Don’t Revere the Pioneer

Well, isn’t that an intriguing title?  And maybe not exactly what you expect at LAF.  After all, are we not often accused of “living in the past” of “clinging to the past,” even?  So what could an article like this be doing here?

Now, let me start by saying that this is not an article to put down pioneer women.  They did not have an easy life, and they worked hard to raise their families, doing their best with very limited means under very challenging circumstances.  So often when we feel put upon or worn out, we try to admonish ourselves by thinking of our pioneer foremothers and what they had to endure to remind ourselves how lucky we are.  However, sometimes in looking back, we become intimidated. We start to believe in–dare I say it?- -Superwoman.  After all, these women did backbreaking work, birthed children, lived in isolated conditions, dealt with livestock and made what they wore, ate, used and sold.  Wow… one would get intimidated by less.

In fact, it is enough for some of us to throw our hands in the air and say, “These women must have been made from a different mold.  I could never do that.” And if there is anything that young women, often from the first generation that returns home, do not need, it is the feeling of never being able to live up to a standard of the past.  Because the lure is there to think, Since I can never do as good a job of it as they did, why try at all?”  or “Clearly I am not cut out for this.  Some women were not meant to be homemakers, and I am one of them.  I should go back to work, and things will be better.”

While it may seem like a silly and overblown reaction to the fact that pioneers grew their own food and we just found ourselves unable for the third year in a row to plant that vegetable garden we wanted, it is a mantra that is too familiar to many.  There is a seductive whisper around us: “Just give up.  You aren’t good enough.  You can’t do this.  Who do you think you are?”  And we all know the one who would love for us to fall for those lies, don’t we?  But we forget that we were not intended to be pioneer foremothers.  God put us here, in this time, and with our own challenges.  These challenges are different, sometimes less immediate, but quite often everywhere around us.

It all comes out in the wash…

When we look at the lives of our foremothers and focus on the idea of having to wash the laundry in a running creek, we cannot believe we would be able to do that.  And, frankly, we might not.  We are not raised to have the skills that they had.  On the other hand, can you imagine having a pioneer woman transferred to the current day to take on our load?  Let’s look at the washing.  Monday was laundry day–some say because it was the hardest chore, and on Monday you were well rested from Sunday.  Yes, we have it easy.  We have a washing machine.  And any self-respecting pioneer woman with a washing machine would be done with it in a few hours instead of trying desperately to catch up all week long, right?  Of course she would.  Her girls had one, perhaps two, dresses, and probably a third one for Sunday.  And they were washed how often? Ah…once a week.  Now, how often do we expect our children to wear the same two outfits head to toe for an entire week?  Can we imagine if our laundry load consisted only of about 15 items?

Now, again, I am not putting down our pioneer foremothers.  Fifteen outfits in the washing machine seems easy compared to our 15 loads a week for some of the larger families.  But we do have the machine that does it.  Still, there is sorting, washing, then drying, and, of course, finding the time and the space to put everything away. (Most definitely the hardest part at our house.)

And then there are the different expectations, not just from the outside world, but from ourselves and our family.  While an apron may protect a garment from obvious spots, hard work and sweat would have still done their work in pioneer days. For many it is hard to imagine sending a husband that does manual labour out of the door in an unwashed work shirt that he wore the previous day, let alone three or four days in a row.  The fact is that the standards of what “clean” means have changed over the years.  That is why Sunday there was a “once a week” dress, after a Saturday bath, and before the Monday laundry.  But nobody expected their clothes to be as clean and fresh on Friday as they were on Tuesday.  Our family expects clean clothes, sheets, towels and everything…every day.

No pioneer woman ever stepped on a Lego block.

