It should come as no surprise that people living in the original 13 colonies lived harder lives than contemporary Americans, without the benefit of modern conveniences. But colonists still found ways to get their work done, make themselves a little more comfortable—and even have some fun. From farming implements to kitchenware to toys, these 13 objects were commonplace in homes during the colonial period.
In the days before fire departments, the entire community was tasked with putting out fires. Few houses were without a fire bucket, made of heavy leather and kept by the front door. People lined up and passed the water-filled buckets from hand to hand to put out the blaze; empty buckets were sent back along the line to be filled again.
This important farming tool consisted of two wooden sticks—a long handle and a shorter stick known as a swingle or swipe—joined by a leather strap, a rope or a short chain. Colonial farmers used flails to beat or “thresh” wheat and other grains in order to remove the seeds and husks.
Bayberry, Tallow and Whale Oil Candles
In the days before electricity, candles were a fixture in colonial homes. Many people made their own candles by boiling berries from the bayberry bush and skimming the thick greenish wax off the top. Farmers and hunters also collected and saved fat from animals to make tallow candles. But the brightest, longest-lasting (and most expensive) candles were made from spermaceti, a waxy material found in the head of a sperm whale.
Most colonists didn’t have access to (or couldn’t afford) pre-made fabric, so they made their own, often from sheep’s wool. A key part of this process was carding, which involved pulling the wool fibers back and forth between two thin, rectangular boards (cards) covered with wire teeth. Carding removed tangles and ensured that all the wool faced the same direction, making it easier to spin it into thread.
Though many boys learned to read and write from their parents or local ministers, and others received a more formal education, that wasn’t considered necessary for girls. Many colonial-era children learned the alphabet, numbers and other basics (like the Lord’s Prayer) by using a hornbook, a sheet of paper mounted on a tablet of wood, leather or bone, and covered by a thin strip of transparent horn.
No well-brought-up young girl in colonial America would be without her sampler, the ubiquitous piece of embroidered cloth on which she practiced the basic skills of needlework. Samplers ranged from simple letters and numbers to poems, family records and elaborate depictions of religious or pastoral scenes.
Without manufactured or electronic toys, many children played with games and toys made from common materials found around the house. The whirligig was a simple whirling toy made from a circular disc (made of bone, clay or even a spare button) with a string threaded through its center. By pulling the string tight and releasing it, children could set the whirligig whirring and buzzing.
This trick for making homes smell good actually dates back to medieval Europe; its name comes from the French pomme d’ambre, meaning “apple of amber.” A piece of fruit—usually an orange—would be studded with cloves and rubbed with oils and spices to make it extra fragrant. Pomanders were often hung on ribbons and used as decorations, especially around the holidays.
Colonial-era homes could get brutally cold in the winter. Before getting in bed, people would sometimes heat the bedsheets by filling these circular metal pans with coal, inserting them into their beds, and moving it rapidly back and forth to avoid burning the sheets. When not in use, warming pans were often hung by the kitchen fireplace.
At many colonial dinner tables, the salt cellar, or “standing salt,” served as a centerpiece. In a tradition brought over from medieval Europe, the salt cellar also indicated the status of the diners: Those seated “above the salt” (near the end of the table where the host and hostess sat) were the guests of honor. Children and less important guests sat in the middle or at the other end of the table, or “below the salt.”
Sugar, a relative luxury at the time, was often sold in loaves or cones that could weigh up to 10 pounds each. This tool, also known as sugar shears or sugar cutters, allowed people to cut small pieces off the cones to stir into their tea or grind using a mortar and pestle to make granulated sugar.
When it came to setting the colonial table, one of the most important objects was the trencher. These thick, rectangular wooden dishes had hollowed-out spaces in the middle for food. Colonists ate directly from the simple plates, often with their hands, as utensils (other than spoons) didn’t become commonplace until the 18th century.
Watches and clocks were scarce in colonial America. Instead, most people relied on the sun to tell time. To track the sun as it moved across the sky from east to west, they used sundials. These ancient devices told time by the shadow of a pointer cast by the sun onto a metal plate marked with the hours, and were almost as accurate as the mechanical timepieces of the day. Alternatively, people would scratch marks into a window sill or threshold, indicating the position of the sun at noon.