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Society in Colonial New England

Colonial Labor

By the mid-eighteenth century, farming families in towns of several thousand people were spread across New England. They developed a mixed economy that provided a range of sources for both sustenance and profit. A fishing industry grew along the Atlantic coast, which provided seafood to the local population and a source of trade with West Indian planters who needed a food source for their large slave plantations. The people of the region cleared local forests and used the timber to build ships, houses, barns, and barrels. The farming work was more difficult in this rocky northern region than in the richer soil of the South. What truly distinguished the colonial American North from other regions (and indeed from the rest of the Western world) was the widespread land ownership that produced a relatively equal society, with low numbers of either extremely wealthy or extremely poor people. Most men could buy or inherit a farm of at least 50 acres, enough to support a family. The exception could be found with indentured servants, who sold years of their own unpaid labor in exchange for passage from Europe to America. But indentured servants were more numerous on the labor-intensive tobacco plantations of the Chesapeake than in New England. Land ownership provided most New Englanders with a satisfying living, voting rights, and economic independence, encouraging the development of a new American ideology that promised abundant opportunity and the possibility of prosperity through hard work.

Under Pressure

Yet a rapid population increase in the eighteenth century exerted pressure on land supply. In the century after 1630, the white population of New England increased by a factor of at least 118, while the supply of land remained the same. As families divided their lands among many children, farm sizes quickly shrank by two-thirds or more. In some places farms that averaged 250 acres in the 1630s dwindled to less than 85 acres by the 1730s. (At least 50 acres were required to sustain a family.)

Smaller farm sizes made farming more difficult; traditional practices of planting crops for three years then letting land lie fallow for seven years were no longer viable. Farmers could only afford to let land lie fallow (to increase soil fertility) for two years. Aggressive soil use reduced crop yields, and farmers were forced to take up livestock production as an alternate source of income. Many migrated in search of available land, resettling on the frontier in Nova Scotia, Maine, New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, or in the Middle Atlantic region. Those who remained in densely settled areas also took up work as clockmakers, weavers, shoemakers, or carpenters during the agricultural off-season to supplement farm income.

Home Sweet Home

New Englanders lived in tight quarters, with entire families often cooking, eating, working, and sleeping together, in a single room. Typical New England homes, known as "saltbox houses," had steep roofs to prevent the accumulation of snow in the winters, and they centered around a fireplace. If they had glass windows, the glass was usually imported from England. The interior walls were whitewashed or plastered, but the exterior boards were rarely touched until the eighteenth century, when a dark "Indian red" color became popular. At night, the homes were mostly dark inside, as the only sources of illumination available were oil lamps or candles. Both of those options were expensive for most families, so New Englanders tended to go to bed soon after sunset. The life of the home was centered in the "hall," the main room on the ground floor where meals were cooked over the fireplace. Forks were not introduced until the eighteenth century; earlier families either used their hands or wooden spoons to eat their food. Dinner often consisted of corn, boiled meat, vegetables, and cornmeal or cornmeal mush, with cider, beer, rum, or milk. Wine was very expensive for most families, and was usually reserved for special occasions. Colonists also enjoyed the Native American meal known as succotash: corn and kidney beans cooked in bear grease.

When it was not being used as a kitchen and a dining room, the hall also contained the spinning wheel and hand loom with which women made the family's clothes. They also churned butter and cheese in the hall. There were several subtle regional variations, even within New England; families who lived in towns tended to trade and purchase food staples much more often, whereas those in more rural areas away from the bustling seaports cultivated the vast majority of their food themselves. In the north, women tended to do more gardening and field work than wool spinning. At night, the hall transformed into a bedroom; husband and wife would sleep on a "jack bed" built into the corner (it only needed one post for support). The children slept in a trundle bed that was stored beneath the jack bed. The hall was also the bathroom; family members brought in buckets from an outside well and bathed near the fire.

To provide sufficient supplies for the long winters, most homes had cellars in which food and other items could be stored. In the loft over the hall, older children sometimes slept on bedrolls. More affluent families could add "lean to" rooms onto the back of their houses, to provide for a separate kitchen and free up the hall to serve as an entertaining area (or parlor) for guests.

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