Working From Home

Family in New York making artificial flowers (Photo: Library of Congress)

Most Americans, including all but a few Old Sturbridge Village employees, are currently working from home to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, The family was the basic unit of society. Until about 1850, over half of all families farmed and worked where they lived. In city and countryside alike, the homes of shopkeepers and tradesmen typically corresponded with their places of business as well. More defined gender roles focused the work of most women on the home: gardening, cooking, cleaning, rearing children and a host of other chores,  regardless of how male members of the household earned a living. The accelerating industrial and commercial revolutions of the early 19th century did draw more labor outside of the home, but it also increased the economic output of households. People sought ways to earn money to buy the myriad of luxuries-becoming-necessities that flooded the expanding marketplace. Some households sewed ready-made clothing or turned out parts for chairs. Others, like the real-life Freeman and Bixby families, saw farm wives and their daughters make surplus butter and cheese for distant markets, braid straw or weave palm leaves for hats, and sew shoe uppers, while their menfolk farmed, made shoes, and followed traditional trades within sight of home, all contributing to an expanding economy. Working from home was just everyday life.

In early New England, the home was much more the focus of life, from cradle to grave, than it is today, when for many home is just a place to relax, sleep, and keep your “stuff.”  Babies were born at home. Most food was produced, preserved and cooked at home. Families ate meals together at home. The clothes they wore were made at home. Most work was done at home. When they got ill, doctors treated them at home. When they died, they were buried from their own parlors.

Railroad engineer Alberta Canada (Photo: Prairie Postcard Collection, University of Alberta Libraries)

The family was the basic unit of society. Until about 1850, over half of all families farmed and worked where they lived. In city and countryside alike, the homes of shopkeepers and tradesmen typically corresponded with their places of business as well. More defined gender roles focused the work of most women on the home: gardening, cooking, cleaning, rearing children and a host of other chores,  regardless of how male members of the household earned a living. The accelerating industrial and commercial revolutions of the early 19th century did draw more labor outside of the home, but it also increased the economic output of households. People sought ways to earn money to buy the myriad of luxuries-becoming-necessities that flooded the expanding marketplace. Some households sewed ready-made clothing or turned out parts for chairs. Others, like the real-life Freeman and Bixby families, saw farm wives and their daughters make surplus butter and cheese for distant markets, braid straw or weave palm leaves for hats, and sew shoe uppers, while their menfolk farmed, made shoes, and followed traditional trades within sight of home, all contributing to an expanding economy. Working from home was just everyday life.

ALHFAM past president and webmaster Deb Arenz has found some challenges working from home.

Stay safe everyone!

Author Tom Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts, Old Sturbridge Village

Author Tom Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts, Old Sturbridge Village

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