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Sarah Smith Emery - Memories of a Massachusetts Girlhood at the Turn of the 19th century

Sarah Smith Emery, in her nineties when she wrote this memoir, grew up around the turn of the 19th century in the Massachusetts countryside. Her family lived on a farm near the port town of Newburyport, on the Merrimack River. Life on the farm, as she described it, was a series of peaceful routines organized by season, time of day, age, and gender. Emery described the home production of food, such as butter and cheese, and household items, including candles, soap, and clothing. Spinning, weaving, knitting, sewing, dressmaking, cooking, preserving food, and housecleaning filled this early nineteenth-century girl’s life, while the men in her family farmed, butchered, and chopped wood. Militia training took place twice each year, in spring and fall. At the time that Emery was writing, the United States was rapidly shifting from an agricultural to an urban industrial economy, and nostalgia for rural life thus colored her recollections.

The town life of Newburyport was similarly governed by regular patterns of work and sociability, but here the chaos of poverty and miscreance was more evident. Newburyport had a jail, whipping post and stocks, all remnants of its Puritan heritage. The nearby town of Newbury, lacking an almshouse to house its indigent, followed the practice of paying families to house the homeless poor. These families were sometimes chosen by auction, with the lowest bidder winning the opportunity to house the poor for pay.

My parents had married young. Their chief capital for commencing life was youth, health and mutual love. My grandfather’s decease dated a few years prior to his son’s marriage, and the large farm, with the exception of the widow’s dower, had been divided between the five sons. At this time my father had purchased one of these shares, and he was making strenuous exertions to secure the rest of the paternal acres. Industry and economy were the watchwords of the household: still, there was no overtasking nor stint.

In those summer days, when my recollection first opens, mother and Aunt Sarah rose in the early dawn, and, taking the well-scoured wooden pails from the bench by the back door, repaired to the cow yard behind the barn. We owned six cows; my grandmother four. Having milked the ten cows, the mild was strained, the fires built, and breakfast prepared. Many families had milk for this meal, but we always had coffee or chocolate, with meat and potatoes. During breakfast the milk for the cheese was warming over the fire, in the large brass kettle. The milk being from the ten cows, my mother made cheese four days, Aunt Sarah having the milk the remainder of the week. In this way good-sized cheeses were obtained. The curd having been broken into the basket, the dishes were washed, and, unless there was washing or other extra work, the house was righted. By the time this was done the curd was ready for the press. Next came preparations for dinner, which was on the table punctually at twelve o’clock. In the hot weather we usually had boiled salted meat, and vegetables, and, if it was baking day, a custard or pudding. If there was linen whitening on the grass, as was usual at this season, that must he sprinkled. After dinner the cheeses were turned and rubbed; then mother put me on a clean frock, and dressed herself for the afternoon. Our gowns and aprons, unless upon some special occasion, when calico was worn, were usually of blue checked home-made gingham, starched and ironed to a nice gloss.

In the sultry August afternoons mother and Aunt Sarah usually took their sewing to the cool back room, whose shaded door and windows overlooked the freshly-mown field, dotted by apple trees....

My grandmother, after her afternoon nap, usually joined her daughters, with a pretence at knitting, but she was not an industrious old lady. There was no necessity for work; and if idle hours are a sin, I fear the good woman had much to answer for. Leaning back in her easy-chair, she beguiled the time with watching the splendid prospect, with its ever-varying lights and shades, or joined in the harmless gossip of some neighboring woman, who had run in with her sewing, for an hour’s chat.

At five o’clock the men came from the field, and tea was served. The tea things washed, the vegetables were gathered for the morrow, the linen taken in, and other chores done. At sunset the cows came from the pasture. Milking finished and the milk strained, the day’s labor was ended. The last load pitched on the hay mow, and the last hay cock turned up, my father and the hired man joined us in the cool back room, where bowls of bread and milk were ready for those who wished the refreshment. At nine o’clock the house was still, the tired hands gladly resting from the day’s toil. Except during the busiest of the hay season, my father went regularly once a week to the neighboring seaport town, taking thither a load of farm produce. For years he supplied several families and stores with butter, cheese, eggs, fruit and vegetables. These market days were joyful epochs for me, as at his return I never failed to receive some little gift, usually sent by some of our “Port” relatives and friends.

Butter making commenced in September only “two meal cheese” were made, that is, one milking of new milk and one of skimmed to the cheese, the cream of one milking going to the butter. The weaving of woolen cloth was begun, in order that it should be returned from the mill where it was fulled, colored and pressed in time to be made up before Thanksgiving. This mill was in Byfield at the Falls, on the site of the present mill, and was owned and run by Mr. Benjamin Pearson. The winter’s stocking yarn was also carded and spun, and the lengthening evenings began to be enlivened by the busy click of knitting needles. As Thanksgiving approached, the hurry both in doors and out increased.


While of an evening the males of the family were busy husking on the barn floor, by the light of the hunter’s moon, the females were equally engaged around the sparkling fire, which the chilly evenings rendered grateful, peeling apples, pears and quinces, for cider[,] apple-sauce and preserves.

After the cloth had been brought from the mill, tailor Thurrell from the Falls village appeared, goose in hand, remaining several days, to fashion my father’s and uncle’s coats and breeches. Mother, a manteau-maker [mantua-maker, or dressmaker] before her marriage, had her hands more than full, as she was not only called upon to make the gowns for our family, but to fit the dresses for her own mother and sisters and others in the vicinity. As the cold increased the cheese were carried to the cellar, and the cheese room was scoured. The week before Thanksgiving the ox which had been stalled for the occasion, was killed. Part of the beef was salted, the remainder put in a cool place, and as soon as the weather was sufficiently cold it was frozen, in order to preserve it fresh through the winter. The house was banked up; everything without and within made tight and trim, to defy as much as possible the approach of old Boreas.

