Saturday, February 28, 2009

Historical Facts

Even with all the economical woes and problems we face at the moment, take a minute and think what it must have been like back in the 1800s to be a woman. I love historical fiction set in the old west, but I often pause and wonder how I would have handled the challenges women of that era tackled.

Imagine your kitchen without all the conveniences you've become used to. No stove, no refrigerator, no microwave, no garbage disposal, no running water, probably not even one quarter of the little gadgets you find so very useful.

Settlers often lived miles from the nearest town. Trips to shop often required an entire day of travel. The going was slow in a buckboard or wagon, and certainly not as comfortable as a ride to Walmart in a comfortable sedan. I prefer a Lexus myself. *lol*

Mail Order Brides were considered a legitimate way for men to meet and marry. I can't imagine traveling for weeks on a wagon train to meet and wed a man I've never laid eyes on. I can only assume many women were disappointed to see what they'd signed on for. Photographs, or tintypes as they were called, often didn't portray a clear likeness. I suppose you could equate that to meeting someone online who posted a picture taken twenty years ago. :)

Then there was childbirth. No drugs, and most often, no doctor. Just another woman who'd had children of her own or someone dubbed the area midwife. Even when a doctor was available, the profession was dominated by men, and that added to the discomfort of the prim and proper western women. The common position for delivery was back to the doctor with knees drawn up to avoid any eye contact.

I think given the challenges of being a pioneer woman and surviving past the age of forty-five due to child-bearing risks and diseases of other sorts, I elect to stay where I am. I can't imagine using a rag instead of a mini-pad, not having my hair dryer and curling iron, or even though I hate them, missing my annual screening exam. I had an emergency cesarean with my second child, and if I had given birth to him in the 1800s, we would probably both have died. So...even as much as I think things suck right now because of the economy and stupid political decisions...I'll take today anytime!

Pioneer women really had to have stamina. They cooked, cleaned, plowed, milked, gathered eggs, bore many children and if the elements and diseases didn't get them, marauding Indians often did. Yes, ladies. We have it easy these days compared to women of the old west.

To give you an idea of what one woman's experience was in the 1800s, here's an excerpt from my first historical romance, Prairie Peace, and to set the scene...Cecile has just been delivered to the 'ranch' her new husband bragged about. She's come from being an only child of the local banker and his wife to now having to become a pioneer wife:


When Cecile first ventured into the house, she wanted to die right on the spot. Her first impression was that the floor was dirt, but upon further examination she found wood beneath the filth. Dust and debris sifted in through the crooked shutters and layered the plank flooring. The entire structure consisted of one big room, complete with a rustic-looking bed frame and a mattress that sagged almost to the floor. The main living area had a large stone fireplace and hearth in the corner, and the kitchen area consisted of a table holding a chipped water pitcher and bowl. Nearby, a cracked mirror hung from a rusted nail.

In contrast to the large windows in her Silver City home, directly over the table was one the size of a medium picture-frame. The grass outside had gotten so tall it crept through the crookedly cut, ill fitting shutter. She had no desire to open it for fear of the critters that might scurry inside.

It was apparent why the previous occupants had left behind the odds and ends of furniture. The table and bench were made out of wood so rough Cecile imagined picking splinters from her behind if she sat. A chair with a broken rocker rested in the corner next to the fireplace, and beside it was an old crate where a rusty lantern perched precariously, most likely to provide light for anyone brave enough to risk the broken chair.

What had she done to herself? She pictured her mother’s living room with its matching furniture and crisp pleated draperies and fought hard to hold back tears.
Her mother had never really prepared Cecile for being a wife or housekeeper, requiring she only do minimal chores around the house. She surveyed the challenge set before her. This was going to be a learning experience she‘d have to endure on her own. Her days of being spoiled and pampered had ended.

She took a deep breath and dug in, trying to wash away the accumulated dust and grime. What she hated most was dealing with the various prairie creatures that thought this was their home. “Oh dear…I hate spiders,” she proclaimed as one skittered across the floor.

