Examples of surprising aspects of everyday life during past times
October 11, 2015 5:24 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of unexpected (and not widely known) practices of everyday life from bygone eras. I'll give a few examples of the type of information I seek.

In modern society, people usually sleep through the night -- or attempt to do so, anyway. However, before the Industrial Revolution, the standard "system" for sleep was to wake up in the middle of the night for about an hour, and then go back to sleep until morning. This sleep pattern is called "segmented sleep" or "divided sleep" (there are other names, as well).

This NPR article claims that people used to eat four meals per day (the final meal of the day was called a "second supper" or "rere supper"), although there is some disagreement about how common this practice actually was.

Premarital sex was surprisingly common during the 1700s in America, with something like 30% or 40% of New England brides being pregnant at their weddings.

I'm looking for other examples, and not necessarily limited to just the West.
posted by akk2014 to Society & Culture (41 answers total) 161 users marked this as a favorite
I believe mail delivery used to be quite more frequent prior to the 1920s, with some routes getting visits 5-10 times per day, meaning that two people on opposite sides of the same city could have a back and forth conversation in not quite real time but not terribly far from it, either.

It's a great parallel for "modern" communication styles like email and texting. Some people bemoan the loss of letter writing as a form of communication, but now it takes 2-3 days to get a letter that used to be delivered within a few hours.
posted by phunniemee at 6:39 AM on October 11, 2015 [30 favorites]

Many homes shared the same phone number. Called a party line, they also rented the phone from the phone company.
posted by parmanparman at 6:50 AM on October 11, 2015 [9 favorites]

The median age of first marriage in the US was considerably higher in 1890 than in 1950. People think of the 1950s as the norm, but really it was an anomaly in terms of how early people got married. The median age of first marriage in 1890 was 26.5 for men and 23.5 for women in 1890 as shown here.
posted by peacheater at 7:03 AM on October 11, 2015 [14 favorites]

parmanparman.. I just started to write about my grandmother's party line but got distracted. The phone would ring differently depending on the person being called. Two short rings versus 1 long ring, etc. My mom worked for the phone company (so did I) and she had one location that they had 7 party line. You could pick up and listen to someone else's call. I suspect lots of gossip got around that way.

I also used to work the phone rental desk at the local hardware store. If it broke you brought in in for a new one (or had a house fire-I saw some crazy phones come in the store). You also used to have to pay for touch tone! $1.43 in Massachusetts.
posted by beccaj at 7:18 AM on October 11, 2015

"Bygone eras" covers all of human history. We used to practice chasing mammoths for food in one bygone era.

I'm sure that sex, premarital and otherwise, has always enjoyed a pretty consistent level of popularity. Faithful adherence to religious prohibitions of sex is the outlier here, not the other way around.

I'm skeptical of claims that our sleep pattern has altered recently. They seem based on anecdotal evidence, and even evidence in literature. However, before artificial lighting, we probably all went to bed earlier and woke up earlier. Agricultural demands an early rise because the animals often wake with the sun. The industrial era introduced a lot more noise and light into the nighttime hours. That has an obvious impact on sleep patterns. We were also likely more physically tired at the end of a day on the farm, and more stressed at the end of the day in the industrial era.

I wouldn't be surprised if party lines are still around in parts of the U.S. and elsewhere. It's a cost effective way of providing phone service.

Mail delivery in the U.S. did happen more often some places. I think twice a day delivery, especially in dense urban locations, was common.

Many differences would break down along the differences between a predominantly agricultural society and a predominantly industrial urbanized society. For example, ancient Rome in its heyday, when it topped a population of one million. had to deal with issues of height restrictions on multi-unit dwellings, regulation of building materials (fire prevention), waste disposal (mostly ignored, apparently), etc. Meanwhile, some of them were offering animal sacrifices in stone temples. In the American Civil War, troops would go AWOL in harvest time because their families were dependent on them to bring in the crops. (This was a particular issue for Confederate armies.)
posted by justcorbly at 7:55 AM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wet nurses - hiring poor women (or forcing enslaved women) to nurse your babies used to be incredibly common for wealthier mothers.
posted by Mchelly at 8:16 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Bundling - unmarried couples being allowed to sleep over together as part of courtship, but bundled up in sewn-in sleeping bags so they couldn't have sex.
posted by terretu at 8:34 AM on October 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Before clean drinking water was readily available people often had to go outside and walk a considerable distance to bring water back, and even then the water might be muddy, or bad tasting, or likely to make people sick.

