Early Social Life

The following essay was taken from HARTFORD IN HISTORY: A SERIES OF PAPERS BY RESIDENT AUTHORS, Ed. Willis I. Twitchell, Hartford: Plimpton, 1899.

 Social Life and Customs

 By Edwin P. Parker

 The people of Hartford, in the olden time, were few in number and straitened in circumstances. Their means of communication with other settlements were slight and difficult. Their privileges of education and culture were meager, and the limitations of their social life were narrow. The isolation, the privations, and the perils of their “wilderness condition” made their struggle for subsistence and security a serious one, but they were a sober, frugal, industrious, virtuous and religious people, and however austere their beliefs and severe their laws may have been, they doubtless found no little happiness amid the hardships of their lot.

Their homes were chiefly along what are now Front, Arch, Sheldon, Main, Elm, Governor and Buckingham streets. The original log huts of the settlers were soon replaced by framed buildings, many of which were commodious and comely. These houses, which seem to have been an invention of New England, sometimes were large square buildings, with a one-story ” ell” in the rear, and having four large rooms on the main floor built around and connected by fire-places with the great central chimney. Plain, rectangular houses, with two or three rooms, and sleeping arrangements in the garret or attic, and frequently with the roof sloping in the rear to the first story, or lower, were more common. With few exceptions, these houses were imperfectly finished and scantily furnished. The conveniences for housekeeping were rude and limited. Stoves and carpets were unknown. Forks were not in use at table, but napkins were abundant. Stools supplied the lack of chairs. Feather beds, bolsters and pillows for the high, corded, and curtained beds, and for the “trundle-bed” as well, were a necessity, for the colonial house at its best estate was tediously cold during the winter. The spacious kitchen, with its great fireplace, its side oven, its broad mantel, its chimney closets, its long, suspended poles, upon which hung various articles of food or clothing, was ordinarily the living-room. Tall, red, basket-bottomed chairs and a high-backed settle were features of the room. A two-leaved table with a drawer in one end, a small “light stand” between the windows for the Bible and the work-basket, a canopied cradle, seldom empty, and a spinning wheel were generally there. In the other and less used apartments, whether parlors, halls, or “spare rooms,” were bureaus, chests of drawers, clocks, bedsteads of imposing appearance, quaint chairs and mirrors, framed family registers and shining fireside utensils. An appendage to the kitchen was the “dresser room,” with its lower shelf for wooden ware ; a broader shelf for bowls, platters, porringers and pewter ware ; a grooved upper shelf for plates on edge ; a top shelf for the tea set ; and closets near the floor whose doors were fastened by wooden buttons.

The table was furnished with substantial fare. There was an abundance of game, fowl, fish, and of fruits and vegetables in their season. Indian meal prepared as bread or porridge, succotash, baked beans, bread of wheat or rye, and puddings fearfully and wonderfully made, were common articles of food. One “playne supper but of exceeding relish” was “warm rye loaves with butter and honey and bowls of sweet milk and roasted apples.” Butter and cheese were luxuries, and churns are seldom mentioned in the inventories of estates in early Hartford. Coffee and chocolate were little used before 1683, and the earliest mention of tea in the household is in 1695. It was for some time later a great luxury, even to the wealthier people. The beverages of the people, besides water and milk, were cider, beer, perry, and syrups and cordials made from berries, and wine and rum as could be afforded. Under regulation of law, tobacco was smoked.

As early as 1641 Hartford had a bell-ringer and town-crier, and every morning, an hour before daybreak, his bell was rung in the streets. It was expected that someone must be up to make a light in every house fifteen minutes after this early signal. As matches were unknown, it was the custom to cover the fire on the hearth for preservation until the ensuing morning, nor was it uncommon for people whose fire had gone out during the night to go to the neighbors for a live coal.

Later the meeting-house bell was rung daily at noon and again at nine o’clock in the evening, and this evening bell was the signal for all sober householders to rake up the fire and prepare for rest.

