1800’s Frugal Frontier Housewife



When I began my novella for Be My Texas Valentine, some nine years ago, I had to do some research on how laundry was done in the late 1800’s, so I went to my bookcase literally filled with reference books not only on the craft of writing, but books about everything anyone would ever want to know about the 1800’s. I’d totally forgotten about a CD I’d purchased with a number of works on it, including one written in 1832 and simply titled The American Frugal Housewife by a woman only identified as Mrs. Child. After reading a while, I decided in today’s economy it might be fun to visit some of Mrs. Child’s philosophy and guidelines from yesteryear.

The author’s premise is simple: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost … Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be … every member of the family should be employed either in earning or saving money.”

Here are some of her tips. Please note that I left much of the spelling and punctuation as it was originally written to truly reflect her authentic voice and the era.

• In this country, we are apt to let children romp away their existence, till they get to be thirteen or fourteen. This is not well. It is not well for the purses and {4} patience of parents; and it has a still worse effect on the morals and habits of the children. Begin early is the great maxim for everything in education. A child of six years old can be made useful; and should be taught to consider every day lost in which some little thing has not been done to assist others. They can knit garters, suspenders, and stockings; they can make patchwork and braid straw; they can make mats for the table, and mats for the floor; they can weed the garden, and pick cranberries from the meadow, to be carried to market.

• Provided brothers and sisters go together, and are not allowed to go with bad children, it is a great deal better for the boys and girls on a farm to be picking blackberries at six cents a quart, than to be wearing out their clothes in useless play. They enjoy themselves just as well; and they are earning something to buy clothes, at the same time they are tearing them.

• ‘Time is money.’ For this reason, cheap as stockings are, it is good economy to knit them. Cotton and woollen yarn are both cheap; hose that are knit wear twice as long as woven ones; and they can be done at odd minutes of time, which would not be otherwise employed. Where there are children, or aged people, it is sufficient to recommend knitting. Run the heels of stockings faithfully; and mend thin places, as well as holes. ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’

• Patchwork is good economy, but it is indeed a foolish waste of time to tear gppd cloth into bits for the sake of arranging it anew in fantastic figures; but a large family may be kept out of idleness, and a few shillings saved, by thus using scraps of gowns, curtains, &c. 



• Look frequently to the pails, to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs which should have been in the grease-pot.
• Look to the grease-pot, and see that nothing is there which might have served to nourish your own family, or a poorer one.
• See that the beef and pork are always under brine; and that the brine is sweet and clean.
• Preserve the backs of old letters to write upon. If you have children who are learning to write, buy coarse white paper by the quantity, and keep it locked up, ready to be made into writing books. It does not cost half as much as it does to buy them at the stationer’s.
• The oftener carpets are shaken, the longer they wear; the dirt that collects under them, grinds out the threads. Do not have carpets swept any oftener than is absolutely necessary. After dinner, sweep the crumbs into a dusting-pan with your hearth-brush; and if you have been sewing, pick up the shreds by hand. A carpet can be kept very neat in this way; and a broom wears it very much. When a carpet is faded, I have been told that it may be restored, in a great measure, (provided there be no grease in it,) by being dipped into strong salt and water. I never tried this; but I know that silk pocket handkerchiefs, and deep blue factory cotton will not fade, if dipped in salt and water while new Keep a coarse broom for the cellar stairs, wood-shed, yard, &c. No good housekeeper allows her carpet broom to be used for such things.
• Suet and lard keep better in tin than in earthen. Suet keeps good all the year round, if chopped and packed down in a stone jar, covered with molasses. Pick suet free from veins and skin, melt it in water before a moderate fire, let it cool till it forms into a hard cake, then wipe it dry, and put it in clean paper in linen bags.
• The covering of oil-flasks, sewed together with strong thread, and lined and bound neatly, makes useful tablemats.
• Never leave out your clothes-line over night; and see that your clothes-pins are all gathered into a basket.
• After old coats, pantaloons, &c. have been cut up for boys, and are no longer capable of being converted into garments, cut them into strips, and employ the leisure moments of children, or domestics, in sewing and braiding them for door-mats.
• An ounce of quicksilver, beat up with the white of two eggs, and put on with a feather, is the cleanest and surest bed-bug poison. What is left should be thrown away: it is dangerous to have it about the house. If the vermin are in your walls, fill up the cracks with verdigris-green paint.1
• Eggs will keep almost any length of time in lime-water properly prepared. One pint of coarse salt, and one pint of unslacked lime, to a pailful of water. If there be too much lime, it will eat the shells from the eggs; and if there be a single egg cracked, it will spoil the whole. They should be covered with lime-water, and kept in a cold place. The yolk becomes slightly red; but I have seen eggs, thus kept, perfectly sweet and fresh at the end of three years. The cheapest time to lay down eggs, is early in spring, and the middle and last of September. It is bad economy to buy eggs by the dozen, as you want them.
• If feather-beds smell badly, or become heavy, from want of proper preservation of the feathers, or from old age, empty them, and wash the feathers thoroughly in a tub of suds; spread them in your garret to dry, and they will be as light and as good as new.
• Feathers should be very thoroughly dried before they are used. For this reason they should not be packed away in bags, when they are first plucked. They should be laid lightly in a basket, or something of that kind, and stirred up often. The garret is the best place to dry them; because they will there be kept free from dirt and moisture; and will be in no danger of being blown away. It is well to put the parcels, which you may have from time to time, into the oven, after you have removed your bread, and let them stand a day.

