May 28th, 2020
Quarantine Time Travel
Most of us have been slowly adjusting to the quarantine lifestyle. I’ve always assumed I was a bit of a “homebody.” But I guess I never really understood how often I was going out to eat, to shop and to visit. All of that ground to a halt, though, with the governor’s stay-at-home order. For nearly two months, I’ve been living more like my ancestors than ever before.
Which brings me to the subject of today’s blog. I recently rediscovered a cache of old family papers. One of those papers was the “tab” my great-great grandfather, Elisha, kept at the general store from November, 1872, through October, 1873. What was life like 150 years ago in rural West Virginia? How much could I learn from sneaking a peek at their shopping list?
The answer is quite a lot. For one thing, they kept themselves busy. Elisha worked as a surveyor for the county, but, like everyone else, he also did some farming. You can see where he bought seeds for planting and shoes, harnesses and other gear for the horses so he could till the fields. Because they raised their own fruits and vegetables, there are very few food items on the list. Spices, rice, and sugar were bought from time to time, but it looks like nearly everything else was grown at home.
Elisha and his family were largely self-sufficient. Remember, there was no Wal-Mart around the corner. The ladies made clothes for themselves and the rest of the family. Needles and thread appear on the list regularly, along with other sewing essentials like pins, buckles, collars, lace, calico and muslin. When the weather turned cold, they made coats, which required them to make purchases of coat stuffing and trimmings.
So, what did they do for fun and entertainment? Some of that can be discovered from the list too. Probably the most common items on the list are coffee, snuff and tobacco. Those aren’t the healthiest choices by our standards, but I can imagine Elisha, his wife and children sitting together in the evenings reading, sewing and sharing stories with a pot of hot coffee on the pot-bellied stove and a pipe in Elisha’s hand. And who used the snuff? Well, that’s anybody’s guess!
Going through a short time of quarantine life has forced all of us to slow down and simplify our lives. For me, it’s also provided a point of contact with my ancestors — a window into what their lives must have been like. Hopefully, as we return to our busy lifestyles, we won’t forget there is value and rest for the soul in simplicity.