The Way They Lived

From An Illustrated History of Monroe County, Iowa; Frank Hickenlooper;
Albia, Iowa; 1896

Fashions, Dress and Love-Making

Monroe County was never so far outside the pale of civilization as to render
wearing apparel superfluous, although it is said that many of the children
of the "Hairy Nation" ran naked in the summer time and barefooted all the
year round. Every one who was not afraid of the rattlesnakes went barefooted
in summer. The young ladies turned their feet out to grass, say the last of
May, and kept them on it until about the middle of September or the first of
October, and from then on throughout the winter wore their Sunday shoes.
When they walked for miles to "meeting" on Sundays, those who were most
careful and prudent took off their shoes and stockings and cooled their
shapely white feet in the dust until nearing the meeting-house, when they
would slip to the roadside, give their feet a few "swipes" in the tall grass
to remove the dust, and replace their shoes. Many a stately dame in the
county to-day could testify to this from experience if she would- and why
should she not? It was no discredit.

The men and boys began to go barefooted a little earlier in the season, say
as soon as the grass came. Shoes were not worn by the men at that time, nor
for years later, as articles of dress. The coarse boot was worn throughout
the week, and the more fastidious young men indulged in light calfskin
boots, with high, narrow heels, for Sunday wear. If these boots had
attractive fancy tops, the dud of those days wore his pants stuffed inside
of them, and sat on the front row of "puncheons" at meeting, with his legs
crossed at a conspicuous height, much to the admiration of the fair sex...

...While the prevailing fashions in dress, in those days would appear quaint
now, they were no more outlandish than at present. While the dame of thirty
years ago incased her lower limbs in a prodigious hoopskirt, the belle of
the present day lavished this same superabundance of material on her arms,
and lets her legs get along as best they can, with nothing of greater
consequence than a mere skirt. Like inflammatory rheumatism does, the style
has simply shifted from the legs to the arms and it cannot very well be
helped. The big sleeves of to-day do not appear to be sustained by means of
hoops or a wire frame-work; neither are they stuffed. The material is
starched stiffly, and their puff is preserved by means known only to the

The "sky-scraper" bonnet was an institution of a little earlier antiquity,
but was worn by some as late as the pioneer period of Monroe County. Then
came the "shaker" made of straw or palm-leaf. It somewhat resembled a calico
sunbonnet in form, except that it was narrower. It looked a little like a
sugar-scoop. They did not have any tails to them when purchased, and the
first thing the purchaser had to do, on buying one, was to sew a tail to it,
composed of cloth. Its beauty was ephemeral, as it soon lost its whiteness.
The ladies kept it pretty well bleached by frequent baptism in a jar of
buttermilk. Another way to bleach it was to place it near the top, inside an
inverted barrel; then they smoked it all day with sulphur fumes. The odor of
the sulphur remained with the "shaker", but that was not objected to in
society, as sulphur and the odor from it was reckoned a safeguard against
the prairie itch in those days. From that day to this, the bonnets, both
great and small, have come and gone, each year witnessing some strange
mutation in style, and bringing with the change fresh joys and gladsome
smiles to the wearer.

After the linsey period, came the woolen mill, which enabled the the
settlers to exchange their wool for cloth manufactured at the factory and of
a little handsomer appearance. Casinet was a heavy cloth for masculine wear,
composed partly of wool and partly of cotton. It wore like buckskin.

A calico dress was the one thing altogether lovely in the eyes of the
pioneer maiden. It cost from 25 to 50 cents per yard, but most of the
well-to-do ladies managed to secure one for Sunday wear, or in which to
array herself when circus day came. Many a poor girl, as noble and handsome
as the fairest queen of earth, has wept until her eyes were red because she
did not have a nice calico dress to wear to meeting, or in which to
entertain her beau on Sunday night.

