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Pioneer Housekeeping

Updated on March 10, 2012

Next time you're popping a roast in the microwave or taking some delicacy from the freezer, spare a thought for the colonial housewife, that resourceful pioneer lady who ran a household with the barest of utensils, made her own bread, butter, soap and candles, salted her own beef and educated her own children.

When our early settlers took up selections of land, often many kilometers from established towns, it was the womenfolk who usually had the back-breaking task of setting up and running a smooth household.

Even though equipment was limited, meals still had to be cooked, sewing and mending attended to and the children given an education.

For those who could afford it, all basic equipment had to be transported by dray from the cities.

For others, it was a case of starting out with their bare hands and those natural resources provided by the Australian countryside. For these women, there was no housework as such. There were no windows to clean, no floors to wash, no curtains to iron and no furniture to polish.

Bark tables and tin plates

Those early primitive homes, often just bark hum pies had no glass in the windows, the floors were natural earth and if there were curtains, they were made from hessian or flour bags.

Tables were usually sheets of bark placed on four stakes and chairs were just rough wooden blocks. Kitchen utensils were very basic: a three-legged pot, a camp oven, tin plates, bowie knives and forked sticks.

Outback cooking

Cooking in the first instance was done over an open fire. However, some colonial housewives such as Caroline Joyce were more fortunate. In the late 1850s, her husband Alfred wrote in his reminiscences of A Homestead History that as no servant was available for the house, he endeavored to make the kitchen as labor-free as possible.

Alfred Joyce fitted his wife's kitchen with the most up to date fittings: a sink with water connected, a plate rack, a complete dresser and an American cooking stove.

The three-legged American cooker

Making its appearance on the market in the mid-1800s, the American cooking stove was no doubt hailed as the ultimate in luxury for country kitchens. Standing on three sturdy legs, the iron cooker was simply constructed with an oven, hot plate and flue.

Easy to transport and requiring no fitting, these ovens proved so popular that Australian manufacturers soon developed the 'Colonial Oven', an iron box with shelves and a hinged door, heated by fires both under and over the oven.

One 'luxury' model had a section for an open fire, three enclosed ovens fitted with flues, hobs for stove-top cooking, a hot-box for warming plates and a large tank either beside or behind the fire for heating water.

Bathing in a hip bath

Water was often a scarce commodity especially in times of drought so most available water was needed for domestic use. Bathrooms were considered a luxury and were usually built only in large houses. Most homes made do with a washstand, a jug and basin.

Bathing was not the norm and if the home had any bath at all, it was a hip bath. An uncomfortable receptacle, the hip bath was impossible to lie in, sit in or even stand in and it had to be filled and emptied by hand.

The laundry also presented problems. Washing the clothes was often done in a cast-iron trypot or in a kerosene tin of water heated over an open fire. If there were no water tanks, washing was done near a well or a river.

The 'human' washing machine

After boiling the water, washing and rinsing by hand, the housewife had to wring, dry and iron the clothes. If she was fortunate enough to have a mangle or wringer, she had the back-breaking task of folding heavy, wet linen and pushing it through two wooden rollers while turning a large, cast-iron handle.

The colonial housewife had a choice of a slug iron which allowed for a piece of hot metal to be placed in a slot inside the iron, a flat iron which had to be heated on the stove, or a box iron which was filled with hot coals. Any one of these implements made ironing an arduous job.

Homemade soap and candles

When washing, the housewife used soap she made herself from fat or tallow, caustic soda or wood ashes and borax filled with water in a kerosene tin. This mixture was poured into a dish and allowed to set before being cut up. Fat was also used to make candles. First the fat was melted down, then a piece of cotton wick or string or even a peeled rush was set in the wooden candle molds. The melted fat was then poured in and allowed to set.

If no candle molds were available, lighting was often supplied by floating a piece of string in a bowl of leftover cooking fat. If the home had lamps, these were lit by olive oil, paraffin oil or kerosene.

The versatile kerosene tin

The humble kerosene tin was a great boon for colonial housewives. As well as being used to boil water for washing, the tins were invaluable for storing water, cooking meat and vegetables, preparing jams and preserves.

Cut on the diagonal, the kerosene tin when opened, made a serviceable washing up and rinsing bowl.

The boxes the tins came in were just as useful. They became kitchen cupboards and dressing tables and both the tins and boxes could be found lining the ceilings and walls of bark huts.

