All In A Day’s Work: The Domestic Working Life of Women in Missisquoi County

Tin cheese protector, c.1890.
Cheese making was a laborious process carried out mainly by women in the household. Milk was heated on the stove and then poured into warm pans. Rennet was added to coagulate the milk to curds and whey. When the curds reached the right consistency, the whey was drained and the curds were mixed with salt. The salted curd was then placed into a cheese press to remove the remaining whey and to create a cheese. After a day in the press the cheese was allowed to age or rest in barr Wooden washtub, c.1890.
Wash day was an enormous task in the 19th century. It usually took an entire day interrupted only by meal preparations and child care. In the summer, the laundry was done outside and in the winter, down in the basement or in the kitchen. The preparations for wash day usually began a day ahead of time when clothes were soaked. On washday, the boiling soapy water had to be carried in buckets from the stove to where the washtubs were set. The clothes were put through two washings and s Collection of Washboards, c. early 20th century.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Sock stretchers and laundry basket, c.1890.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Collection of flatirons or "sad irons," 19th century.
The task of ironing was an arduous job. Ironing took an entire day and usually followed washday. To iron properly, a woman required a skirt board, a bosom board (for shirtfronts), a sleeve board, an ironing table, a dish with water and sponge to dampen clothing, a fluting iron and fluting scissors to finish ruffles, a number of flat irons that usually weighed five to eight pounds each, cotton holders to wrap around the hot iron handles, a fire in th Sewing basket, c.1900.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Scissors used for tailoring and dressmaking, c.1860.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Sewing Bird c.1840.
The sewing bird, or hemming bird, was clamped to the table while the material was placed in the spring closure of the bird's beak leaving the sewer's two hands free to sew and hold the fabric. 
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Carved wooden sewing egg, c.1870. 
Contained small sewing accessories such as a thimble and a spool of thread.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Basket of thimbles, c.1870.
Thimbles are considered one of the oldest sewing accessories still in common use today. Their basic shape has not changed in over 2,000 years and they have been found in archaeological sites including the ruins of Pompeii. In 19th century sewing boxes, thimbles often had their own special place within the box. There were even individual boxes made to exclusively hold thimbles in interesting shapes such as fruit, tiny baskets and eggs and, generally, all were lined in velvet.
(M Measuring tape made of celluloid, c.1890.
It was very common to find ordinary sewing accessories transformed into amusing and bizarre shapes. Measuring tapes, for example, were often disguised in extraordinary ways.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Pin cushion in the form of a small boot, c.1870.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Walking Wheel, c.1860.
The large spinning wheel or "walking wheel" was a common sight in many Quebec homes in the 18th and 19th centuries. The large wheel, used to spin wool, required the spinner to walk back and forth as she wound the woollen thread on to the spindle. It was said that a spinner could walk 20 miles during one day's spinning.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Treadle wheels, 19th century. 
Flax, the plant which produces linen, was spun on a small wheel called a "Saxony wheel" or a "treadle wheel." The spinner sat and turned the wheel by means of a foot treadle. The small wheels required far more craftsmanship in their construction than the larger wheels which were used exclusively for wool. Treadle wheels were among the prized possessions of early settlers. 
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) One of the most labour-intensive tasks for women in the 19th century was the creation of clothing and bedding for the home. Spinning, weaving, sewing and embroidery work consumed an enormous amount of a woman's precious time. The creation of a quilt however was probably a welcome respite in a woman's schedule as she would have depended on the assistance of other women from her family or the community to help her make her quilt. Quilting allowed women to pass their hours of work in the company of friends Appliquéd quilt in a "basket variation," made by Mrs. Rominoer Smith of North Pinnacle, Quebec, and her friends, c.1860.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Candle mould, 19th century.
The fat from beef or mutton was rendered to make tallow for candles. This was usually done in a large iron pot over a fire and, if possible, it was done away from the house as the process resulted in a very unpleasant odour. Twisted lengths of cotton were either repeatedly dipped into the hot tallow or tallow was poured into moulds. The process sounds simple enough. However, it was yet another time-consuming and tedious task performed by women. In 1840, Anne Langdon wrote with r Butter churn, property of Hannah Lee Selby, c.1870.

