Little House: Let's Read Big Woods, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 is one of those "life in the days of", which actually I guess all the chapters are, but we get to follow Mary and Laura through the chores, and we also hear Ma's poem about work days. And Baby Carrie gets her first off-hand mention.

   After this was done, Ma began the work that belonged to that day. Each day had its own proper work. Ma used to say:
   “Wash on Monday,
   Iron on Tuesday,
   Mend on Wednesday,
   Churn on Thursday,
   Clean on Friday,
   Bake on Saturday,
   Rest on Sunday.”
   Laura liked the churning and the baking days best of all the week.

We also get a story about a panther leaping on a horse and tearing its back off. Neat! What a neat story! Ha. Which brings me to a question, or rather a problem that I personally have going through these books: I DO NOT UNDERSTAND NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICA ECONOMICS.

How wealthy are the Ingalls? They have horses and cows and a pig every year. They seem to have more than enough salt to pack everything nice and tight and you never see any food spoiling. Pa has shiny silver bear traps, Ma has a butter churn and butter pat set-up that turns out strawberry-shaped butter pats (and she can afford to waste a carrot on churning day to make the butter yellow and pretty), and they have nice stiff paper to wrap meat in and to make paper dolls and paper clothes for the girls to play with. They also put little bits of red flannel in the kerosene lamp to make it pretty. Oh, and they have kerosene and fiddles.

I have no idea what sort of economic state we're looking at, but the Ingalls seem relatively comfortable? Maybe? And yet Laura doesn't have a rag doll. Her sister Mary does, but Laura has to make do with a corncob. What?

I do not understand this. I've done the quilting thing and the sewing thing and the doll making thing and the clothes making thing, okay? I've done that. I've made rag dolls. A little rag doll for a 3 year old is nothing. Some scraps, bits and pieces that are too small to use in anything else. You can put it together in a day, maybe two, and then the little kid has something cuddly and soft and All Their Very Own to treasure and take care of. Why does this not exist for Laura?

I initially thought that the Ingalls were too poor, and that every scrap in the house had to go into clothing and bedding and rags for rinsing pig fat off your hands. But they've got pieces of flannel in the kerosene to make it pretty. A story about a horse being killed by a panther is treated as a major nuisance, and not a financial hardship. Even if they inherited their butter pats and fiddles, and their animals and vegetable garden are in some kind of self-perpetuating breeding state, they don't have the quarter yard of fabric to make their daughter a rag doll??

I just think it's strange.

27 comments:

Anonymus said...

YAY

Majromax said...

Even if they inherited their butter pats and fiddles, and their animals and vegetable garden are in some kind of self-perpetuating breeding state, they don't have the quarter yard of fabric to make their daughter a rag doll??

I wonder if this is meant to establish Laura's credibility as a Virtuous Person, who does not need the trifling luxuries of life and is a willing sacrifice for the well-being and comfort of others. Even when she is (in this book) too young to make the "virtuous choice" herself, she has it so-nobly made on her behalf by her family.

EdinburghEye said...

OOO, Laura and the Little Houses!

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

Ah, so soon! See, all that stuff about the brown paper and the strawberry patten and so on? I said it on the last post, but here is proof for why rereading it as an older person (still only 15 or 16, mind) made me think that there was some language games being played to insinuate that the family was much farther from "civilization" than they really were. Which is why Laura only has a corncob doll.

It could also be an element of "look how much in the past this story takes place - isn't it quaint, dear children of the 1920s/1930s?" - I think there are cornhusk dolls in Strawberry Girl about 1890s lake region Florida Cracker families, written in the 1940s, though that story has its own problems and Lowry was trying to exaggerate how poor and uncivilized the Florida Cracker families were, compared to the family that moved into the region from further north and actually wore shoes (in a florida summer?! in the 1890s?!)

Isabel C. said...

It's especially interesting in light of the subsequent books, where they often really *don't* have enough food, and losing a horse or a cow is a real problem.

And while it may be that Wisconsin was just an easier place to live, I'm also inclined to believe that a lot of this was down to four-year-old Laura remembering things as much more comfortable than they were, in that way where people often remember their very young childhood. My guess would be that the carrot and flannel thing was sometimes, and the fiddle and butter paddles a minor luxury, and that a lot of the stress of the OMGPANTHERWTF was something either the adults or older-Laura elided over because, well, kid.