From bark hut to homestead

As pioneer families became established and living conditions improved, bark huts finally gave way to homesteads. Built from brick or stone, most homes had the traditional broad verandah running around three sides of it.

Around the homestead lay the orchards, gardens and out-buildings, the men's huts, meathouse, store, barn, blacksmith's shop, stables, milking yard, horse yards, shearing shed and dairy.

The dreary diet of meat and damper of the early settlers disappeared as women took over the reins of country homesteads. Meals at first followed British traditions but as the housewife discovered the produce of her adopted country, new dishes began to appear on her table.

Kangaroo soup and baked koala

She made soup from the tail of the kangaroo and stewed the steaks and tail with salt pork for a dish called 'Steamer'. She mixed the brains with flour and water, then cooked the fritters in emu fat for 'Slippery Bob'.

Hollowed out pumpkin was stuffed with possum meat and roasted for a dish called 'Grabben Gullen Pie'. Our beloved koala was baked and given the title of 'Gundaroo Bullock'. Bandicoot stuffed with a pudding and roasted was said to taste like suckling pig.

The emu hindquarter was cooked like venison, its fat melted down for dripping and its eggs made into pancakes. Parrots and rosellas were made into pies and the young cockatoo cooked as a game bird.

Fishing in freshwater rivers, the men brought home perch , cod and trout, eels, mussels and yabbies which were soon turned into gourmet fare.

Homemade bread, butter, jams and preserves

Some country women were fortunate to have servants but many had no assistance until their daughters were old enough to help in the house.

As well as meal preparation, the colonial housewife made her own bread, butter, cheese, jams and preserves. She salted down carcasses of meat, smoked ham and fish, made the children 's clothes, did the mending and saw to her family's health and education.

Bread was made from homemade yeast using potatoes, hops, water, flour and sugar. When the flour ran out, she had to grind her own wheat in a steel handmill. If she didn't have a mill, the wheat was ground between two flat stones.

Another important task was butter-making.

The milk was left to set in shallow pans in the dairy. Kept at a temperature of 60° to 65 °F for two to three days, the cream that formed on top was skimmed off and poured into the churn.

After 40 minutes or so of steadily turning the handle, the buttermilk separated from the fat which was then washed, salted and worked with butter pats until shaped. In hot weather, the butter would soon turn into oil if not kept cool so the dairy or storeroom was often built partly underground.

Salting the Beef

A bullock was usually killed after dusk, jointed, rubbed with salt, placed in a cask of brine before daylight and covered tightly to keep the flies out. After four days, the brine was drained out through a tap at the bottom of the cask, boiled and skimmed to extract the blood from it, then cooled and poured again over the meat. This process was repeated three or four times.

Canned meat was available in Australia from the late 1840s but was rather coarse-grained and stringy and scorned by the woman who took pride in her table.

The legendary Coolgardie safe Although the ice chest was exhibited in Melbourne as early as 1872, ice was not available to the country woman even many years later. Food was kept cool in most country homes in the cellar, dairy or storeroom or in the famous Coolgardie safe.

A tall, three-legged triangular shaped stand, the safe had shelves for storage, topped by a small water tank. Wicks carried the water by capillary action to a hessian curtain. This curtain enclosed the stand and remained wet from the dropping water. The water dripped into a tray at the bottom, was drained and re-circulated.

The ingenious pioneer woman also made her own floor polish from leftover candle ends, melted down and mixed with kerosene or turpentine.

She mended broken glass from melting isinglass, the forerunner of gelatine and made brooms from binding tea- tree switches onto a stick.

Doctor and Teacher

If no tutor or governess was available, the mother had to oversee her children's education in between attending to all her many demanding household chores. Medical help was rarely available so she was often called upon to make a diagnosis, prescribe the treatment and make up her own medicines, often herbal remedies.

On those rare occasions when she had time for recreation, the entertainment was simple: a musical evening with friends, a visit to neighbors to exchange recipes, cures and gossip, a picnic or perhaps the occasional concert, hunt, ball or race meeting.

The Australian nation today owes a vast debt of gratitude to those stalwart women who sometimes faced incredible hardship, fear, loneliness and illness many miles from loved ones.

Their grit and perseverance made it easier for those that followed and their indomitable spirit became part of our pioneering heritage.

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