Annice Selby of Dunham, Quebec, contributed to the family income by selling butter and pigs to neighbours and at the Cowansville market. The following are excerpts from her diary, 1934:

May 12. Churned butter and ploughed in morning, cleaned bucket room, cleaned leaves from flower beds.

May 19. Got up at 4 o'clock. Emily and I churned and ironed. Put out pigs and put up hen yard.

May 21. Churned all morning, cleaned house, baked and sewed.

Butter paddle and butter-working bowl, c.1880.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Butter moulds, c.1870s-1890s.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Woman's work boots, c.1890.
"There should be just as much conscience put into dusting as in managing an estate." Godey's Lady's Book, 1870.
One day a week was set aside for general household cleaning and many women took to heart the instructions pronounced in the journals and household guide books of the day. Furniture was draped with dust covers and windows were opened wide to expose hidden dirt. Picture frames, mirrors, furniture and curtains were brushed down with feather dusters. Carpets were Lemon squeezer, c.1890.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Pastry cutters and pie plates, c.1890.
Two days in the week were usually set aside for baking. Most women produced their own bread, cakes and pies. Baking days allowed time to put the kitchen and pantry in order. Pantry shelves were cleaned and freshly papered, produce was checked for decay, tins and jars were cleaned and supplies were monitored. In the kitchen, the black iron stove was cleaned and burnished and the kitchen and pantry floors were swept and washed.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collection Egg beater, c.1880.
Labour-saving tools were welcomed by the 19th century woman, especially if they could be used for tasks that might otherwise take hours to perform. Some of these devices were designed for very specific food preparation chores that have long since disappeared from the kitchen.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Toaster, c.1890.
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Handmade wooden cradle, c.1820s. 
Among her daily chores a woman's most important role was that of mother. Caring for her children was perhaps so commonplace and expected that diarist Hannah Selby of Dunham did not even list it as a task in her weekly duties. Child rearing in the 19th century could be a busy and happy time in a woman's life but it was also fraught with hardship and heartache. High maternal mortality rates in child birth and high infant mortality rates meant that women readily understoo

“Woman is a bit of a slave in this country”
The Journals of Anne Langton, 1839.

Traditionally, a woman’s sphere was in the home, and the commonly accepted role for an adult woman was that of wife, mother and homemaker. The family was the fundamental building block of society and women were at the centre. By the 1870s, however, technical innovations and industrial growth inevitably and radically altered the structure of the home. Mass production removed certain household tasks from the home to the factory, while labour-saving devices and ready-made food and clothing meant that domestic tasks consumed less time.

Despite the new kitchen tools and the eventual advent of electrical appliances, to run an efficient household and ensure good health, food and clothing, a woman was required to work long and often difficult and strenuous hours. Indeed, it can be said with confidence that women worked longer hours than men in a day.

Critics of the social changes believed that any attempt by women to lead an independent life was an attack upon the family and therefore upon the stability of society. Women, however, expressed their belief that they had to prepare their families for the trials of the contemporary world. The concept of “maternal feminism” allowed women to widen their influence by taking out into society the very qualities which made them so valuable within the family.

larger_Women.12.jpgThrough their role of record keepers, caretakers and caregivers within the family, women were able to become secretaries, clerks, librarians, teachers, journalists and nurses. In the 1871 Census Record for Missisquoi County, 68 women were listed as wage earners. The majority of these women were in “Domestic Service.” In the 1891 census, 240 women were working out of the home and, although the majority were still working as domestic servants, women were also listed as teachers, nurses, store clerks, and book keepers. Lucy Staniland was a florist, Mrs. E. S. Tracey, a postmistress, Cora Cook, a telegraph operator, Charlotte and Elizabeth Derrick, agriculturists, Elizabeth Steel, a cheese maker, and Laura Swells, a carpenter -- these last two professions usually being reserved for men.

Women left few records of their daily work routine, except in their handiwork. However, their contributions to the growth of families and the stability of communities must not go unrecognized. In addition to their domestic work and the responsibilities of motherhood, women were also volunteers in religious and social organizations, cared for extended families, and contributed to the family income through cottage industries such as butter and cheese making, sewing and weaving, or the selling of garden produce at local markets. The domestic tools and personal items in this on-line exhibit belonged to the hard-working women of Missisquoi County.

Heather Darch