This is the first in a four-part series about childhood in the frontier town of Tacoma.
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. For more information about the experience of the First Peoples, we recommend the Puyallup Tribal Language Program's video series about The Boarding School & Cushman Project.
How Did Pioneer Children Start The Day?
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 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.
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.
"Just preparing the meals was not a light burden. Weighty iron vessels, poorly draft stoves - or worse, the fire side, were all heavy drains on ones nerves and strength." ~Mrs. Howard Carr
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.
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.
"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.
“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.
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.