children at hearthStories

Around the fireplace

Puritan Paths from Naumkeag to Piscataqua

*The wonderful stories in “Puritan Paths from Naumkeag to Piscataqua” by Lawrence Green Dodge and Alice Cole Dodge of West Newbury bring to mind the earliest years of my own childhood. I’m fond of saying that I was born in the first half of the previous century (although by only 3 1/2 months). We lived in suburbia, but I immensely enjoyed visiting my Harris grandparents in southern Mississippi, who when I was a small child, were not far removed from the 19th Century with their small farm, dogtrot house, an outhouse, 2 wood burning fireplaces, water from a well, a party line telephone and a single bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling in each room. My grandmother churned butter from their cows, and made brooms from the straw that my grandfather grew. Although the age that I am now, they were already “old and tired.” I didn’t realize until much later that their modest lives were nonetheless extraordinary.

In their 1963 book, Lawrence and Alice Dodge keep alive the stories of their own parents, his father having been born in Wenham just three days after it was announced that “Adams and Jefferson are no more.” –Gordon Harris

Excerpts below are from Puritan Paths from Naumkeag to Piscataqua, Lawrence Green Dodge and Alice Cole Dodge, Newburyport Press,1963

“The memories of this writer go well back into the 19th Century to a time when life was very simple. First-hand accounts from parents and grandparents added to the understanding of the early days of that century. As this is written, a fine cold snow is coming down in ten degree weather. When those pioneers faced the like of this they had a lot more to do than to turn up the thermostat, or flip the light switch at sundown.

“When a house of the vintage was built a full two stories front and back, there were larger sleeping rooms in front, and often there were smaller ones in the rear. The central chimney was most often based on a beautifully turned arch with heavy stone bases on either side, and smooth brick lining. Flues were included for fireplaces, not only on the first floor, but for two front rooms and one in the center on the back of the second floor. If the building were the salt box type, with roof sloping down to one story on the back, then there was rarely a third fireplace on the second floor.

“Firewood for the long winter and for summertime cooking was acquired only after many days of chopping, so as a consequence the upstairs chambers had a fire only in emergencies, feather beds and wool blankets being considered enough for those without infirmities. There was one source of relief, however, to ease the shock of getting into a cold bed, the “warming pan.”

Warming pan at hearth
Warming pan at hearth

“This sort of device had been made and used in Europe, and was found valuable in our climate. A pan of copper or brass nearly a foot across and three inches deep, had a nearly flat cover usually perforated, and a handle some thirty inches long. Those made here in New England usually had a wooden handle, with which it was pushed up and down in the bed between the sheets. A handful of coals, still glowing when picked out of the fireplace kept the pan hot enough to dispel the chill — at first too hot to be left in one spot and scorch the sheets. Warming pans were used until iron stoves came into use, when a slab of soap stone was slowly heated on top or against the stove, and put into the bed, wrapped in a remnant of blanket. Those modern improvements certainly did feel good to cold feet.

“In an earlier day that fireplace filled every need and was the center of all household activity. Before the advent of old-fashioned sulphur matches in cards, particular care was exercised to keep a fire. At bedtime live coals were covered with ashes, so to keep through the night and kindle the morning fire. From this practice, old when New England began, came the word curfew from the French “couvre le feu.” If the coals should all die out, someone usually had to run to the neighbors and borrow live coals — bringing them home in some kind of iron kettle. The only alternative to this would be striking a spark with flint and steel. The spark must fall into the “tinder box” on some partly scorched bit of linen and gently be blown with the breath into a tiny flickering flame from which a pine shavng could be lighted.

“In houses built before and after the Revolution it was usual to find a smaller room adjoining the kitchen or “keeping room.” This was a bed room and often called the “borning-room” — that is to say the maternity ward. Some warmth came from the kitchen and the location was convenient.

“As late as the 1830s on any cold morning the small children were seated on the “hob” as soon as they were dressed, there to stay until the room became considerably less chilly. In a fireplace some six to eight feet wide the hob was a low brick shelf along one side.

“A small bit of bread dough was saved from one baking to the next and served as a yeast culture. Later in the day the bread dough would be set on the hob to rise, or the “hasty pudding” to keep warm. When the travelling shoemaker came to the house to make leather boots for all the family, all alike except for size, he sat on a shoemaker’s bench just a little to one side of the fireplace.

