What was everyday life like for women and children on a colonial Virginia farm?

Women hearth cooking, American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Women hearth cooking, American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

The busy life of women on Virginia farms fit into the seasonal cycles and the growing season of the cash crop as well. In the winter and spring, spinning and sewing were done. In the late summer and fall, women dried and stored fruits and vegetables for winter meals. Hogs were butchered in the fall and the meat made into sausage or salted and smoked for preservation. Tallow candles and lye soap were made with leftover animal fat. Planter’s wives often grew herbs such as spearmint, peppermint, lavender, rosemary and parsley which were used to season foods and make home health care remedies. Other common crops on Virginia farms were cotton and flax. Though most families bought imported fabric when they could, the long, tough fibers inside the flax plant could be spun on a spinning wheel to make linen thread. This thread was later woven into linen cloth for clothing and bedding. Throughout the year, women cooked, knitted, and sewed clothing, tended the slaves and livestock, and raised the children. On some small farms, women worked in the fields helping to grow crops, but most women spent their time running the household.

Hornbook, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Hornbook, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Children’s chores and education varied, depending on whether they were boys or girls. Very young children were under their mother’s care. Public schools were not available in colonial Virginia, so children often learned everything they needed to know at home. Some boys received limited schooling from their local Anglican minister. Formal education was usually only considered for boys because they were expected to learn how to run the farm, make purchases, deal with finances, and manage slaves. If his parents were literate, a young boy might be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic at home. Most young girls learned to cook, spin, and sew from their mothers, and they might have learned to write their names and read the Bible. Some children used a hornbook to learn their letters. A hornbook was a primer with the letters of the alphabet, mounted on wood, bone, or leather and often protected by a thin sheet of transparent horn. Few Virginians could afford to own many books; many owned only a Bible. Children’s books, which were available to the wealthy, often had a moral lesson. Aesop’s Fables were among the most popular children’s stories. Some older boys (and a few girls) worked for a master tradesman as apprentices. While serving their five to seven-year apprenticeship, they not only helped their master do important work but also learned the skills of the trade and received an education as well.


Ideas for Educator Engagement: Live in the Now

Colonial Cookbooks provide an important window into the lives of women in early American history. After examining some of these examples from the collections at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, have students discuss the following: Are there “hidden in plain sight” sources today that could provide information to future historians about us the same way that these cookbooks shed light on the lives of colonial women?