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A Day In The Life of a Pioneer Child:

Morning 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 first in a four-part series about childhood in the frontier town of Tacoma.

The second part about school is available here.

The third part about what children did for fun and entertainment is available here.

The fourth part about evening routines will be available soon.

Daily life in the newly settled town of Tacoma was quite different from our modern lives, especially for children. In the late 1800s, many children were expected to act and dress in ways that would be considered unusual today.

Newly arrived settlers often found that they needed to rebuild their lives from next to nothing. This required a tremendous amount of work from every member of the family, even the youngest. Children handled many daily tasks that even adults today would find challenging, all while balancing school work and recreational activities. While chores, clothing, and educational expectations varied depending on age, gender, and class, let's take a look at what it would be like to spend a day as a typical settler child in the fledgling city of Tacoma.

Please note that this series is a glimpse into the lives of settler children and does not accurately reflect the lives of Coast Salish Native American children. The traditional life ways of the Puyallup People followed a seasonal rhythm. Their language and cultural traditions were under constant threat, however, as children were separated from their families at a young age and forced to attend the Cushman Indian School.

How Did Pioneer Children Start The Day?

Children's Clothing

The pioneers rose early, often before dawn, to begin their morning chores. But first, they needed to get dressed. Children's clothing in the late 1800s was quite different than what we typically wear now. The types of clothing depended on age, sex, and social status.

Infant wearing a loose-fitting, long-sleeve outfit, ca. 1888. Source: Tacoma Public Library

Infants wore "long clothes" -- a dress-like outfit, usually white, that was longer than the child. This extra length could be folded up for warmth and protection. When a baby began to crawl, their clothes were shorter to allow for more freedom of movement. These "short clothes" were typical for children until age two or three. As toddlers, both boys and girls wore dresses. Petticoats or layer of plain skirts underneath gave the dress a fuller look. The fabric varied based on the family's social status; working class families usually stuck with cotton or linen.

Anthony and Howard Carr, ca. 1850, source: Carr Family Collection

Once a child was school age, their clothing reflected what was considered appropriate for girls and boys. Boys wore breeches (short pants) and girls wore dresses. Girls under the age of 12 had skirts that reached their knees, while teen girls wore longer skirts that went down to their ankles. Zippers and Velcro were not yet invented, so pants and dresses had plenty of buttons. Girls often wore an apron over their dress to keep their main clothing cleaner while doing chores and playing. When leaving the house, boys wore vests or jackets over their shirt. During cold weather, they wore wool mittens, hats, and scarves. On their feet, children would likely be barefoot or wear boots.

Margaret Carr, age 14, ca. 1864, source: Carr Family Collection

Children's Chores

Children were expected to take on chores around the house as soon as they could help. Small children, even as young as 4 or 5 years old, had chores such as keeping the fire going, fetching water, and caring for livestock. Even families who lived in towns often owned chickens or horses. Children were responsible for feeding the animals and keeping them from eating the garden.

Learning to wash clothes using a tin basin and washboard at the Museum's Pioneer Days Festival.

Older children were tasked with watching over their younger siblings. Girls were generally assigned household chores such as washing and mending clothes, making soap, collecting firewood, cooking, and cleaning. Boys were expected to tend to livestock, split firewood, repair tools, or even to help run the family business.

Learning to dry clothes using a wringer at the Museum's Pioneer Days Festival.

Some children even worked outside the home to make extra money for their families. In Tacoma, youth could have a job selling newspapers, helping at the waterfront mills, or assisting the fishermen who brought seafood to the local docks.

Breakfast

After finishing their morning chores, the family ate breakfast around 8am or 9am. The food varied depending on what was available and in season. A common breakfast menu may include corn bread, cold bread, stew, boiled eggs, hot cakes or johnny cakes, fried potatoes, sausages, or omelets. Breakfast cereal was not popular until much later.

The dining table inside Job Carr Cabin Museum

Once their morning routine was complete, children walked to school. Find out more about the school day in the next post.

Sources

"History: Pierce County, WA - Official Website.” History | Pierce County, WA - Official Website, Pierce County, www.co.pierce.wa.us/197/History.

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. https://ir.uiowa.edu/annals-of-iowa/vol40/iss4/2/.

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

Kristina. “Pioneer Children Life.” Pioneer Life, class427pioneerlife.weebly.com/pioneer-children-life.html.

McCarthy, Erin. “11 Ways School Was Different in the 1800s.” Mental Floss, 7 Jan. 2016, www.mentalfloss.com/article/58705/11-ways-school-was-different-1800s.

"McGuffey Readers." Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Mar. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McGuffey_Readers.

Olver, Lynne. “Frontier American Foodways.” The Food Timeline: History Notes--Pioneer, Civil War, Cowboy & Victorian Foods, Foodtimeline.org, 3 Jan. 2015, www.foodtimeline.org/foodpioneer.html.

"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, westernexpansion.mrdonn.org/pioneers.html.

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, www.sleepadvisor.org/history-of-sleep/.

Sobiski, Elizabeth. “Children's Clothing of the 1800s.” Our Everyday Life, Leaf Group, 10 Jan. 2019, oureverydaylife.com/childrens-clothing-of-the-1800s-12475545.html.

“Tacoma's Wastewater History.” Tacoma's Wastewater History - City of Tacoma, City of Tacoma, www.cityoftacoma.org/government/city_departments/environmentalservices/wastewater/wastewater_system/tacomas_wastewater_history.

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

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.

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