“Now hasty pudding was made of yellow corn meal, simmered in an iron pot hanging low from the crane over a bed of coals. From time to time the coals were replenished and the pudding stirred.

“So one of these practical old fellows making shoes for the family noticed when the woman of the house came and stirred the pudding and salted it. Some later the grandmother came and repeated the stirring and the salt, later an aunt who lived in the family came by — gave a stir and another salting. After they all had gone elsewhere about their household chores the shoemaker having noted three saltings aroused himself and added a generous fistful of salt saying, ‘Good Lord a’ Harry!, I’ll fix it so I won’t have to eat it.’

“Very likely this yarn had a factual origin. This mild expletive just quoted was often used in the 1800s. Was it handed down from early English settlers who looked back to the days of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII? More likely it meant “Good Lord and the Old Harry”, the latter a polite term for the devil. In this connection it might be noted that an eccentric person was often described as “Odd as the Old Harry’s off ox.”

“In this writer’s young days a large baking pan was still called a “dripping pan.” That name came from the use of such a pan to catch the drippings from a roast. The meat was run through by a “spit” — an iron rod — hung in small hooks on the andirons. The spit had a square shank and was turned from time to time, while the juice dripping from it was caught in the pan set on the hearth between the andirons. No modern barbecue could produce more tasteful viands.

“So many other activities centered about the fireplace. When fires were needed for warmth so much of the year there was plenty of time for good cooking and no waste of wood in the process. Our forebears ate far better than many moderns who depend so much on ready-made dishes cooked in the shortest possible time.

“Somewhere in the 1700s the brick oven became an adjunct to the fireplace, connecting into the chimney flue. A fire was built in the oven, and when the bricks were thoroughly heated, the embers were shoveled out and put in the fireplace, the ashes deposited in a pit under the oven. Then the oven was brushed out with a dry turkey wing, also used on the hearth, and all the slow baked food was put in. The pot of beans went in the back, and stayed all day, the bread, pies and so on in front, to come out sooner. Lastly, rye drop-cakes baked on the floor of the oven. When done the cook gently flicked any ashes off the bottom of the cakes with her fingers.

“Activities around the main fireplace were not confined to the cooking, churning, shoe-making and all the other daylight activities. They continued after sun down, for then a day’s work stretched beyond day light.

Now do not be misled with the idea that all was drudgery. The writer believes that our forebears did not fritter away so much time on trivialities but combined their useful tasks with social pleasures in many ways. Quilting “bees”, corn husking bees and the like have been recorded in song and story until they are part of our heritage. Even now the song beginning, “It was from Aunt Dinah’s quilting party I was seeing Nellie home” is not too unfamiliar.

Husking bee

“And one can occasionally hear or read some reference to how old-time courting was sparked at the husking bee. Most of the corn was a golden yellow it should be noted. When a red ear of corn suddenly appeared among the others — and so often in the hands of the prettiest girl in the party — then by custom came a mad scramble among the otherwise bashful young men to kiss the holder of the red ear. This was not always accident for the genial oldster who had invited the neighbors to help husk out his crop has been known to “plant” a few red ears where some young lady would be sure to find one. The red ears were originally a variation occasionally appearing in the otherwise yellow crop—but in the 1890s it was well known that Charles Tuck of Kensington, a most amiable older farmer of the community, always grew a few stalks of red corn, separately, and then used the product to enliven his annual husking bee. Of course, when the corn was all husked, the party trooped into the house for cider and doughnuts — either before or after the local fiddler had played for a Virginia reel.

“Sociability was not confined to the party kind of enjoyment. Neighbors came to visit and often in chilly weather the older ones had their seats on the “settle” — drawn up to one side of the fireplace. The settle was a long bench with room for four and had a high back and boards running down to the floor. All this kept off the draft toward the fireplace not only from one’s back but from the feet, and also reflected the heat from the fire.

Telling stories around the fireplace

“Bright lights in the early days were almost unknown, so reading in the evening was rather difficult even if the household contained any books other than the Bible and the almanac. The Old Farmer’s Almanack was first published in 1792 by Robert B. Thomas for the year 1793. This famous guide to sun, moon, tides, and many other astronomical data for the year is still published by Yankee, Inc., Dublin, New Hampshire and a necessary item in many New England homes today. The 1962 issue is number 170. This almanac was read from cover to cover before half the year was gone and quoted on all occasions, — even the long range weather guesses.