Life in this book is way idealized, in general; much more so than in Prairie and onward.

Loquat said...

They seem to have more than enough salt to pack everything nice and tight and you never see any food spoiling.

When the quality of your home food preservation is going to directly influence whether your family risks starvation over the winter, salt is one of the last things you cut corners on.

Also, if I may wander off-topic, this book on the history of salt usage is really interesting. Salt was the major food preservative in Europe before the invention of canning, and salt fish was really big business. Also, one of the factors contributing to the French Revolution was the salt tax, which varied dramatically from province to province, thus inspiring widespread salt smuggling from low-tax areas into high-tax areas, which the government really hated and punished harshly whenever possible.

Ana Mardoll said...

Right! And they have no problems purchasing enough. So they're not hovering on the brink of poverty, it would seem. Data point. :)

GeniusLemur said...

If they've got a day budgeted to iron, they can't be short of time, food, fuel, or labor. Pre-electric ironing is a big job. I was going to say it was ridiculous that they bothered with it, but I looked it up before I posted, and apparently lots of poor families did.

Silver Adept said...

I think I read somewhere on the Interwebs that Laura is the disfavored child in the family, and thus doesn't get the nice things or other parts that the other daughter(s?) get. Which seems to clash with the apparent wealth of the family. Perhaps Little House is supposed to be a bit of a Pioneer Cinderella?

Makabit said...

Certainly at this point they are fairly affluent people (and as folks are pointing out, not quite as isolated or self-sufficient as the series likes to imply), so I don't think Laura's lack of toys can be a poverty-based thing. Later, when they visit the grandparents (?) for Christmas, it's fairly clear there's money in the family for dress-up clothes and the like.

The only thing I can think of is that perhaps a doll is, to these people, not something you give a very small child, but something she gets at maybe five or six, when she is old enough to play at being a mother. Possibly Laura has not previously been old enough to want one/ask for one, and as the book opens, both adults are working their butts off getting set for winter. (And I don't think Pa is able to sew a doll anyway.) It may be that Ma is burning daylight, and is too wrecked by evening to think about taking up an unnecessary sewing project.

So we may be seeing the memory of the point between "Laura starts to notice Mary's doll and want one of her own," and "It occurs to Ma to stitch one up for her".

She does eventually get one, but for the life of me, I can't recall when. It's not that Christmas is it? Which would make sense to me.

But it can't be a financial thing. These are not people who are strapped for a few rags.

As for ironing, that's another example of the consciousness they have throughout the series of being very respectable, educated, genteel people. Definitely not going to skip ironing.

Naomi said...

I am pretty sure that it is that Christmas. The gifts are mittens, a penny, and a stick of candy, plus Laura gets a doll. She's the only one who gets a doll, but the pioneer children are not jealous, because unlike you modern children, they are virtuous as well as being simple people who appreciate candy, mittens, and a penny.

(It's not just Mary and Carrie; there are cousins who came to visit.)

EdinburghEye said...

The only thing I can think of is that perhaps a doll is, to these people, not something you give a very small child, but something she gets at maybe five or six, when she is old enough to play at being a mother. Possibly Laura has not previously been old enough to want one/ask for one, and as the book opens, both adults are working their butts off getting set for winter. (And I don't think Pa is able to sew a doll anyway.) It may be that Ma is burning daylight, and is too wrecked by evening to think about taking up an unnecessary sewing project.

That would make sense. And then, having made one, it of course becomes set aside for the Christmas present (which happened to other nice things that were bought),

Randomosity said...

When I read these as a little kid, I identified very strongly with Laura and got immediately that Mary was the favorite.

cjmr said...

In BIg Woods, they are still in Wisconsin where family was, and *were* still relatively well off at that time.

The bits of red flannel in the kerosene were probably very small scraps left over from making everyone's long winter underwear (or even bits from worn out long winter underwear). Small bits like that are not likely to make dolls from.

The churn may have been hand made. The custom butter stamp almost certainly was hand carved, probably by Pa.

Ana Mardoll said...

Sure, but that's why "scrap dolls" exist. I've seen them. Really, just the whole idea of a child without a single toy of their own or something cuddly to hold for the first three+ years of their life is really traumatizing to me. I love soft, plushy things.

Beguine said...

