Daily minutia of the early 1800s?
April 11, 2005 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Are there any good books that focus on the daily minutia of life in the late 1700s and/or early 1800s?

Two of the most recent books on my reading list, The Lunar Men and A Short History of Nearly Everything, at least in part touch on this era. The more I read about this time the more curious I get about the day-to-day trivialities of life back then compared to today. I’m less concerned with the big history items and more interested in things like what was the process of getting groceries; what would you find at a society club; how often did they do laundry; what was a day like for a student, lawyer, carpenter, or bar tender, etc etc. Searching library databases and online bookstores pull up too many results to zero in on this aspect.
posted by Slack-a-gogo to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you be a little more specific about location and social class? For example, everyday life among the wealthy in Philadelphia (USA), in the year 1800 would be significantly different than life in an African village at that time, or among Chinese merchants, etc. There are some excellent social histories that focus on everyday life in particular places at that time, but I suspect you have a particular place in mind.
posted by arco at 12:09 PM on April 11, 2005

I haven't read it yet, but this book may be of use:
Everyday Life in the 1800s: A Guide for Writers, Students & Historians (Writer's Guides to Everyday Life). I saw some other books like it but for different (later eras) just tooling around through the Amazon system after I found this one. I wouldn't be surprised if there were others that went earlier and captured the late 1700s for you. Good Luck!
posted by safetyfork at 12:17 PM on April 11, 2005

The wonderful diary of Martha Ballard is available online, but it's best seen through the eyes of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard. From my memory of the book, it contains exactly what you want. It's a detailed diary of one woman and her life (in Maine?) during the late 1700s and the early 1800s.
posted by jdroth at 12:25 PM on April 11, 2005

Check out the re-created Colonial Old Sturbridge Village (Sturbridge, Massachusetts).

The Reshaping of Everyday Life : 1790-1840 (Everyday Life in America) - by OSV historian Jack Larkin. There might be other books of interest for you in the OSV online bookstore.
posted by ericb at 12:31 PM on April 11, 2005

I second Ericb's recommendation of Larkin, who has a charming "Ask Jack" column at the Old Sturbridge Village website where kids ask history questions such as "Did kids in the 1830s make snowmen?" (Hey, would this make a good FPP?)
posted by LarryC at 12:43 PM on April 11, 2005

If you're looking for contemporary, fictionalized accounts, and if 400 years earlier holds any interest for you, you might want to give a look to Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. And then, To Say Nothing of the Dog takes some of the same characters to the late 1800s. Stephenson's Quicksilver is set in that general time period as well, but I'm finding it a bit of a slog to get through. They all seem to be pretty well researched and detailed though.
posted by willnot at 1:36 PM on April 11, 2005

arco - I guess I was thinking of the US and Europe, but I left it a little vague in case somebody suggested something similar that I wouldn't have thought of. As for social class - both books I mentioned focused on the upperclass, but I'm actually interested in any class.

There are some great suggestions - a few of which I'm not sure how I missed in various Amazon and Google searches.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 1:59 PM on April 11, 2005

I enjoy reading Victorian literature, and have found an excellent companion in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. It focuses almost exclusively on giving backgrounds and explanations of those sorts of things (social roles and events, routines of household servants, etc.) which would be commonplace to someone living during that period, but which are lost on us today.
posted by scribblative at 2:19 PM on April 11, 2005

I loved Diary of an Early American Boy when I read it (over and over again) in elementary school. It's like a "How Things Work" for an 18th-century farm. I can still remember the drawing of how to make nails, and how it had never occurred to me that nails were something someone had to make, before you could buy them at the store.
posted by fuzz at 2:50 PM on April 11, 2005

Life of Johnson, James Boswell's biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson, covers the daily minutae of a late-1700s literary figure. I don't think it offers much insight into Dr. Johnson's laundry routines, however.

And I second the Connie Willis recommendation.
posted by gentle at 3:17 PM on April 11, 2005

A hearty second for "The Midwife's Tale". First-hand diary accounts by ordinary people are rare treasures, and this one is splendid. Ulrich's contextualization is helpful, never intrusive.
posted by briank at 3:23 PM on April 11, 2005

Old cookbooks sometimes contained household management advice for e.g. bleaching muslin, treating illnesses w/o medical help.
posted by Cranberry at 3:45 PM on April 11, 2005

Third Larkin and Ulrich -- also see Ulrich's The Age of Homespun, Hawke's Everyday Life in Early America (it's in Larkin's series), Nylander's Our Own Snug Fireside,and At Home by Elisabeth Garrett - it's loaded with daily-life information, and she's my boss, so I gotta give props.

For foodways, an excellent and fun book is Sandy Oliver's Saltwater Foodways.

Soprry for the New England bias, but the southern colonies are a whole 'nother kettle of fish which I don't know a whole lot about.
posted by Miko at 6:06 PM on April 11, 2005

The Refinement of America : Persons, Houses, Cities by RICHARD LYMAN BUSHMAN--a great book--it even listed how many spoons and dishes one generation of a family had compared to their children's, and how the houses changed and the education and even the things they put on their walls, and how far they would send their children alone and how far escorted. It was fascinating--it covered middleclass and higher people (and people who aspired to be higher) throughout the MidAtlantic in that era--based on diaries and letters and wills and tax and legal proceedings of the era. Totally fascinating.
posted by amberglow at 7:22 PM on April 11, 2005

I can't recommend it highly enough, Slack : >
posted by amberglow at 7:24 PM on April 11, 2005

NepotismFilter: speaking of midwives (and their tales), my sister's book on 18th century sex, midwifery, childbirth, urban legends about women giving birth to rabbits (think Weekly World News in the reign of George III), etc. is forthcoming any day now. (We're all horrified that Amazon has bumped the price up to $99 -- it was a $30 pre-order till recently! So maybe the price will go back down, or possibly it will eventually show up used. In any case, I know that there's a lot in there that's right up your alley.)
posted by scody at 10:19 PM on April 11, 2005

You might try the History of Private Life series. Here's the blurb from Amazon:

These volumes, edited by Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, are aimed at both the scholar and layperson who wonder how people lived and behaved from ancient times to the present: "their thoughts, their feelings, their bodies, their attitudes, their habits and habitations, their codes, their marks, and their signs." The focus is on western European life, primarily French.
posted by luneray at 10:21 PM on April 11, 2005

Oh, and another one you might enjoy as well is Confidence Men and Painted Women. It's a little later than you specify (roughly 1820s through the Civil War), but it's a fascinating look at the rise of middle-class American culture in the form of things like etiquette manuals, mourning rituals, fashion, etc.
posted by scody at 10:26 PM on April 11, 2005

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