As a result of this people washed themselves and their possessions with other fluids which might be more convenient to obtain. There is a ubiquitous line in ballads about washing in milk - that was quite common. Once the valuable butter fat had been skimmed off the remaining skim milk was not useful for much except a low-calorie pig food. It was often used for people's personal ablutions.

Milkmaid were known to wash their faces in milk, which was given as the reason they had such lovely complexions - although of course, having caught mild cowpox instead of horribly disfiguring smallpox also had something to do with it. Using butter as a moisturizer to prevent chapping in wet winter weather may have also helped.

A Victorian phrase of baby advice was to 'wash him in his own water'. If a diaper was wet but not soiled it made a fine cleaning rag. - As long as it was not sour and the skin dried out totally afterwards the bacteria that turns urine into ammonia would not cause problems. Urine in all states of transition could be used. It helped bleach linen and when turned completely into ammonia was an excellent powerful cleanser. The urine of a healthy person is close to sterile when it is first produced which is to say it could be much safer to use than sewage tainted water.

Due to the lack of lots of convenient water in many homes the dishes were wiped with a damp rag instead of being washed in a basin or a sink. This practice remained in poorer households until the 1930's.


Many people took purgatives on a regular basis. Hookworms could be picked up by walking barefoot, pin worms and even tape worms came from eating raw vegetables. The common vector was the lack of toilets that carefully isolated human sewage from the earth. The purgative would make you vomit strongly and have diarrhea. This expelled the mature worms, although of course it could be hard on the patient. Since people didn't know for sure how they picked up the worms it was a standard preventative that many people relied on just to make sure. It could also cure low grade intestinal disorders.


Because household lighting was inadequate people either went to bed as soon as it got dark and spent rainy days in bed or they spent their time on a covered porch. You know the tradition of sitting on the porch in the evening? That comes from it being too dark in the house. Porches were not luxuries, they were working class workrooms. Laundry, food preparation, sewing, mending, leather working, carpentry - all kinds of stuff was done on the porch just that was the only place there was enough light to do it.


Kitchens were often built completely separate from the rest of the house. In well to-do households there would be a winter kitchen and a summer kitchen. That was so that having a fire burning twenty-four hours did not overheat the house and make it unbearable in July and August (especially when things were being canned) and it reduced the fire risk also.

In large establishments like castles the kitchen was originally a series of detached sheds. The food was prepared so far away from the eating area that it was often served cold. Versailles was famous for its well chilled banquets.


During most of history slaves very rarely even considered running away. This is not only because there was nowhere to run to, but also because their status as a slave no more meant they reacted to it by running away than someone today regards their status as an employed person as a reason to run away. In many places it was much more convenient and productive for everybody for the slaves to live separately and run their own lives, so their owner rarely had input to them, other than when the slave delivered the proceeds of their labour. Slaves were often taught a trade as then you didn't have to buy goods from a skilled freeman and pay the type of prices a skilled tradesman demanded. You could get all your copper from your own slave, or all the shoes, or all the beer. Slaves were valuable to undercut prices.

This is NOT to say that slavery really wasn't so bad. In Classical Rome the law decreed that if a slave owner was murdered by one of his own slaves, than every single slave he owned had to be put to death including all the children. This often meant rounding up families that had been living miles away and knew nothing about the crime. Everybody hated this law - the slaves would have long standing neighbour relationships with the free people who might riot on their behalf, and the heirs of the deceased would be desperate to save slaves that they regarded as family members, even before you considered the massive reduction in their inheritance that would result.


Neeps were a ubiquitous food before the potato took over. Neeps are anything in the turnip family, including parsnips, turnips, (both of those words end in neep, you will notice) mangle-wurzels, rutabagas and rapunzels. They came in dozens of varieties. Potatoes had more starch (which meant more calories) and could be grown in worse ground so they took over the menu, but at first people considered potatoes far inferior to turnips because they had no flavour.

