Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection.

written by Eleanor Cannon Woodbury Jarvis

In pioneer days the problems that confronted the housewife were many and varied; the advantages that are open at the present time to both young and old in the way of education along all lines were not available. Schools were in session only a few months of the year, and the time of the housewife and her daughters was occupied, to a great extent, in not only preparing but manufacturing household necessities.

Many of the commodities we purchase today could not be obtained in those days especially in pioneer communities, consequently they had to be manufactured. One of the great problems was clothing. Those who crossed the plains previous to the advent of the railroad usually brought with them as good a supply of clothing as they could obtain, but when that was exhausted, they faced the condition of having to manufacture their own, especially in pioneer communities. In Salt Lake City, goods could be obtained, as they were freighted across the plains from the Missouri River by ox-teams, but in the remote settlements they were not available, and besides that, each was very scarce and a method of exchange was resorted to.

Many of the people owned a few sheep and the wool after being sheared, was washed in tubs until the loose dirt was removed. After being dried it had to be "picked", which was done by taking a handful of wool in the hands and drawing the fibers apart until all the particles of dirt or foreign substances had fallen out or had been picked out with the fingers. It was then "greased" by sprinkling with neatsfoot oil (oil obtained from the hoofs of cattle and horses) or other soft fat, and sent to the carding machine where it was made into rolls, if one were so fortunate as to live near one, otherwise it had to be carded by hands.

Spinning the rolls into yarn was a rather particular job, as it had to be drawn out very evenly as the wheel was turned to twist it, and the size of the thread was determined by the purpose for which it was intended, being designated by the terms "three skeins to the pound" (used for men's wear, either jeans or kersey, jeans being a cotton warp and kersey a woolen warp) "four skeins to the pound" used for [german?], linsey, or flannel or "five skeins to the pound" where fine dress goods were desired. An expert spinner could tell by the feel of the thread in her hand what degree of fineness or coarseness she was spinning. After filling the spindle the yarn was wound onto reels making skeins or hanks of either ten or fourteen knots with forty threads in a knot, the skeins being about a yard long and number of knots being governed by the coarseness or fineness of the thread.

When my father was called on the Dixie Mission at the October Conference in the fall of 1861, my mother felt that she must get as much spinning done as possible in order to have some cloth woven to make herself and family comfortable for the journey, knowing it would be a long cold trip. She did what she could, but was unable to spin all her rolls, so she brought them along with her, spreading them, wrapped in cloth, on the bottom of the wagon box and making a bed on them. After arriving at our destination, we encamped on the "Old Camp Ground" where the people lived while waiting for the city of St. George to be surveyed, Mother got her spinning wheel out, telling me she wanted me to learn to spin. I was only seven and not tall enough to reach the wheel, so she fixed a box or board as a small platform for me to walk on, and would give me a few rolls, perhaps half a dozen, to spin every day, and then I could play. She also taught me to knit, and I knit myself some garters, and after I had learned to fashion a stocking. I took delight in knitting stockings for my doll in my spare time.

Stocking yarn was made by taking two skeins of the yarn and doubling and twisting it, after which it was cleansed and washed and colored if desired, or if gray yarn was desired for either stockings or cloth, the black wool was mixed with a portion of white before being carded, the amount of white being determined by the color desired, whether light or dark gray.

Dyes were hard to obtain. Indigo was a standard color, and many elderly people will remember the dye-pot, with its penetrating odor, which, however, produced a very lasting color. Madder was used for red, a rather dull color but fast. When one was fortunate enough to obtain some cochineal, a very bright scarlet could be obtained which could be used to brighten up cloth by striping it, as it was a very fast color. At times none of these colors were obtainable, as they had to be imported, and cash was very scarce, so native roots and barks, shrubs and blossoms, had to be used. A lady was telling me the other day, how her mother used to have the children gather such heaps of "yellow blow", the blossoms of the rabbit brush, when it bloomed in the fall of the year, to be stored in piles to be used as she needed it in preparing her cloth for their winter clothing. Indigo blue, when dipped into a solution of the blossoms made a beautiful green. She said that she and her mother used to work for hours in the evening, carding rolls to be spun the next day. Dock was also used for dyeing, and in St. George I have seen madder growing, the rest of which was used. In fact, there is some growing in my lot at the present time, it having been planted by a neighbor, over the fence, years ago, and it seems very tenacious of life.

After the yarn was cleaned and colored, it was woven into cloth, either linsey or flannel for women and girls, or jeans and kersey for men and boys, and some beautiful cloth was produced which was very lasting. It was then made into dresses, pants, and suits, which was all done in the home and without any sewing machine, either. I have known my mother to weave a piece of cloth in the daytime, and in the evening to cut out a pair of pants for my little brothers, and make them that night before retiring, sometimes without any other light than that obtained from a pine knot in the fireplace. If the mother was too busy to do all her sewing, especially men's suits, she would frequently hire a woman who made a business of such work, to come to her home and help her for a few days. You can readily see that such conditions brought mother and daughter into close companionship, as it was absolutely necessary for all to assist in such arduous labors.