Wiping a trickle of sweat from her forehead, she glanced around the room for something to shuttle the insects outside, and spied an ancient broom in the corner by the fireplace. Although it had lost most of its straw, there was still enough left to use. Looking at the dirt and grime around her, she wondered why the broom looked so worn. How long had it been since anyone used it?

The floor had dried and warped with age, and the cracks between the planks had widened to reveal the ground below. Cecile vigorously swept several times, trying to get some of the dirt and dust to fall through. When she finished, she wore most of it.

Tossing the broom across the room in disgust, she peered at herself through the cracks in the mirror, barely recognizing the reflection staring back. Her hair hung in unruly strands around her face, and her complexion was gray from the coat of dust. She emitted a loud sigh as the looking glass revealed the sagging and dirty mattress behind her. Who or what had slept there before? Clearly, the bedding needed a thorough beating and airing out, and it was her glorious job to do it.

The tears welled again. She prodded herself to stay busy, believing work would keep her from dwelling on her disappointment. With great effort, she dragged the mattress outside, and for some reason, every whack of the broom against the old tattered thing made her feel better.

She struggled to get it back into the house and onto the bed frame. She refused to call Walt for help because he was busy outside, cleaning the yard and hauling junk from within their poor excuse of a barn. Silly emotions and false pride were not about to get the best of her. She wanted Walt to be proud of her, and she was determined to make the best of this, even if it killed her. Besides, she was tired of sleeping on the hard ground with nothing but a thin blanket between her and the dirt. Even this ugly mattress had some degree of appeal. As soon as they moved into the house, she’d cover it with the blankets from the bedroll and bring in the pillows still stowed in the wagon. Using the barn as shelter left her worrying the whole thing would fall down and crush them to death in their sleep. So many boards were missing from the walls, she was amazed it remained standing at all.

At the end of the day, both she and Walt were so tired, it mattered little where they slept. Cuddled together on the barn floor, Cecile nestled in the crook of her husband’s arm, and managed only a goodnight kiss before she drifted off.

Sun streaming through the cracks in the barn and shining in her eyes woke her. Walt was already up, and Cecile smelled coffee. She hauled her aching body off the ground, stood and stretched into a growing yawn. Another day of work lay ahead, but she thought of all she had accomplished over the past days. In the eyes of some it might not amount to much, but she'd done the best she could. At least the house smelled of soap and was as dust-free as she could manage. Now it was ready for the few belongings she’d brought along. Later they would acquire material for curtains, and hopefully some better furniture, but for the time being, the few knickknacks in the wagon would make it look homier. She wrinkled her nose at the thought. Homier? Was that even possible? She followed her nose, searching for a cup of strong coffee to see her through the day. She joined her husband outside for a scant breakfast and a breath of fresh air. She had to admit that a prairie morning was much more peaceful than the bustling streets of Silver City.

“Where do you want this?” Walt asked, following her into the house, with her trunk.

“Just set it next to the bed for now.”

While he tripped in and out, carrying her settee and small bedroom table and lamp, Cecile moved them from place to place, trying to find where they fit. They looked so out of place Cecile almost wished he had left them in the wagon. Such pristine objects for a shack.

Somehow, though a mystery to her, Walt still beamed with pride over this place. Luckily, he hadn’t detected her disappointment. He walked in the door with another box, and at that moment, looking into his eyes, she forgot her surroundings and recalled the feeling of being in his arms. Tonight, they‘d sleep in the house, and christen the old bed. Suddenly she felt much better about things.


Aren't you feeling lucky about now?


LuAnn said...

Great post, Ginger. I love to read some of the diaries that still exist from women in the Old West, especially ones written while they were on the Oregon Trail and the hardships of settling in a new rough part of the country. Gosh ... and we complain if the washing machine isn't working right!

Brett said...

The Government, today announced that it is changingits national symbol to a CONDOM. Thats because it more accurately reflects the government's political stance.
A condom allows for inflation, halts production, destroys the next generation, protects a bunch of pricks, and gives you a sense of security while you're actually being screwed. It just does'nt get anymore accurate than that.

Anonymous said...

Those women were tough! I can't help but think that some of us in today's United States would NEVER make it back then! Is the Silver City in your blog, New Mexico, Idahao, Utah?

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