Our ancestors were not stupid or ignorant. Many of the things they did are considered inefficient or foolish now, but were the result of economies of scale. For example early farming involved lots of different widely separated fields being managed by one household. Instead of having the fields close to the house there were little fields dotted around all over for miles. These fields were not fenced and were too small to plough. Once all the farmers were kicked off the land and the fields were enclosed and properly ploughed the crop yield went up enormously.

However this was only practical once commerce had advanced to a state where if there was a crop failure replacement crops could be brought in to replace the one that had failed. Having many separate small fields meant they could be worked by hand, meant that the individual soil types could be used for different crops - some crops prefer acid and some prefer loam and some prefer sandy - and meant that weather, insects, animals and diseases were extremely unlikely to destroy all the crops.

This also made it easier to divide the fields up among family members. When a plot of land was worked in common, some people would be more responsible than others. When one brother was assigned one field and another brother was assigned a second one both would have incentive to tend the field as carefully as possible because they could not take advantage of the other or be deprived the benefit of their care.

One very inefficient way of harvesting grain was to tear it out of the ground while it was green and then stack it in a shed or barn to dry. The grain would continue to ripen the way that apples picked green will do. The yield would be a great deal less than if the grain was cut when it was ripe, but it also meant that fall rains could not spoil it, nor great flocks of birds come and land in the field and strip it bare and you could harvest early when the manpower was available, if you were worried about harvesting it later.


The "Puritan" attitude towards sex is really the Victorian attitude. Puritans were against wasting time and wasting resources. To them the biggest sin was to waste time with socializing. A major social no-no was hanging around on the doorstep chatting with your neighbour. When it came to sex though, sex was for the purpose of procreation, and procreation was good, and anyway, you usually had sex when it was too dark to do any work so it wasn't being lazy at all.

Many people in Europe and the New World practiced long engagements. The couple would be betrothed as soon as the families decided it was a workable pairing. Betrothals were very difficult to break and would result in much bad feeling and frequently lawsuits. This is because the benefits of the marriage began at the time that the betrothal began. Her brother might go to work for his father, his sisters might take over the spinning for the bride's family and major property might change hands, including the passing of the family business into the the grooms hands from his father. Jewelry or tools might change hands too.

But as to when the couple started having sex depended on their individual situation. A great many of them were still entirely dependent on family and balanced their sexual desires against the possibility of pregnancy. Sensible couples limited their activities to when pregnancy was unlikely to occur, or were celibate. For many people a betrothal that began when they were in their teens would turn into a marriage only when they were in their thirties. And the actual trigger that set the wedding date would be when she became pregnant. There was no stigma attached to the pregnancy whatsoever. Nor was the child a bastard if the father were away at sea and didn't get back for the wedding until after it was born.

The Victorians became extremely anti-sex because of the advantage of delayed reproduction. If a couple waited until she was in her thirties they did far better economically than the couple who started their child rearing when she was only seventeen or so. The infant mortality rate was dropping so that the advantage of having lots of babies early and often to ensure being able to raise some to adulthood was not equal to the advantage of waiting until they had a home of their own and only raising only a small handful of kids. Similarly the diverse family farm with work that children of all ages could contribute to was giving way to mono cultural farms, and factory or manufacturing labour where the machines were too big and too dangerous for people to want to let their kids work there until they were twelve or so. On the farm a five year old could do lots of useful work, like bringing water to the men in the fields and picking stones to improve the soil, and looking for eggs and scaring crows and making sure the one and a half year old didn't fall into the well, but there were not a vast array of useful chores available for five-year-olds in factories and on mono-cultural farms where the soil was worked by machinery instead of by hand. So they wanted to have less kids and did and one of the means they did this was by having huge social restrictions on sex.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:52 AM on October 11, 2015 [300 favorites]

Actually on a surprising note, there are now theories that we didn't used to chase mammoths back in the olden days, but instead lay in wait for sick & dying ones at waterholes/salt licks and just take the bones meat etc we needed from the ones that died there, maybe hurrying a few sick ones along. That's not to say other game wasn't hunted of course. The new theories based on modern finds at old sites & suggest that net hunting by the whole tribe & snare hunting might have played a more major part in food gathering than previously thought. Of course like a lot of stuff that happened so far back then you can find theories a plenty.