Agriculture was, of course, the chief means of occupation and of subsistence. Wheat, corn, rye, barley, oats, hemp and flax were cultivated, and one of the first objects of every householder was to get a vegetable garden in good order and an orchard in fruitful condition. Each man was in some measure his own mechanic, although tools were imperfect, and each house-mistress was in about the same measure the designer and the maker of domestic garments. But the trades were represented by the carpenter, the blacksmith, the tanner, the wheelwright, the shoemaker, the sawyer and the weaver. The storekeeper was a notch higher in the social scale than the artisan. He sold everything that the people required, as he could procure it, from nails to dry goods, from candy to codfish, and took his pay in “produce” when money was lacking. His dingy, musty store was a favorite resort, at evening, for the male gossips and the petty politicians of the village. The farmers raised cattle, swine, sheep, goats and poultry, but their horses were comparatively few and inferior. Vehicles for riding were scarce, for there were few roads, and journeys were made afoot or on horseback. The cattle were marked by peculiar crops and slits of their ears. The price of both labor and commodities was regulated by law. There were saw-mills and grist-mills. Articles of commerce were corn, skins, leather, pipe-staves, deal-boards, pork, beef, wool, cider and biscuit. They produced all the materials for boats, ketches, shallops and trading vessels, and sent their ventures in due time to Boston, to New York, to Newfoundland, to Barbados, to Jamaica, and occasionally to Fayal and Madeira, bringing back clothing, tools, sugar, nails, glass, cutlery, wines and liquors. Spinning wheels made music in most households, and there was prodigious industry of knitting needles.

There was a weekly market in Hartford, and a fair in May and September, and once a week and twice each year Hartford became a mart for the surrounding country. The fairs were festival days.

“We are a poor people,” so the record runs. “For the most part we do labor in tilling the ground, and by the time a year’s labor and travail have gathered some small parcel of provisions, it is transported to Boston, and there half a crown will not produce so much goods of any sort as tenpence will in England.”

The dress of the people was plain, but comfortable, and not without picturesque features. A common dress of women was a blue and white linen waist, with short sleeves, joined to a skirt of serge, and a white apron. The goodwife went abroad for visiting or to meeting attired in a short gown of “sad stuff,” laced in front, with a white kerchief about her neck and bosom, with mits covering the forearm and bits of ribbon here and there. The wealthier ladies of quality appeared, on good occasion, in flowing brocades, or with gowns of cashmere or silk, with embroidered stomachers, silk scarfs and fine laces. A petticoat of woolen stuff or of brocade or silk, according to rank, was often worn by ladies. Clothing of leather was much worn by laborers and servants. Coarse, firm, home-spun cloth of linen and wool served for better garments. The magistrate, the deputy, and such as were distinguished by comparative rank or wealth, had richer and gayer clothing. The village tailoress went from house to house, to cut and make up the ruder clothes, while for the richer folk traveling tailors sold and fashioned their finer goods. Excess of apparel was declared to be unbecoming and inconsistent with the gospel, and the authorities were at much labor and pains to regulate dress, not merely so as to discourage expense and waste, but so as to make the garments of the people correspond to their social rank and estate. Certain laws or orders concerning this matter were not to apply to magistrates or officers of the colony, or to their wives and children, or “to such whose quality and estate have been above the ordinary degree, though now decayed.” One function of dress was to classify people according to their rank and wealth. Women prosecuted for wearing excess of apparel — laces or silks — were discharged on proof that their husbands were worth a certain amount of money, or that they themselves had been “brought up above the ordinary ranke.” But all the attempts of the fathers to regulate this matter according to their curious notions were of little avail. The good people, as they could afford it, hastened to improve and enrich both their houses and their garments, and before the seventeenth century had closed, brighter, gayer, costlier styles of dress, as also new and beautiful forms of household furniture, began to prevail.

The church was the central institution of the community. The first meeting-house, some portion of which was used awhile as an arsenal, stood in the spacious square where the freemen annually gathered to choose public officers, and nearby it stood also the school-house, the sign post, the market, the jail, the pillory and the stocks. On each Lord’s day, at nine o’clock in the morning and at two o’clock in the afternoon, the people assembled for worship in the rude, uncarpeted, unwarmed meeting-house.  Seats on the floor were assigned to householders according to their rank and dignity. The lower classes sat in the galleries. The sermons were long, the prayers were unstinted, and the psalm-singing was unmelodious. Children were taken to the meeting-house for baptism very soon after their birth, and it is recorded that on some such occasions the weather was so severe that ice formed in the baptismal bowl. The boys gave no little trouble, and, if caught misbehaving in or about the meeting-house, were liable to public rebuke and correction.