I don’t know about you, but I became exhausted by just reading about the do’s and don’t of a frugal frontier housewife. May of her tips are still used today.

So, what chore do you find the least pleasant and which might be fun?

I will be giving away a copy of my newest contemporary romance “Out of a Texas Night” to one lucky commenter, but if you have already read it, I bet I can find one of the others to give away in it’s place.


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A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

Visit her at phylissmiranda.com

37 thoughts on “1800’s Frugal Frontier Housewife”

    • Hi Debra, good to hear from you. I hate to dust but it has nothing to do with allergies for me. I’m a collector of “stuff”, so I have to move everything to dust. I’ve ended up with a lot of antiques and family memorabilia from both sides of the family. Hope you have a great week. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Estella, good to hear from you. I agree on the mopping, but using the mop with the pads and sprayer, I don’t mind nearly as much. Hope you have a great day. Hugs, Phyliss

  1. I am a housewife and glad I live in modern times, not back then. They really worked hard. My least favorite chore is scrubbing the tub and tile walls. I can never get the grout between the tiles clean enough.

  2. What a very very interesting article. I loved it. I think today’s children are missing out on so much work around the house that one day would serve them well. I’ve already read this amazing book so do not enter me into the drawing. Love you!

    • Hi Miss Tonya, our Kansas friend. Good to hear from you. I think it’d be fun to be a kid, to a degree, during those days when you could play and have fun, but knew their bounds. I was raised that way and we raised our girls that way, too. All of my grands, except for those who don’t live at home, have chores to do. The older ones did, too. Take care of yourself and if I draw your name, we’ll work out something for you to win. Thanks for the compliment about this book. I’m working on book #3 now. Take care and have a great week. Hugs, P

  3. Great post. I’m definitely glad for modern conveniences. I’m tired just reading what would have to be done.

    • Hi Alisa, I understand. It tired me out just writing the blog. Glad you enjoyed it. Take care of yourself and so happy to hear from you. Hugs, Phyliss

  4. I’ve often thought of how exhausting it was to be a woman of frontier household way back then! I can’t even imagine. This blog reminded me of how wasteful we are nowadays. I do not like to dust and having tons of books and knickknacks makes it a long, hard job. My favorite household chore is cooking. Stay safe in these difficult times!

    • Hi Stephanie, my friend. Good to hear from you. No doubt the work back then was laborious but I think rewarding. Wasteful today is so true. I hate dusting for the same reasons as you do. I love to cook, well I used when I had kids at home. Now my DH and I can find plenty to eat without doing a lot of scratch cooking. You stay safe, too. We’re staying in but they are going to lift restrictions on beauty shops and nails Friday, which I desperately need. Linda and I use the same nail lady and she already has us down for her first two customers when they open! LOL Take care and have a great week. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Caryl, good to hear from you. I totally agree with dusting. I have so many antiques and pictures that have to be moved that it isn’t any fun at all. Glad you enjoyed the post. Take care of yourself and hope you have a wonderful week. Hugs, Phyliss

