“A man will work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” So goes a rhyme of unknown age and origin. This sweeping statement does not fit everyone, but it closely matches the lives and labors of most farm wives/mothers in the rural South before the modern era.
Modernization came to this region through some of the economic revitalization programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the revolutionary impact of World War II on the economy. Results included rural electrification, higher prices for farm products, freer credit, new technological resources from washing machines to farm tractors, and chemicals to control plant pests and unwanted weeds and grasses.
Before this revolution, farming people made a living by manual labor. Few escaped its toll of injured or exhausted bodies, impaired health or broken spirits. Women were certainly part of this multitude. Those who pay attention to family histories can attach names to these victims of hard life. A reading tour of older graves in cemeteries will do the same.
The most demanding hard labor of country wives and mothers was child-bearing and rearing. Lacking contraception, they were pregnant or nursing infants most of their married lives until menopause. They had no books on nutrition, no year-round source of fresh vegetables or unfailing supply of milk. Their bodies gave up nutrients to the babies they were carrying. Toddlers tugged at them for attention as their bodies worked to build the next child. Small wonder then that some of them just wore out, got sick, died, suffered miscarriages or gave birth to babies that struggled to survive.
On an ordinary day, one not assigned to special duties like washing clothes, a woman’s workday was long and laborious. She had to cook three meals, all of them “from scratch.” Each one required firing up a wood-burning stove and keeping it at the right temperature until the food was properly cooked. Biscuits were hand-made from dough bowl to baking pan to table. Grits and rice took quite a time to cook thoroughly and had to be watched lest they scorch. Some fresh vegetables required extended cooking time. Every meal required time, attention and work at a hot stove, which was a comfort only in midwinter.
Country women often had to provide at least part of the food they cooked. Men might plant and plow gardens, but women usually hoed out the grass and weeds. They harvested the vegetables and prepared them for cooking. They did all or most of the work in canning, preserving and making jellies.
An ordinary day also involved washing dishes and cooking utensils, making up beds and house cleaning. At the end, there were clothes to be patched and mended. Perhaps a child or two might have a sore throat or stubbed toe and needed the comfort of mother/nurse. Or one might need help with homework from mother/tutor.
Wash days, typically once a week except during rainy spells, were hard work days. Water had to be drawn from the well — enough to fill a wash pot and two wash tubs — and a fire built under the pot. Often, but not always, this was done by husbands or older sons. Before washing powers became available, slivers of home-made lye soap were added to the water in the pot. Heavy stains were rubbed with soap and pounded with a “battling stick” or scrubbed over a washboard. Then everything — clothes, linens, dish cloths — was boiled in the pot, wrung, rinsed, wrung, squeezed again and hung on clothes lines to dry. It was hard work, terrible on hands due to constant contact with soap and water and wringing. It was done outdoors and rarely comfortable.
Unless breezes erased wrinkles in “the wash,” many things had to be ironed. Maybe linens, smelling fresh from sun and breeze, could be put back on beds, but Sunday clothes, school clothes and most work clothes had to be ironed. Sometimes ironing was done at the end of wash day, but might consume the greater part of the next day. This task had the advantage of being done indoors but was not light labor. The instrument was a flat iron, a heavy cast iron tool shaped like modern irons but otherwise unlike them. They were heated on the top of a stove or near live coals on a fireplace. In either case, the workplace was hot. The irons cooled and were swapped back and forth to be heated and had to be cleaned and lubricated with tallow.
In addition to labor normally associated with the home and mothering, farm wives typically helped with farm work. Some were “hoe hands” or pickers in cotton patches. On tobacco farms, they helped with weeding seed beds, transplanting and harvesting. On “putting in” (harvest) days, men “cropped” the ripe leaves and transported them to a place where they were sorted into small bundles (about three leaves) by “handers” and tied onto a four-plus feet long stick by “stringers.” Most of this work, sometimes wet and always sticky with tobacco tar, was done by women and children. Afterwards, the sticks of tobacco were hung in tiers in a specially-designed barn for curing.
It must be remembered that “ordinary day” work of cooking and cleaning up had to be done even on wash days or farm work days. The cycle never ceased until disability or death intervened.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.