Surprising facts. People used to live a lot longer in the middle ages than you hear. The dying at 30 figure comes about because of the high infant & child mortality rate skewing the figures. If you survived to 21 you could expect another 40 or 50 years of life. Also even "peasants" back then most likely worked less hours than we do now a days, thanks to the seasonal nature of their work & lots of Saints days.

On the 4 meal a day thing, my Aunt & Uncle in Yorkshire used to do that, about 10.30 at night they'd have what they called a second supper. Usually a fully cooked meal of say gammon & chips (fries) & eggs, then head off to bed. It was a tasty habit, though terrible for my waist line when I visited.
posted by wwax at 8:53 AM on October 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

In the Medieval era two meals a day was the norm in most of Europe, with the first meal served around ten o'clock, often some five hours after everyone had gotten up.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:55 AM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

The words slave and servant and vassal and serf are hard to tease apart in meaning. For much of history if you worked for someone else who wasn't a family member you were considered a slave. Traditionally only men who owned productive land were really free and entitled to a voice in how things were run.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:59 AM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

There used to be a lot fewer names around and the ones that were around were reused a lot, without fear of duplication. This is because your name was more used to delineate who your family was than who you were.

In Roman families all the girls had their father's name. Period. If Julius had nine daughters they were Julia Prima, Julia Secunda, Julia Tertia... et cetera. In the Julian family they might have the tradition that their first son would be called Marcus and their second born son Antonius, and their third born son Flavius. So Marcus Julius would have three sons -Marcus Julius, Antonius Julius, and Flavius Julius, and Antonius Julius would have three sons -Marcus Julius, Antonius Julius, and Flavius Julius, and Flavius Julius would have three sons...Marcus Julius, Antonius Julius, and Flavius Julius. Meaning that there could be a half dozen Marcus Juliuses in the same family.

A few centuries later, in Europe they were giving girls names different from their sisters, but still would often stick to a remarkably limited list of names in the same family, without worrying about duplicates. Not only could you be named John, after your older brother who had died in infancy, you might well be named John while he was still alive because your parents saw no need to distinguish you with a name you didn't share - Hey, you shared your bed, your clothes, your tools and your cup, plate and spoon! Why would you need a name of your own?

The few names in use were so common that they had abbreviations that could be used in legal documents and inventories and rolls. William, for example was often recorded as Gul, which came from the Latin version of the name, Gulielmus. Thos. was the abbreviation for Thomas.

There are still families where the boys are all named Joseph and the girls are all named Mary and are known by their differing middle names to avoid confusion, and on-going traditions where the eldest son always gets the same name as his father - William Clinton III or William Gates III, to name two famous current examples.

The rule used to be that you had to be named after someone - no original names. So the chances are if your name was Joan, you were named after an Aunt or a Grandmother, or a close family friend.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:19 AM on October 11, 2015 [36 favorites]

Seconding Jane the Brown: there sure are a lot of uses for urine.
posted by chocolatepeanutbuttercup at 9:20 AM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

The sleep thing, Russian aristocrats, according to Pushkin, went to bed after dinner, got up around ten PM, partied until 3 or 4 AM, then slept til daylight or morning at some point

In the American south they used to have reckoning night, parents accused children of their transgressions from the past week, and physically punished them. Then they all went to church the next morning.
posted by Oyéah at 9:33 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

The electric telegraph, while dramatically speeding up communication, had a "last mile" problem that led to many complaints. This led to large networks of pneumatic tubes that would deliver cables from the telegraph office to businesses. London and Paris had miles of tubes that were pressurized by steam engines.
posted by Bee'sWing at 9:38 AM on October 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

Great big swaths of French cuisine exist largely because of cheap manual labor, slave-like apprentice systems and the economic desire to use up all of your scraps.

