At Your Service A Series on 18th Century Housekeeping & Daily Life

Drunk Tailor and I were invited to interpret aspects of daily life at Whitall House in Red Bank, New Jersey. This was a culmination of the work we had been doing exploring servants and cleaning methods and solutions typical of the late 18th century. Together, we’d explored servants in military contexts, waiting on officers and cleaning barracks. I’d tested housekeeping and cleaning methods in houses and barracks.

Household Economy

This time, we brought that knowledge together to talk about “household economy,” or the management of daily chores. Fortunately for us, Job Whitall's diary has been transcribed and served as a good source for understanding what life was like in 1775-1779 New Jersey on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Right, Whitall House.

It's not a literary diary-- but it is a practical one, describing the daily life of Quakers on a farm. It's jarring today to read "Big white frost & ise this morning" as the lead for May 3rd's entry, but climate was different 242 years ago.*

*Recognizing the difference in climate 242 years later can be helpful when asking the inevitable "aren't you hot in those clothes?" questions. For one thing, no; I'm acclimated to them since I've been in them all day. And for another, the climate was different, with fewer hot and record-breaking days (the Battle of Monmouth excepted).

In between the manure and the plowing and the rain, Job Whitall buys quite a bit of linen and calico (cotton, probably printed) in his peregrinations around Gloucester County. Households used fairly large quantities of textiles in the pre-paper towel era. Towels were needed for people and dishes; dressing tables were typically covered with a linen cloth, tablecloths protected dining tables and napkins protected clothes at mealtimes. Shifts and shirts (women's and men's body linen) were usually changed daily and washed weekly, aprons needed mending and replacing as they were used up in daily chores. All of this would amount to a great deal of washing and mending and repurposing of textiles as they aged.

The afternoon we spent in Whitall House was wet, blustery one, well suited to sitting by the fire doing small table-top chores. I had a basket of washed clothes ready for mending; the first task being darning Drunk Tailor's stocking. After that, his favorite "aether of linen" shirt much in need of mending-- or ready for repurposing.

Top, left, a shirt in need of washing; center, a patched shirt; right, the washed shirt drying on the grass. Below, darning a stocking and bantering about chores at Whitall House

As in the past, our own gowns and shirt are mended with some frequency, but this shirt, despite being his favorite and deliciously soft, is ready to become something else entirely. It's ready for the rag bag, or perhaps it can become a clout, in particular a menstrual clout, as we argued all afternoon.

I'm not the expert on laundry-- I'm better at making laundry than doing laundry--but I have assisted and grasp the principle. I also know that the clothes I wash the 18th century way smell and feel better than the clothes I wash in the washer. Tallow-based soap and sunshine: remarkably comforting today, though in the past those scents would have been normal and unremarked. If you were the laundress, or the one doing the ironing, nothing about the chores would have seemed romantic in the least.

Right, Paul Sandby (1731-1809), At Sandpit Gate circa 1752. Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour | 22.9 x 23.4 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 914329


Kathleen Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

Elaine Forman Crane, Ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman. Abridged edition. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994

Florence DeHuff Friel, editor. The diary of Job Whitall, Gloucester County, New Jersey, 1775-1779. Woodbury, N.J. : Gloucester County Historical Society, 1992.

Hannah Glasse The servant’s directory : or house-keeper’s companion: … To which is annexed a diary, or house-keeper’s pocket-book for the whole year. London : Printed for the author ; and sold by W. Johnston ; at Mrs. Wharton’s, at Mrs. Ashburnham’s china-shop, Mr Vaughan’s, and by all the Booksellers in town and country, 1760.

William Wallis Woodward One thousand valuable secrets, in the elegant and useful arts : collected from the practice of the best artists .. by Published 1795 by Philadelphia : Printed for B. Davies …, and T. Stephens … .

Created By
Kirsten Hammerstrom