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Keeping House

Keeping House: Women’s Lives in Western Pennsylvania, 1790–1850

Virginia K. Bartlett
with an Introduction by Jack D. Warren
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Keeping House
    Book Description:

    This book is a fascinating re-creation of the lives of women in the time of great social change that followed the end of the French and Indian War in western Pennsylvania. Many decades passed before a desolate and violent frontier was transformed into a stable region of farms and towns.Keeping House: Women's Lives in Western Pennsylvania, 1790-1850tells how the daughters, wives, and mothers who crossed the Allegheny Mountains responded and adapted to unaccustomed physical and psychological hardships as they established lives for themselves and their families in their new homes.

    Intrigued by late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century manuscript cookbooks in the collection of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Virginia Bartlett wanted to find out more about women living in the region during that period. Quoting from journals, letters, cookbooks, travelers' accounts - approving and critical - memoirs, documents, and newspapers, she offers us voices of women and men commenting seriously and humorously on what was going on around them.

    The text is well-illustrated with contemporaneous art-- engravings, apaintings, drawings, and cartoons. Of special interest are color and black-and-white photographs of furnishings, housewares, clothing, and portraits from the collections of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.

    This is not a sentimental account. Bartlett makes clear how little say women had about their lives and how little protection they could expect from the law, especially on matters relating to property. Their world was one of marked contrasts: life in a log cabin with bare necessities and elegant dinners in the homes of Pittsburgh's military and entrepreneurial elite; rural women in homespun and affluent Pittsburgh ladies in imported fashions. When the book begins, families are living in fear of Indian attacks; as it ends, the word "shawling" has come into use as the polite term for pregnancy, referring to women's attempt to hide their condition with cleverly draped shawls. The menacing frontier has given way to American-style gentility.

    An introduction by Jack D. Warren, University of Virginia, sets the scene with a discussion of the early peopling of the region and places the book within the context of women's studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7161-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)

    The idea for this book was prompted by several handwritten books of recipes and remedies, dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, in the archival collections of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. When these manuscripts were shown to Virginia K. Bartlett, author ofPickles and Pretzels: Pennsylvania’s World of Food(1980), also known for her television programs on WQED Pittsburgh and WGBH Boston, they inspired her to embark on the research that resulted in this book.

    As have others before her, the author discovered that materials dealing specifically with the lives of women settlers in this region were...

  2. Preface
    (pp. xi-xi)
    Virginia K. Bartlett
  3. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-1)
    Jack D. Warren

    This book is about the experience of ordinary women in Western Pennsylvania during the decades in which it was transformed from an isolated and dangerous area on the fringes of Anglo-American settlement into a stable farming country in the center of the new American nation. In 1755 a disgusted British army officer, William Johnston, described Western Pennsylvania as “a desolate country uninhabited by anything but wild Indians, bears and rattlesnakes.”¹ In 1842 Mary Corwin, a young New Jersey woman who passed through Western Pennsylvania, described it as “a beatifull country” peopled by “first rate farmers” living in fine houses as...

  4. Getting There
    (pp. 3-17)

    If you were 18 years old in 1790 and recently married to a strong and handsome young Philadelphian, the prospect of setting forth to make a home in the wilderness of Western Pennsylvania might have seemed daunting but also exciting. If you were 30, with four children needing your attention, you might reasonably have doubted the wisdom of a decision to leave family, friends, and a comfortable home for the frightening uncertainties of the frontier. And if you were 50, with a dozen grandchildren and often painful rheumatism, the idea of a month’s journey over the Allegheny Mountains on foot...

  5. A Wilderness Household
    (pp. 19-37)

    When Margaret Bunyan left New Jersey for Washington, Pennsylvania, one of the things she took with her was her cookbook. Dated 1790, it was apparently used for something else prior to the recipe entries, since pages have been torn out of the front. We don’t know much about her, only the bare genealogical facts. She married John Morgan in 1795, five years after the first recipe entry, and the next year the couple moved to Pennsylvania with her father-in-law George Morgan and his family. Colonel Morgan had been an Indian trader at Fort Pitt in 1767, then a troop commander,...

  6. Moving to Town
    (pp. 39-51)

    Restless settlers in Western Pennsylvania, tired of trying to turn the wilderness into productive farmland, had three choices other than staying put. They could go back home to Philadelphia, Boston, or their place of origin in Europe, a choice most families found unattractive. They could continue to push westward into Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois, and many did just that. Or they could move into town, where life was somewhat easier, there was money to be made, and like-minded people could be found closer than ten miles away.

    Although Western Pennsylvania’s population remained overwhelmingly rural well into the 19th century, the...

