The Palimpsest
The Iowa Pioneers
vol XLIX, No. 7, July 1968
Ruth A Gallaher, author

Around the Fireplace

"Here they built their cabin" sounds like the climax of the story, but the
pioneer housewife knew that building the cabin was only the beginning of the
homemaking: there were three meals to be prepared every day, clothing to
make, tiny babies to care for, sick people to be nursed.

These pioneer homes, of course, were not all alike. In the towns the living
conditions very soon became much the same as in the East, but the wife of
the settler on an isolated farm had a more difficult problem. Even these
homes show two general types-the log cabin of the timbered region and the
frame or sod shanty of the prairie.

If the cabin had a fireplace, bread was baked in a Dutch oven or "bake pan"
by heaping coals around and on top of the utensil. Corn bread or "dodger,"
made of coarse corn meal often without soda, might be baked in a covered
skillet over the coals or laid upon a "johnny-cake board" tilted toward the
fire. Meat and "flapjacks" were sometimes fried in a long-handled skillet
held over the fire, though a turkey, quarter of venison, or a large piece of
pork could be cooked by hanging it before the fire on a twisted string. As
the string was unwound the meat turned slowly and browned evenly while the
fat fell into a pan placed on the hearth below-the "dripping pan" of the
modern housewife. Upsetting this pan meant getting the "fat in the fire."

In the prairie homes of a later period stoves were used instead of
fireplaces, for wood and coal were luxuries. Often the prairie housewife had
to burn hay, twisted into a long roll, for cooking or heating. Even ears of
corn were thrown into the stove if a roaring hot fire was needed.

"What shall we have for dinner?" was sometimes no rhetorical question for
the pioneer mother. Usually there were corn dodgers, fried pork, and coffee.
Wild turkey, venison and fish offered variety and in the summer there were
corn, potatoes, and other vegetables from the garden as well as wild plums,
crab apples, and grapes from the thickets. The lack of cellars, however,
made it difficult to keep these things over winter on account of the
sub-zero weather. Vegetables were sometimes buried in pits outside or under
the floor of the cabin. Fruits might be dried and thus kept. Wild honey or
sorghum molasses took the place of sugar and candy. Corn was shelled,
subjected to a bath in wood ash lye, hulled, washed, and thus converted into
hominy. Mustard greens, horseradish, and other edible herbs could be found
in season.

Keeping the house clean was a task for Hercules. The floor was sometimes of
packed dirt, sometimes of puncheon slabs laid flat side up, sometimes of
rough boards. Dry hay might be used to cover the dirt floors, but there were
no carpets. Fortunately, perhaps, there was not much furniture to dust. A
packing-box table or one of boards, a bed or two, a few homemade or
splint-bottom chairs, a cupboard made of rough lumber, and a flour barrel
made up the chief articles of the household.

The difficulties of the housekeeper were, of course, immensely increased by
the number of activities which had to be carried on in the house. It must
have been a steamy, odorous atmosphere. Cooking, eating, sleeping, washing,
nursing the sick, and laying out the dead-every task had to be performed in
the one room, at least in cold weather. Wet clothing of the men folks was
hung before the fire, jostling the coffee pot or the "bake oven." Game was
frequently dressed indoors.

When a pioneer woman wanted soap she had to make it. This process involved
three separate tasks-leaching ashes to secure lye, collecting the tallow or
grease from the meat, and boiling the two substances together in such a
proportion as to produce a substance called soft soap. There were no bath
tubs, and the streams were a cold substitute during the winter. Possibly the
small boys of the family found this no hardship. Morning ablutions were
performed by washing the face and hands in the family was basin or in a large
 gourd. A tooth brush would have been looked upon with derision. Small
children, especially those with curly hair, just have suffered from the
"redding" or fine-tooth comb-not used chiefly for looks.

Other sources of irritation to the housewife of early Iowa were the flies,
mice, rats, and bedbugs. There were no screens, and the flies migrated at
will from the stable to the house. If shooed away from the victuals, they
settled on the strings of dried apples or pumpkin or the smoked meat hanging
from the rafters. Mice and rats persistently invaded the flour barrel and
the "meal chist," feasted on candles, and drowned in milk pans.

Ready made dresses, shirts and overalls were known to the early Iowa
pioneers. Indeed, many women on the frontier had to hackle flax and card
wool, spin yarn, weave the woolen, linen or linsey-woolsey cloth, and then
sew the garments by hand, for sewing machines, too, were unknown. The
spinning wheel occupied the place of honor in many a cabin. In the evenings
there were stockings to knit, or perhaps hats were plaited from straw
gathered in the fields. Mittens might be made of skins or knit from homespun
yarn. Cotton goods might be purchased by the bolt and dyed at home for
gowns, bonnets for the women and shirts for the men. In the summer women
wore slat sunbonnets and in the winter knitted hoods. The fashions even then
were not always sensible or appropriate. Surely the hoop skirt was a
handicap in soapmaking or cooking over an open fire.

If any of these tasks was performed after sundown, the housewife had to work
by the light of a tallow dip, made by dipping a wick in a cooling tallow
again and again until it was large enough for a candle, or perhaps a molded
candle was used.

And when at the close of day the family prepared for bed, it was very likely
a homemade, one-legged pole bed on which the adults slept. The log walls
furnished support for the three other corners. Across these, rails, slats or
weavings of heavy cord were used to support the tick stuffed with hay or
straw, and in the winter surmounted by a feather bed. A smaller and movable
trundle bed for the children could be pushed under his stationary bed in the
daytime. A half log, hollowed out in the center, made a cradle for the baby,
and it was seldom empty.

The pioneers were a hardy lot and their active life, fresh air, and coarse
food saved them from many ailments. They were not, however, immune from
disease, and accidents were common. Doctors were scarce, frequently
untrained, and many times could not reach a patient because of bad roads. A
neighbor woman usually attended the advent of an infant, but the mother
herself treated most of the ailments of her family. Many of the remedies,
consisting of bitters or tea made from herbs such as burdock, plantain,
pennyroyal, sassafras, boneset, camomile, or gentian roots, were probably
harmless if not efficacious. It would not be surprising if at times a
patient received the wrong dose, but the hot tea or poultice often gave

Ague and itch were common and persistent maladies on the frontier. For the
latter affliction the mother applied a lotion from the roots of the
skunk-cabbage and firmly administered the honored remedy-sulphur and
molasses. This remedy was also used in the spring as a tonic, receiving the
credit which probably belonged to the spring sunshine and the more varied
diet of vegetables, milk and eggs which came with the warm weather.

Other remedies were mere superstitions handed down from primitive times. A
"fetta bag" - a piece of asafetida tied up in a cloth- was sometimes tied
around a child's neck to prevent its "ketchin" disease. Blood stones, snake
stones, and mad stones served a a cure for nosebleed, snake bite, or the
bite of a mad dog. Whisky was used for snake bite-and for many other things.

The various census reports classify these pioneer women as "not gainfully
employed," and legal fiction represented them as supported by their
husbands, but their economic and social contribution to the community life
indicates that they earned if they were not paid. Cooking, spinning,
weaving, sewing, milking, churning, making cheese, raising chickens,
collecting herbs, nursing the sick, and rearing many children well-surely
the pioneer mother earned her living and left the country richer for her

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2001 Cathy Joynt Labath