Life of an American Colonial Child

            On June 11, the Mattapoisett Museum hosted a presentation by two of the Fairhaven Village Militia, who gave youngsters a peek at the lives of children during the colonial era, starting with the clothing.

            Lori Richards portrayed a middle-class homemaker, while Skip Faulkner represented her male counterpart. Richards began by describing the clothing from those earliest days.

            Homespun threads of wool and cotton from carded fibers was the first process used to create threads. Once drawn through the carding combs, the threads were twisted and spun on a spinning wheel to create long seamless strands. These would later be turned into lengths of cloth using a loom. The homespun cloths were used to make clothing for the family members and were worn with care to ensure, as best as possible, that they could not become stained or ruined.

            Richards said that it was not uncommon for women to wear as many as 10 skirts during the cold seasons but no less than three or four during the warmer months. When asked if she felt uncomfortable or hot in her replica garments, she said no, explaining that the natural fabrics used allow the body to sweat and breath, unlike the synthetic materials used today. Faulkner added that aprons were used by both men and women to help in keeping clothing clean. “These weren’t laundered but were aired out from time to time,” he said.

            Richards told the youth-filled audience that long before children of this era wore everyday clothing like their parents, they wore long dresses. “From infants to children around (age) five or six wore long, white dresses to show they were very young, not ready yet to have chores. Boys and girls wore the same type of gowns and had long hair.”

            Faulkner described a man’s clothing as comprising long stockings, pantaloons that stopped at the knees, linen shirts, a waistcoat, leather shoes with detached buckles and a hat. Like women of the era, a man always wore a hat outside the home and took good care of it. Hats provided protection from the sun and the rain, he said. Hats were often decorated with an emblem noting an affiliation with a group or a political group. Richards said that women always kept their heads covered, sometimes with a cloth cap and a bonnet on top.

            Clothing had to last, the presenters emphasized, because cloth was difficult to produce in quantities sufficient to clothe an entire family. “It took about 9 yards to make a full set of clothes,” Faulkner explained. “Hence the phrase ‘the whole 9 yards’ came into being.”

            Bathing habits were briefly addressed, as Richards said that full-body bathing was not the trend during this era but that people did keep themselves clean through spot washing. Dental hygiene, however, suffered.

            Richards said that charcoal might be rubbed on the teeth as grit to clean the tooth surfaces, but that brushes were yet to be invented. “By the time people were 40 to 45, they had lost most of their teeth,” he said.

            Girls, after the stage of wearing long infant gowns, wore clothing that resembled adults’ outfits. They were also conscripted to do woman’s work in the kitchen, or caring for younger siblings, or sewing, or all of these tasks, chores and more. Dishes, pots and pans were crafted from metal, wood or sometimes pottery. Forks had two or three tines only. Washing up after meals fell to the young girls.

            Boys were expected to follow their male leads into the farm fields, out on the fishing boats or into merchant trades.

            Faulkner said that men between the ages of 16 and 60 who were not paid soldiers had to belong to local militia units and to participate in weekly drills. Teenagers were considered adults, it was noted.

            Children were primarily home-schooled or went to church schools to learn basic reading, writing and computation skills, Richards said. She said that children were taught reading, using a New England Primer first printed in 1790s for the colonies.

            Neither boys nor girls had much in the way of leisure time with the possible exception of after church on Sundays and even then, play most likely had to have a religious theme. Fishing on Sundays was permitted, Faulkner said, because although it could be considered a recreational activity, it also provided food if the angler was successful.

            The children in attendance were given the opportunity to try games played by earlier colonial children or try on period articles of clothing. One game the kids found interesting was the Jacob’s Ladder. The toy gives the illusion of wooden blocks sliding from one to another and is named after the biblical reference in Genesis of the stairway to heaven.

            As the presentation drew to a close, the children were fascinated by the early toy replicas and used them with the same joyful abandon their early counterparts enjoyed in spite of having cell phones in their back pockets.

            To learn about upcoming events at the Mattapoisett Museum, visit

Mattapoisett Museum

By Marilou Newell

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