The American Work Ethic and the Changing Work Force: An Historical Perspective

By Herbert Applebaum | Go to book overview

5
COLONIAL WOMEN

WOMEN'S WORK IN THE COLONIAL ECONOMY

In studying colonial women one focuses on the household where their lives were centered. As daughters, wives, and mothers, white women devoted their energies to being homemakers and caring for their children, just as husbands were raising crops, crafting products, and working for wages. The family played a central role in shaping colonial America. Family and household were intertwined and household manufactures, in which women played a key role, were an essential contribution to the colonial economy. Women lived and developed a work ethic within a feminine, domestic circle where their work was normally carried on separately from their husbands; their infants were delivered by midwives, the sick were cared for by female neighbors, and they exchanged and bartered products and services with other women.

Household tasks were not easily accomplished and their nature varied with the wealth and size of the family and its place of residence. Cooking, cleaning, and washing were, as always, female prime responsibilities. So was the caring for children and the caring for and making of clothing. On farms, women raised chickens, tended vegetable gardens, ran the dairy, made cheese and butter for family use or for barter and sale. While men butchered hogs and cattle in the fall, women supervised the salting and smoking of meat so the family would have an adequate supply for the winter. They gathered, dried, and preserved fruits and berries and sometimes oversaw the making of hard cider, the standard drink in the colonies. In towns and cities, women performed these chores on a lesser scale, raised a few chickens and a cow or two, cultivated a kitchen garden, and preserved beef and pork purchased at the local market. Only the wealthiest women with numerous servants escaped tiring, physical labor.

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