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The good old days?

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

How easy we ladies have life today compared to the old days in the 1850s. “You’ve come a long way, baby” is the understatement of our time.

A woman’s role in society has changed dramatically due to not only modern technology but changes that occurred in society such as the equal rights to all humans, including women’s right to vote. Since World War II, a large percentage of women work outside the home. One hundred sixty years ago, women worked at home starting early in the morning until late at night.

Women in the old days were primarily in charge of the living quarters, food, clothing, and children. The typical woman would start her work day very early working all day to accomplish all that was necessary for survival. The one room log house she lived in with her family was cold in winter and hot in summer, but it was better than the tent the settlers lived in on the coast and while traveling to New Braunfels. Floors were added later to keep bugs from invading the house. Furniture legs were placed in dishes of water or kerosene, like a small moat. Bedbugs were kept out or in, using the same method on the legs of the bed.

As the family expanded, so did the house. A second room was added separated by a dogtrot, a covered, breezeway between the two rooms. Originally cooking was done outside but the two-room house allowed cooking to be indoors. The children typically slept in a loft above the dogtrot. The handmade furniture was made of oak, cypress, cedar or pine. Cedar was the choice wood because it repelled bugs. Trunks held the meager supplies that each immigrant was allowed to bring from Germany.

Electricity didn’t appear on the scene until the beginning of the 20th century. Wood-burning stoves were not only used for cooking but also for heating. Most early houses had no window panes but had openings that were covered with animal hide. With no electricity, homemade candles and oil lamps took the place of lights but the “early to bed” philosophy made light unnecessary.

There is a reason that settlements sprang up around water sources. New Braunfels had two large rivers, the Guadalupe and the Comal. Drinking water was plentiful as a necessity for human survival. A very early water source in New Braunfels was the Comal River from which water was hauled by individuals in wooden buckets. At one time there was a path from Seguin Ave. crossing over to Comal Ave. and down the hill to the river. Piped water was a long time coming.

Clothes were washed outside in large iron pots heated on coals. Homemade soap was made by mixing ash and lard and then slicing it into chunks. The clothes cleaning process took up a lot of a woman’s time. People had very few clothes and tending to animals and the garden was dirty business.

At the Sophienburg Museum, there are many examples of clothing, some even brought over from Germany in the 1840s. Clothing was made of linen woven from flax. Cotton was available for making thread and yarn with a spinning wheel. Notice the picture of the thread or yarn measuring machine called the weasel. When the desired length was obtained, the machine made a popping noise, hence the children’s rhyme “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Sewing was a skill most women learned in Germany.

Growing and preparing food was the job of women. Gardens were mostly tended by women, using the very popular modern concept of growing food called “organic.” How? There were no chemicals and animals supplied the fertilizer.

Raising corn was a matter of life or death. Cornbread was made every day and took the place of the black bread that the Germans were used to. Nut trees, mulberry trees, blackberries and grapes were abundant. The Adelsverein provided coffee, salt, vinegar, and sugar.

Letters were sent home from Texas requesting that immigrants bring plows, axes, scythes, rakes, sewing needles and seeds of all kinds.

Most immigrants had small amounts of cattle. A small pen that was attached to the house held the milk cows and their calves. The calves were left in the pens and the cows were released to graze out on the open land since there was no fencing. At night the cows would come back to their calves and so it wasn’t necessary to round them up. Milk, butter and cheese of all kinds were made from cow’s milk. Another important food came from chickens mainly because of eggs but also meat. They scratched around the yard eating bugs not realizing that they were performing a service.

Spoilage of food was a big problem in the Texas weather. Meat had to be smoked or packed in lard for preservation. Crockery was important for this purpose but oak barrels were cheaper and larger than pottery. The barrels were constructed from large tree trunks and the crocks made from local clays.

Dr. Ferdinand Roemer told the story of the Shawnee Indians that would bring bear meat and bear oil for sale to New Braunfels. Supposedly bear meat was very tasty and contained a lot of fat right under the skin. The Indians brought the bear oil in skins and this oil was preferred in place of lard or other oil. Roemer said that when the Indians came to sell their bear oil they would each bring about 60 gallons. Bear oil needed no refrigeration.

Isn’t it interesting that the latest concept of food production is called “farm to table?”

Child bearing and care were primarily a woman’s job. In old New Braunfels, a sign of a woman’s worth had to do with how many children she had. There was another side effect of multiple children and that was that they helped men in the fields and women in the home.

At the Heritage Village with the Museum of Handmade Furniture there is an authentic kitchen from the 1800s. This free-standing rock kitchen was originally on the Breustedt house property. Most of the contents of this kitchen were donated to the museum by David Hartman. An icebox dates around the 1880s after the first railroad came to town and ice was available by rail. This kitchen and its contents can be viewed when the Heritage Society holds its annual Folkfest on April 9&10. Many of the old methods of survival and living are demonstrated at the festival like sausage making, open hearth cooking, sauerkraut making, quilt making, hand washing of clothes and many other exhibits.

Social changes involving women were a result of technological changes. Of one thing we can be certain: Technological advancements now will have a direct effect on the role of women in society in the future just as in the past. “How’re you going to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” This song was written about men in WWI but I think the idea is appropriate for women as well.

David Hartman and Kathy Nichols, Executive Director of Heritage Village, home of the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture show a sock darning gadget and the yarn measuring weasel.

David Hartman and Kathy Nichols, Executive Director of Heritage Village, home of the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture show a sock darning gadget and the yarn measuring weasel.