What Was Life Like in the Colonial Time Period?

Life in a basic, early settlement or frontier structure.
Life in a basic, early settlement or frontier structure. | Source

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.

Detail of John Collet's The Elopement showing an 18th century 'lower sort' woman
Detail of John Collet's The Elopement showing an 18th century 'lower sort' woman | Source

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."

The Jamestown Colony
The Jamestown Colony | Source
Jan Josef Horemans Concert in an Interior
Jan Josef Horemans Concert in an Interior | Source

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.

A replica of a type of cannon used by the Carolinian militia.
A replica of a type of cannon used by the Carolinian militia. | Source

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.

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Comments 32 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Fabulous hub! Great information for a history teacher's soul. Nicely done Natasha and I love the pictures!

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

Interesting hub and so enjoyable to read. Women had a valuable role in the home back then and much more involved in the daily happenings of both her life and the family. Thanks for sharing this bit of history with us. Nicely done.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Thank you Billybuc and Teaches. Even though I am fairly familiar with Colonial history, I had no idea that women were sometimes involved in metal working trades until I started doing some deeper research. Some people even suggest that Paul Revere's mother was a silversmith and that is how he learned the trade!

twinstimes2 profile image

twinstimes2 4 years ago from Ohio

Great detail, Natashalh! When we vacation each year, some pop by Williamsburg. The period dress and explanations by the characters are always interesting! I loved the pictures, too! Voted up.

wilderness profile image

wilderness 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho

A really nice hub that is very well done. Colonial times were vastly different from today, and it's good that we remember and "bring to life" those times.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Thanks for stopping by twinstimes2 and wilderness! I didn't make it clear, but you may have guessed by looking at my profile picture, I'm the one in blue in all those shots. I love those pictures and am thankful the photographer let me use them for this hub.

Brainy Bunny profile image

Brainy Bunny 4 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

This is a great hub. My family spent a lot of last year immersed in the history of the Revolutionary War period, since my kids were both fascinated by it, and this hub adds a few details we missed. Thanks. And you look great in your colonial outfit, too! Is it yours personally, or does CW own it?

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

I had some CW photos, but then I decided I looked goofy and changed them. CW owns all their costumes. I do own some historic clothing, myself, including an awesome looking late 18th century formal outfit called a caraco. I should dig it out and take some photos for this hub because it is beautiful.

So...those photos are not at CW, but are at another colonial-era site that does own the costume I'm wearing.

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 4 years ago from United States

This is very interesting. I could not imagine moving away from everything I knew. It is amazing so many people took this trip. You did a great job describing everything into great detail.

GClark profile image

GClark 4 years ago from United States

Interesting hub with lots of good information. Certainly strips the romance from thoughts about living in the "good old days!" No wonder life expectancy was so short. GClark

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

You know what's interesting? The average life expectancy was lower than today, but primarily due to a very high infant and child mortality rate. Once you made it to adulthood, your chances were typically fairly decent. I know it's more recent than the Colonil period, but there were more people aged 100+ in the US 100 years ago than there are today.

CyclingFitness profile image

CyclingFitness 4 years ago from Nottingham UK

It seems that in some cases the women of colonial america were the rock's for their men. Great hub Natashalh. Maybe the additional work led to a fitter society in those that survived the earlier years

Just a suggestion- I'd consider written comments for all your images to make them more search engine friendly. ' A typical colonial woman' is much more likely to be found in google images as opposed to no caption at all

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Ok - thank you. I must admit, I haven't made good use of image captions. I will definitely add some!

Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

Our country was never colonized, but for the most of the time of our history we lived in authoritarian rule.

Reading history makes me think that colonialists' mentality and dictators' mentality are more or less same.

It was a great pleasure to read your hub.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Like a sort of 'do it or else?' mentality? I can see that. Thanks for stopping by!

CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Interesting hub. In a completely new country you would have had to have been prepared to do anything you needed to do to survive, and before society settled down it doesn't surprise me that women had more opportunity than is generally thought to work out in the community rather than just in the home

Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Great hub. Thanks for sharing.

stessily 4 years ago

Natashalh, The Colonial period is so fascinating, and you've done a lovely presentation here. Clearly you know and enjoy this subject. The period costume suits you! May I ask where these photos were taken? The interior lighting (natural?) and the wood in the first photo really create a historical atmosphere. Beautiful!

Appreciatively, Stessily

TToombs08 profile image

TToombs08 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

Great read. Thank you for showing that Colonial woman were far more than typically portrayed. Voting up.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Stessily - The photos were taken at Charles Towne Landing, the site of the original Charleston, SC settlement. It is natural lighting, but I cannot take credit for the photograph! I am very thankful the photographer let me use it, though.

TTombs08 - I'm glad you enjoyed the read! When I learned of it, I was surprised at how much Colonial women did and the extent of their involvement in the trades.

Amethystraven profile image

Amethystraven 4 years ago from California

Great hub! It's wonderful to know that everyone had a job weather it be one where they used their hands, or their minds. Self sufficiency is the best way to do things. This way everyone knows how to do something. Skills can be traded for skills, or goods for goods.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Thanks for stopping by, Amethystraven. I personally love doing and making things - it makes my day seem worthwhile! I'm glad you enjoyed the hub and appreciate that you took the time to comment.

ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada


You have done a beautiful job here! Your skills as a 'Living History' teacher translate very well into the written media! I look forward to reading more of your stuff!

Voting Up and Sharing!


tammyswallow profile image

tammyswallow 4 years ago from North Carolina

Wow.. I have actually listed as not living during this time period as something I am thankful for. We had some incredible ancestors. We as women can really attribute our resourcefulness to these women. Well done and informative!

Sherry Hewins profile image

Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

It sounds like an exciting time to live which presented great opportunity for those willing to take risks and work hard. Thanks for an excellent and interesting hub.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Wow, three comments is an exciting thing to find in one morning! Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

Thoughtsandwiches - thank you! And thank you for sharing.

Don't change your list too much, TammySwallow - 17th and 18th centuries might be ok, but I think life in the Victorian age as a woman was probably just as frustrating and limited as you imagine!

Sherry Hewins - thanks for stopping by and commenting. I can personally totally understand why these folks came over. If someone told me I had to work for free for a few years and then got 50 acres of land, I would do it (well, depending on the land's location!) In Carolina women did receive land grants, so you and I would be in business!

Mark Sparks profile image

Mark Sparks 4 years ago from Charlottesville, Virginia

Great article! I go to college in Williamsburg, so I see the old colonial world close up a lot. We have a lot of fake redcoats in the colonial streets sometimes, which I guess is why all men were required to be in the militia at the time. thanks for a good hub!

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Thanks for stopping by! Even when a special event like Under the Red Coat isn't happening, they are visiblle in CW at the Magazine or when the Fife and Drum Core is out. I lived in Williamsburg for about two years and worked at CW, so I know exactly what you mean!

Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

What an enjoyable and informative read Natashalh. The history on colonial women particularly so. Its often over-looked how important and hard-working they really were. Williamsburg would be such an awesome place to step back in time and see for abit. Been there once and got to chatting with a lady reenactor or suppose she was an employee but it was very enlightening and fun. Have you tried the stocks on for size Natashalh lol?

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Yeah...neither the stocks nor pillory are comfortable! Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed the read. If you ev go back to the CW area, make sure to stop by Jamestown, too. They have an excellent museum.

MargaritaEden profile image

MargaritaEden 4 years ago from Oregon

This article is so very well written, great job on it, great information about history of our country ,very interesting, awesome and useful, sharing it!

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Thank you very much, MargaritaEden. History rarely elicits enthusiastic commentary! Thank you for the share - I hope some of your followers enjoy it as much as you did.

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