Given all I have learned from researching 19th century daily life in the course of writing Masque of Honor, it is no surprise that the lifespan of the average American was relatively short. Your days, however, were undoubtedly long; filled with chores and lengthy preparations for meals that you hoped would not inadvertently kill you. If you were to-the-manor-born, you might have been luckier, since most of the labor and effort was exerted by others, but a middle-to-lower class existence was considerably riskier.
For example, basic food preparation was the most time-consuming of all of the average housewives’ chores. Small markets carried sundries, but most people, if not in urban areas, grew their own fruits and vegetables, and as a consequence, had very seasonal diets. Meat, if you were fortunate enough to be able to afford it, was dried, or smoked and salted. This is prior to the age of refrigeration, so these methods drew the moisture out to prevent meat from spoiling.
If you were able to afford a kitchen that was separate from the rest of the house, you were in the privileged position of not having to smell the smoke or feel the intense heat the hearth provided all day long, since the fire had to remain lit the entire day in order to facilitate an entire day of meals. It was also the age of reuse and recycle. The morning milk not drank could become the whipped cream and eventually butter you enjoyed later.
The exhausting cycle of housework also included the equally laborious process of doing laundry, darning, and sewing. This, along with cooking and cleaning left precious little free time for the American housewife.
As for men, the list of chores was considerable as well, and that didn’t include the daily annoyances that could derail your day, such as runaway or stolen cows, horses, and hogs. A cursory look at newspapers of the time shows that this was a significant part of daily life in the 19th century if you lived in the country.
In the 19th Century, the understanding of infection was in its infancy. Most medicines were still made with natural products, the dosages dependent on the active ingredient, all made with the use of mortar and pestle and heating elements that would heat and help press ingredients into ingestible forms. Opium was widely prescribed after the Civil War, and among certain circles, the addiction was as troubling as the current Opioid addiction is today. It was used for treating everything from teething pain to menstrual cramps and even morning sickness, and as a result, the earliest addicts were overwhelmingly middle-aged white women.
Life in the 19th century was definitely not for the weak of body or spirit. As much as we might want to imagine that life was simpler then, it might have been so on a very basic level, but overall there was less time to live it.
Our country has persistently been a symbol of freedom and hope for those seeking refuge—from its birth, to the present day, and especially so in the 1800s. The newly prosperous America was seen as the land of opportunity, attracting immigrants from around the world. From the beginning of the century, an overwhelming majority of these immigrants were from Ireland. At one time in the 19th century, the Irish represented nearly half of the immigrant population in the United States.
Irish immigrants had been settling in the U.S. since the 1780’s and had assimilated easily due to shared language and their needed skills. Because most of the Irish were Catholic, their arrival, however, exacerbated an already existing conflict with Protestants. Many Americans feared that the religious freedom they had sought in coming to the new land would be compromised and that somehow, this infusion of Catholicism would impose Vatican law into the fledgling nation. As a result, the new Irish immigrants were automatically seen as a threat, and the relationship between them and the American people was fraught with prejudice and violence.
In the 1840s, Ireland underwent a deathly famine brought on by a plant eating blight that destroyed the potato crop and was further exasperated by the British government, who exported what little viable harvest there was to Great Britain, leaving the Irish people to starve. The famine, the resulting poverty, and unrelenting British rule spurred the Irish to flee across the Atlantic in search of a better life and a chance to survive. It is estimated that two million refugees arrived to the United States during the Great Famine of Ireland.
Upon arrival, the Irish predominated three locations: New York, Chicago, and Boston. As they settled onto their new land they took up menial, often dangerous jobs – digging trenches for water, working in textile mills, or cleaning houses and stables. They received minimal payment for their work, and continued to face discrimination, even in the job market. Newspapers published ads discouraging those of Irish descent to apply, and often featured distasteful illustrations depicting Irish people to display their hatred.
In spite of the discrimination and abuse, Irish Americans yielded an immense positive outcome for America as a whole. Still a relatively new country, America benefited from the growing workforce, especially in the area of construction. Railways, buildings, and systems built in this time period helped to propel America into the modern world. Additionally, the Irish greatly influenced the development of worker’s unions in America with figures such as Terence Vincent Powderly, Mary Harris, and the Mollie Maguires, who fought to improve working conditions and trade unions in this country.
Today, we celebrate Irish Americans and their historical contributions to our nation. In many ways the Irish culture is still prominent in our country, particularly on the East Coast where a large percentage of the Irish-descended population still live to this day. Irish traditions such as St. Patrick’s Day are so ingrained in our American culture that oftentimes we barely stop to think about their history and how it is that we celebrate and participate in them today.
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The 19th Century was an incredibly rich time in American history. In the wake of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the United States was still at the early stages of forming its own identity and a culture of its own. This time period, historically remembered as the Romantic Era, greatly affected American thought, and could be credited as the period that gave birth to what it means “to be an American.”
Romanticism (the more common name for the period of The Romantic Era) was an arts and literature movement that began in Europe and eventually made its way to the United States, where it took on a life of its own. Initially, Romanticism sparked as a reaction to Industrialism and the restrictive neo-classical ideas of the preceding era of Enlightenment. It rejected ideas of modernity, rationalism, and religious rigidity and instead focused on individual emotion, the exploration of the self, and the importance and beauty of the natural world. It was a period where feeling preceded reason and self-expression was valued over traditional restraint.
In the grand scope of American literature, American Romanticism was the first real literary movement to ever occur within the United States. In fact, the Romantic Era in the United States was largely known as the “American Renaissance” because it was around this time that American writers and artists began searching for a distinctly “American” voice, separate from that of their British and European counterparts. Just a few short decades after the American Revolution and in the wake of the War of 1812, the country found itself in a place of newly acquired freedom and at the precipice of unending possibility with regards to their identity as a nation. This state of liminality led to a bursting of creativity and artistic development spanning from the early to mid 1800s.
Inspired by British romantic writers who focused on aesthetics of nature, emotion, and the self, American artists took to writing about America through these Romantic lenses. William Cullen Bryant, for example, was inspired to write poetry depicting New England outdoors as influenced by the Romantic appreciation for nature. Henry David Thoreau, a key figure in American literature was also influenced by these works, and became a leading member of the distinctly American movement of Transcendentalism.
Meanwhile, social and political events such as the inauguration of Andrew Jackson shaped democratic thought and concept, asserting the value of the individual no matter their background or social status. Influenced by this increase in democratic ideal, American culture began to lead more toward individualism, compounding the already existing romantic ideas of self-expression and independence.
Through the flurry of change and progress, American Romanticism began to thrive. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson – a man credited to have paved the way for American Romanticism – encouraged other artists to examine their national identity and leave European form, structure, and tradition behind. In turn, America began to develop its own voice filled with spirit and the birth of the human self.
Romanticism gave birth to some of America’s greatest writers – Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau, and some of the masterpieces of American literature, such as Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter. Each work, though varying in genre and content, was a rebellion against formalism and an exploration of individualism, the self, and national perception. Perhaps the ideological traits of this time period provide us a glimpse into understanding why we are the way that we are.