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A Day in the Life of a Pioneer Child

Evening Routines, 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 last in a four-part series about childhood in the frontier town of Tacoma.

How Did Pioneer Children End Their Day?

The Evening Meal

In the 1800s, the mid-day meal was called dinner, so the evening meal was referred to as supper or tea. This was usually a lighter meal. It might include items like cold bread, milk toast, frizzled beef, stewed oysters, fish, light cake, or stewed fruit.

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Instructions for Stewed Dried Fruit, from The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker

Cleaning Up

Personal hygiene in the late 19th century was described by an English tourist as “filthy, bordering on the beastly,” so needless to say, hygiene practices were not nearly as extensive as they are today. A typical home had a bowl with a pitcher of room temperature water for rinsing your face and hands.

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A bowl and pitcher sit on the bedroom side table at Job Carr Cabin Museum.

Without indoor plumbing, a hot bath with clean water was a luxury; it took a lot of effort to heat up the water over a fire. Some settlers bathed in rivers and streams, while other families took turns washing up in a tin wash tub. The youngest members of the family might have to bathe reusing the same water that the adults had used first. Until the mid-1800s, soap was homemade and used mainly for laundry. Gradually, commercial soaps gained popularity for personal skin care.

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A bar of Old Brown London Soap sits on the bedroom shelf at Job Carr Cabin Museum.

This product was first available for purchase in 1829.

Working class people were more likely to use toothpicks than toothbrushes to remove food from their teeth. Plastic and nylon were not invented yet, so people who were lucky enough to have a toothbrush might find that it was made with bone and boar bristles. Some people chewed on twigs or mint to freshen their breath. Commercial toothpaste was uncommon before the 1870s, so families concocted recipes for homemade toothpowder, using table salt, soap, or chalk.

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An antique toothbrush at Job Carr Cabin Museum.

Outhouses were common in the American west. While they were host to all sorts of potentially harmful bacteria, Tacoma houses in the 1870s did not to have indoor toilets. Without public sewage systems, flush toilets, and indoor plumbing, it was preferable to keep the smell of waste away from the rest of the house. At night or when the whether was stormy, people commonly used a chamber pot indoors, and later dumped the waste down the pit in the outhouse.

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A chamber pot rests under the bedroom nightstand at Job Carr Cabin Museum.

This piece of ironstone china was manufactured in England by J&G Meakin pottery circa 1890.

Public sewage systems were first constructed in Tacoma in the 1880s; even then, the sewage simply flowed into Commencement Bay. It was not until 1952 that the first water treatment plant was constructed.


Pioneers typically went to sleep at dusk since, without light, not much could be accomplished. Candles and lanterns were expensive and not to be wasted. One of the most interesting things about their sleep cycle was that, until electricity was more widely available, some people practiced what was called a ‘biphasic routine,’ meaning that instead of sleeping in one long 6-8 hour block, they slept for two blocks of about four hours, with 1-4 hours of wakefulness in the middle. They could use this time for prayer, chores, reading by candlelight, and even visiting friends or neighbors.

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Before electric lights were widely available, people in the 1800s used candles or oil lamps to light their homes in the evening.

Many modern beds are constructed with several inches of foam mattresses and metal springs, but a pioneer bed was put together in a different way. The thin mattress was a large cloth sack, or tick, that could be filled with dried grass, wool, or feathers. Straw- or hay-filled mattresses had to be emptied and refilled each year with fresh material. Bed frames were commonly made of wood and the mattress was held up by a criss-cross of ropes. Quilts and wool blankets kept the sleeper warm.

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The antique rope bed inside Job Carr Cabin Museum.

Step Back In Time at Job Carr Cabin Museum

There is no doubt that life as a pioneer child was much different than the lives we lead today. Many historians have worked hard to piece together their everyday lives. For an interactive experience with pioneer life, you can visit Job Carr Cabin Museum for a chance to step back in time and peak into Tacoma life during the 1860s and 1870s.


“History: Pierce County, WA - Official Website.” History | Pierce County, WA - Official Website, Pierce County,

Hunt, Herbert. Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders. The S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago, 1916.

Husband, Michael B. "Morton M. McCarver: An Iowa Entrepreneur in the Far West." The Annals of Iowa, State Historical Society of Iowa, Vol. 40, Spring 1970, pg 241-254.

Kalman, Bobbie. A One-Room School. Crabtree Publishing Company, 1994.

Kristina. “Pioneer Children Life.” Pioneer Life,

McCarthy, Erin. “11 Ways School Was Different in the 1800s.” Mental Floss, 7 Jan. 2016,

“McGuffey Readers.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Mar. 2020,

Olver, Lynne. “Frontier American Foodways.” The Food Timeline: History Notes--Pioneer, Civil War, Cowboy & Victorian Foods,, 3 Jan. 2015,

“Pioneer Life on the Frontier for Kids and Teachers.” Pioneer Life on the Frontier for Kids and Teachers - FREE American History Lesson Plans & Games for Kids,

Prosch, Thomas. McCarver and Tacoma. Lowman and Hanford, Seattle, 1906.

Sleep Advisor Last Updated On June 8. “The History of Human Sleep - Historical Patterns Before Electricity.” Sleep Advisor, 8 June 2020,

Sobiski, Elizabeth. “Children's Clothing of the 1800s.” Our Everyday Life, Leaf Group, 10 Jan. 2019,

"Tacoma's Wastewater History.” Tacoma's Wastewater History - City of Tacoma, City of Tacoma,

U.S. Census Bureau (1878). Washington State and Territorial Census 1857-1892. Retrieved from

Walker, Barbara M. The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1979.

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.