The acquirement of a pair of hoops was not so difficult a matter. If her
father refused to invest in a pair of "store" hoops, the maiden went into
the forest and selected a graceful grape-vine,and improvised a pair of
hoops, which, to all external appearances, were fully up to the highest
pinnacle of fashion.

About a dozen years ago the hoopskirt again made its appearance, but it had
lost its old-time rotundity, and was but the shadow of its former self. It
soon disappeared; but some day it will rise again, to fly in the face of
providence and tempt fate.

About twenty years ago the ladies conceived and infatuation for dress-good
of a flaming color and marked in large figures like bed-spread calico. It
was called "Dolly Varden" dress-goods. At another period, some years later,
every girl wore spotted calico, called "polka dot," and a bevy of
chattering, rollicking young ladies would look like a flock of guineas.

The "Mother Hubbard" is the greatest monstrosity of all. It haunts, like a
specter, every lady's closet, but seldom walks forth in the broad light of
day. For a while it made a bold, defiant effort to gain the street, but was
soon relegated to the back yard, where it is occasionally seen scampering
stealthily between the kitchen door and the wood-pile or pump, but instantly
vanishing within doors on the approach of an intruder. In appearance it
resembles a bag of table salt of prodigious size, the gathering-string at
the top corresponding to the collar. Unhappily, the Mother Hubbard differs
in one respect; it has no bottom in it like the salt-bag.

Courtship in those days was conducted under about the same underlying
principles as now-i.e. the object to be attained was marriage. The science
was in a much more rudimentary state then, but the end seemed to justify the
means. The process was sufficient untio the day, and every couple who were
in the right frame of mind managed to strike up a match. They did it without
buggy-riding (there were no buggies then), without lawn tennis parties,
without sipping lemonade through rye-straws, or spooning at the ice cream
table. They did not even have a sofa on which to sit on the veranda at late
hours, when Cupid is supposed to lurk in the vicinity. The swain courted his
sweetheart in the presence of her folks, because the cabin had but one room;
and when the other members of the family wished to retire for the night, the
lovers had to hold up a bed-quilt between themselves and the beds, until the
old folks were safely tucked in bed. The swain then told his story of love
in the faint, wavering light of the tallow-dip, and had to be brief about
it, for the light was liable to go out at any moment. When they went to
singing-school, they rode horseback, if he had two horses; if he had only
one, and it carried double, he took her on behind and she hooked her arms
around his waist to stick on. If they had to ride bareback and encountered a
steep hill to descend, they drew "Old Fan's" tail up over their shoulders
and, by holding on to it, avoided slipping forward over the animal's

...While in some respects the methods employed in pioneer courtship were of
a tendency  calculated to discourage the candidate, there were other phases
of the process which in turn greatly facilitated the practitioners in
ascertaining the "lay of the land," so far as any opposition from the girl's
parents and brothers was concerned.

If the girl's father or brother put the young man's horse up and fed it, it
was a tacit understanding all round that the matrimonial negotiations
between the lovers had the hearty approval of the family; but if the poor
animal was left hitched to the fence to shiver and freeze with cold, the
young man took the hint, and either gave up the enterprise, or, in company
with the girl, ran off to Missouri and got married in defiance of the folks.
Thus a young man did not have to encounter the modern disadvantages of
uncertainty, and was able to lavish his affections and good money on the
girl in an intelligent and definite manner. Nowadays he does not know which
way "the cat is going to jump" until the invitation cards are out. He simply
invests his money and affections and takes his chances, the same as when
dallying with the wheel-of-fortune spindle.

After the young folks got married, the bride, if of a well-to-do family,
furnished the feather-tick and a quilted "comfort" or two, and usually one
cow, which every girl contemplating marriage "claimed" from her pa's herd as
her property. The cow was usually well paid for by the young lady in the way
of services rendered her pa by "dropping" corn, or hoeing sod-corn, or
performing some other field labor. The bridegroom usually supplied a horse,
or, under more auspicious circumstances, a mare and colt. His mother usually
gave him a pair of blankets, a straw-tick, and sometimes a bedstead. These,
together with a cook-stove, a few dishes, and a pig or two, were about all a
young married couple needed in the way of furniture for the first year; but
invariably at or near the end of the year the young couple added to their
collection of household utensils a rectangular box, mounted on the two
semicircular halves of a barrel-head, each placed transversely near either
end of the box and nailed edgewise on the bottom.

