Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Eight is Enough, especially in bed

I'm pleased to present the FIRST of a series of guest posts by some special friends who are knowledgeable about the culture of the 17th century, during which William and Mary Dyer lived their remarkable lives. Jo Ann Butler has kindly written this post based on her university degree in anthropology, and her research for the trilogy of historical novels she's writing (see footnote).  

© Jo Ann Butler (use in this site by author’s permission)
We’ve all lived without electricity and heat for the duration of a power outage. A few of us have done so for longer, perhaps tenting in the woods for a few days, or a week at scout camp. I’ll bet that you were grateful to get home to light, warmth, and tap water.

I spent a summer in a tent during my student archaeologist years. My crew bathed in a pond, cooked on a propane stove, and swatted mosquitoes as we catalogued artifacts under a string of bare light bulbs. It was a memorable experience, but I enjoyed it. If it had been January rather than July, my memories would have been far less pleasant.
A wigwam of poles and reed mats

My primitive summer was voluntary, but people in the 17th century knew no other life. Mary and William Dyer never felt the joy of hot water piped into their home, and they couldn’t turn up the thermostat on a cold night. Firewood, quilts, and body heat were all that kept the Dyers warm at night.

When the Dyers landed at Boston in 1635 and picked out a home lot, they needed shelter as quickly as possible. They may have lived with friends in the town, or in a tent like I did, or they may have used an Indian-style wigwam. To make a wigwam, create a tunnel by jabbing two rows of poles into the ground, bend them over, and then tie them at the top. Cover them and close one end of the tunnel with woven reed mats, and use another mat or a deer hide for a door. The wigwam wasn’t warm or waterproof, but the occupants could be under cover in a day.

A dugout was hard work to make, but would last two or three years, and it was warmer. Dig a hole into a hillside, tall enough to stand inside, and as wide and long as you wish. Line it with sawed planks or bark slabs. Close the open side of the pit with a plank wall equipped with a door. Roof it with pole rafters covered with bark, thatch, or turf. Dugouts were damp and dark, for they were often built without windows. However, their inhabitants were safely indoors.
Reconstruction of a colonial house
in Plymouth, Massachusetts

With the family’s first shelter built, the Dyers turned their attention to a more permanent home. Houses were small in New England’s early years for sensible reasons. A small home is more quickly built, and is easier to keep warm than a large one. The Dyers’ first house was probably a single room structure, with a squared timber frame. The walls were sawed planks, or withy filled in with a latticework of twigs slathered with mud. Forget about log cabins – that building style was not used in New England. The walls probably rested on timber sills set into the ground, and the home had either a plank flooring, or bare dirt.

The size of the one-room home depended on the size of trees available and how much time the owner (or the men he hired to build the home) wished to spend on sawing planks and squaring timbers for the frame. Even a 12’x16’ interior would serve for a small family, with rooms added later as the family grew.

The Dyers’ home was heated by a wood fire laid on hearthstones on the short side of the home. Chimneys were a rather new innovation when the Dyers came to Boston. Formerly, smoke escaped from a house via a hole cut into the roof, but William and Mary probably had a chimney built of logs plastered with mud. Such “cat and clay” chimneys were easier to build than stonework, but if the clay coating cracked, disastrous fires were the result.

It was hard to keep even a small room warm with a wood fire, especially during winter storms. The simplest way to sleep warm at night? Pile all of the family members into a single bed. Mary and William Dyer had six children who survived infancy (born 1635, 1640, 1643, 1647, 1648, and 1650). 

In warmer weather, a family's older children may have preferred to find less crowded sleeping spots, especially after the family home was expanded, but parents and younger children often shared a common bed. If the family had company overnight, they may have shared the communal covers. Privacy, as we know it, barely existed, unless the family was prosperous--as the Dyers were.

Related article: The Little Ice Age, coldest in 17th century
Chamber pot

Let me close with one more factoid about my primitive summer. With no plumbing but a well, several times a day we faced a 1000-yard walk to the privy. The 17th-century privy was probably much nearer to the house. There was far less concern with how close one’s outhouse lay to one’s drinking water. During their cold winter nights, the Dyers would use chamber pots, and then empty them in the morning. No matter how nostalgic I feel about the 17th century, or even my summer’s campout, when I think of Mary and William Dyer’s frigid, drafty outhouse, I am grateful for modern plumbing!
Guest author Jo Ann Butler
 Jo Ann Butler, of Fulton, New York, is author of Rebel Puritan, the first in a historical-novel series about Herodias Long Hicks Gardner, who lived in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and knew the Dyers.

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