This became my mantra after reading an article which at first made me feel positively slothful, when they described how pioneer women had to keep a clean house when often the floor was dirt, and, if they weren’t careful, there would be grass growing under the bed.  I felt discouraged and lazy as I looked around, wanting to mop the floor and first having to remove a jumble of Legos and train tracks.  And then I realized that if I was a pioneer woman, I would not have to move so many things to be able to sweep or clean the floor.  Very few pioneer houses had couches, let alone Legos.  No matter how much we try to lead a simple life, the fact is that our children will end up with more toys than they would have if we lived 250 years ago.  Not only will there be more toys, there will be more “things” in our house that need care.  I am not complaining about the fact that we are blessed with more, but the luxury comes with a price, and that price is more work.  I am grateful that I do not need to use an outhouse, but I think if I had to, I would not need to be scrubbing under the rim and all around the toilet.

And lead me not into temptation…

And then there are the temptations.  We can be careful about TV.  We can even decide not to have one, but the fact is that we live in a society where TV is all around us.  It was definitely a lot easier to keep your children away from undesirable materials for a pioneer woman.  And while we may avoid TV and thereby most commercials, there are still billboards every time we take the car, and we still have to navigate a grocery store with 60,000 pieces of candy and toys with our children. Pioneer children did not have the same temptations as our own.  I don’t want to fall in the reverse trap of thinking that “everything was better in the past” and imagine that women a few centuries ago did not have to disciple their children because they were all little angels, but they did not have to swim upstream to do it.  For their children, working to help their parents was not an extra chore or something that was unique to their family, it was just the way it was.  They were not sidetracked by so many other things that were pulling at them to be inactive. Sure, the temptation was there to skip out and go fishing or running over the fields, but it was not right there in the middle of the room in the shape of a TV, computer, or even a huge load of books.  And nobody would comment on how weird or unfair it is that they have to do all that work and can’t have a “normal” childhood.  We all know that the first sin came into the world by some seductive words about what we were not allowed to do and how unfair that was.

Let’s eat what we grow…

We have read them all, the all organic, no colarisation, ‘hemp-your-own-dress’ websites that leave us in awe.  And then we realize that people used to do this as a matter of fact.  People ate what they grew and raised.  We sometimes seem to have trouble getting a wholesome dinner on the table every evening, and our gardening attempts…well, let’s just say that some people are more successful then others.  What did our foremothers have that we don’t?  Well, knowledge for one.  Knowledge that a 27-year-old woman with three children would have to learn from the beginning, looking everything up in books and experimenting with, since the nearest person she knows that has her own successful vegetable garden lives in another state and does not seem to have a garden full of squirrels or soil even remotely comparable to her own.  Pioneer women were raised by their mothers to have certain skills and easily found women who needed the same skills around them should they move away from family. Not often are we lucky enough to have neighbours who desire the same homesteading life, and we definitely are raised with different skills.

Put your everyday pioneer woman in our modern supermarket again and try to tell her that we can’t just buy anything named “bread,” but that we need to read the labels to know what is actually in it.  Or that “whole wheat” doesn’t really mean whole wheat, and that those green beans are so sodium covered that it’s almost not worth it. Then there is the organic, which really just means that it was grown the way she would have grown it, but is so expensive that you can only afford certain items and then you should prioritize … never mind.  She would stare at you as if you come from another planet and wonder how you remember it all.  But we do.  Or we try.  As they tried.

We can learn from our pioneer foremothers, but we must be careful not to attribute everything they did better to an inhuman virtue. They were sinners and strivers, just like us.  They had clutter-free homes, because there were fewer things available to them. If they’d had more, they would have struggled with the same temptations as we.

I am not writing this article for all of us contemporary housewives to sit back with smug satisfaction and think of how hard we work and that we really do so much that people should just admire us and give us a break already.  It’s not an excuse not to do the best that we can and to tackle our own challenges and become better homemakers both practically and spiritually.  What I want to do, though, is remove a sometimes gilded image that we feel we can not live up to.  I want to remove one discouragement, one whispered lie of never being good enough.