Demi-glace, for example. It's a rich sauce and also serves as the base of other sauces. Demi-glace takes hours and hours to make, and the process starts by roasting veal bones to extract gelatin, and creating a mirepoix, usually from the crappy ends of vegetables that you don't want to use elsewhere.

Only really good restaurants use real demi-glace these days. It's just too hard and too expensive and too time-consuming to make.

But if you have an army of 14-year-old apprentices that work for free...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:30 PM on October 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think you'd really like the shows done by Ruth Goodman - this is exactly the kind of thing she's interested in and they're all on YouTube.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:27 PM on October 11, 2015 [17 favorites]

Something I found fascinating about Martha Ballard's diaries was the practice of "going to housekeeping." Weddings were really simple affairs, usually in a family member's abode with maybe only one or two family members in attendance. But after the marriage, the bride would continue living in her mother's household as she and her female family members accumulated the goods necessary to run a household. This was a lot of work on top of a woman's normal work, so it sometimes took several weeks or months for her to "go to housekeeping," during which time a young couple lived apart.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:13 PM on October 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

As a kid, my grandma would be lathered up in goose grease before putting on her pyjamas because the fire would go out in the night and it would be that cold in Philadelphia. They never washed the pyjamas, letting the fat build up, but tore them up to use as rags at the end of winter. Her mother smoked nickel cigars continuously, and lived to over 100!
posted by parmanparman at 3:35 PM on October 11, 2015 [12 favorites]

My history teacher told me the Vaccum cleaner actually created more work for women.

Both my parents were treated by veterinarians in thier youth, not an uncommon practice for minor ailments and stitches and broken bones.

When the hand crank was the only way to start the auto, people would create slogans, sayings or little prayers before cranking. An interesting study would be to examine the occurrences of broken arms and wrists when the push button/ keyed starter was introduced.
posted by clavdivs at 4:27 PM on October 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

In the late 1800s, major cities were drowning in horse manure (from all the horses that were used for transportation). The stench was incredible, and there were swarms of flies that spread disease. The manure problem was solved by the rise of the automobile some decades later.
posted by alex1965 at 5:16 PM on October 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

alex1965... another manure story. It was my grandmother's job (in about 1905) when she was a girl to be the first to get the manure when it hit the street. They were in a city (but a small city) that had small backyards. The kids all raced to be the first to get the fertilizer for their parents' garden.
posted by beccaj at 6:44 PM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

on-going traditions where the eldest son always gets the same name as his father -

My great-grandfather was married either three or four times, depending on whom you ask, and the oldest son from each marriage was named after him.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:24 PM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Coffee was fetishized during the American Civil War.
posted by alex1965 at 8:27 PM on October 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

When the hand crank was the only way to start the auto, people would create slogans, sayings or little prayers before cranking. An interesting study would be to examine the occurrences of broken arms and wrists when the push button/ keyed starter was introduced.

This was a unique way of breaking one's arm, and physicians could determine the cause of the fracture by examining it. It was variously called the "Ford fracture" (the Model T was the number one culprit) or the "Chauffeur's fracture".
posted by trip and a half at 12:43 AM on October 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Having all your teeth out used to be a rite of passage (they were taken out because then they couldn't cause you pain if they rotted). I sat next to a woman on a long bus trip once who, when she heard I was in pain from my wisdom teeth, said "you should've done what I did, dearie, my dad paid for them all to come out for me wedding and I've never had a day of trouble since".

Toilet paper is a recent innovation. My grandmother remembers using department store catalogues, my mum's family used copies of the Queensland Parliament's Hansard. If you were poor, you used newspaper.
posted by girlgenius at 2:57 AM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and home delivery of milk and bread was so common that many houses were built with a special hatch beside the kitchen window where the money would be placed and the milk/bread would be left.
posted by girlgenius at 2:58 AM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's a little-known fact about the history of food, excepted from an NPR article:
In medieval Europe, those who could afford to do so would generously season their stews with saffron, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Sugar was ubiquitous in savory dishes. And haute European cuisine, until the mid-1600s, was defined by its use of complex, contrasting flavors.
posted by alex1965 at 5:27 AM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh god, what girlgenius said! When the NHS came in, my grandparents ran out and had all their teeth taken out. It was the most exciting thing ever, apparently.
posted by tinkletown at 6:03 AM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