The "wool-picking" was a social event corresponding in some respects to the
tea-party of the present day, only the hostess did not resort to the
preliminary formality of issuing invitation cards; she did not receive her
guests in a satin gown, and the hour and minute when the guests were
expected to depart were not stated, as on an invitation card.

When the guests had all assembled, the wool was usually placed in bunches
upon the chairs. Chairs were usually of the "split-bottom" variety-i.c., the
bottoms were formed of strips of hickory or lind bark interwoven. (There was
always a handy man in every neighborhood who bottomed chairs.) Then the wool
was beaten with sticks until it was loosened up, and the grit and dirt
dropped down through the chair bottom. The guests then took it by small
bunches and "picked" at it with their fingers until the fibers were all
loosely intermixed. While doing this, they chatted and gossiped just as
ladies do now over their tea.

After being "picked", the wool was ready to be washed. It was usually taken
to some clear pool of water of some neighboring stream, and, when placed in
tubs of hot water, was tramped by barefooted boys until of a snowy white
color, when it was taken to the carding machine, greased, and run into
"rolls" or long loose ropes about the diameter of one's finger. These were
then ready for the big spinning-wheel, which was to be found in every
well-regulated family.

This wheel was a wooden circle, about five feet in diameter, and in the
center of its periphery was a groove, in which ran a band or cord, which,
acting as a belt in connection with the spindle, caused the latter to
revolve with great rapidity when the wheel was put in motion. The housewife
would moisten the end of the "roll" with her thumb and finger, place it in
contact with the spindle, start the wheel by means of a short stick held in
the hand, with which she struck the spoke of hte wheel with a propelling
movement. The wheel was made to revolve with great rapidity. The spindle,
humming cheerfully, would twist the "roll" into a strand of yarn the length
of the roll, when another roll was spliced on, and a continuous thread was
thus spun.

From "The Palimpsest"; The Iowa Pioneers, July 1968

Frontier Fun
By Bruce E Mahan

Although the social life of the pioneers was meager, nevertheless, some play
varied the monotony of steady toil on the Iowa frontier. After an early
settler had cut logs for his cabin and had dragged them to the site of his
new hom neighbors for miles around were invited to the "raising". While men
were engaged in laying up the walls of the cabin women prepared as bounteous
a dinner as the family larder would permit. When the task was finished the
men engaged in friendly bouts-wrestling, foot racing, and feats of strength.

Soon after the cabin was finished the neighbors assembled again to dedicate
the new domicile with a "house warming." Some one in nearly every
neighborhood could "scrape the fiddle," and the new cabin re-echoed to the
strains of "Money Musk," "Old Dan Tucker," "The Arkansas Traveller," "Old
Zip Coon," and "Pop Goes the Weasel." The Virginia reel, the stately minuet,
and the old-fashioned cotillion were favorite dances. If the settler who
owned the cabin had scruples against dancing some other sort of frolic, such
as the "play party" with "Miller Boy," "Skip to My Lou," "Old Sister
Phoebe," and "London Bridge" as popular games, furnished fun more vigorous
than graceful.

For those pioneers who made their homes in the wooded areas "log rollings"
provided another useful means of recreation. When the settler had
laboriously felled the timber on a considerable space of ground his
neighbors joined him in rolling the logs into piles for burning. The task
finished, a supper for all and an evening of jollification celebrated the
successful destruction of the logs.