When the people were called to Dixie in [18]'61 they were sent there to raise cotton it having been demonstrated by men sent in the [18]'50s that it could be raised. The Civil War having broken out, President Young realized that cotton would be hard to obtain in the Northern States and felt that we could help clothe ourselves and also have a surplus to send east, all of which was verified.

The cotton after being ginned to extract the seeds, that is, put through a machine for that purpose, was carded into batts, and then into rolls for spinning into yarn, being carded by hand. It was then woven into cloth, white for underclothes, sheets, and pillow slips, but when colored it was made into summer dresses. Flax was also raised to some extent, but was not woven into cloth very extensively, if at all, but was spun into linen thread on the little flax wheels, there being quite a demand for it for making up men's wear and heavy sewing, such as sewing strips of carpet, etc. I have stood by the side of my grandmother, when a wee girl, and watched her spinning the flax on her little wheel, and my mother would feel quite rich when grandmother would give her a hunk of linen thread. Cotton thread was hard to obtain, and if one possessed a spool of fine white thread it was guarded carefully for hemming and fine sewing, and fine cotton yarn was doubled and twisted for coarse sewing and seams that did not show. It was a rather difficult task to spin the cotton fine enough and of an even-ness by hand, that made it suitable for warp, although it was sometimes done, but usually the warp was imported from the East, until a spinning mill or factory was erected at Parowan, where cotton could be exchanged for warp. After President Young had the "Factory" erected at Washington, of course it put an end to the manufacture of cloth in the home in that part of the country, and some people wondered how they could find employment for their daughters. The Factory, however, furnished employment for many people. Socks and stockings were made at home, knitting being the past-time for evenings or when one was resting.

Candles had to be made to supply light, as coal oil was not then known, at least in the frontier settlements. Every family considered it a part of household equipment to have a set of candle-molds, and doubtless some of us have seen them among discarded rubbish in the attic or cellar. The candlewick was cut in the required lengths and after being doubled and twisted slightly, it was dropped through the mold, which tapered to a small hole at the bottom. A round stick was slipped through the row of loops at the top, and the other ends drawn tight at the small hole, then tied in a knot. After the mold was filled with wicks, melted tallow was poured in the top until it was full. After cooling, the knots at the bottom were cut off, and the candles drawn out by means of the loops over the sticks. If the housewife had a large amount of tallow to make up into candles, she sometimes used the "dip" method. The wicks were prepared in the same manner as for the molds, by cutting them into lengths, slightly twisting them and putting a smooth stick through the loops on as many as the vessel in which she intends dipping would hold. After preparing as many wicks as she thought her supply of tallow would take care of, she would dip the wicks into the melted tallow, taking up a stick, dipping it into the tallow, then hanging it in a rack prepared for the purpose, allowing it to cool while she was dipping the others, a stick at a time, until all were dipped once. Then she would begin all over again, repeating until all were large enough, after which they were stored away with a feeling of satisfaction that her source of light for the next few months was secure.

Soap was another necessity which had to be manufactured in the home. After the introduction of "Saponifier" or concentrated lye, it was much more simple to make good soap, but before that, soap-making was a sore trial to many, as it was frequently made from cottonwood or other ashes containing potash. The ashes were placed in a sloping trough, and water was poured over them, a little at a time. A vessel was placed to catch the lye which dripped from the lower, open end of the trough, and when enough was secured, it was poured into a bottle with the necessary amount of grease and boiled until of the right consistency, but it produced what was known as soft soap. Sometimes the cold method was adapted, which consisted of putting some grease into a barrel or keg, pouring the lye in it as it was leached off, and with a stick giving it a stir as the housewife or any member of the family, impressed into service, happened to pass it, and at the end of a few weeks, there was a nice barrel of soap. Hard soap was often made by taking equal parts of quicklime and saleratus and requisite amount of grease and water and boiling it together, resulting in a good quality of hard soap. I well remember how delighted my mother was when she had secured the recipe for that kind of soap, as she had only been able to make the soft soap previous to that time.

Rag carpets were made from the rags too worn to be used for making quilts, and rugs were braided from the heavy rags and also from cornhusks. Bed ticks were filled with the inner husks from the corn and made very comfortable beds. Where one raised geese and ducks, feather beds were made from the feathers, but sometimes milkweed blossoms or the heads of cat-tails were collected and used for beds. Hats were made from the straw of the first and second joints of wheat or rye. The straw was braided, sewed into shape on a block, and worn. For Sunday hats, both men's and women's, the straw was split into equal portions by setting tacks into a block of wood and drawing the straw over it, and a fine braid was made from that.

Before the introduction of sorghum or sugar cane, sugar beets were raised, and after being boiled in water, the water was boiled down until it formed a syrup which was eaten for sweets.

Fruit was very scarce and wild currants, service berries, or any kind of wild fruit was dried for winter; and when fruits were raised, drying was the method used to preserve them for winter, as canning and bottling were little known. Squash were dried in great quantities, and served either as a fruit or as a vegetable, and in the fall the rafters of the log houses were decorated with the rounds of squash or pumpkin, peeled and hung over them. Recreation was furnished through dances and lectures, social gatherings in private homes, peach cuttings, carpet-rag bees, wool-picking bees, quiltings, spinning bees, and like. After those home gatherings, refreshments were served and games were played. Molasses candy pullings were also frequently enjoyed.

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection.


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