Maybe just a difference in the time investment means we're not taking into account how expensive fabric was as compared to food and other minor luxuries in that time period? I mean, if the whole piece of fabric has to be spun into fine thread and then woven by hand on a loom, I would imagine that's a lot of labor, even by the standards of the day, and the price might have been set accordingly.

Loquat said...

It's the late 1800's, though. Machine-made cloth had been around for quite a while, and I'd be amazed if they weren't, at least when they lived in Wisconsin, near enough to civilization to have some sort of store or trading post around bringing in factory-made cloth. Now, they may well have been far enough that the cost of shipping made cloth expensive, or far enough away from the store that getting new cloth was a major undertaking, but I don't think there was a lot of hand-spinning or hand-weaving being done.

Dav said...

I happen to have Sears-Roebuck catalogs from that era on hand. In the 1898 catalog, shipping to a listed town would be somewhere from .18-2.50/100 lbs., depending on where and how fast you wanted it. Sears had cloth (and everything else, from tassled hammocks to windmills to scrotal trusses). I can't find the cloth section - the catalog is over a thousand pages long, but IIRC, it was somewhere in the range of 3-7 cents/yard, with a few cheaper bargains and a lots more expensive (Irish linen and silks and fine cotton). By contrast, corn meal or oatmeal are about a cent a pound, pants are about $1.25-2.50. The 1875 Montgomery Ward catalog was selling gingham for ~9 cents/yard, flannel around 15. I'm not sure if industrialization made those prices drop or if I'm misremembering the Sears prices, though.

But maybe it was one of those things that was tough to trade for, and finding cash just for fabric might have been a stretch, especially for what was essentially a luxury item.

Another data point: I know when I asked for a doll (one of the American Girl dolls, haha oh god), my parents gave me a cheap one to see if I'd play with it and take care of it. The corncob could be something like that.

Ana Mardoll said...

Fascinating on the numbers! I always find it amazing to see how values have changed over time.

I do know that, when they visit town, Pa buys a bolt of cloth for an apron and Ma insists that it's wasteful and she doesn't need one, but Pa says it's a gift and if she doesn't pick out a nice fabric, he'll just buy an ugly one instead. And Laura describes the store as being just bursting with different cloths. So there's that.

The thought also occurs that pale, undyed cloth (like one could use for a skin tone on a doll for a white kid) is basically the cheap "default" form that cloth comes in, especially if the local community sells homespun wool cloth in addition to calico from New York or wherever.

The patterned, dyed stuff that Pa and Ma buys, with roses and leaves and such, generally costs MORE, both now and presumably then. (They don't have that stuff in Farmer Boy, despite the family being the richest family in town. Ma makes her own cloth from wool.)

So I still find it very puzzling. It just seems like for the cost of a single diaper or a single pair of panties, you could have a doll. If they're so poor that isn't possible, then well. But the text doesn't show them as that poor, as far as I can see.

cjmr said...

Actually, in Farmer Boy, Ma makes fabric from wool for work clothes and for the boys to wear, but she and Pa and the girls have good clothes made out of store cloth. And Almanzo's family is relatively rich based on the number of animals they have (especially horses), and the amount of land they have, and the amount of food they eat.

Ursula L said...

So we may be seeing the memory of the point between "Laura starts to notice Mary's doll and want one of her own," and "It occurs to Ma to stitch one up for her".

She does eventually get one, but for the life of me, I can't recall when. It's not that Christmas is it? Which would make sense to me.

Ursula L said...

Ha. Which brings me to a question, or rather a problem that I personally have going through these books: I DO NOT UNDERSTAND NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICA ECONOMICS.

How wealthy are the Ingalls? They have horses and cows and a pig every year. They seem to have more than enough salt to pack everything nice and tight and you never see any food spoiling. Pa has shiny silver bear traps, Ma has a butter churn and butter pat set-up that turns out strawberry-shaped butter pats (and she can afford to waste a carrot on churning day to make the butter yellow and pretty), and they have nice stiff paper to wrap meat in and to make paper dolls and paper clothes for the girls to play with. They also put little bits of red flannel in the kerosene lamp to make it pretty. Oh, and they have kerosene and fiddles.


The distinction seems to be between things they can grow or gather or make themselves, things that are traded around the large extended family they had in Wisconsin, and things they need to have cash to get.

A carrot to make butter yellow? That's something they grew themselves, from seeds they save from year to year. And it isn't wasted - the leftover cooked carrot is eaten.