During the interval between morning and afternoon worship, there was another kind of meeting, during which the affairs of the neighborhood were freely discussed, and no end of gossip, social and political, prevailed. This was the great social exchange of the community.

The tithing-man, whose chief duty was to preserve good order in the church during divine service, and to enforce the observance of the Sabbath, had his hands full with sleepy saints, indifferent sinners, and mischievous youth. He must needs look after young people illegally walking together on the Sabbath, after strangers at inns, after travelers, after such as “lye at home” or “linger without doors at meeting time, “and after” all sons of Belial strutting about, setting on fences and otherwise desecrating the day.”

Funeral services were attended with scant religious ceremony. The bell was tolled, prayer was offered, and devout men quietly bore the dead, laid upon a bier and covered with a pall, to the place of burial. Verses, mournful and eulogistic, precursors of the later tombstone poetry, were often fastened to the bier, or circulated among friends. But the funeral was a social event, and brought together the entire neighborhood. After its solemnities were completed, refreshments were served to the bearers and friends, and, if tradition may be trusted, the exhortation, “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts,” was obeyed with more zeal than discretion. David Porter, of Hartford, was drowned in the year 1678, and the bill for the expenses of the recovery and burial of his body included liquor for those who dived for him, for those who brought him home, and for the jury of inquest. Eight gallons and three quarts of wine and a barrel of cider were purchased for his funeral. His winding sheet and coffin cost thirty shillings, but the liquor used at his funeral cost more than twice that sum.

This use of strong liquors at funerals continued until a comparatively recent time, and was not abandoned without strong protests against so inhospitable a reformation. One old gentleman remarked, with bitterness, that “Temperance had done for funerals.”

It may be added that the somewhat free use of wine, rum, toddy, and other spirituous beverages, was customary with all sorts and conditions of men in the olden time, and at ordination dinners and ministerial assemblies as well as at house-raisings and on training days, great quantities of liquor were consumed. The virtue of total abstinence from strong drink had not then been so much as discovered, although intemperance was regarded with some latitude as degrading and sinful.

It was the custom in Hartford and vicinity, on the occasion of a funeral, to muffle with napkins all ornaments, mirrors and pictures in the house of sorrow, and often the front window shutters were kept closed and tied with black for several months. Gloves were freely furnished and sent to friends on such occasions, and mourning rings with curious decorations and mottoes were also distributed.

Courtships and marriages came under a certain degree of official supervision, and no persons were joined in marriage by ministers until about 1684, when the General Court granted permission to ordained ministers to marry such as desired religious services. Unmarried adults were regarded askance. The widower and the widow made haste to wed again, and the young people were married early and, sometimes, often. Bachelors were badgered, and at one time were compelled to pay a certain fine to the town for living alone. We read of one “antient maid” who was twenty-five years old.

The good people of olden time had their curious superstitions. Comets created alarm. Eclipses were regarded as portentous. Houses were invaded and disturbed by Satan’s imps. Diabolical enchantments and Indian sorceries were apprehended. Lights in the burying ground and on the marshes were frightful. Spinning wheels, sleds, and weather vanes were bewitched. Broken mirrors were fateful. If a garden toad was killed, the cows would give bloody milk. Bushes must be cut at a certain quarter of the moon. Chairs in a row indicated company approaching. Soot taking fire on the chimney back betokened foul weather. The baby was carried upstairs for the first time with gold and silver in his hand, to bring him wealth in the world. Scarlet was laid on his head to keep him from harm, and necklaces made of the teeth of animals were placed about his neck for the “easy breeding of his teeth.”

