20 Things Your Ancestors Did That You Probably Never Will Albert Martin (father of Garnett Martin) with old sow on Martin farm, Fernleigh.

20 Things Your Ancestors Did That You Probably Never Will

By Patricia Hartley

Some folks yearn for the “good old days,” when times were simpler. But just because your ancestors lacked the hectic, technology-driven lifestyles we lead today doesn’t mean they had it easy. Luckily, some of the more complicated, strenuous, and dangerous tasks they endured are now obsolete.

Let’s take a look at a few of those more fascinating aspects of our predecessors’ lives that you’ll hopefully never have to endure, but that may give you a much better idea of how they lived.

Unlike your ancestors, you will probably never have to:

1. Make all of your own clothes

Although craft and fabric stores still offer a wide variety of cloth, patterns, and thread for the purpose of creating clothing, and homemade is making a bit of a resurgence, for most people sewing is just a hobby to supplement a store-bought wardrobe.

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For families living in the past, though, every garment had to be hand-sewn, at least until the sewing machine and some mass-produced clothing was introduced in the mid-1800s. In fact, many families would have sewn all of their own clothes well into the 20th century. Of course, those with money often employed others to do the work for them – but the task of ordering fabrics, choosing designs and undertaking measurements would have still been much more time-consuming than today’s stores filled with ready to wear fashions. 

2. Travel by ocean liner, steamboat, or horse-and-buggy

If you get frustrated with the length of your daily commute, imagine how your great-great grandmother felt when it came time to travel from her homestead into town in a horse-drawn wagon or by foot, or spend days or weeks on dangerous roads and boats to visit family, or move to a new place.

And of course, the only way to cross the seas before the widespread use of airliners in the 1950s was spending weeks on an ocean liner. Luckily, both the shipping lines and the ports of departure and arrival kept records of passengers that are very useful for family historians.

3. Correspond with those you love entirely by mail

Imagine for a moment that the only way you have to connect with the ones you love is through a hand written letter that could easily take weeks to arrive at its destination. That was the reality for your ancestors.

Today, letter-writing as regular correspondence is now largely a lost art. If you have in your possession any personal letters to and from your ancestors be sure to keep those treasures enclosed in acid-free sleeves, and digitize them, since they likely contain details about your family that are irreplaceable.. 

4. Read about your postal tardiness in the newspaper

With emails available instantly on our phones and laptops, you wonder if one day mailboxes will be a thing of the past. But home mail delivery has had a relatively short life. Before 1863, mail was sent from post office to post office, and only delivered elsewhere for an extra fee.

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That’s why you’ll sometimes see notices in 1800s-era newspapers warning a list of local folks to pick up their mail soon or risk it being sent to a “dead letters” department. These notices can also help family historians to locate a family member in a certain time and place. Check out this article about using old newspapers for help locating this information. 

5. Become an indentured servant

With labor scarce and work abundant in early 17th century colonies, wealthy landowners would sometimes pay for an immigrant’s passage to America and later room and board in exchange for four to seven years of labor. As many as two-thirds of Colonial Americans may have come over this way.

The practice–called indentured servitude–was largely phased out with the advent of slavery laws in the 1860s, but left behind fascinating documents that reveal clues to our ancestors’ character, work ethic, and determination to make a new life in the new world. Read Have Colonial American Roots? Then There’s a Good Chance Your Ancestors Were Indentured Servants if you have roots in this time and place. 

6. Use an almanac for a weather forecast

The Weather Channel, an app on your phone, or your favorite local meteorologist may be your go-to for upcoming weather conditions, but for your ancestors, almanacs were always on hand to help them plan everything from planting crops to castrating bulls. These handy booklets may have been the only reading material available at the homestead in addition to the family Bible, and in many ways it was almost as highly regarded. Want to know what the weather was like in the fall of 1945? Check out the online version of Farmer’s Almanac–now in its 201st year of publication!

