The work of the mountain mother

Posted by | March 24, 2010

The work of the mountain mother is burdensome and she bears more than her share of responsibilities of the household. Her housework includes washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning, sewing, and often spinning and knitting for the family. Handicapped by lack of modern conveniences, her task involves undue hardship.

In most of the homes cooking is done on a small wood stove, with none of the modern conveniences; often the only implements are iron kettles, pots, and ovens which may be used interchangeably on the stove or in the fireplace; the latter is still preferred by many for baking corn bread and sweet potatoes. A scant allowance of fuel is provided from meal to meal. During a rainy spell, or when the father is away or sick, or the children off at school, the mother may be left without fuel, though wood grows at her very door.

McDowell County NC woman with infant, early 1900sWoman holding an infant, early 1900s. McDowell County, NC.

Carrying water, a toilsome journey up and down hill several times a day, usually falls to the lot of mother and children. No one of the families visited had water in the house or on the porch, and only 1 out of 5 within 50 feet of the house. Twenty families carried water over 500 feet and 8 families were from an eighth to a quarter of a mile distant from their springs.

The wash place, consisting of tubs on a bench and a great iron wash pot in which the clothes are boiled, is usually close by the spring. Much straining and lifting and undue fatigue are involved in this outdoor laundry. Sometimes even a washboard is a luxury, substituted by a paddle with which the clothes are pounded clean on a bench or a smooth cut stump.

Much of the family bedding is homemade, the work of the women and girls in their leisure hours, after the crops are laid by or in the evening by the fireside. Besides the time-honored log cabin pattern, their collections of patch-work quilts include such quaint and intricate designs as “Tree of Life,” “Orange Peel,” and “Lady of the White House.” Many a mountain home has its spinning wheel still in use and occasionally one finds an old-fashioned hand loom.

Some homes display a collection of coverlids and blankets, handmade at every step of the process. The wool was grown on the home farm; sheared from the sheep; washed, carded, and spun by the women and girls of the family; dyed, sometimes with homemade madder, indigo and walnut dyes; and woven on the loom into coverlids and blankets. Even the designs are often original or variations of old favorites, like the “Whig Rose,” “Federal City,” and “High Creek’s Delight by Day and Night.”

The other duties of the mother are largely seasonal. From December to August the children are home from school and she has their help. Together they make the garden; help plant the com and peas for winter; gather them when ripe ; pull fodder and dig potatoes ; feed the stock; and perform the usual farm chores of milking, churning, and carrying water. In many homes the mother may be found doing chores which are usually considered a man’s work, unduly prolonging her working hours and exposing herself to more stress and strain than is compatible with her own health or that of the children she is bearing.

McDowell County, NC woman spinning, early 1900sA woman spinning thread, early 1900s. McDowell County, NC.

It is uncommon for help to be hired in the home, except occasionally for a few days during confinements. Moreover, with the exception of sewing machines, household conveniences are totally lacking. Hard-working women complained that the men have planters, drillers, spreaders, and all kinds of “newfangled help,” but that nothing had been done to make women’s work easier.

Practically all the mothers visited, besides their housework and chores, had helped in the fields more or less — hoeing corn, pulling fodder, and so forth. Of 212 mothers, 188, almost nine-tenths, had worked in the field before marriage; 167 since childhood; and 166, or three-fourths of the mothers visited, had helped in the field after marriage.

A woman’s field work in the mountain country is not so extensive or fatiguing as in the lowlands where the cotton crop requires the constant labor of the entire family many hours a day during a long summer and autumn. In the mountains, little farming is done, the average family raising no appreciable farm produce for sale. The woman helps plant and hoe the corn and in the autumn helps harvest the crops — stripping fodder, carrying it to the barn, making sirup from sorghum cane, picking beans, gathering apples, and digging potatoes. Her field work is not arduous in itself, but only because it is undertaken in addition to her already numerous duties — caring for the children, housework, sewing, canning, and chores.

“Rural Children in Selected Counties of North Carolina,” by Frances Sage Bradley, MD, survey published in 1918, U. S. Department of Labor, Children’s Bureau
online at www.archive.org/stream/ruralchildrenins1918unit/ruralchildrenins1918unit_djvu.txt

One Response

  • Janet, says:

    Mountain women worked very hard and it took it's toll on them. You can look at pictures of women and see how they aged in just a few years. I recently acquired my grandmother's wedding ring, it was very thin and a piece was missing from it. I was told that it wore thin and a piece finally broke from it from all the wood chopping she did. Women deserve a lot more credit and recognition than they get for all they contributed to their families back then.

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