  5. It’s fascinating to read about”olden ways”. My favorite things would be picking blackberries and hanging clothes on the clothesline. I loved hanging out washing and gathering it in. My least favorite would be the washing of used feathers for remaking feather mattresses. I always wondered how they could save that many feathers. Using mercury for anything would be scary. And saving eggs for 3 years is gaggy. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Janie, good to hear from you. I agree with picking berries. Yummy! And, isn’t there such a huge difference in smell between clothes dried in the dryer and those hung on a line? I love the smell and regardless of the “extra stuff” advertised to make dryer clothes smell better, line drying can’t be beat. Also, agree “yuck” on the eggs. Take care of yourself and have a great rest of the week. Hugs, Phyliss

  6. I’m glad to live in a modern time when children playing is encouraged. I can’t imagine my five year old having to earn his own money for clothes! I keep them occupied with chores too, but goodness how I love to watch them play and use their imaginations.
    I do enjoy cooking and polishing furniture.

    • Hi Jess, good to hear from you. I enjoy my grandchildren so much and loved playing with them when they were younger. Now they’re all teenagers or older. I also agree about watching them use their imaginations. I love cooking but polishing furniture, not so much. Have a great week and take care of yourself. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Abigail, so good to hear from you. I guess I’m kinda like you, normal works for me but deep cleaning is yucky to say the least. Take care of yourself and have a great week. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Charlene. Good to hear from you. I love research and still use my many research books, although there’s so much online and I go to it a lot too. Agree with too much work in the 1800’s!!!! Take care of yourself and have a great week. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Anne, good to hear from you. Yuck on the bathroom, too! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I thought it was interesting. Take care of yourself and have a great week. Hugs, Phyiss

  7. Living in that era was extremely backbreaking. I do not enjoy any housework but the worst is heavy work of any kind like cleaning out the garage.

    • Hi Pearl, good to hear from you. I’m not crazy about housework either, although when I had two little girls and worked full time, I cooked dinner every night from scratch, kept the laundry up to snuff, and had an immaculately clean house. I was a Girl Scout Leader, coached all types of Kid’s Inc. games and was a bowling coach, but then I had their dad to help out. Now that we’re retired, I believe taking out the garbage and cleaning the garage as minimal as he can get by with is what he calls “work”. LOL Take care and have a great week. Hugs, Phyliss

  8. OH good grief! There’d be no rest for the weary. They all sound hard, but the emptying the feather beds then WASHING the feathers and then drying?! NO thank you. Haha!
    I hate folding clothes nowadays. I’ll wash and dry all day long, but please don’t make me fold them!

    • Hi Susan, good to hear from you. I’m glad we have our modern day washers and dryers, but totally agree about the washing of feathers. I can’t imagine. I don’t mind too much doing laundry, except for sheets. I’m just thankful we don’t have to iron the pillowcases and sheets any longer. Guess I’m showing my age. Take care and have a great week. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Colleen, good to hear from you. I agree on the tub. Yuck to say the least. Frankly, clogged or not I simply don’t like to do it. Take care and have a great week. Hugs, Phyliss

  9. My grandma did a lot of this. I have quilts she made from scraps of clothing, braided rugs, etc… Of course, some of the ways she kept food doesn’t meet proper food handling for today’s standards. She made her own lye soap for laundry and did it by hand till she had a laundry installed when they got indoor plumbing. She had an old wringer washer and she used a washboard, too. My grandma could make the treadle work on her non-electric Singer sewing machine faster than some sew.

    My other grandma did a lot things at home, too. I remember when they sold all of her stuff, and a lot of the Amish were buying the items which didn’t need electricity like the old galvanized wash tub and stand, canning jars, etc…

    We take for granted a lot of modern conveniences and forget that many of them are still utilized by some for religious/cultural or financial reasons here in the USA.

    • Hi Denise, good to hear from you. I remember my Granny using her treadle Singer sewing machine, too. Like you, may of what she did, I remember very vividly. I think we do take our modern day conveniences for granted. Take care of yourself and I hope you have a great week. Big hugs with memories of Granny all around me, Phyliss

  10. Hi, this is a very interesting and eye opening article, so many things that we take for granted now a days! When I was growing up my mom had a wringer washing machine and we would rinse the clothes in a big tin tub. Actually my sister that is a year younger then me had her hand stuck in the wringer . We also had clothes lines. I don’t like to dust furniture at all, and if I don’t fold the clothes as soon as they are out of the dryer, they will stay in the clothes basket for a while. With all the Corona stuff , I am learning to not take anything or anyone for granted . Have a Great week and stay safe. Thank you for the chance of winning your awesome sounding book with the beautiful cover. God Bless you and your family.

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