Let us enjoy the stories of our pioneer mothers. Let us admire what they have done for us.  Let us learn from the wise among them, as there are wise women called forth to teach the young in any generation.  And then let’s put our shoulders under our own workload without comparing it to another’s. Let’s declutter our houses, and clean up those toys.  Or, better yet, let’s expect of our children to clean them up themselves.  Let us be aware of the temptations around us and be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” at the same time.   And the next time we hear that sly voice whispering inside us, “You will never live up to what they did,” let us joyfully answer, “No pioneer woman ever stepped on a Lego” and go back to our work.

Recommended Resources:
Large Family Logistics
Dinner’s In The Freezer
18 Kids And Counting
31 Days To Clean

10 thoughts on “Don’t Revere the Pioneer

  1. This article reminded me of Ecc. 7:10
    Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.


  2. Very, very, VERY well put article!

    Being located in the Netherlands, I didn’t know there were such tv-programs like ‘frontier house’, we just stumbled upon the episodes on the internet recently.

    I loved watching it (yes, with that ‘how great it would be to live that way’ knack in the back of my head!) but then I got the same thoughts you expressed in this post.

    In the end, all eras have pro-s and con-s. I’m glad to have a washing machine and not to be judged for my interracial marriage (a faux-pas in pioneer days!) but on the other hand, I long for a time where advertisements and media-bombarding wasn’t so prevalent.

    Best wishes from the Netherlands!


  3. Our pioneer mothers usually didn’t have fibromyalgia and food allergies either. I would have two less children if I lived in those days. One daughter would have died from dehyration from the flu and my oldest son would have been lost when my body refused to keep my milk supply up to his growth.


  4. I have often thought about these things but never put them into words. You did a wonderful job bringing the truth out about the very important differences in living during different time eras. That is the trouble, also, with trying to bring back some of those old-fashioned ways. They just don’t mesh with our current way of life. Even the oft romanticized Amish have modern conveniences! 🙂


  5. I had come to the same conclusion regarding laundry as it is my problem area :). Having a pregnancy with complications ended any romanticism I might have held for the pioneer era. My baby and I would have most certainly died if not for ultrasounds and C-sections. I am so grateful that God chose to have me alive during this time in history.


  6. Yes! Legos *hurt* sooo bad! I’ve stepped on my brothers’ legos for many years, and I’m surprised I don’t have scars on my feet from them.

    Sometimes I get enamored with the old fashioned way of life, but ultimately, I’m glad I live in the modern days with advanced medicine and laundry machines! I think life has its ups and downs in whatever era you lived in.

    There’s not one best way of homemaking anyway and even though it’s easy to compare, we can’t get bogged down with that. I think you should keep your home in a way that works for you and your family. The old method of having “wash” day and “ironing” day doesn’t work for everyone, but that was kind of an ideal of homemaking at one time.


  7. Don’t forget, they also had extended family living next door, and sometimes within the same house to help out. Grandparents, Aunts, Sisters, all splitting the housework and childcare can make things much easier on mom.


  8. Yes, this post is so true, and so encouraging. Each generation has its own trials and hardships. My husband’s grandmother, who was born in the 1800’s (my husband and I are 60 and 57), used to cook one huge pot of stew for the week and everybody ate it every night till it was gone. She didn’t always cook a new dinner every night, and you are right, Eva, standards of cleanliness have changed radically. One outfit for the week was considered adequate. Women wore aprons to protect their clothing. Baths were once a week. Family members bathed in the same water and shared towels. We tend to think they did everything we do in the same way we do it, back then, plus their own old-timey things in addition to it, and start feeling guilty. Plus, they didn’t have to drive kids around to all those soccer games!


  9. I don’t know about anyone else but I have a wood cook stove that I wish I could use right now and I have washed clothes in a ringer washer. My mother-in-law and I would do our laundry together and it didn’t seem to go so fast. The only difference between me and the pioneer woman was that we did our laundry on Saturday. Momma worked so Saturday was washday.
    Those were good day.


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