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Rise of Industrial America
Rural Life in the Late 19th Century
Rural Life in the 1870s

Rural Americans in the last thirty years of the 19th century had to be more self-sufficient than rural dwellers today. Miss Nettie Spencer grew up in rural Oregon in the 1870s. She recalled those times when interviewed by a federal writer in 1938. As you read the excerpts from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, think about ways in which the Spencer family was self-sufficient. For what did they have to rely on others? How would you describe the life of a rural family in the 1870s?

View the entire interview with Miss Spencer. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


. . . All of our shoes were made by a man who came around every so often and took our foot measurements with broomstraws, which he broke off and tagged for the foot length of each member of the family. The width didn't make any difference and you could wear either shoe on either foot; for a long time, too, for the shoes wore well. Mother carded her own wool and washed it with soap she made herself. She even made her own lye from wood ashes, and when she got the cloth finished she made her own dye. Black was made from burnt logs and brown from the bulls of black walnuts. I think she got her green from copper, and peach leaves made the yellow. The red dye was made from leaves she bought. The dresses were very full and lasted entirely too long. . . . One of the things I remember most as a little girl were the bundle peddlers who came around. They had bundles made up and you bought them as they were for a set price. I remember that some sold for as high as $150. In these bundles more all sorts of wonderful things that you didn't get in the country very often; fancy shawls and printed goods; silks and such other luxuries. It was a great day when the family bought a bundle.

Our food was pretty plain most of the time and we didn't have any salads like they do now. The menu for a fine dinner would be: Chicken stew with dumplings, mashed potatoes, peach preserves, biscuits, and hominy. We raised carrots for the stock but we never thought of eating them. . . . We didn't have any jars to put up preserves in, like they do now, but we used earthen crooks instead. The fruit to be preserved was boiled with brown sugar -- we never saw white sugar and when we did we used it as candy -- and then put in the jars which were covered with cloth that was then coated with beeswax. Another good cover was a hog bladder -- they were the best. Sometimes we had molasses pulls and once in a great while we would have some real striped, candy. That was a treat[!?]

Most of our medicine was homemade too . . . There wasn't much social life on the farm and I didn't pay any attention to it until I was older and moved into Salem and Corvallis. The churches didn't have any young peoples . . . organizations and they were dead serious with everything. Sermons lasted for hours and you could [smell?] the hell fire in them. We never had church suppers or the like until way past my time. The only social thing about the church was the camp meetings. That was where most of the courting was done. When a boy would get old enough for a wife the father would let him use the horse and buggy for a trip to the camp meeting to get him a wife. . . .

Most of these people came to church on foot over the muddy roads. The ones who came by wagon used a hay-rack, and mother and father sat in a chair at the front while the children were churned about in the straw strewn in the wagon bed. . . .

After a long service "meeting" was out, and neighbors had a grand hand-shaking party, and then families often invited other families to dinner. This crude church, located where Alfred Station now is on the Southern Pacific Railway, a few miles north of Harrisburg, which then was a small village, was the only public gathering place, except perhaps on the Fourth of July, when families went on mass, with shiny new shoes to Corvallis, to "the Celebration". . . .

The games played were: ante over, crack the whip, base, hide and seek, tag, ring around the rosie. . . .

The big event of the year was the Fourth of July. Everyone in the countryside got together on that day for the only time in the year. The new babies were shown off, and the new brides who would be exhibiting babies next year. Everyone would load their wagons with all the food they could haul and come to town early in the morning. On our first big Fourth at Corvallis mother made two hundred gooseberry pies. You can see what an event it was. There would be floats in the morning and the one that got the [girls?] eye was the Goddess of Liberty. She was supposed to be the most wholesome and prettiest girl in the countryside [md] if she wasn't she had friends who thought she was. But the rest of us weren't always in agreement on that. She rode on a hay-rack and wore a white gown. Sometimes the driver wore an Uncle Sam hat and striped pants. All along the sides of the hay-rack were little girls who represented the states of the union. The smallest was always Rhode Island. . . .

Just before lunch - and we'd always hold lunch up for an hour - some Senator or lawyer would speak. These speeches always had one pattern. First the speaker would challenge England to a fight and [berate?] the King and say that he was a skunk. This was known as twisting the lion's tail. Then the next theme was that any one could find freedom and liberty on our shores. The speaker would invite those who were heavy laden in other lands to come to us and find peace. The speeches were pretty fiery and by that time the men who drank got into fights and called each other Englishmen. In the afternoon we had what we called the 'plug uglies' [md] funny floats sad clowns who took off on the political subjects of the day. There would be some music and then the families would start gathering together to go home. There were cows waiting to be milked and the stock to be fed and so there was no night life. The Fourth was the day of the year that really counted then. Christmas wasn't much; a Church tree or something, but no one twisted the lion's tail. . . .
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View the entire interview with Miss Spencer from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.