The amusements of the young people were under somewhat rigid restrictions. Dancing, card-playing, bowls, shuffleboards and playacting were prohibited. Instruments of music other than the drum, fife, trumpet and jewsharp were not sanctioned. But there were house-raisings, corn-huskings, quilting-parties, apple, bees, sheep-shearings, maple-sugar-makings, picnics, sleigh-rides and hilarious assemblies at weddings and parties. There were athletic sports. Election days, thanksgiving days, training days, or general musters, and commencement days were seasons of various and general merrymaking. One singular custom was that of celebrating “N***** Election.” A black man was chosen to hold sway over his colored brethren, and his election was celebrated with great gaiety and feasting. At a later date dancing so prevailed that even “ordination balls” were given in Connecticut and in the vicinity of Hartford.

Some curious customs which have entirely passed away were then in vogue. It was not uncommon to steal away the bride at a wedding, and make a feast at the expense of the bridegroom. Another custom, just the reverse of bride-stealing, is recorded. Just before the happy pair joined hands, the bridegroom quitted his place, when the bridesmen would follow, seize and drag him back to his post of duty.

The people were then more dependent upon each other, and were more neighborly in certain significant ways. If one family had some table luxury, a portion of it would most likely be sent to a neighbor as “a taste of our dinner,” and the compliment was sure to be reciprocated in due time. This neighborly feeling was manifested in the assistances rendered and in the kindly attentions exchanged between families. If one was building a house or barn, his neighbors came to drive a pin or a nail, or do some little act of helpfulness, in token of friendly feeling and good will. If some goodwife was ill and behind in her household affairs, helping hands were not wanting for her relief.  And in the custom of visiting and watching with the sick, we may see a beautiful aspect of the life of the olden days. It has been well said that “if the chief foundation of the New England Commonwealth was religion, the second certainly was neighborliness.”

The school was theoretically next to the church in the estimation of our forefathers, but the care and culture of it were often sadly neglected, notwithstanding the legal requirement of every town containing thirty families to maintain such an institution for teaching children to read and write. The dominant idea seems to have been that the children should be taught “reading and other learning, and to Know their duty toward God and man,”—a good idea, if somewhat vague. Very little is on record in respect to the earlier schools, but the school-mistress preceded the school-master, and taught the children out of the New England primer and from the hornbook. She taught to “behave,” to be mannerly, to be respectful and dutiful to parents, to elders, to magistrates, and especially to ministers. The school-master did not spare the rod, and seldom spoiled the child. The schools were kept during part of the year, for three or four months. Boys and girls learned, both at home and at school, much more than book-lore, and it is well they did, for many men and women of the second and third generation were unable to write their names. They had a thorough industrial training, in the field or in the kitchen, and religion was mixed with all their education, from the alphabet, upward and onward.

Whatever may be said of the “blue laws” of Connecticut, it is certain that the code, written or unwritten, according to which court and church attempted to regulate domestic and social life, was a severe and rigid one. The orders for the observance of the Sabbath were strict, but not much more so than those which pertained to dress, to the use of tobacco, to amusements, to the teaching of children and the training of servants, to the contempt of parents, to idleness, and to many other things. Family worship was strictly enjoined, and negligent heads of households were liable to punishment. All persons boarding or sojourning in families must attend the worship of these families, and submit themselves to “domestical government therein.”  And yet the people of Hartford, in those days, though their conditions of life were hard and narrow, though the beliefs prevalent among them and the restrictions under which they acted were austere and rigorous, were by no means sour, gloomy or unhappy. Their lives were sustained by a lofty purpose, cheered by faith and hope, lightened by mutual helpfulness, and sweetened by domestic affections. They found life abundantly worth living. There were doleful deacons, mournful ministers, and frowning magistrates, but there were hearty, healthy, sunny, good people in abundance, older and younger, sane of mind and sound of heart, kind and neighborly, who would not in the least have understood some modern commiserations of their lot.

In 1647 a lady wrote to her friend concerning some pieces of goods for gowns, saying: “She have three pieces of stuff, but I think there is one you would like for yourself. It is pretty sad stuff, but it have a thread of white in it.”

It may be, as has been said, that those people fashioned the whole fabric of their lives out of “pretty sad stuff,” but the fabric they fashioned was stout and strong and serviceable, and the threads of white are everywhere visible in it.