WOOL AND “COTTON WARP” – 19th CENTURY CLOTHING (January 18/02)

(This is the fourth look at the reminiscences of Leslie Eugene Dennison, the Kentville newspaperman who from memory wrote about everyday life here in the 1870s. Mr. Dennison’s “history” ran as a series in this newspaper in the summer of 1932. In this instalment we follow Dennison as he writes about the making of wool cloth and soaps and the primitive heating and lighting methods of the late 19th century.)

“Homespun grey woolen clothes were still worn by many men and boys among farmers in my childhood. In the spring the sheep were washed in the river near Robert Harringtons where a sandbar made room for a pen of poles open to the water.

“Sheep were driven there, and the men catching the struggling animals, carried them into the water, held them between their knees and squeezed the dirt out in the running stream. Then the shearing took place with hand shears. For grey cloth equal parts of white and black wool were mixed, then sent to Killam’s carding mill on Bear Brook in Steam Mill village to be made into rolls. The rolls were spun into yarn by housewives and girls, then woven on hand looms into cloth.

“Then there was a lighter cloth made with ‘cotton warp,’ generally in white, for underwear for men and boys, and for light blankets. Knit underwear, socks and mittens for winter were all-wool and in some cases the yarn was dyed. Coppers for blue, rosine for red and pink, and the inner bark of the yellow birch for brown, were among the dyes used. A boy with double mittens, knit double thickness, was envied on cold days.

“Soft soap for washing clothes was still made in farmhouses from lye bleached from hardwood ashes. The lye and soap grease were boiled, generally in a huge three-legged iron pot holding a bushel or more, in a stone fireplace in the yard. The verb ‘softsoap,’ used as s synonym for ‘beguile’ or ‘flatter’ in the locution ‘He softsoaped them’, was still heard in my childhood.”

In the above on sheep washing, the river by the Robert Harrington place undoubtedly was a section of the Cornwallis in Coldbrook. The location of Killam’s carding mill on “Bear brook” in Steam Mill is puzzling; this may have been a brook on North Aldershot Road or simply another name for the Canard River. Continuing his reminiscing, Dennison writes about heating and lighting in the 1870s home.

“The Franklin heating stove had not gone out of use 60s years ago and my grandmother, Mrs. Mary Jane Dennison, had two of them, while coal oil or kerosene was almost universally used in homes and business places for lighting.

“Candles were still made by farm housewives. Children had a bedtime candle, a candle was used for errands to the cellar; a candle would be put in a perforated tin lantern and used out of doors or in barns and carriage houses.

“Bedsteads were of wood, with rope lashed crosswise and endwise to support first a straw tick and then a feather bed, of ten of voluminous size. Geese ‘picked’ of their inner breast feathers in the spring supplied the feathers for bed and pillows, and chicken feathers made what were considered inferior beds.

Dennison closed this part of his account with a brief description of local blacksmith shops where “besides shoeing horses and oxen,’ repairs could be made on every piece of equipment and every tool used on the farm and in the woods. Blacksmith shops, Dennison said, were often the social center for the “men from the nearby farms.”

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