More on naming. In Jewish tradition, you would only name your children after dead relatives, never someone alive. Furthermore, at least two, perhaps 4 of my great grandparents were called names that were not their birth names. In European Jewish families, if a child became ill, you would change their name (permanently) so that the angel of Death wouldn't know where to find them. Stupid angel.
posted by Sophie1 at 6:17 AM on October 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

There's a long history of treating left-handed people badly, but I think it comes as a shock to many how recently that was still going on. It was still fairly common in the mid-1900s to force left-handed children to learn to use their right hand instead, out of a belief that left-handedness was either a sign of the devil, or of mental illness.

(My own mother, a left-hander born in the 1950s, has a non-identical twin sister, a right-hander. They were raised quite differently because of it, with my mother being assumed by family, teachers, etc, to be incapable of caring for herself or treated as if she had the intellect of a small child even into her teens, all because she was left-handed.)
posted by tocts at 7:36 AM on October 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

There's a long history of treating left-handed people badly, but I think it comes as a shock to many how recently that was still going on. It was still fairly common in the mid-1900s to force left-handed children to learn to use their right hand instead, out of a belief that left-handedness was either a sign of the devil, or of mental illness.

Yes; my left-handed cousin was forced to learn right-handed writing in public school, in the 1980's, in a liberal college town.

And my mother's family was carrying wash water from the creek and heating it on the wood stove into the mid-late 1950's.

Granted, she was a stubborn old woman at this time, but my great-grandmother died in the 1980'a - in her 80's - in the house she and her husband had built with their own hands. She still had a kitchen pump for well water, and an outhouse. She made her own soap from her own hog fat and wood ashes, and her own pillows from the feathers of her own geese and chickens. She was still making her own dresses from her stash of flour and feed sacks she'd hung onto long after they stopped making them from soft cloth. She still tapped her own maple trees and sugared every spring. She did have a telephone, and eventually she gave in to the electric light when her eyesight got too bad to see by kerosene lamp. Mind you, in her last years she needed more and more help from grown children, grandchildren, and neighbors to keep up this lifestyle. But she was very much an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" type of woman.

(And man, do I miss that soap sometimes, We had odd chunks of it for years after she died, and there wasn't a laundry stain it couldn't get out. I did inherit the quilt she made out of silk ribbons her son the gravedigger brought home from wilted funeral wreaths.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:10 AM on October 12, 2015 [30 favorites]

Many people took purgatives on a regular basis. Hookworms could be picked up by walking barefoot, pin worms and even tape worms came from eating raw vegetables. The common vector was the lack of toilets that carefully isolated human sewage from the earth. The purgative would make you vomit strongly and have diarrhea. This expelled the mature worms, although of course it could be hard on the patient. Since people didn't know for sure how they picked up the worms it was a standard preventative that many people relied on just to make sure. It could also cure low grade intestinal disorders.

posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:11 AM on October 12, 2015

My grandmother (born in the 1880's) was still using a chamber pot at night for pee till she died in the 1970's. (Grossed my sister out quite a bit when my grandmother would visit, since she shared a room with my sister, who had bunkbeds in her bedroom, since we had no guest room. Not sure why my mother didn't make me share with my sister and give my grandmother my room ....)

My father, a lefty, was indeed forced to write only with his right hand when he learned to write in the 1920's.

