“RIVE ME SOME HEAD-STUFF” – LIFE IN THE OLD DAYS (November 3/00)

Garments knitted by hand, the mittens, socks, jerseys and men’s underwear made from wool that had been laboriously spun at home. From the loom -” if there was not one in the house, there would be one nearby” – came homespun material for outer garments, blankets and even “patterned carpeting which wore like sheet iron.”

Soap making was an “annual sport.” A barrel was filled with wood ashes over which water was poured; the resulting liquid, called “lye,” was placed in a huge pot that was “set aboiling” outdoors. To the pot was added fats and grease that had been saved during the year. Boiled until it emulsified, then cooled and cut into squares, the homemade soap was stored away to season.

Writing in 1941, W. S. H. Morris was describing the chores that were part and parcel of the homemaker’s life in Nova Scotia more than 100 years. Home-spun clothing, homemade soap, homemade candles and before kerosene appeared, goose grease lamps: the 18th- and early 19th-century housewife would have been as familiar with these items as the modern housewife is with microwave ovens and vacuum cleaners.

Morris’ reminiscing, describing the tedious chores that were the lot of housewives long ago, appeared in the Nova Scotia Historical Society annual journal for 1941. This was an age when household conveniences, the few that existed, were made by hand. It was a time when currency was scarce, the barter system common, and a time when household items that couldn’t be produced in the kitchen or barn were almost non-existent.

Like the housewife, the male member of the 18th-century household had to be a Jack of all trades as well. Morris says that while there were workshops of various trades scattered here and there, the man of the household had to be good with axe, saw, auger, and chisel with which he could make most of his needs. “He could build a woodshed, shape an ox yoke, mend harness, tack on a horseshoe,” harvest grain with a scythe, thresh it by hand, make barrels.

Doctors were scarce here in the old days and for many minor ailments, people had to look after themselves. Morris writes that herb doctors, who had resources “highly valued but not orthodox” were often consulted. The herb doctor, whose plant lore may have been obtained from native Indians, came with “the necessary herbs in small bundles and steeped them in a pot of boiling water” to treat all but the most serious ailment. He also came with his store of magical spells that were pagan in origin but often used successfully.

Many afflictions, Morris writes, were treated with water. A person believed to be possessed would have sea water, taken from the “very flood of the tide,” thrown in her face. Whooping cough could be cured by taking the afflicted across water and so on.

Other “medical cures” involved feeding the afflicted with roasted mice. For sprains, a strip of dried eel-skin was tied around the injured part. The 18th century householder believed, says Morris, that a weak or puny child could be strengthened by passing it three times around the father’s right leg.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Morris’ reminiscing is the language the farmers of long ago used. What would you do, Morris asks, if you received this order? “Take your ‘frow’ and ‘beetle’ and ‘rive’ me some head-stuff – or it might be stave-stuff or shingle-stuff – from those pine balks.”

An 18th-century farm hand would take a wedge and mallet (frow and beetle) and split (rive) a slab of wood into the desired thickness for shingles, barrel heads or barrel staves.

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