The horses may not have been bought - It is quite possible that someone in the extended family raises horses. The same with having a cow, and pigs. They get rennet for cheese-making from one of Laura's uncles - his cow had a male calf, which was butchered young, while their cow had a female calf, which they wanted to raise in order to have a second milk cow in a few years.

The things that are abundant are things that are part of the non-cash economy, made themselves or cooperatively with extended family.

Things that have to be bought are rarer in the story. They're almost all durable items. A fiddle, rifle or bear trap is a one-time purchase, and will last for years with proper care. And we see these items being cared for and protected. Fabric has to be bought, and every scrap is used and reused.

Pretty much the only thing we see them buying in LHITBW that isn't reusable is kerosene and salt. And the occasional small luxury - sugar and white flour for when guests come, a piece of candy for each child at Christmas.

In LHITBW the family's cash seems to come primarily from trapping and fur trading. The move at the beginning of LHOTP is prompted by the increased difficulty of trapping as the place gets more crowded with people. Trapping continues to be the main source of income in LHOTP. Pa is described as carrying furs into town to trade.

But that's cash. The primary way in which the family supports itself in these books is a combination of subsistence farming, hunting and gathering.

In OTBOPC, the family tries to transition into living in the cash economy. Growing grain, for sale, and then buying what they need. And it is in some ways an easier life. But it means that if the grain crop fails, they face disaster.

If there is an economic theme to the whole series, it is that the cash economy can't be trusted. LHITBW and FB show the families living comfortably by providing for themselves directly. Particularly in FB, when they need things that are made by other people, they prefer barter to cash - rags traded for tin, leather for shoes, having the wool carded at a mill by paying in a share of the wool, but spinning it themselves rather than paying cash to have it spun at a mill.

cjmr said...

The Wilders do participate in the cash economy in FB, though. They sell two fine young colts for $200 each and an entire potato cellar full of potatoes for $500. (I'm about halfway through the book on my re-read.)

Ursula L said...

The Wilders do participate in the cash economy in FB, though. They sell two fine young colts for $200 each and an entire potato cellar full of potatoes for $500. (I'm about halfway through the book on my re-read.)

Yes, they did participate, some, in the cash economy. They're living in a way that is not purely self-sufficient.

But the vast majority of what they survive with they produce themselves, rather than getting through the cash economy.

And the stuff that they do sell is the surplus of what they produce for their own use. The story is showing us that diversified farming with the aim of self-sufficiency will, if you're good at it, produce enough extra that you'll be able to get a little from the cash economy. Cash to pay taxes (and the fact that taxes had to be paid in cash was a sore spot for farmers - this is after the Whiskey Rebellion, but the same problem applies, where the value of what you are taxed on isn't naturally available to you as cash.) Cash for the occasional luxury, such as white sugar for special occasions, while your homemade maple sugar is for everyday.

And, more dangerously, cash that you can use to buy things more easily than you can make them - avoid the work of spinning and weaving by buying cloth. The temptation to give up self-sufficiency for the sake of ease.

So they raise horses. The primary purpose is for their own use - they have old, gentle horses that even a small boy can work with, younger, stronger horses for the heavy labor, mares kept in foal, young horses they will train. And some years, they have more horses than they need for their own use. Those can be trained and sold.

Likewise with potatoes, and other food. They grow food of all sorts for their own use. They also supplement their food with gathering (such as berries) and fishing, which they see as recreational. And they produce enough extra that they can sell some of it, after their own needs are met. We see them sell things like potatoes and butter, but we also see them eating these foods, in great abundance. What is sold is what they've produced above and beyond their own needs.

But, later in the series, both families shift from focusing their work on production of what they need. Instead, they're tempted into the cash economy by the imagined potential of wheat as a cash crop. This results, repeatedly, in disaster. Wheat crops fail, lost to locusts, drought, hailstorms, etc. When the wheat does grow well, it grows too well, and there are too many farmers growing wheat, so the price they can sell it for drops. And since they haven't worked to produce the things they need to live, they have to go into debt to get supplies to survive until the next harvest.

They give in to the temptation of the cash economy. Raising wheat with the new farm machines available is easier for them than the work of producing everything themselves. It ought to work, creating a more comfortable life, where the things they need are bought with cash, which they should have in abundance from selling wheat.