7. Marry your deceased spouse’s sibling

If you’re picturing yourself married to your sister’s husband right now (and shuddering, perhaps), give us a chance to explain. It was not uncommon–especially in smaller, tight-knit communities with a limited number of prospective spouses– for an unmarried brother to marry his deceased brother’s widow and take in his nieces and nephews as his own children. In some cultures, this was a requirement or obligation and was called a levirate marriage. For most folks in America, though, it was just the right thing to do.

8. Sit for a formal portrait

Genealogists cherish the brittle old tintypes and cabinet cards of our ancestors, with their rigidly posed and unsmiling subjects. It won’t be long, though, before our descendants equally cherish our own (often-awkward) family portraits, because sitting for a formal family photo has largely become a thing of the past. Why herd the entire crew to a stuffy studio when you can just use a selfie stick to capture a digital image? Unless you’re printing and framing (or at least digitally preserving) these treasures for future generations, the classic family portrait may cease to exist.

9. Be excommunicated from church for dancing, drinking, cursing…or being a Mason

Among the many fascinating entries in the minutes of one Baptist church in Mississippi was this one from February 1844: “The subject of Masonry was then discussed […] and the question was then put to the church will this church countenance Masonry or not, which was decided in the negative.” Although the Catholic faith still disdains membership in a Masonic lodge, other faiths have loosened their stances against such associations–just as they have against other transgressions like dancing and cursing. While these may be frowned upon or even not allowed, excommunication from the faith is much less likely in many parts of the world.

Woman wearing corset
Woman wearing a corset, note the size of her waist

10. Wear a corset

Remember that scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett holds on for dear life to her bedpost as Mammy forcefully tugs the strings of her corset until Scarlett achieves her famous 17-inch waist? Corsets were a common component of women’s fashion for more than 500 years–until the early 1900s, when medical professionals finally put an end to the painful practice by announcing the health risks of shifting internal organs and restricting breathing.

11. Keep an ice house

There’s a reason our great-grandparents referred to their refrigerator as the “icebox.” Until the late 1800s, ice was harvested from frozen New England lakes and shipped abroad and to southern states for storage in specially constructed ice houses. Homeowners could pick up or request delivery of ice blocks to their homes, where the blocks were kept in wooden or metal boxes lined with straw or sawdust. In fact, ice boxes were common into the 1930s and beyond. Think of that the next time your refrigerator dispenses your crushed ice at the touch of a button!

12. Let blood

Bloodletting (thankfully) went out of fashion in the 1800s, but prior to that, a bad headache or practically any other ailment may have led to your physician cutting into a vein and letting five to seven pints of blood drain out to cure your ills. Today’s researchers believe that excessive bloodletting led to the deaths of King Charles II in 1685 and President George Washington in 1799.

13. Die from TB, smallpox, measles, yellow fever or cholera

Thanks to improved sanitation and health care many diseases that shortened the life spans of our ancestors have been eradicated. Today the average worldwide life expectancy stands at a robust 72 years, compared to the 30- to 40-year expectation of our 18th and 19th century predecessors.

14. Claim homestead or bounty land

In Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck wrote, “Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’.” That was certainly true in the 1800s, when the country was expanding both geographically and population-wise. The federal government leveraged this growing desire to own a “piece of lan’” with the bounty land and the Homestead Act of 1862.

Bounty land (usually 160 acres) was available as a reward to veterans of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 and their heirs for their military service, while acreage in the new western territory was granted to male heads of households through the Homestead Act to encourage settlement. Fortunately for researchers, much of the documentation relating to these land claims can be found online. Read the articles linked to above for help with access to these records. 

15. Live your whole life on a family farm

So what would one do with those newly-acquired 160 acres? Why, farm it, of course! In 1790, 90 percent of the labor force was composed of farmers; although that percentage dwindled to 49 percent by 1880, there were still 4 million farms tending to an average of 134 acres each. Farming was dangerous, difficult, day-long work without the technological advances modern farmers utilize, and often involved the entire family (plus cousins, neighbors, boarders, etc.). You no doubt have some farmers in your family tree. 

16. Wait days or weeks to hear the latest news

These days, instant notifications and “breaking news” banners on our various screens alert us to what’s happening in the next town or across the globe within minutes. But before radios and televisions, news traveled through word-of-mouth, mail, and newspapers–at a significant delay for those in rural communities. Imagine not knowing about the death of a family member, the election of a president, or a declaration of war for weeks. 