The name recycling thing has still been going on for males in my father's family for 200+ years. They keep changing it up a bit from generation to generation, but basically usually for the first born boy you get Jname (usually John or Joseph) as first name and specific Mname as middle name and then in the next generation you get specific Mname as first name and Jname for the middle name. My aunt changed up the first name for my male cousin but still used Mname as the middle name. (It has been going on for so long that no one remembered the origin of the Mname, but my cousin figured out recently that it seems to come from the last name of a Cincinatti, Ohio abolitionist our remote ancestor then living there admired, rather than being a family name.) With girls in my mother's family it is very common to give your daughter the name of a maternal relative ... aunt, grandmother or often your sister ... as a middle name, and round and round it goes.
posted by gudrun at 9:04 AM on October 12, 2015

Fear of gypsies was a thing. My mother and aunt would talk about how, when they were little girls (in the 30's) whenever there was a rumor going around that "gypsies were in town", the girls would be made to sleep on the floor or in the closet, so that anyone looking in their window would see that the bed was empty and, thus, not break in and steal the young women. Absolutely true story, folks. Crazy, but true.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:11 AM on October 12, 2015

More on naming. In Jewish tradition, you would only name your children after dead relatives, never someone alive.

This tradition is alive and well in Jewish families, including mine, which is not observant. The one distant cousin who was convinced by his interloper wife to disregard this tradition was promptly shunned because DO YOU WANT TO KILL GRANDPA?

On my mother's side, we also still embrace the tradition of buying nothing for a baby until it is born in case it does not survive. I send gifts after a child is born.

Obviously, this is a very old tradition from a time of high infant mortality, but even today families experience pregnancy loss and there is just nothing more heart shattering in the middle of that than little tiny onesies and little tiny cots and no baby.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:30 PM on October 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

MeTa (a positive one!)
posted by daisyk at 11:23 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

More on naming. In Jewish tradition, you would only name your children after dead relatives, never someone alive.

This is actually only an Ashkenazi Jewish tradition - many Sephardic groups name after living relatives.

Speaking of Jewish traditions, gefilte fish didn't used to come in jars at the store. People would buy a live carp from the fishmongers, bring it home, and then kill it and prepare it at home just before the holiday - often keeping it alive for a few days beforehand. There's actually an old children's book about this, which is pretty traumatic.
posted by Mchelly at 8:14 AM on October 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Once upon a time people used to use all kinds of strange not very tasty fruit and bits of plants to make preserves. From scuppernongs and rhubarb stems which require considerable amounts of sugar to make them edible, to rose hips, wild strawberries and various fruit of the farkle-huckle-rasp-black-berry family which often were mostly stem, seeds and skin. They also used things like green pumpkins and watermelon rind or apples which had fallen off the tree while still as small as crab apples.

To make a preserve out of rose hips or other fruit you would take a nice well boiled piece of clean cloth, (probably one that used to be a flour sack or a dishtowel) and put the cooked mass of scalding, wet, chopped up vegetable matter into the rag, bundle it up and hang it over a container. The liquid that dripped out would often gel becase of the pectin found in the fruit, especially crab apples, and the rag is known today as a jelly bag.

Now one side effect of using a piece of cloth this way was that often the fruit was dark purple or red and the cloth would get stained.

Around the same time that I am writing about, in comfortably well off households they had indoor plumbing, which included a cast iron bathtub. The bathtub had claw feet and this meant that there was a low space underneath it, perhaps six inches high.

Under this bathtub, women would keep a flat pan or two or three, and in the pans on a regular basis they would soak their jam rags. If anyone noticed, such as a child or a man, the explanation was that they had been making jam and they were soaking the rags to take the stains out. Most kids knew all about their mother soaking the jam rags under the bathtub for years before they realised that she soaked those rags a lot more often than she made jelly.

Jam rags used to be the polite euphemism for cloth that was used for menstrual pads, but it is now considered a crude term, and is not in frequent use. The term "on the rag" is much more common.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:01 PM on October 14, 2015 [29 favorites]

The French Canadian tradition of naming all their sons Joseph is the origin of the term "Joe Job" meaning the job you tried to stick on someone else because nobody wanted to do it. That means Joe Job is actually an offensive term because it is insulting to French Canadians. There is also a term "some Joe" meaning some random guy but in this case I believe it comes from the Irish Catholic tradition of naming every single son Joseph.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:07 PM on October 14, 2015

At primary school in rural Ireland in the 1970s many children still collected rose hips and brought bags of them to school, where periodically a man would arrive and take them away to be used to make vitamin C syrup. They would get paid for this.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:03 AM on November 2, 2015

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