The series arc starts with what is presented as ideal. A life that involves hard work to be self-sufficient. But which provides security, abundance, and variety. (Many types of meat from farming and hunting, many types of vegetables from gardening and farming.) Later, as the cash economy comes to dominate their lives, there is hardship, insecurity, and boring food (cornmeal, beans, a little salt pork, but none of the pumpkin, wild honey, maple sugar, homemade cheese and butter, fruits, etc. that make up the food porn of the first part of the series.)

Ursula L said...

I happen to have Sears-Roebuck catalogs from that era on hand. In the 1898 catalog, shipping to a listed town would be somewhere from .18-2.50/100 lbs., depending on where and how fast you wanted it. Sears had cloth (and everything else, from tassled hammocks to windmills to scrotal trusses). I can't find the cloth section - the catalog is over a thousand pages long, but IIRC, it was somewhere in the range of 3-7 cents/yard, with a few cheaper bargains and a lots more expensive (Irish linen and silks and fine cotton). By contrast, corn meal or oatmeal are about a cent a pound, pants are about $1.25-2.50. The 1875 Montgomery Ward catalog was selling gingham for ~9 cents/yard, flannel around 15. I'm not sure if industrialization made those prices drop or if I'm misremembering the Sears prices, though.

A catalog from 1898 is not from the "era" of Little House in the Big Woods,, which is set in the early 1870s. There are a lot of changes that happened between those dates. It isn't really from the era of any of the original "Little House" books.

One of the most significant changes, in terms of what a family in the most rural parts of Wisconsin would have access to in the 1870s, is the development of the railroad system. The first transcontinental railroad was only completed in 1869. But that was just one line running from east to west. For practical access to manufactured goods, you needed a rail system that was a web across the whole country, so that goods could be transported to everyone, everywhere. And that took decades more to develop.

Sears, of the catalog you mentioned, wasn't established until 1886. They issued their first catalog in 1888. The catalog business didn't really even start to become the catalog business as we think of it until the mid-1890s. It's really a phenomenon more of the early 20th century than the mid- to late- 19th. It wasn't even a dream for the characters in any of the "Little House" books at the time they're set.

The industrial revolution did not happen anywhere at once. It started in well-established towns located near rivers that could provide water power for mills. While they began to provide cheap goods locally, it took decades more for transportation to catch up so that the goods could be distributed widely in an affordable way. The necessary transportation developed much earlier in already densely populated places like Britain and the US Northeast coast, and took much longer to spread inland and into areas on the fringes of European settlement, where the stories are set.

These stories take place in times and places gradually transforming from a pre-industrial to an industrial economy. And they're about families which are, as this transformation takes place, and for a variety of reasons, frequently relocating from areas where this transformation is beginning to accelerate to places it has not yet reached.

An 1898 Sears catalog isn't just anachronistic for understanding these stories. It's actively misleading. It relies on decades of development in manufacturing, distribution, and retail business models that hadn't happened yet. And even as this development was happening, it wasn't reaching the places where these family were living, yet.

Take away the advancements in industrialization between 1870 and 1898. The advancements in shipping and transportation between 1870 and 1898. And the advances in retail business models between 1870 and 1898. What you're left with is people making what they need, with what is available locally, and using only a small amount of manufactured goods, transported at great difficulty and expense, from far away.

Guest said...

Some readers might remember a show on US public television called Frontier House, which someone more snide than myself might call Little House Reality TV. I never watched it, but the producers consulted with a whole class of people who actually know how to do all this nineteenth-century frontier stuff: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/frontierhouse/project/experts.html Of course this is just my way of saying that a work of fiction is probably not the best place to look for the hard facts. That being said, I will recommend a novel called Independent People by Halldor Laxness, which I will flippantly and inaccurately describe as Little House in Iceland. The young child in that book plays with sheep bones; he pretends that he has a flock just like his dad.

Guest said...

Some readers might remember a show on US public television called Frontier House, which someone more snide than myself might call Little House Reality TV. I never watched it, but the producers consulted with a whole class of people who actually know how to do all this nineteenth-century frontier stuff: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/frontierhouse/project/experts.html Of course this is just my way of saying that a work of fiction is probably not the best place to look for the hard facts. That being said, I will recommend a novel called Independent People by Halldor Laxness, which I will flippantly and inaccurately describe as Little House in Iceland. The young child in that book plays with sheep bones; he pretends that he has a flock just like his dad.

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