Legend & Lore: Charcoal for the teeth: Women’s lives in 1812
BY KIMBERLY SCHMIDT — “We’ll start preparing for the evening meal at 2:45, with plans to eat at 5:30,” announced Ann Wass, organizer of “The 1812 Woman of Riversdale” workshop. Held on a May weekend at the Riversdale House Museum, the event was a 19th-century immersion complete with a sleepover in the historic mansion.
I looked around. There were eight women. Some were dressed in period clothing with long, beautifully tailored hand-sewn dresses. The dresses were covered with aprons, indications of a woman prepared for work. The aprons were pinned with straight pins to blouses and tied tightly around the waist. Their heads were topped with little frilly caps that looked like something out of a movie based on a Charles Dickens novel.
Was it possible it would take over two hours for eight women to prepare a dinner typical of 1812? In a word, yes. One of the women left the workshop on hand sewing early to start the fire for dinner — not too long after the noon meal.
The menu was long but each dish involved relatively simple preparation: fish fried in a cast-iron skillet, braised mushrooms, salad with herbs fresh from the garden, steamed asparagus with toast, almond custard and hickory nut cake.
I come from hardy Mennonite stock and am no stranger to the time it takes to prepare vegetables from the garden and heat my house with wood. But I was in for a shock. In this hands-on workshop, I discovered that cooking and baking in an open hearth using methods from 200 years ago was time consuming indeed.
Thanks to Rosalie Steir Calvert (1795-1821) — the “Mistress of Riversdale,” as her 1991 biography is titled — we know quite a bit about women in 1812. Mrs. Calvert wrote extensively to her father in Belgium and in so doing chronicled her concerns and day-to-day decisions. Houses of the early 19th century were not centers of consumption, as they are today. Then, household production was critical to the economic success and health of the family.
Women of the era were expected to be “Jacquelines-of-all trades,” versed in best practices in the field (although wealthier women were unlikely to work in the fields); small animal husbandry and butchering; sewing, darning, weaving and knitting; and the gardening of vegetables, fruit and flowers. This list doesn’t include child care, games and entertainments such as singing and music-making, of which women of Rosalie’s station would also be knowledgeable.
The work was often tedious. Harriet Wynne wrote in 1805, “Of all the miserable dull days this was the worst — I mended 12 pairs of Stockings holes [sic] as large as my head.”
In the Calvert household, it was up to Rosalie to make sure the children were educated properly. She and her husband George had eight children, five of whom reached adulthood, and she homeschooled them when governesses were in short supply.
Women were also versed in the healing arts — although, considering this recipe for enamel stripping toothpaste, their knowledge was limited: “Honey mixed with pure pulverized charcoal is said to be excellent to cleanse the teeth, and make them white,” advises The American Frugal Housewife, published in 1833.
Ladies made their own cosmetics. During an era when the fashion motto was “Lilies and Roses” — i.e., lily-white skin with rosy cheeks and lips — lead was a popular “whitener.” By-products of the sperm whale’s intestinal tract were used in perfumes. Katie Cannon whose business, Ageless Artifice, produces cosmetics using recipes from the time notes that she has been unable to find recipes for darker-skinned women, no doubt a result of the era, 50 years before the Civil War.
The message from the women of 1812? Modern women’s lives are in some respects far easier. We do not have to endure the heavy labor and tedium that often typified tasks of the 19th-century. We do not die in childbirth, as earlier generations often did.
However, we also do not work in groups sharing the burdens of work. We do not sit together and spend evenings knitting and sewing, talking and visiting. Neighboring, community, and reciprocity are the casualties of a faster paced life. When’s the last time you borrowed a cup of flour or sugar?
I left the workshop having learned much about women’s work and musing on not only what we’ve gained as women but also on what we’ve lost.
Kimberly Schmidt is a board member of the Hyattsville Preservation Association. This is her last Legend & Lore column, as she leaves us to concentrate more fully on a book project.