighborhood affair, for they all knew when a doctor was sent for and bunched their complaints. This was before nurses were employed in rural communities and we sent our major surgical operations to distant cities. Dr. Lois Worthington, now a successful practioner at Bakersfield, California and a graduate of Cooper's Medical College, commenced the study of medicine with me, staying in the office and reciting daily as I had done in Wilton.

I was called at one time to a patient over fifty miles in the mountains. The roads were steep and difficult. I started out with the messenger and his team and background and his sister whom he was taking back home with him. Starting at five o'clock p.m., three of us rode in one seat all night. Arriving at the home of my patient about five the next morning . . . We started on our return trip about ten o'clock and I was prepared to enjoy the blooming buckthorn and manzanita for it was "Springtime in the Rockies". As going down was much easier and faster than going up, we arrived home about three o'clock in the afternoon. Upon reaching home, I found a call awaiting me to go in the opposite direction more than thirty miles to see a case of pneumonia in a small town on the railroad and I could go and return by train which I did before midnight.

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Itinerate Religion

The early days of preaching in Oregon have been filled with pleasant memories for my devoted wife and myself. In our evangelistic work we had to travel from house to house, staying wherever we could. These visits in other homes were most trying. The usual house had about one-half dozen people in three or four rooms.

When my wife and I would visit with the people they would have to bed-down the children on the floor. Most often my wife and I would have preferred the floor to the torturous mattresses we have had to sleep on. We were subjected to every inconvenience humanly imaginable. The food though usually plentiful ranged from the ghastly to the less horrible. Often I have wondered how man could live on the food I have had to eat.

These homes we visited in were primitive in conveniences. Most of the people had a well quite a distance from the house, where they obtained water. These wells often were most unsanitary. The distance of the wells from the houses was probably responsible for the usual amount of filth that we found. Sanitation and domestic science were unheard of in those days. Most everything was accomplished in as simple and direct a manner as possible. . . .

Transportation presented a difficult problem. Particularly so during bad weather. Many, many times the mud was hub-deep on the wagon wheels, necessitating the driver and quite often the passengers got out and help the horses lift the wagon out of the mire.

The church was usually several miles from the homes we had to stay in. This was bad because the people we were staying with would have to get up much earlier in order to get us to church. They were kind and agreeable, though, most of the time.

Later we were rewarded for our sacrifice by an appointment as pastor in one of the railway cars operating in Oregon. . . .

The name of our car was Good Will. It was fitted out so we could seat about 100 people in it. The opposite end from the church part, was fitted up as our living quarters. This car was most convenient in living arrangements.

These cars aided us in performing a valuable service to the isolated people of Oregon.

In the southern part of the state there were children as old as 20 that had never heard a Christian service. They would walk miles to hear the preacher in the railway car. The novelty of the car probably attracted them as much as the religious side. Children generally, were delighted with the idea of going to church in a railway car.

View the entire interview from which this excerpt was taken from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.
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