Parson Blake And The Farmer’s Wife

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Great-grandmother was a farmer’s wife, a little woman of considerable spirit and stamina who raised eleven lively children to be a credit to CX the community of Aquebogue, on Long Island, New York. In the age of homemade soap and the scrub board, cleanliness was harder to come by than godliness, but Great-grandmother saw to it that her family measured up in both respects. When the Civil War broke out and Great-grandfather left home to help hold the Union together, it was Great-grandmother who by sheer courage, character, and hard work kept the family from falling to pieces.

Although Great-grandmother’s formal schooling was short and sketchy, it is quite likely that she made up for this deficiency by consulting her copy of The Farmer’s Everyday Book , a sturdy brown volume with well-worn covers which is now my prized possession. John Lauris Blake (1788–1857), an East Coast Episcopal clergyman, country gentleman, and part-time farmer, had compiled this book as part of a one-man crusade for better education for country people. Since five editions were published between 1850 and 1857, it seems safe to assume that it was a best seller. Its 600 pages, packed with facts and philosophy to help the farmer and his wife meet every emergency from cradle to grave, offer the modern reader a fresh and fascinating picture of the farmer’s wife of a century ago, and of the rural America in which she lived.

Browsing through Great-grandmother’s copy of The Farmer’s Everyday Book , I soon discover that its author considered the farmer’s wife a very important person. True, she had no vote; she generally lacked formal schooling; she lived in a time when men were the heads of their households and the administrators of all public affairs. Yet as mother and homemaker in a society still predominantly rural, the farmer’s wife had it in her power to determine the quality of life in her home and neighborhood, and thus held the key to the future of the young nation. What have I in common with this little farmer’s wife of more than a century ago and the hard-working countrywomen on the eastern end of Long Island who were her friends?

Scanning the fine print of Great-grandmother’s book, I find my answer. The physical care of a home and family, the bearing and training of children, the fostering of fellowship in home and community, the search for values to express and transmit—these are the concerns around which her days, like mine, revolve. Despite surface differences, there is a striking sameness in our tasks and our goals. Following the farmers’ wives of 1850 as they move busily through the pages of John Blake’s book, I find them not strangers but familiar friends.

Every farmer, says Mr. Blake in ringing tones, needs a good wife. He then proceeds to describe the life of the unmarried farmer in phrases of unmitigated gloom. Returning from a day of exhausting toil, he eats his solitary supper and sinks into a tired stupor. “Is there aught about him to make his evening fires cheerful? Does any female voice or female step hush the gnawing of the timid mouse or the notes of the unwearied cricket? Save the one and the other, no sound is heard but that of the tell-tale clock, at last reminding him that the hour for repose has arrived. … To the bewitching prattle of children at daybreak, he is a stranger … there is naught to arouse him but the early crowing of the barn-yard fowl. … Thus he lives day after day and year after year, with no one to rejoice in his prosperity or repine in his adversity.”

This grim picture of a life in which companionship would be limited to a clock and a cricket and in which “the current of his life would flow with the monotony of a prairie river” must have sent many a prospective young farmer out on the double to go calling on the most likely young ladies of his acquaintance.

But since the best is none too good for the young countryman, he is warned that he must shop around for a wife with the same caution he would use in selecting, say, a plow. She should be beautiful, but not too beautiful lest she be tempted to vanity and extravagance. She should possess native intelligence and an education which will fit her to bear and bring up children. (The idea that a farmer’s wife needs no education is labelled a “vile and ruinous heresy.”) She should have an amiable disposition and, of course, deference for the views of her husband.

Trouble with in-laws must not have been unknown in the good old days, for there is the final suggestion that it would be well to scrutinize the religion, politics, associations, and spending habits of the girl’s relatives. “If the wife have brought with her a brace of venerable maiden sisters, or an impertinent and self-conceited mother, or an antiquated grandmother,” the domestic future may be dark indeed.

When the young farmer has found the girl who meets these specifications and she has consented to share his rural paradise, what manner of life will she lead? Make no mistake about it, her duties will be many and various. The active life of the farmer requires that he have good food and lots of it. The “personal comeliness” of husband and children are the wife’s responsibility and will entail endless hours devoted to washtub and mending basket. Furthermore, she must lose no opportunity to improve the minds of those in her care.