19 April 2012

Lottie's Memoirs: Clothing and Housecleaning

... This is part five in a series. Please see the initial post for explanation.The Lee Family at Silver Creek, Nebraska

Lottie Mae Lee Houston
Mrs. Andrew Houston

Page 11, continued.


Most of our clothing was made at home, boys' and girls' and grown ups'. The mothers all sewed and taught their daughters to sew. The hired girls who lived with us also helped Mother with the sewing or mending. Some widows or other women who needed to support themselves went out to sew in homes. Our mother had a sewing machine earlier than most of our neighbors, as Dad had the agency for sewing machines in his store. I believe it was the "White" machine. Every spring and fall brought a sewing period when new garments were made by every family, for the coming season. 

A "White Peerless" Sewing machine, ca. 1885.
Photo courtesy: www.sewmuse.co.uk
The little girls wore calico or gingham for everyday, cotton underclothing in summer, woolen in winter. The underwear was made at home and much of it was bulky and clumsy. In winter our under-drawers went down our legs into our shoes. We girls wore wool school dresses in winter, and usually two petticoats, one wool and one cotton. We always wore a little fancy school apron over the wool dress. When we came home from school we took this off and put on a plain, long sleeved cotton apron, a sort of coverall, to keep the school dress clean. We wore black stocking and high black

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shoes, sometimes laced, sometimes buttoned. We used button-hooks to button our shoes. Our men folks used a boot jack to put on their high shoes or boots. 

We wore no corsets or tight stays, as girls, but "Ferris waists", with two rows of buttons around the waist, on which to button underskirts and panties. Our garter supporters were much like those used now, but I have heard Mother tell of having buttons on the stockings and elastic strips with buttonholes in them, to support from the waist. Mother was opposed to tight or binding stays, as unhealthful, although many people wore them. Our dresses came below the knee, but were never floor length until we were about sixteen. 

The little boys wore knee pants and shirts, home made, with long black stockings or heavy socks and high shoes or boots for winter. They went barefooted much of the time in summer. For Sunday, our brothers wore starched white shirts, knee pants, little tailored jackets and little derby hats! Sometimes, for younger boys, the jacket was a kind of "Little Lord Fauntleroy" type with lace collar. In summer they wore straw hats, the Sunday one a stiff, small brimmed one, they everyday hat large and shady. Some little boys did not have their hair cut until they were four or five years old, and their mothers took pride in their curls. Boy babies wore little dresses until they were walking. 

Image Courtesy: www.breslichfoss.co.uk

As we grew older, we girls (Lottie, Bertha, Florence, Lucile) did most of our own sewing and ironing. With the long skirts and many long ruffled petticoats, the ironing was tremendous, and it is hard to understand now, how we could do it. We heated the irons on the cook stove, (or a kerosene stove in summer) and used the removable handle to change irons as they cooled. We would take turns ironing and mending, one sitting down awhile, then another. We took pride in our ironing, always trying do have things done perfectly. Linens were ironed while quite damp. Embroidery was always ironed on the wrong side to give a raised effect. Ribbons and sashes were often stiffened with gum arabic. 

Washings were done the hard way, on a washboard, in a round wash tub, on a bench. White clothes were boiled in a copper boiler on the kitchen stove. Soap was made at home for many years. Bluing was sold by stores, or by small boys, to make "pin money". We had long clotheslines and two pronged wooden clothespins. 


Usually, each home underwent a thorough housecleaning in both spring and fall. The tools were broom, mop, carpet beater, scrub brush, clean sand, soap, ammonia, lye, feather duster, furniture oil, and soft cloths. No one felt that a real cleaning could be done without completely emptying a room, so we began by taking down all pictures, cleaning them and putting them in a safe place on a table or bed in another room. Curtains and drapes were removed next, then furniture, then carpets. Everything was taken to a porch or the yard while the ceiling, walls and floors were cleaned.

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Carpets were lifted by taking out tacks with a screw driver. The carpet might be made of narrow strips, sewed together, either rag carpeting or ingrain, and was laid over a padding of either newspaper or new straw. At housecleaning time it was removed to an out of door clothesline where it was beaten by hand with a wire carpet beater until all the dust was out, and left in the sun for a time. Meanwhile the newspapers were removed from the floor, the floor swept and scrubbed. When dry, fresh papers were spread and the carpet brought back and tacked down. “Stretching the carpet” was almost an athletic feat, requiring two or preferably three people to accomplish it, and the use of a long forked tool to push the edges up in place and hold them while the tacks were replaced.

The furniture was cleaned outside, cloth portions thoroughly brushed, wooden parts treated with furniture oil or polish. Scratched or worn places might be re-varnished. Crocheted “tidies” or “antimacassars” were carefully washed and stretched. Lace curtains were washed by hand and dried on curtain stretchers (wooden frames with tiny metal brads along the edge). Often these stretchers were loaned from one housewife to another.  

Clothing was removed from closets, to be sunned and aired. Chests and trunks were opened and sunned. We had several old fashioned trunks of the Civil War era. Fresh mothballs were put with woolen things, after they were washed. Mattresses, feather-beds and pillows, as well as quilts and blankets were put on the clothesline to sun. Some were repaired and recovered.

Often this was the time of putting new wallpaper on walls. A “paperhanger” might be called in, or our family might do the work ourselves. Fashions in wallpapers changed somewhat from year to year, but always included delicate florals for bedrooms, with more formalized patterns for living rooms and parlors.

Windows were cleaned, inside and out, using ammonia water or powdered whiting for the glass. Screens were replaced in spring and removed in fall. Homemade storm windows were put up in fall and taken down in spring. Cupboards were cleaned, dishes and crockery washed and replaced. Silver was polished with whiting and replaced in flannel bags. Books were dusted individually and replaced in their shelves. This was one of the very pleasant tasks for some members of the family, giving an opportunity for renewing acquaintance with old favorites and for reading ahead into more and more grownup books!

Stoves were cleaned and stovepipes taken down and taken outside to clean. This was done preferably with a cutting from a long branch, with leaves still attached. This made an excellent brush for removing soot from inside a pipe. In springtime the hard coal buring stove, “the baseburner” was usually removed from the living room; in fall it was replaced for winter use.

There were, of course, no bathrooms to clean. The outdoor

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toilet was treated with lye or lime and the small building scrubbed and sometimes re-painted. The cellar also was cleaned, old potatoes and other vegetables removed, stone jars washed and sunned, brick floor scrubbed, churn and milk cans and jars scalded and sunned.

During this housecleaning the meals were rather sketchy! The women folk tried to have things cooked ahead of time so that the family could have bread, baked beans, milk doughnuts, fruit and chees, cold meat, and of course cornmeal and oatmeal “mush”.

When the cleaning was done the more or less exhausted housekeepers needed a few days to revive! It was quite different from the present ways of cleaning with vacuum cleaners, automatic washers, etc. Also, it is amusing to think of the difference in how we dressed. No one doing housecleaning then would have worn slacks or jeans or pedal pushers! We wore cotton dresses which reached almost to the floor, dust caps on our heads, big aprons tied around our waists. 

...to be continued...

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