Home and Work

In 1850s Bridgeton, the workday consumed most of the week; homelife offered few amenities.

by Vince Farinaccio

From William C. Mulford’s viewpoint in 1937, the year he wrote his account about life in Bridgeton in 1850, the home had provided “the most changes in living conditions” in the 87 years since the mid-19th century.

“In 1850,” he writes, “there were no phonographs, radios or telephones; no gas or electricity for lighting, heating, cooking or refrigeration; no electric sweepers or washing machines; no running water circulating in the house or the toilet facilities made possible thereby. No satisfactory way of heating the houses. When evening came, there was no local daily paper to read, no ‘movie’ to see or automobile available for a pleasant ride.”

It’s interesting to note that the amenities referenced by Mulford are still with us 84 years later, albeit improved and expanded by technology. But in 1850, such conveniences existed only in the realm of science fiction. Like the rest of the world, Bridgeton residents found enjoyment in what they did have or, as Mulford states, in how they used what they had.

“Some households had a cabinet organ,” he explains, “and more had the little melodeon—that instrument with a keyboard similar to a piano, reed back of each key, the necessary ‘wind’ for which was supplied by vigorously working the pedals. Some few families had pianos.” Such instruments allowed for singalongs among family members and neighbors.

“Then think of the joy had on those straw rides in the Summer and the sleighing parties in the Winter,” Mulford notes before wondering “whether the automobile has any real advantage over a fine driving horse hitched to a late style Brewster buggy…There was more safety with the horse. It is safer to take a hand off the steering wheel at 10 miles per hour than at 50.”

Lectures and concerts provided public entertainment, but checkers, chess, dominoes and card games could occupy family and friends as well but, as Mulford points out, there was less leisure time with the workday usually 10 to 12 hours, six days a week.

Mulford considers the most important household ingredient in 1850 to be the kitchen stove, what he calls a “cast-iron, wood-burning cook stove, often the only stove in the house and always important in cooking, baking or when washing, ironing, preserving, etc.” At the time, linen clothes were “placed in a wash-boiler on top of the stove” and “flat irons” were heated on the stove top on ironing days.

These stoves would have been commonplace with a similar appearance—“the firebox at one end and a large oven taking up the balance of the space, the heat from the fire passing over and around the oven. Over the fire chamber were two openings where pots, pans, boilers, etc. were set and similar openings over the oven…” A constant supply of wood was necessary to keep the flame going all day and iron lids were used to cover openings when less heat was desired.

Bedrooms were equipped with “washstands on which were wash-bowls, pitchers and receptacles for used water.” When clothes needed washing, “two wooden tubs were placed on a bench, the scrub board was provided and then there was an opportunity for plenty of physical exercise.”

Office equipment, Mulford, says, “was just as primitive as…that of the 1850 home.” Goose and turkey quills were still used for writing and “fine dry sand…was sifted over the paper after writing to absorb the surplus ink…”

But it’s Mulford’s description of the 1850 style of office furniture that reads like something out of a Charles Dickens novel: “The most modern office equipment at that time was a high desk and a high stool so that the bookkeeper could alternate sitting and standing during his ten hours of labor.”

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