Country homes from the mid-18th through early 20th centuries were of simple design, even large ones. Typically, there were four rooms, two on each side of a hall, with a kitchen and dining room attached by a “dog-trot” breezeway in back and a wide porch in front. The two front rooms were large, one a parlor and the other a bedroom with two beds, a sitting area and a work place for sewing, etc. The other two rooms across the hall from one another were small bedrooms with little space for furniture.
Indeed, furniture was limited and closets non-existent. Clothes might be hung on nails driven into the wall or from a wire in a curtained-off area in a small bedroom. There was limited need for places to store clothes. Most folks had one dress-up outfit for church or other special occasions or they settled for clean work clothes. Since country churches had services twice a month, maybe even once a month, dress clothes could last a long time. Their “every day” work clothes were limited in volume and style.
Somewhere in the house, perhaps even the parlor, there would be at least one dresser with mirror and drawers for dresses and shirts. A good crop year could lead to the purchase of a “shifferobe” — aka wardrobe — for hanging up suits and nice dresses. It is a small, portable upright closet. They were available from various sources, including Sears and Roebuck, or even handcrafted. The simplest were vertical boxes with two doors and a round bar to hold clothes hangers, but some had a section of drawers down one side.
Trunks, sometimes called steamer trunks, provided storage for valuables from documents to special clothes or folded woolens. A few homes had linen chests, but in most cases, linens remained on beds from one wash day to the next and were put back on beds as soon as they were dried. Since all beds were the same size, a household required only two or three extra sets.
The advent of high school shop classes led to the introduction of another type of storage unit, the cedar chest. Students often opted to make one of these as a class project. They were rectangular boxes about the size of a trunk, but made of cedar. Moths are repelled by cedar. Thus, these chests were ideal for the storage of all things woolen: sweaters, woven bed covers, even trousers and dresses. In fact, I have one handcrafted shifferobe made of cedar.
Food storage presented many challenges and solutions. The typical country home had a pantry, a room in the kitchen complex, where food staples were kept prior to cooking. Shelves held canned vegetables, syrup, jellies, jams, etc. Cans of lard sat on the floor along with containers of flour and meal.
In the era when flour was bought in bulk during once or twice a year trips by wagon to Savannah or at a river boat landing, it came in barrels. When railroads brought products to closer small town markets, trips to town still took time and were so infrequent that flour was bought in 25- or 50-pound bags. Going to the grist mill for flour and meal — also infrequent — led to quantities of these being stored in the pantry.
Hot weather presented challenges to food storage. Coated with smoke and brine, cured meat hung in smokehouses for months, but became vulnerable to certain insects in the summer. Weevils would attack grits and meal and other critters liked flour.
One answer was careful sifting before cooking. Another was to transfer the staples to sealed jars or cans, a tedious task but preferable to finding flecks of meat in one’s bread.
Cooked food also posed storage issues. How do you keep leftovers from spoiling? The obvious answer is to eat them ASAP. My maternal grandmother cooked large amounts of food for dinner (now called lunch), left most of it on the table under the cover of a worn bed sheet to protect it from flies and served it up again for supper (not dinner).
My father liked a lighter, hot meal in the evening; so Mother warmed up any leftovers the next day at noon.
Of course, some youngsters would grab afternoon snacks from the leftovers so that preservation ceased to be an issue.
The “pie safe” was another innovation in furniture that addressed storage of cooked food. What is the homemaker to do when preparing many cakes and pies for special occasions? There is the usual problem with flies and other insects that rarely disappear even in winter and manage to get into the house somehow. The pie safe — or simply “safe” to some — was an upright cabinet standing on legs one to two feet above the floor. It was fitted with shelves to hold food.
The best had screened openings built into the door and perhaps the sides to allow the flow of cooling air across the food and keep out flies. It was mothers’ challenge to keep out sneaky-fingered children.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.