17. Use an outhouse at home

Portable public toilets may come close, but they’re not constructed of splintery wood, filled with spiders and situated in our backyards. And while we often associate outhouses with fun camping trips and iconic western homesteads, the reality of sewage disposal before modern plumbing was anything but pleasant. 

18. Manage a funeral and burial

As if the grief of losing a loved one wasn’t enough, our ancestors were once tasked with preparing bodies for viewing (usually in a home’s living area or parlor) and digging and closing the grave in the family or town cemetery.

Death care changed dramatically with the need for embalming to preserve the bodies of Civil War soldiers as they were sent home for burial, and undertakers and funeral homes had largely relieved families of funeral and burial duties by the end of the 19th century. (Pro tip: The records kept by local funeral homes can often provide a wealth of information about our ancestors! Find more help here).

19. Employ child labor

As children, our ancestors weren’t treated to playdates and piano lessons, or video game consoles and mobile phones. They were often awoken at daybreak to work on the family farm, help with daily chores, and perhaps even report for duty at a factory. In fact, in farming communities the school year consisted of a short summer term and a short winter term, as planting and harvesting required children’s assistance on the farm during the spring and fall. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act outlawed employment for anyone under the age of 16.

20. Travel away from family and friends forever

While many of us today will travel far from home to make a new life, we have the ability, in most cases, of visiting home and family again quite easily. But for many of our ancestors, a big move meant saying goodbye to family forever. It was a steep price to pay for a chance at a better future, but many did it. How many of these brave stories do you have in your family history?

What would you add to this list?

For nearly 30 years Patricia Hartley has researched and written about the ancestry and/or descendancy of her personal family lines, those of her extended family and friends, and of historical figures in her community. After earning a B.S. in Professional Writing and English and an M.A. in English from the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama, she completed an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University. She’s a member of the Alabama Genealogical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, National Genealogical Society, International Society of Family History Writers, Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society, Natchez Trace Genealogical Society and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review. 

Image one: Albert Martin (father of Garnett Martin) with old sow on Martin farm, west of Fernleigh. Flickr Commons.

Image two: Woman wearing a corset, circa 1900. Wikimedia Commons.

6 thoughts on “20 Things Your Ancestors Did That You Probably Never Will”

  1. I am 73 years old and was born and raised in a very isolated, close knit small town in South Jersey where my maternal great grandparents were farmers and entrepreneurs. Partially growing up on their farm is a memorable experience. Their farming produced string beans, corn, squash, red/green peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lima beans. I helped by hand picking these delicious and healthy vegetables. Their farm animals consisted of rabbits, chickens, pigs, cows and hogs.
    A wash board was used to wash their clothes. I can still see clothing swinging on the line. The fresh scent of them was so good! They didn’t have inside plumbing, but an out house. They even owned a Victrola.
    My great grandmother not only helped to farm the land, she was a great house wife. She cooked food on a wood stove, and preserved fruits and vegetables. Their food was kept fresh in an ice box. Her other works include being a seamstress. She made and sold Mother’s Day assorted flowers, as well as, took the time to teach me to crouchet.
    My great grandfather also kept busy as a woodsman, who cut and sold wood in and around the local community.
    They both lived off the land and enjoyed doing so! They were beautiful Christian people who were an asset to their community and their country.
    I could go on and on, instead I’ll bring it to a close by saying, “I miss and love them for their love of life. I am grateful they allowed me to be a witness to a simple hardworking and blessed way of life to be remembered”.

  2. One thing that my ancestors did that I do not do is grow my own food or butcher animals. My parents-in-law would not have eaten had they not grow their own food and raised animals to feed their family.

  3. Walter Davidson

    I have scratched a sow behind the ear and done a few of the other things. you missed home butchering of animals for meat on your list, from rabbits to steers.

  4. Ancestors made their own butter, ice cream, bread, killed chickens and other animals for food, delivered their own babies, invented pickles and all other types of preserving food, like smoking.

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