“The Bible was read by all the family, and quotations in great variety were familiarly used by everyone, perhaps even more from the Old Testament than from the New. With busy daylight hours and poor light after sun down, obviously most of the reading was done on Sunday.

“Knitting was a common occupation for the women in the evening. Most girls learned to knit when quite young and were so adept when grown up that they were not dependent on any light. One near relative of the writer who was blind, was reported to be a wonderful knitter.

“The younger folks might in nippy fall weather be daring the draft while they “shucked” hickory nuts. That is picking off the thick outer covering and leaving the hard white shells to be cracked later with a hammer on a piece of iron or a hard stone. The hickory nut served in place of the various nuts of today which grow in warm climes, and added variety whether eaten as they came from the shell or used in cooking.
With candles in country homes made by the slow hand processes and so not to be wasted, the firelight was often considered sufficient for activities such as the following. A budget of 1728 included 3 candles a night summer and winter for a family of eight.

Whittling by the fireplace

“Most men in the country home became adept at whittling, and the fashioning of wooden tools for farm or household was a common evening occupation. The native woods were plentiful and of considerable variety, the most used being white pine, ash, hickory, birch, cherry, walnut and white or red oak. Oak would make the best teeth for a hand rake — ash for ox bows or ax handles, and pine was easily worked into a long handled spoon for stirring hasty pudding or cider apple sauce.

“Cider apple sauce, by the way, was made by long, slow cooking of the apples with plenty of cider added and the result was a thick sauce with so much rich syrup that stored in an earthenware crock and kept in a cold place it was well preserved all winter. No matter if it froze — chunks could be dug out and thawed. A variation was “shoe peg” apple sauce with barberries added. The berry seeds gave the nickname.

“Apples for cooking were dried during the winter — and here was another evening occupation. Women of the household pared and sliced the apples and strung them on stout linen thread, after which they were hung in festoons from the beams above the fireplace where the fruit soon dried out and could be stored for pie making in spring and summer. The first apples to grow large enough to cook in later summer made what was called “green apple pie.” This distinguished the dish from one made of dried apples. The early settlers learned from the Indians that pumpkins could be sliced, strung on a wooden rod, and dried out. The season for pumpkin pie was extended far beyond Thanksgiving time.

“There were some features about a fireplace that were not hard work. On account of the slope backward of the brickwork, there was a shallow space above the mantel and back of the wooden paneling. In some houses one section of this paneling was made into a small door, and the space inside might be three or four inches from the front to the bricks behind. Such an arrangement was sooner or later known as the “Parson’s Cupboard.” Here was kept the bottle of New England rum, from which it was the custom for the good householder to treat the parson when he called.

“Some speculation arose at times as to how many calls it was wise for the parson to make in one afternoon. One minister had his grown-up daughter driving him in the chaise, and made several calls while daughter attended to the horse. Late in the afternoon she noted that the good man walked a bit unsteadily and cautioned him about the amount of good cheer he should take on the last call. But the host was so persuasive that on approaching the chaise, the minister looked at daughter and said, ‘Who is that girl sitting beside you?’

“A very common house design was built with a central chimney. The main working fireplace referred to so far was in the back of the house — but a smaller fireplace connected with the same chimney on each side providing heat for two front rooms. These were often used mostly when company came.

Woman sitting by hearth

“As it was often told in Wenham, a young man called on the daughter of the house one evening, so first helped her light a fire in the front room. He was quite a talkative youth, and complained when the draft was slow to start in the cold chimney and a puff of smoke came out in his face, ‘Oh that’s nothing’ said the girl, ‘the smoke mistook your mouth for the flue.’

“There was good cause in those days for all the family to wear home-knit wool stockings, knit woolen petticoats, with homespun skirts, were a necessity, and the warmth obtained outweighed any pride about the bulky appearance. When young folks made do somehow with more streamlined attire, their elders said “pride keeps them warm.” Men’s clothing included stout homespun, and when the trousers were tucked into high leather boots, covering if needed, two pairs of knit socks, winter had fewer miseries for the man who must face it.”

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