  7. Household in Town
    (pp. 53-66)

    Temporary lodgings may have been reasonable and comfortable, but for the family arriving from the East, with their funds virtually exhausted, it was best to get settled permanently as soon as possible. April 1 was Removal Day in Pittsburgh when everyone played musical chairs. Writing to a Philadelphia friend in 1804, John Thaw noted, “the population being equal to the dwelling houses, makes it very difficult to get one at this time, and also causes rents to be as high as with you.” He finally found one in an “unfinished state” that rented for eight dollars a month, but he...

  8. From the Collections
    (pp. 67-74)

    The artifacts shown here are largely the finer things with which some early Western Pennsylvanians lived. It is not surprising that the beautiful, expensive, or rare things are the ones that most often survived. Fine things were so treasured by early inhabitants with means that they carted them from the East, bought them from merchants who imported them from all over the world, and paid local craftsmen to make them to order.

    The early collections of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania do not reflect the rough and homemade possessions of the area’s rural inhabitants, but they do include distinctive...

  9. Goods of All Sorts
    (pp. 75-83)

    If you dropped your last needle on the cabin floor and watched it disappear through the cracks right in the middle of a huge batch of mending, you had very few alternatives. You could dispatch a child to the nearest neighbor—possibly two or three miles away—to ask if she had a spare one for you to borrow. Or you could ask your husband to buy one on his next trip to the trading post, also several miles away, and if you were lucky, there would be some in stock. Or you could hope that a peddler would come...

  10. Food & Drink
    (pp. 85-105)

    Margaret Bunyan Morgan’s handwritten cookbook contained a number of recipes for exotic fare with ingredients she was not likely to find in the little frontier town of Washington, including such dishes as grilled and stewed lobsters, clam soup, buttered crabs, and cocanut [sic] puffs and pudding. The recipes are an interesting mixture of basic foods (gingerbread, bread and butter pudding, stewed spinach); East Coast dishes calling for seafood and cranberries; and some somber remedies, learned perhaps after living on the frontier (strong paragoric, cure for a consumptive cough, how to deal with rattlesnake bite). Manuscript cookbooks like this one were...

  11. Matters of Health
    (pp. 107-119)

    Handwritten household books like Margaret Bunyan Morgan’s usually devoted equal time to food recipes and medical remedies. Directions for gingerbread were apt to be placed cheek-by-jowl with instructions for making cough syrup. This made sense at a time when doctors were ill-trained and scarce, even in the towns, and wives and mothers had to make do with home remedies and the advice of neighborhood “grannies” wise in the uses of herbs and medicines.

    If the trip across the Alleghenies was difficult, imagine what it must have been like to make that journey if you were ill. Elizabeth Van Horne and...

  12. Mind & Spirit
    (pp. 121-133)

    Margaret Bunyan Morgan recorded her recipes in a firm and legible hand, but her spelling tended to be both phonetic and idiosyncratic. For pumpkin she wrote “pumcan,” “surip” for syrup, “eaquil” for equal, “neight” for night, “drean” for drain, etc. This was hardly surprising, since in the late 18th century most parents believed that it was a waste of time and money to educate their daughters beyond the simplest of skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and some considered even those accomplishments of little value, since the girls were to become wives and mothers and would not even need that...

  13. Love & Marriage
    (pp. 135-153)

    In 1797 the English novelist Jane Austen began her novelPride and Prejudicewith the following words: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” What she did not add was the equally universal assumption that the only proper role for a woman was to be a wife and mother. Females unfortunate enough not to attain that state were usually doomed to lives of dependency on the goodwill of relatives. Nevertheless, both in England and America, a number of 19th-century women did achieve success and...

  14. Fun & Games
    (pp. 155-171)

    Considering the amount of work necessary to survive on the frontier, it would not be surprising if recreation and relaxation had been unknown words in the pioneers’ vocabulary. As it turned out, however, the settlers found ingenious ways to combine work and play by using every opportunity to join with their neighbors to accomplish major projects like raising barns, happily followed by the consumption of large quantities of food and a little hell-raising. These gatherings were not only productive but also offered participants an important respite from the anxieties and frustrations of frontier life.

    Every record we have of life...

  15. Afterword
    (pp. 172-172)
    Virginia K. Bartlett

    At noon on April 10, 1845, a small fire broke out in a laundry shed near the center of Pittsburgh, and within an hour the blaze was roaring through the city. High winds fanned the flames, which spread eastward across the business district, destroying glass factories, iron works, churches, cotton factories, retail stores, bridges, the luxurious Monongahela House and other hotels, and more than 1,100 dwellings. Before the fire burned itself out, more than 60 acres of the city—one-third of its total area—had been destroyed and property damage was estimated to amount to more than six million dollars....

    (pp. 173-176)