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Occupations and Customs

America in colonial days was a land of farmers. Our forefathers on migrating to America found no great cities with innumerable openings for the industrious and thrifty, no great industries with salaried positions awaiting them. They found only a vast, uncultivated region -- the valleys, the plains, the illimitable succession of rolling hills, crowned with primeval forest; and from this they must clear the timbers and delve into the soil for their daily bread. Hence a nation of tillers of the soil. A few ministers and artisans, rulers and merchants, there had to be, but their combined numbers were few compared with the great body of the people, -- the farmers.

In New England, however, the soil was not fertile; a farmer could get a living from the soil and perhaps a little more, but he could not thrive and accumulate money, and it was not long before many of the people turned their attention to the sea. They became fishermen and sailors, shipbuilders and merchants. They took cargoes of fish and cattle and the products of the forest and of the soil to the West Indies, to England, and to Spain, and brought in return molasses and the many articles of manufacture that they could not make at home. There were few manufactories, but the people supplied many of their own wants. Nearly every farmer was also a rude mechanic. He and his sons usually made the furniture for the household and many of the implements of the farm as well, while his wife and daughters spun the flax and wove it into a coarse cloth from which the family was clothed.

The New England farmhouse was scantily furnished. It was solidly built of wood, but, as if inspired by their stern Puritan religion, the builders gave all too little attention to comfort, and the average New England farmhouse would have been scarcely endurable in winter but for the great open wood-fire about which the family (usually a large one) gathered in the evening and made brooms, shelled nuts, and told stories. But the "house of the seven gables" was not wanting in New England. Many of the rich in the cities and their suburbs built fine stone, brick, or wooden mansions, and lived on the fat of the land. The furniture in the dwellings of the rich was often imported from England, as was also the tableware -- china, wedgwood, cut glass, and silver plate.

Town life in New England was everything, while in the South, as we shall notice later, the county or the plantation was the geographical unit. The Puritans were not great landholders; they were small farmer's, each with his little clearing surrounded by the dark, merciless forest, with its wild beasts and wild men. But he was loath to dwell far from the town, where he attended church and market, and which became his city of refuge on the approach of hostile Indians. Many farmers lived in the village or very near it. The town was a straggling, rural village with unpaved, shady streets partly covered with stumps of native trees. There were at least three important buildings in the town, always near together -- the church, the tavern, and the blockhouse. The church in early Puritan days was built of logs, provided with benches, and never heated. The congregation was summoned by the sound of a horn or a drum, and the people sat in order of social rank and listened to the long sermons. If a man or a boy fell asleep or misbehaved, he received a rap on the head from the rod of the tithingman; while if a woman fell into a doze, she was awakened by the brushing of her face with a rabbit's foot appended to the rod. In early times, when the red man still lurked in the woods, the men went to church armed, and the minister often preached with a musket by his side.

The tavern or ordinary was not only a lodging place for travelers, but also a drinking house, and a place of general gossip for the village and neighborhood. Here the people would gather on special days to take a social glass, to get the latest news, and to discuss politics and religion. The tavern was considered a public necessity, and a town that did not maintain one was subject to fine by the General Court.1 The principal drinks were rum, small beer, and eider, and these were used freely by men, women, and children. The tavern keeper was a man of great importance -- usually a jolly gentleman whose stock of information on all current topics was inexhaustible. He was often the chief man, next to the town clerk, in the town -- schoolmaster, leader of the singing in the church, member of the town council, land agent, surveyor, and the like. He was required to be a man of good character, and was not permitted to sell strong drink to drunkards.

The blockhouse was strongly built of logs, the second story extending over the first and being provided with portholes so that the occupants could fire directly down on a besieging enemy. In case of an Indian attack the whole population would abandon their homes and rush to the blockhouse, and in this way their lives were often saved. The blockhouse in New England ceased to be of great importance after King Philip's War.

Passing westward into New York, we find a soil very different from the barren lands of New England. The great valleys of the Hudson and the Mohawk were exceedingly fertile, and in this colony the majority of the people were tillers of the soil.

But New York was by no means wholly agricultural. The second great industry was that of trade, and this was of two kinds -- trade with foreign countries and the other colonies and the Indian fur trade. New York City was the center of all maritime commerce, and was a formidable rival of Boston and Philadelphia. The Indian fur trade was exceedingly lucrative, and hundreds of men were constantly engaged in it.2 A trader would go into the Indian country laden with rum and trinkets and implements prized by the natives, and for these he would receive furs and peltries, with which he would float down the Hudson and sell them, to the foreign traders of Manhattan.

The character of society in New York was unlike that of any other colony, owing to the patroon system, which continued all through colonial days and far into the national period. The patroon had a luxurious, well-built house of brick or stone, a retinue of servants, large barns, orchards and gardens, and broad pasture lands dotted with flocks and herds. His tenants were scattered for miles about him, and among them he lived much like a feudal lord of the Middle Ages.

The majority of the people, especially in the country, were Dutch and they clung tenaciously to the customs and habits of their nation. They were a plodding, industrious, religious people, who dwelt in small wooden or brick houses with sanded floors, and high, steep roofs, and, in the villages, with the gable ends, "notched like steps," turned toward the street. The window panes were very small; the doors, each with its knocker of brass or iron, were divided into an upper or a lower section. Country houses were placed as near together as the extent of each farm would allow, often forming a little village street.3 A great fireplace in each house was usually built of tiles brought from Holland, and on these were stamped various Scripture scenes, one of which was Lazarus leaving the tomb and waving the flag of the Netherlands.4 One of the features of the Dutch village and farmhouse was the stoop, on which, in summer evenings, the family would sit and chat for hours with their neighbors, the men smoking long Dutch pipes, the women busy with their knitting or sewing.

The Dutch were more liberal in games and amusements than were the Puritans of New England. No people in America presented a more attractive picture of quiet, pastoral contentment, of unruffled satisfaction in life, of thrift and plenty, than the Dutch rural population of New York. Thus these people continued their rustic life, maintaining their customs and language for nearly two centuries; but after the Revolution they were forced to yield to the ever increasing tide of the English race, until they gradually lost their identity and their language.

In New Jersey the mode of life was somewhat similar to that of New England, from which many of the people had emigrated. This was especially true of East Jersey, while in West Jersey, where the Quakers predominated, the mode of life resembled that of Pennsylvania. The soil, with the exception of the sand regions in some portions of the colony, was fertile, and farming was practically the sole industry. There were few large estates, the great majority of the settlers being small farmers, each with his clearing in the forest; and this, with the fact there were few slaves or indented servants, brought about a social equality unknown in most of the colonies. There was little culture or education except in the villages that dotted the great highway between New York and Philadelphia. The people were thrifty and honest; houses were left unlocked, and there was little crime. The laws and punishments were modeled after those of New England.

The moment we cross the Delaware into Pennsylvania we find a notable change in colonial society. It is true there were many English Quakers, as in West Jersey, but they were outnumbered by others. There were Germans, Irish, Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and Swedes. The tolerant spirit of the Quaker government had attracted men of every nationality and every creed. First in numbers came the Lutherans and Presbyterians, and after these the Dunkards, Moravians, Baptists, Anabaptists, Pietists, and Mennonites, with a sprinkling of Methodists, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics. Yet with all the mixture of sect and nationality there was no oolony in America more peaceful, contented, and democratic than Pennsylvania. It is true that the Germans and the Scotch-Irish could not get along well together, and they kept apart by settling in separate communities or in parallel bands across the colony, while the English predominated in Philadelphia and vicinity. There was also frequent political strife between the Scotch-Irish and the Quakers, and the latter often combined with the Germans to retain their prestige in the legislature. The chief industry was farming; the soil was rich and productive, and the river valleys were laden with waving fields of grain every year, while the broad meadows and mountain slopes were dotted with grazing herds. But there were other occupations in Pennsylvania. Many were engaged in the fur trade and still more in foreign commerce, while the iron industry had its beginning early in the eighteenth century.

Philadelphia was a fine, well-built city with straight streets crossing at right angles -- and its plan, originating with Penn, became the model for nearly all the cities of the United States. This city passed New York in population but few years after its founding; about the middle of the eighteenth cenury it left Boston behind, and so it continued the largest city in America until after the Revolution.

Crossing into Maryland and Virginia, we again find a great change in the social atmosphere. Here there was little or no town life; villages were few and insignificant. The planter or great landlord stood at the head of society; the plantation was the center of social and industrial activity, and the sole important product of the plantation was tobacco. The great estates were situated along the river valleys. In the center stood the well-built and well-furnished mansion of the landlord, and around it were clustered the offices, tobacco houses, barns, stables, and negro huts, the whole presenting the appearance of a small village. The planter enjoyed every luxury of the age. He had blooded horses, carriages, and body servants in abundance, and his dress was fashioned after that of the upper classes in England. His monotonous life in the forest led him to long for company of his own class, and gave rise to the hospitality for which the Southerner became famous. He treated strangers with great cordiality, and often sent to the nearest tavern requesting that any chance traveler might be sent to spend the night at his home.

As we move farther to the southward we find another marked change. Here, especially in South Carolina, the great staple was rice. The rice planters were men of education and culture, and they comprised the ruling class. Most of them lived in Charleston and spent but a few months of the year in the malarial regions in which the rice was produced.

The old colonial aristocracy of the South was not without its shortcomings, but on the whole it was chivalric and picturesque, and it is a remarkable fact that it was this old aristocracy of a single southern colony that furnished the newborn Republic with its greatest soldier, half of its first cabinet, and four of its first five presidents.

The small farmers of the South were also a respectable class, and of course more numerous than the great planters. They were slave owners on a small scale, and many of them rose by dint of genius, by thrift and industry, to the upper class,5 while, as stated before, there was an almost impassable barrier between them and the lower classes, composed of servants and slaves.


Footnotes

1Field's "Colonial Tavern," p.13. [return]

2But the fur trade was greatly crippled when, in 1732, England forbade the people to export hats. [return]

3Earle's "Colonial Days in Old New York," p.116. [return]

4Earle's "Colonial Days in Old New York," p.126. [return]

5Patrick Henry and John Marshall were striking examples of this.

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter X p. 201-206. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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