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A Day in the Life of a Pioneer Child:

Entertainment, Tacoma in the 1870s

Written in Summer 2020 by Jillian Eliel, Museum Volunteer

Edited for blog publication by Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the third in a four-part series about childhood in the frontier town of Tacoma.

The fourth part about evening routines is available here.

What Did Pioneer Children Do For Fun?

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A gunny sack race at the Museum's Pioneer Days Festival

Toys, Games, and Hobbies

Pioneer children loved having fun and playing - just like kids today. Their games and toys required minimal supplies but plenty of creativity and imagination. There were no screens or batteries ,and plastic was not yet invented. Most of the materials that they used for play were homemade by the children or their family, not bought at a store.

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An assortment of wooden toys on display at Job Carr Cabin Museum.

For fun, children would make rag dolls and corn husk dolls to play with, wrap rocks in yarn to make balls, and even use vines or seaweed strips for jump ropes. They played games such as hide-and-seek and tug-of-war. Foot races, hopscotch, marbles, and spinning tops were also popular.

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Playing hopscotch outside Job Carr Cabin Museum.

When the weather was poor and children had to stay indoors, they could sing, read, or memorize poetry.

Girls as young as four began learning how to use a needle and thread. On a rainy day, they might work on their sewing, weaving, embroidery, and knitting skills.

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Learning how to weave at the Museum's Pioneer Days Festival.

Boys often received their first pocket knife as a gift on their fourth or fifth birthday. They practiced their woodworking skills by whittling small pieces of wood and building simple household items.

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A wooden toy train, tugboat, and top on display at Job Carr Cabin Museum.


Music was a large part of the settlers’ lives. From playing the fiddle and spoons for dancing to singing hymns during church, music was a community event. There were no radios or headphones, so music was an experience for the whole family.

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Listening to fiddle music at the Museum's Pioneer Days Festival.

Job Carr and his son Howard played the dulcimer. Howard also wrote about playing the flute and accordion.

One of the most famous Tacoma musical stories is that of the Wolff family. In 1874, St Peter’s church purchased a pump organ, but did not have the funds to pay for it or an organist to play it. Anna Wolff, a Jewish teenager, volunteered to help. She paid off the $120 debt for the organ in three years by giving concerts and lessons. She also played for the church’s worship services. The organ and a plaque commemorating Anna can still be seen at Old St. Peter’s Church.

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The historic pump organ at Tacoma's Old St. Peter's Church.

Music was a large part of the Wolff family’s life in Tacoma. Anna, and her younger sisters Rose and Rachel, taught music and were noted musicians who frequently provided entertainment for citizens of “Old Town”. Their home was the site of many parties, musical evenings and community gatherings for all ages. Singing and dancing often played a large part in these festivities.

"Our amuseuments were necessarily simple - reading, friendly calls; an occasional dance. These were enjoyed by the old and young equally. During the summer season, picnics were common. Many were clam and salmon bakes." ~Mrs. Howard Carr

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Students on a field trip at Job Carr Cabin Museum learn a circle dance. Job Carr's sons wrote in their journals about going to community dances with their friends in Steilacoom and Tacoma, during the 1860s and 1870s.

What types of puzzles did children in the past enjoy?

Find out about wooden brain teaser puzzles at the museum in this video with Museum Program Manager Holly Stewart.


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About the Author

Jillian Eliel is a senior at Annie Wright High School. She calls herself a big history nerd, especially when it comes to life on the frontier and the old west. She has dragged her family and many friends to historical re-enactments, from a re-creation of Tombstone down in Arizona to the Mount Vernon Living History Museum in Virginia. She loves working with Job Carr Cabin Museum, because she is fascinated with the lifestyle that people used to lead and because the people she gets to work with are passionate about what they do. She says that putting herself in the shoes of people who lived in the past opens up a whole new universe of experiences and interests. Walking in the footsteps of people from hundreds of years ago is an almost indescribable experience; wondering what they were thinking about and how they were feeling is the most interesting thing about history.