Hunting was a sport much enjoyed by men and boys on the Iowa frontier, for
game was abundant and the old muzzle loader was a deadly weapon in the hands
of a pioneer marksman. The "circular wolf hunt" furnished both fun and
excitement. On an appointed day all the men and boys of a neighborhood would
form a sort of circle around many square miles of territory. Dogs were held
in leash by their masters until a signal was given to turn them loose, when
away they would go barking and yelping after the quarry. The hunters
gradually closed up toward the center of their field of operations,
gathering not only wolves but other game as well. No guns were used on such
occasions, but every hunter carried a sturdy club.

On Saturday afternoons in the fall of the year shooting matches frequently
brought the marksmen of a neighborhood together in a test of skill. A beef,
divided into five parts, might be offered as prizes, the best shot taking
first choice while the hide and tallow went to the man in fifth place. At
other times a haunch of venison, wild turkeys, a pony, a gun, or a watch was
the prize sought. Each contestant brought along his own target, a charred
board with a bit of white paper in the center. At a distance of fifty paces
for offhand shooting, or seventy-five if a rest was used, the pioneer
marksman took steady aim and fired his old muzzle loader. Judges called the
result of each shot, and the glad news, "Broke center" or "Drove center,"
for a perfect bull's-eye was welcomed with shouts of acclaim.

Horse racing, too, was thoroughly enjoyed by the early settlers. In certain
communities nearly every Saturday afternoon during the summer and fall and
often on Sundays a crowd of men assembled to witness running races. Trotting
and pacing had not yet become the vogue. There was much betting, and pocket
knives, watches, guns and sundry articles as well as money changed hands.

Quilting bees and paring bees afforded a means of social recreation for
women and girls alone; but the husking bee brought both sexes together for a
good time. These affairs were usually held in a barn where the host had
placed two piles of corn as nearly equal in size as possible. As soon as
each gentleman had selected a lady partner and sides had been chosen for the
contest, the husking began, each group striving to finish its pile of corn
first. Finding a red ear meant kisses all around, and sometimes young men
would take an underhand advantage by secretly passing a red ear from one to
the other. This feature of the program was particularly agreeable and a
source of limited fun and frolic. After the corn was all husked the floor
was cleared, the "fiddle" was brought out, and the merrymakers danced until
the eastern sky began to show signs of the coming dawn, when each boy on
horseback with his girl behind set out for home.

Dancing was probably the most popular form of social intercourse among the
young people. The portable bedstead, loom, spinning wheel, table and
provisions barrels were moved outside the cabin and chunks of wood with
slabs resting on top were arranged along the wall for seats. Couples arrived
at "early candle lighting." The fiddler tuned his instrument, and shouted,
"Git your pardners fer a cuttillyun." Then, keeping time with his feet,
head, and body, he called the figures of the dance, and the more complicated
the better. "First four forward, and side four divide; change partners in
center, and swing to the side; and keep on around," started the rhythmic
shuffle. "Ladies to the center, and gents walk around; pass by your
partners, and swing 'em around; and all promenade." brought a prompt and not
ungraceful response. "On to the next one, salute and sashay; and double
shuffle, the old-fashioned way; and grand right and left." And so the fun
continued until morning.

Fourth of July celebrations brought the pioneers together for a day of
relaxation, visiting, and feasting. A convenient grove usually served as the
place of meeting, to which the settlers came afoot, on horseback, or by
wagon from miles around. A bountiful picnic dinner spread on the ground was
served at mid-day; while in the afternoon some well-known lawyer made the
welkin ring with him impassioned elegance. Perhaps a ball in the evening
concluded a day of community fun.

Thanksgiving day with its wild turkey roased golden brown over the coals of
the fireplace, wild plum preserves, corn pone, mince pie, and bowls of
cracked hickory nuts, butternuts, and walnuts afforded simple pleasure for
the pioneers. On Christmas, gifts of a practical sort such as knitted
mittens, stockings, mufflers, caps and hoods were given to the children.
Sometimes a little girl found some colored beads in the toe of her stocking
and a boy was made joyous with a brand new jack-knife. Meager as such gifts
were the spirit of Christmas prevailed and happiness reigned.

