Being a colonial American housewife did not require as much hard, physical labor as being a colonial American husband, except when cast iron pots with five or more gallons of liquid in them had to be lifted, and some other times. Mostly it was tedious, sometimes unpleasant life. There were few rewards. It was the lucky woman who had a servant to help her run a household.
However, just about everybody worked hard in those days, from before sunup to after sundown. Infants didn’t, of course, and small children only had one or two chores. But the older a child got, the more chores were added. Men worked all day and some of them into the night. If women had it hard, nobody above the age of nine had it easy. (Even the well-to-do did not live idly. Colonial dames supervised servants at close hand and some worked alongside )
A mother and housewife cooked, cleaned, kept a kitchen garden, and doctored the family. What concerns us, today, is that she also made her family’s clothes. In growing up beside a mother or aunt, a woman learned how to sew and knit, to mend holes and tears in clothing, and how to put together a quilt. But a woman didn’t do it all by herself. There was a colonial division of labor that is seldom mentioned.
Thread was made from flax grown by the husband in one of his fields (that he likely cleared). The wool was made from sheep tended by a son or daughter. The berries and roots used to dye the thread were picked and dug up by the children. Someone had to card the wool, perhaps a grandmother or teenage girl. A woman or girl would work the spinning wheel. Boys, girls, and men could work the loom by candlelight and weave cloth as well as a woman. Finally, though, mother cut and sewed together clothes for everyone in the family. (Clothes were made several sizes bigger than necessary for children, from which we get the phrase ‘he’ll grow into them.')
Up to about age six, boys and girls wore linsey-woolsey dresses that hung to the foot (until he or she grew taller) and had sleeves. At about age six, boys were made their first pair of pants (knee breeches) like their father’s, only smaller. (Button-ups only; no zippers until the 19th Century). Like their father, boys wore no undershirt or drawers, just a shirt that hung to near the knees and which was tucked into the breeches. A boy may or may not have gotten a round-necked, six button waistcoat right away, but he would need one to be properly dressed in church. The stockings his mother made for him rose up his calf to the knee and were tucked into the bottom of a breeches leg. He needed a coat for cold weather, which typically was knee-length. Flat and modest tri-corner hats were commonly worn by men and boys in public, but were not made by women, unless mother was also a hat-maker. Boots were bought from someone who tanned hides and worked leather.
A girl grew up sleeping in a linen shift (chemise) and that didn’t change when they got older. She put the thing on and took it off the next time she bathed. It was roomy and didn’t restrict motion, and it had three quarter sleeves. When she dressed in the morning, she pulled up the hem of the shift and then pulled on her stockings. After the stockings, supposedly the next thing put on was a mob cap. Then usually came a rope or cord tied around the waist. The shift had two linen pockets hanging from it, right and left, into which she could put small things. If she was staying at home that day, all she needed more would be a linen apron and shoes. She would be dressed.
If a girl or woman dressed for company that day, or for going into public, she would pull on a linen or wool petticoat. (It had a slit at the top of both sides for putting a hand into the pocket underneath). For the company of friends she might have put on a bodice with sleeves and a skirt over the petticoat (with slits for the hands). Cloth covered elbows, knees, and ankles, always. For more serious matters, such as going to church, her only dress was worn. In some places, it had color (red, yellow, blue), but in places where religious heavy-hands ruled, it didn’t (brown, gray, black). She wore a hat in public, the gaiety of it again depending on local religious tolerance.
Now, our woman of the house who made clothes had a husband, probably five to eight children (or more), and possibly a widowed father-in-law. She had to make all of their clothes. She made the Sunday-go-to-Meeting clothes for everyone and she made the other set they wore. Yes, that’s right: ‘other set.’ Most people had only two sets of clothes. The long and difficult process that had to be gone through just to make a simple linsey-woolsey shift for a three and a half foot tall child led to that revolting development.
Colonial people’s clothes might have been washed as frequently as people took clothes off to wash themselves, but that doesn’t mean they were washed very often. Clothing that touched the skin was washed sometimes and clothing that didn’t touch the skin hardly ever.
Guess who got to clean the family clothes when they were infrequently washed (until she had a teenage daughter)? The woman who made them.
When a colonial housewife did get a day or half a day off to go see a friend, she took along her sewing bag.