Thanksgiving brought a social season. There was much visiting and distribution of good cheer for a week or two after that holiday. Towards Christmas the fat hogs wore killed, the pork salted, the hams hung in the wide chimney to cure, and the sausages made. The women began to comb flax and spin linen thread; the men went daily to cut and haul the year’s firewood. We were too good Puritans to make much account of Christmas, though sometimes the young people at the main road got up a ball on Christmas eve, but at New Year, there was a general interchange of good wishes, with gifts and festivity.

As soon as the spring weather would permit weaving without a fire, the looms in the looms in the back chamber were set in motion, weaving the next season’s linen. Next came candle-dipping, the making of soap, and house cleaning. The calves had been sold, churning commenced, and butter was made until the warmer weather brought the summer routine.


One of the great institutions of those days was the spring and fall trainings. There were company musters at the training field on the main road in May and September, and a regimental review at the Plains some time in autumn. The officers of these militia companies alone wore uniforms, the privates mostly turned out in their Sunday suits. The musket in those days was fired by a flint, the spark from which lighted the priming in a little external pan connected with the interior charge through a small vent. A priming wire about the size of a common knitting needle, and a little brush two inches long, which hung by a brass chain to the belt, were used to keep the vent clear and the pan clean. These training days were the occasion for a general frolic, especially the reviews. General trainings drew a motley crowd, vendors of all sorts of wares, mountebanks and lewd women; a promiscuous assemblage, bent upon pleasure. Beyond the lines there was always much carousing and hilarious uproar. Many customs were then in vogue, now obsolete in military circles, such as firing at the legs of an officer at his appointment to test his courage, and firing a salute before the residence of a new officer at sunrise on the morning of training day. Of course the recipient of these honors was expected to give a treat. Many a poor fellow became “onsteady” before the day had far advance, and more were hors-du-combat ere it had closed. Accidents often occurred. One officer, from the careless loading of a gun, received a severe wound in the leg, and Mr. Oliver Pillsbury had several lights in his new house broken at a salute in honor of his attaining a lieutenancy. At this review there was a large cavalry company, including members from both Newburyport and Newbury. Newburyport had one uniformed company, the artillery. I very well remember how imposing they looked to my childish eyes as they marched onto the muster field at the plains, to the music of fife and drum, with waving flag, and followed by their field pieces. The regimental bands were then unknown. The foot soldiers marched to the fife and drum, the cavalry to the notes of the bugle. Colby Rogers was trumpeter for the troops for many years. The Governor and staff and many distinguished guests were present n the great day I have recalled. A public dinner was given and the festivities were closed by a grand ball in the evening.

I was about seven years old when this militia system was organized, and well do I remember the sensation produced by the officers of our company presenting themselves at meeting, the Sunday preceding the fall training, in their new uniforms.


Amidst my first recollections of the “Port,” loom up drear and dread the jail, the whipping post was opposite, and the stocks on Water street just below Market square, and the workhouse on Federal street. Newbury had no poor-house, its paupers were let out in families. In this way most reliable servants for lighter work were often obtained. An old revolutionary soldier by the name of Mitchell resided in the family of Mr. Moses Colman for years. This veteran was held in high estimation by the three boys, to whom he became an unquestionable authority in field sports, the training of horses and dogs, and other masculine accomplishments, besides being a perfect encyclopoedia of knowledge in various departments of natural history, with a never failing stock of humorous anecdotes and tales, mingled with the sterner recital of privation, cold and hunger, battle and siege, with all the details, the light and the shade, the pomp, pageantry, glory and gore of the time that tried men’s souls. Later, a woman, always termed “Old Mary,” came into the household whom both children and grandchildren regarded as a sort of foster mother, and whose memory is still affectionately cherished.

In my more youthful days the roads were infested by tramps. Ugly looking men and women, begging their way from one place to another. The meeting of such people on my way to and from school was one of the terrors of my childhood.


One o’clock was the dinner hour for all classes. At the first stroke of the bells of the Pleasant and Federal street churches the streets were filed with a hungry throng rushing homeward. There was little ceremonious visiting of an afternoon, unless invitations had been issued for a tea party. At these the ladies assembled from four to five o’clock, Tea was served at six.

In most families there was a boy or girl bound to service until the age of eighteen. When the hour arrived this young servant passed round napkins upon a salver; next a man or maid servant bore round the tray of cups, the younger waiter following with the cream and sugar. Bread and butter and cake succeeded, these were passed round two or three times, and the younger servant stood, salver in hand, ready to take the cups to be replenished.


In addition to the entertainments I have described were evening parties and balls. These parties were often large, and music was usually provided for dancing, with a choice and elegant treat. Sillabub [a drink made of milk, wine or cider, sugar and spice] at an earlier day had been a fashionable evening beverage....The introduction of tea brought sillabub into disuse.


The old Tabernacle upon whose floor the stately minuet of a preceding generation had been danced had given place to the new Washington Hall on Green street, which had a spring floor, considered especially excellent for dancing.


Here during the winter a series of monthly assemblies were held, at which the young people danced contra dances, four-handed and eight-handed reels, while their elders amused themselves at the card tables spread in the ante rooms.

Source: Sarah Smith Emery, Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian (Newbury, Massachusetts: W.H. Huse & Co., 1879).