Pioneer fun was often rough and not very refined, but it was not vicious. It
reflected the simple tastes of the early settlers and afforded some  relief
from the dull routine of  securing a living.

The Palimpsest
The Birth of a New Decade
January 1970

The Web of Life

William J Petersen

Early Iowa Cultural Amusements 1869-1870
...There were many other manifestations of culture in Iowa a century ago. In
addition to the schools and churches, Iowa enjoyed both professional and
homespun amusements. The more populous centers had their own Opera Houses,
their lyceums and their theaters. They could also depend on the better
circuses, carnivals and animal shows frequenting their towns. The smaller
communities, on the other hand, either had to hie themselves off to the
larger cities, content themselves with second- and third-rate circuses and
entertainers, or resort to their own homespun amusements. Among the latter
the most popular were spelling bees, debates, and oratorical contests,
usually held in one of the local schools. On February 5, 1870, the Grand
Junction Head-Light recorded:
     Spelling schools and debating clubs afford an opportunity for mental
culture during the long winter evenings. "Oak Grove Debating Club," in evey
sense of the word, is a good society. Debates are held every Thursday
evening and are always interesting. Teachers from adjoining districts
contribute much to the interest of these occasions as they are men of
liberal culture, educated at some  of the time-honored institutions of the
Eastern States. The question for the next debate is,
     Resolved. That the pen has exerted greater influence than the sword.

Many Iowa communities, large and small, had their own bands and even small
orchestras in 1869. They also could boast their own glee clubs, men's
choruses, and men's quartets. On January 29, 1869, the Iowa Age (Clinton)
     "Maennerchor."- Wednesday evening at the German Concert we found out
the meaning of this word. It means a splendid set of good looking singers.
The concert was really superb. Clinton and Lyons together, can beat the
world in concerting. We wish we had more space to notice the entertainment.

...Among the professional groups to visit Clinton was the Thompson &
Parkhurst Troupe. The Iowa Age of January 29, 1869, records:
     The Thompson & Parkhurst Troupe.- The entertainment given by this
troupe at Union Hall on Tuesday evening was well attended. The singing was
excellent. The fun, first class.- The burlesque on the Hutchinsons
[nationally famous singers] decidedly rich. Long may the Thompson &
Parkhurst troupe wave, and not give Clinton the go-by when they are
traveling hitherward.

Dances were one of the most common forms of entertainment. The following gay
affair at Perry was recorded in the Grand Junction Head-Light of February
10, 1870:
     The Perry Dance- On Monday evening an inauguration dance was held at
Hanly's Hall in Perry, about fifty couples being present and entering into
the pleasures of the occasion. Delegations were on hand from all the lower
[railroad] stations and from this city, but the ladies from Adel were
unanimously voted the handsomest, gayest, nattiest dressed of all, and Bro.
Atwood can tender them our invitation to come up and see us on the first of
March, when a social will be held at the Ashley. We hear that the thumper
beneath the "weskit" of a D V R.R. route agent was wrecked by the bright
lights of an Adelite. The music for the occasion was furnished by an Italian

Editors always waxed enthusiastic about such local functions. The Grand
Junction Head-Light of February 5, 1870, looked back nostalgically at one
exciting function at the county seat:
     Calico Sociable- On Thursday evening the Jefferson Quadrille Club held
a calico sociable at Gallagher's Hall, bringing out an attendance of about
forty couples of young Jeffersonians, with a representation from this city.
We were there- veni, vidi, but didn't bici to any extent that we know of,
"hoofing" it through a waltz or two with all the pleasures imaginable. Some
of the costumes were more than stunning- instance the overflowing neckties
of Loomis and Vandercook, as lively bricks as ever waded through waltz or
schottische, while LeGore and Ellis and others appeared in calico from top
to bottom. Altogether the party was an enjoyable affair, and our straying
back to such pleasant quarters may safely be expected.

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