What Was Life Like in the Colonial Time Period?
Life in the Colonial Period
Are you willing to sell all but your most crucial possessions, get on a leaky ship packed with smelly strangers, and move to a wild, unknown land inhabited by native tribes, bears, panthers, wolves, and who knows what else? Oh, and don't forget your new land is probably already 'owned' by a foreign power that is eager to attack and assert their claim.
Even with all those drawbacks, many people chose to take on these risks and challenges for the unparalleled legal, religious, and economical opportunities.
What Is the American Colonial Period?
The American Colonial Period extends all the way from 1607, when Jamestown was founded, until 1781, when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Many different ethnic groups, including English, Scottish, Irish, French, German, and Dutch immigrated to the 13 colonies. Because of these factors, daily life for a colonist depended on when and where he lived. Even within the same colony, people living in cities had a very different life from people living on the frontier.
Daily life for a colonist also depended on his or her station in life. The terms lower class, middle class and upper class did not come into use until the 19th century. During the 17th and 18th centuries, different 'classes' of people were referred to as lower sort, middle sort, and the upper sort, also known as the gentry.
No matter their station in society, gender, or age, colonial Americans were busy. In an age before mechanized production, everything had to be made by hand, and even simple meals took hours to prepare over a fire.
What Was Life Like for Colonial Women?
Daily life for a colonial woman depended on her station in life. No matter how wealthy a woman, or her husband, was, life in the colonial period was busy and difficult.
Many women in rural areas were expected to work in the fields along with their husband or male relations. Women were also frequently responsible for cooking; spinning; weaving; sewing; making soap, candles, and baskets; cleaning; caring for children; acting as the family physician; and tending to chickens, geese, ducks, or other animals raised for food.
Gentry women were not expected to care for animals and make basic items for the house, but they were, essentially, business managers. Gentry women were in charge of running the entire household, planning meals, and providing medical care for everyone - including slaves. Additionally, they were expected to dance, embroider, sew, and play a harpsichord or sing. Because they were responsible for managing household affairs, gentry women needed to read, write, and have mathematical skills.
Overall, the literacy rate for free whites, male and female, in the Colonial period was basically on par for the literacy rate in American today. Surprisingly, during much of the Colonial period, it was also legal to teach slaves to read and write. Schools, such as the Bray School in Willimasburg, were even established specially for enslaved and poor children.
Women in Colonial Trades
People today frequently have the idea that women were stuck at home "barefoot and in the kitchen" during the colonial period. For many women, this was far from the reality of everyday life. Research reveals there were many colonial tradeswomen, and many more who managed a husband's business after his death.
Many taverns, which were more like a bed and breakfast with an attached restaurant than a bar, and alehouses were operated by women. Christiana Campbell was the sole proprietress of he tavern in Williamsburg, and her operation is purported to be George Washington's favorite place to eat when visiting the town.
According to an article in the Colonial Williamsburg Magazine, there were women involved in virtually every trade, at one point in time or another. Some trades were virtually dominated by women, but women appeared in other occupations, too. Many women were milliners, seamstresses, perukers (wig makers), shoe makers, weavers, spinners, and more.
Women were also involved in more physically demanding trades. The History of Birmingham, written by William Hutton, details his observations in 1741 of blacksmiths in the English countryside. In several different shops, he recorded seeing "one or more females, stripped of their upper garments, and not overcharged with the lower, wielding the hammer with all the grace of the sex." Hutton asked one of the women he "inquired 'Whether the ladies of this country shod horses?' But was answered, with a smile, 'They are nailers.'" (The History of Birmingham, p 192).
In Colonial America, a 1730 Pennsylvania Gazette ad was placed searching for one James Curry, "an Apprentice to Mrs. Paris of Philadelphia, Brass Founder." A 1763 article in the same paper explains that children may enter in to an apprenticeship agreement "with the consent of his or her parents."
What Was Life Like for Colonial Men?
In rural areas, men farmed, hunted, fished, and trapped. In towns and cities, many men pursued trades apprenticeships. The American Colonies had no formal guilds or rigid apprenticeship system, but most boys were apprenticed to a master for a period of 5-7 years, maybe even more, depending on the trade.
There were many trades available, but boys could not always choose their own trade. Sometimes they might have had a say in the matter, but often they were apprenticed to an adult relation, or to whoever their parents thought would be a good choice. Apprentices were not paid for their labor, but they received on the job training and, usually, a place to live.
In an era before any mechanization, everything had to be made by hand and usually required skilled labor. Cabinet makers, brick makers, founders, blacksmiths, silversmiths, goldsmiths, shoemakers, tailors, gunsmiths, wheelwrights, house wrights, apothecaries, leather artificers, weavers, dyers, spinners, printers, and many other men involved in trades were found in Colonial cities.
As the Colonial period progressed and western culture moved in to the Age of Enlightenment, gentry men increasingly turned to self-refinement. Gentry men did not practice trades, but they might have occupations. Essentially, a tradesman labored with his hands, but a gentryman with an occupation labored with his mind. For example, a gentry man could be a lawyer or an architectural designer. While life was not all leisure, gentry men frequently played musical instruments, studied classic languages and literature, and devoted themselves to the natural sciences. Many 18th century gentlemen were 'natural philosophers,' including notable individuals like Ben Franklin.
Service in the Colonial Militia
For most of the American Colonial period, the only military force in a colony was its militia. In some colonies, such as Carolina under Proprietary rule, male militia service was compulsory. All able-bodied men between the ages of 17 and 60 were required to serve, regardless of their social status. Plantation owners and indentured servants, alike, showed up for drill. Individuals frequently had to supply their own gear, so officers were men of means who could afford the necessary equipment. You can think of a militia muster as the historic version of National Guard drill weekends - a time to brush up on martial skills you may or may not use any time soon, and a great opportunity to hang out with the guys.
Even though the British regulars made fun of the Colonial militia, and one went so far as to state militiamen were "chickenhearted race of farmers, dry goods dealers, and slave drivers," the soldiers at the famous battles of Bunkers and Breeds Hills were militiamen (Charles A. Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783, p 10).
Life in the Colonial Period
Life in the Colonial period varied a great deal and depended on many different factors. In general, everyone, including young children, men, and women were busy most of the day. However, the gentry had time to pursue leisure activities. Many of the gentry chose to use this time for self-betterment and education in the arts and sciences. Overall, the Colonial period was an era in which upwards social mobility was possible and, even though women were legally subordinate to men, they possessed greater freedoms than during the 19th century.
Basic Colonial History
- A Brief History of Colonial America and the 13 Original Colonies, Part I
This is a brief chronology of the formation of half English colonies in what is now the United States of America. It highlights lesser known tidbits about the colonies.
- A Brief History of Colonial America and the 13 Original Colonies, Part II
This timeline highlights lesser-known tidbits about the later American colonies from Maryland through Georgia.