American History Stories—Volume I - Mara L. Pratt

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


Manner of Dress

You remember how very plain the Puritans dressed at the time of their leaving England. Then the men wore their hair shaved so closely that they were called Roundheads. The women, too, all dressed very plainly, in homespun dresses and stiffly starched white aprons.

There was a time when a fine was imposed on any man who should wear his hair long; and if a woman wore any sort of jewelry, she was looked upon as a most wicked creature, one upon whom the punishment of heaven would surely fall.

As time went on, and the Puritans mixed more and more with other people, these severe styles gave way, and at last the Boston folks of the Puritan colony were as gay in their dress as were the Cavaliers of Virginia.

In a history of America, written for young people by Abby Sage Richardson, there is such a good description of these people as they dressed at this time, just before the Revolution, of which we are going so soon to hear, that I think we must stop and read it.

You remember the rude log cabin in which these first Puritans who came to Cape Cod Bay lived. Compare that rude cabin with Miss Richardson's description of Governor Hutchinson's house in Boston as it looked in the Revolutionary time: "It was a fine brick house, three stories high. If we enter the house we shall find a large hall with massive staircases heavily carved, the floor laid in elegant colored marble or different woods.

"The walls are painted, there are fluted columns supporting the ceiling, and there is heavy mahogany furniture set around in stately grandeur."

Speaking of the dress of the men, she says, "Do you see that elegant looking man? He would hardly be laughed at now and called a Roundhead. The Puritans now dress as the English do. They wear powdered wigs, or else they powder their own hair and tie it in a long queue behind.

"Look at that gentleman standing in his doorway! He has on a red velvet cap, with an inside cap of white linen which turns over the edge of the velvet two or three inches; a blue damask dressing-gown lined with sky-blue silk; a white satin waistcoat with deep embroidered flaps; black satin breeches with long white silk stockings, and red morocco slippers.

When he goes out into the street he will change his velvet cap for a three-cornered hat; his flowered brocade dressing-gown for a gold-laced coat of red or blue broadcloth, with deep lace ruffles at the wrist; put a sword at his side, and wear a pair of shoes with great silver buckles.

"Let us see how the women of the same time used to dress. Here is a lady dressing for a dinner party. First the barber comes and does up her hair in frizzles and puffs and rolls, one on top of the other, until it all looks like a pyramid or a tower. She has on a brocade dress, green ground with great flowers on it, looped over a pink satin skirt. Her dress is very low in the neck, and is greatly trimmed with lace.

"It is very tightly pulled over a stiff hoop which sticks out on both sides so far she has to go in at the door sideways. The heels of her low shoes are very high, and she wears beautiful silk stockings. That is the way she dresses for a party; but how does she dress at home?

"At home she wears a cap and a pretty gown, a neat white apron, and a muslin kerchief over her neck.

"This is the way the rich people dress. Let us take a look at the country people. The farmers' wives wear checked linen dresses in summer, and strong home-spun woolen dresses in the winter with clean white aprons and kerchiefs. The farmers wear stout leather breeches, checked shirts and frocks. Every day but Sunday the working-men wear leather aprons, and are not at all ashamed of them either."

The very early houses of these colonists were rudely built structures, usually of roughly hewn logs from the forests. To keep the houses warm, the spaces between the logs were stuffed with dried leaves, and the whole wall was then plastered over with mud.

Sometimes the houses of the less industrious colonists were very carelessly built, and little pains were taken to fit the logs together.

There is a story told of one colonist who, lying in his bed on the floor against the side of his log house, felt in the dead of the night a sharp bite at his ear, and starting up he saw the fierce head of a wolf pushed in through the space between the logs, close by his head.

It was some little time before there was any window glass used in the colonies. Indeed glass was as yet very rare even in England. "Bring oiled paper for your windows," wrote a Massachusetts governor to his friends in England who were about to sail for the colonies.

"You need not bring oiled paper for your windows," wrote a New York colonist to his friends; "oiled paper is used in Massachusetts colonies, but here we have found in the rocks sheets of mica which make most excellent windows."

But, by and by, when comfortable houses began to be built and window glass had become less rare, we find the dwellings fashioned after the old English style of houses. The more wealthy colonists built great square buildings; the rooms arranged, as it seemed, around a great central chimney in the middle of the house. "They built the chimney," says one writer, "and then fitted the rooms to the chimney." Perhaps they did; it might seem so. At any rate each room had its own great open fireplace, the warm red flames from which leaped and sprang up into the secret places and out of sight—all in this one great chimney. It was a long time before stoves were invented; and a long time again before a kind was invented that would really warm the rooms and be of use. The very first stoves, it is said, were built into the walls; and when wood was to be put on the fire, some one had to go out of doors to do it, the door of the stove being on the outside of the house.

But the old open fireplaces with their cheerful fires were one of the very best features of colonial life. Here in the long winter evenings the families would sit talking and telling wonderful stories, roasting chestnuts and apples, and having just the very best of social times. You will not wonder that they lingered around their cheerful fires and were inclined to make the evening long when you hear what crude beds they often had in these same comfortable houses.

Of course among the very wealthiest of the colonists at this time there were great bedsteads, and warm feather beds, such as one often sees now in country places, where the people are wise enough to still cling to their rich, old-fashioned furniture. But among the less favored classes the beds were not, I am afraid, the most comfortable things in the world, and certainly they were not very handsome pieces of furniture by any means.

One way of building up a sleeping place was to make two holes in the wall and into these to drive two poles. These poles served for the sides of the bed-frame. Then two upright posts were erected, with holes in them into which the side poles were driven. A cross beam from post to post and the bed-frame was complete. Then slats were laid across, or, when possible, ropes were woven in and out, a great bag of hay or straw, sometimes pine boughs, were laid on this—then the bed was complete. But simple and easy to make as these beds and bed-steads were, many strange stories are told of the scarcity of beds in the little taverns here and there at which travelers from town to town must stop over night.

"In England," wrote one colonist, "we were accustomed at the tavern to have a room and a bed and a privilege of bolting our door; it will be so here by and by when we have grown a little more settled in our new land, and have had time and means to make more furniture. At present, however, if we go to bed alone in a tavern, it is by no means sure that some fellow-traveler will not, when we awake, be found sleeping soundly in the same bed, having thrown himself down by our side or perhaps across the foot of the bed."

Furniture, too, of all kinds, was not common in the very first years of colonial life. The wealthiest people had their furniture brought from England; but in those days of slow sailing vessels such importation was far too expensive for poor families. The chairs and tables were accordingly home made, like the bedsteads, and were rude and rough, not very comfortable, but "good enough for now," as the patient, hardworking people would say to each other as now and then they would recall their more comfortable English homes. "Our chairs and tables were better, no doubt, in England," some father would say, "but we can forego all that for the blessed liberty of this country and by and by we shall have them all again."

A few long boards laid across carpenters' horses for a table, some long boards arranged bench-fashion around the room against the walls, and the house was ready for a husking party or a quilting bee or any other good time; and the "time" was nowise any less "good" that the furniture and preparations were so simple.

Carpets were rarely seen then, even in the finest houses. The floors were sanded; and in the best room, as they called their parlors, the sand was lined off into squares or diamonds which suited the proud housekeeper's ambition quite as well as a real carpet with its squares and diamonds.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt