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Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co., Historical Publishers
186 Dearborn Street

Transcribed by: Kristin Vaughn.

Among the early pioneers, everything was plain, simple and in conformity with the strictest economy. This was not only true of their dwellings, furniture and provisions, but also of their clothing. In a very early day, the men usually wore pants and hunting-shirts of buckskin, and caps of coon or fox skin, while both sexes clothed their feet in moccasins. Cotton goods were then extremely hard to get, because, in the first place, of the distance such goods were to be conveyed by private means, and, secondly, because the manufacture in this country was very limited, the greater part being manufactured in Europe. As a consequence, the pioneers of the West found this one of the hardest demands to meet. Many wore the expedients devised by them, especially by the frugal and economical dames; for, ever since the wonderful expedient of preparing an entire wardrobe from fig-leaves, devised quite a number of years in the past, woman has been very gifted in laying plans and adopting expedients in the matter of clothing. But, unfortunately for her skill and industry, the country afforded nothing, the first few years of its occupancy, that could be turned to any account in this direction. If cotton had been planted on their first arrival, it would have amounted to but little, because neither the soil nor climate were favorable to its growth, and the seasons were so short that it could hardly be planted early enough to mature in quantities sufficient to justify its cultivation. It was almost useless, in an early day, to take sheep into the frontier settlements, on account of the vast numbers of prairie and black and gray wolves, which would destroy an entire flock in a single night. Hence the people had no choice save that between adopting expedients and appearing in "nature's light and airy garb." So, after the first year or two, the people began to sow crops of flax or hemp, and this the women spun and wove by hand into a coarse but substantial and pleasant linen. Of this, underwear was made, dresses for the ladies, towels, table-cloths, etc. But, you may inquire, what did they do till a crop of this could be raised, rotted and made into cloth. In reply it may be stated that the clothing taken with them to the new country was made to do an immense service. But even wild nature was often appealed to for aid. In an early day, vast fields of wild nettles grew here, often standing on the ground thicker than a field of wheat, and not unfrequently attaining a height of three and four feet. This produced a most excellent lint that was susceptible both of being woven and bleached. Thousands of yards of linen were made from these nettles by the pioneer settlers in Illinois. The year after James Meadows settled in Sugar Grove, his wife spun and wove no less than thirty yards of this nettle linen. It was strong, serviceable, and bleached to almost a snowy whiteness.

Even after flax was raised in sufficient quantities, and sheep had been introduced in considerable numbers, still it was an arduous task to spin and weave the cloth for the entire wearing apparel of a family. Had the fashions prevailed then that have in a later day, the women would have given up in despair. But, instead of eight or ten widths of cloth being put in a dress skirt in order to cover a balloon-frame of crinoline, two or three widths were considered amply sufficient for the fullest dress. On a certain occasion, under the old "blue laws" in Connecticut, a young lady was taken before the magistrate, charged with having leaped over a little brook on her way to church on Sabbath; and this was an offense for which she was liable to pay a severe fine. The mother of the young lady came into court and made oath that the skirts of the prisoner's dress were so narrow that she was obliged to leap the brook, or step into the water. Upon this testimony she was released. Doubtless there was as great economy practiced by our ancestors as by the staid old Puritans in godly Connecticut; but it was more necessity than piety that dictated the limited amount of material in their clothing. Our modern young gentlemen, who have dressed in the very best ever since they could remember, would be surprised at the scanty outfit of the boys of that time. The summer wear of the boys up to ten and twelve years of age was simple and very free from any effort at display, as it consisted of but one article, that being a long, coarse overshirt. With this indispensable article they explored the forests, traversed the prairies, thought about the girls, and built as many castles in the air as the boys of more favored times. In the winter, they were supplied with buck-skin or tow pants, moccasins or raw-hide shoes, and coats of jeans after sheep began to be raised among the settlers. In winter, when the deer-skin pantaloons had, by any accident, become wet, and dried again, it is affirmed that they could be heard to rattle a distance of forty yards as the wearer walked in them. This scarcity of clothing continued to be felt for at least two decades, or even more. In summer, nearly all persons, both male and female, went barefoot; and it was nothing uncommon to see young ladies on their way to church on foot, carrying their shoes in their hands till near the place of worship, when, carefully brushing the dust from their feet, the shoes and stockings were donned and they mingled with the throng. This continued to be common for nearly twenty years. After sheep could be protected from wolves, the people fared better in the matter of clothing. Flannel and linsey were woven for the wear of women and children, while jeans were woven for the men. For want of other dye-stuffs, the wool for the jeans was almost invariably colored with the bark or young shoots of the walnut; hence the inevitable "butternut" worn so extensively in the West for many years. As a matter of course, every family did its own spinning and weaving; and, for many years, all the wool had to be carded by hand on a little pair of cards about five by ten inches. Each family had its spinningwheels, little and big, winding blades, reel, warping bars made by driving pins into the wall of the house on the outside in some place where no door was in the way, and wooden loom. These were indispensable articles in almost every household; and during the fall and early winter the merry whir of the wheels, and the regular "bat, bat" of the loom could be heard till a late hour at night. Generally, the shoes worn were all made in the family, and mostly during the long evenings. No scene can be imagined that is more full of real happiness than the home of the pioneer, when, in the evening, all were engaged in earnest labor. A bright fire burns on the wide hearth, and the ruddy flame leaps far up the wooden chimney, affording the only, yet sufficient, light in the room. In one corner sits the father busily engaged in making shoes; the mother at her little wheel hums a tune in low harmony with its steady whir; while in front of the simple fire-place the daughter trips nimbly back and forth, drawing out the long woolen threads, while the wheel, seeming to partake of the general happiness, swells out its musical whir-ir-r, which swells and dies away in regular and harmonious cadence; the younger members of the group engaged in some absorbing pastime, all undisturbed by a single discordant note.

Boots were almost unknown for many years, and many of the old men never had such things during their entire life-time; while none of the youths were fortunate enough to boast the possession of boots till they reached manhood. Boys of fifteen and sixteen years of age never thought of wearing anything on their feet except for three or four months in the midst of winter; while the number who were not so fortunate as to get them even in winter was by no means small. Boys, and even men, went to church many times without shoes or stockings. But what would the people of to-day think of the minister who would propose to present himself before his auditory barefooted! This may never have occurred in Illinois, yet it did in some of the older States, and possibly even here. The writer was intimately acquainted with two ministers, both of whom died, at an extreme old age, a number of years ago, who often spoke of preaching in their younger days without anything on their feet. They began preaching in Tennessee, and were men of far more than ordinary ability; in fact, we have heard many sermons in finely frescoed churches from men dressed in broadcloth, which were not worthy of comparison, in any respect, with the sermons of those men. Several times they spoke of preaching in their youthful days, on a certain occasion, in a private cabin, the loft or ceiling of which was very low, and one of the preachers being a very tall man, a plank was taken up in the floor, so that he might stand in this opening, his head thus being below the "loft." This being in the summertime, and that region being infested with rattlesnakes, the speaker soon felt a thrill of horror convulse his frame, as the thought crossed his mind that perhaps he stood in the midst of these unwelcome companions. Of course, under these circumstances, the sermon was not painfully long.

We are fully aware of the incredulity with which the above and similar facts will be received by the mass of the present generation; but we write the facts, facts which, in the majority of cases, were known to be such by the writer in person. These facts should all be recorded, for none of the present generation have any just conception of the changes that have taken place in the last half-century. If the next fifty years are as productive of change as the past fifty have been, who can imagine the state of affairs a half-century in the future?

The tools and agricultural implements were about on a par with everything. The ground was broken up by the use of a wooden mold-board plow, and the corn cultivated with hoes, and bull-tongue as shovel-plows. These plows were all single, and in plowing corn the plowman was obliged to go three or four times between every two rows. In planting, the ground was marked off with a plow and corn dropped by hand and covered by hand with hoes. Wheat and rye, etc. were cut with a sickle-a hooked instrument some eighteen inches in length, with a handle some six inches long. This was taken in the right hand of the laborer, while the grain was held in the left hand. In later years, the sickle was superseded by the scythe-and-cradle, which enabled the laborer to accomplish more in a given time, but the labor was of the severest kind. What would the farmers of to-day think, after following our reapers and self-binders, to be obliged to go into the harvest-field with a sickle, or even a scythe-and-cradle?

The teams principally used were oxen, yoked together, and thus made to draw burdens. In breaking up ground the first time, cattle were generally used. It was by no means uncommon to see six or seven yoke of oxen hitched to a plow, and, at fearfully slow pace, dragging the ponderous plow, as it steadily crushed through turf and roots, turning over the long and evenly sod; and, notwithstanding the tardy pace at which they moved, owing to the width of the furrow, a considerable amount of land would be plowed in a day. Oxen were also much used single, that is, hitched singly to a plow with harness, or rather "gears" as they were called, for little, if any, leather was used in their manufacture. A huge collar, made of corn-husks, rugs of twisted raw-hide, or of iron chains when they could be procured, made the outfit; for bridle and lines were discarded, as the well-trained animal did everything by word of command. Occasionally, horses were used in farming, but they were far from being plentiful. After a few months or years, the people had preaching occasionally, and on such occasions a yoke of oxen was hitched to a cart, sled or wagon, and in this the family attended service; but we will speak of this in detail in the proper place.

1879 Index

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