CRAZY THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT THE 19th CENTURY

Patricia Grady Cox

September 23, 2015

Some of us spent our childhoods watching westerns on TV: Gunsmoke, Wanted—Dead or Alive, Palladin, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Big Valley, Bonanza . . .  Westerns were the NCIS of the late 50s and early 60s. You could find at least one every night. And then they were no more.

From the mid 1990s to present, I’ve been researching the period between 1860 and 1890 in an attempt to make my writing as authentic as possible. I do not claim to be an expert, historian, or even as knowledgeable as I’d like to be. I did find that the more widely I read, the more I learned. This is in-depth stuff you won’t find by googling a particular, narrowly-defined subject.

Possibly because I’m originally from New England or possibly because my early frame of reference consisted of the listed television shows, I got surprised often. This is a tiny list, with a never-ending supply saved for future posts.

  • Most main streets through towns were, of course, dirt. I guess this was a surprise because in my television-fueled frame of reference
    Early 1870s photo of San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. The focus of the photograph was the gas streetlight, not the condition of the street which was, evidently, normal. Photo from the California Water and Power Association’s online museum, used with permission.

    Early 1870s photo of San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. The focus of the photograph was the gas streetlight, not the condition of the street which was, evidently, normal. Photo from the California Water and Power Association’s online museum, used with permission.

    (especially Bonanza and The Big Valley), nobody ever got dirty. They seemed to somehow avoid the dry, dust-cloudy, throat-clogging, clothes-staining dirt. I also never thought about what would happen when it rained until I visited an old ghost-towny place here in Arizona with a boardwalk that was about three feet off the ground. The resident codger told me that was so you could ride up and step off your horse without getting your feet mired in the mud as the town was next to a creek that flooded often. During dry spells, when the street hardened into concrete, the liveries shoveled manure into the ruts to make the road smoother. Now try, once more, to imagine what it would be like to cross the street in a rainstorm . . .

  • Women’s underpants were crotchless. This really shocked me because, of course, I thought crotchless underwear was
    Split Drawers, 1870s. For the majority of the 19th century, women’s drawers had a split crotch.The split was both functional and cultural.  Photo and caption from Phoenix Heritage Square, the Victorian’s Secret exhibit

    Split Drawers, 1870s. For the majority of the 19th century, women’s drawers had a split crotch.The split was both functional and cultural.
    Photo and caption from Phoenix Heritage Square, the Victorian’s Secret exhibit

    racy. But then it made perfect sense. You’ve got four layers of clothing that need to be pulled up for certain functions. You have to hold all of that up with one hand and lower the britches with the other? And they didn’t have elastic waists – you had to untie a drawstring or unhook fasteners. Crotchless was actually modest. What if dire circumstances forced you to relieve yourself with other people around? You could just squat and nobody would even know until you walked away, demurely lifting your skirts away from the puddle. (I don’t know if that ever happened; it just seems like an added convenience.) Only the whores wore “French bloomers” with the crotches sewed shut. But then that was pretty much all they wore so they probably appreciated being draft-free.

  • Crotchless underwear would have come in handy for Sarah Bogard Ashurst who, according to more than once source,
    Sarah Ashurst at the age of 36, posed with her husband William. She would have been 20 years old when Henry arrived. Photo from the Cline Special Collection, Northern Arizona University

    Sarah Ashurst at the age of 36, posed with her husband William. She would have been 20 years old when Henry arrived. Photo from the Cline Special Collection, Northern Arizona University

    went into labor while her husband was off hunting. She tethered her 2-year-old daughter to a wagon wheel, went back inside the tent they called home (in Winneucca, Nevada in 1874) and delivered her second child by herself. The little boy grew up to be Henry Fountain Ashurst, one of the first Senators from Arizona when statehood was achieved in 1902. Sarah and Henry are characters in my current work-in-progress.

  • Mostly, I’m still reeling from the prescribed treatment for snakebite (see my Sept. 9th blog). The ammonia sticks pushed me over the edge.

Have you ever learned something about the 1800s that surprised you?

Return to my webpage: PATRICIA GRADY COX

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4 comments

  1. Tin boxes were placed under the holes in the outhouse and they had holes in the bottom so they would catch the excrement (so the excrement could be removed) but the urine could soak into the ground. The dirt had to be periodically replaced or it would form lakes. Ug.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love learning about the real (non-romanticized) 19th century! Thanks for another tidbit of information! (wondering whose job it was to empty the tin boxes . . . )

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Shirley Wine · · Reply

    And so many people laud these as the good old days. I read a book about the typhoid epidemic caused by typhoid from latrines soaking through and contaminating the stream water that settlers used for drinking. Typhoid was so prevalent in pioneer America that it was called the summer sickness. We need to be grateful for modern sanitation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the good old days were never as good as people like to imagine. I’m always grateful I was born after the discover of penicillin.

      Liked by 1 person

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