“Daily Life of First-Generation Latter-day Saints,” Church History Topics
“Daily Life of First-Generation Latter-day Saints”
Soon after her father’s death, four-year-old and future Latter-day Saint Nancy Alexander watched her mother Betsy go bankrupt and send the children of the family to live with relatives. Nancy received an education from her grandparents, read the Bible in family gatherings, and learned to spin and sew. When Nancy turned 15 years old, her mother returned for a season, and, unable to bear the thought of being separated from her mother again, Nancy followed Betsy to live with other relatives. Nancy soon married a cousin, Moses Tracy, and the couple “settled down for life.”1
Nancy’s childhood would not have struck her peers as unusual. Many families at that time experienced the untimely death of a family member or prolonged periods of separation. Most American households schooled daughters in spinning and sewing, and young people courted and were married in their late teens and early twenties.
These and other characteristics of everyday life in the United States at that time do not often receive direct attention in historical records, and they remain unfamiliar and distant to today’s readers. But the daily rhythms and customs of the time made up the world in which the Saints lived and made their choices. Aspects of daily life that have changed most since the early 1800s include family economy, personal health, leisure, travel, and communication.
The family economy structured the typical day for first-generation Latter-day Saints. Because the means of producing most necessities were tied to the home, people relied on members of their family for survival. More than 90 percent of Americans in Joseph Smith’s day lived on farms and in rural areas, and even the largest cities were small by today’s standards—only New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston had populations of over 50,000 people in 1830. Rural families typically distributed work among their members, with parents shouldering food and maintenance tasks until children could gradually participate.
Agriculture required daily and seasonal schedules. At dawn, female family members typically began domestic work such as tending to a garden, making household staples like butter and cheese, spinning cloth, mending and laundering clothes, and cooking meals. Male family members left for outdoor work in animal husbandry or trade skills like carpentry, coopering, tanning, and odd jobs. At dusk, most families gathered indoors for conversation or Bible reading. Parents, girls, and boys were usually slept in separate beds of straw or feathers.
The demands of the family economy led older teenagers and young adults to seek a capable partner for a spouse. As the middle class expanded in the early 1800s, couples could afford more autonomy in choosing whom and when to marry. Romance and the couple’s happiness increasingly replaced the stability of the extended family as the chief reason for marrying. While it was possible for couples to succeed with few or no children, it was extremely difficult for a single person to sustain an agrarian lifestyle.
Parents expected their children to contribute to the household by the middle of childhood. For earlier generations, parenting consisted of driving out inherent wickedness in children through strict supervision and even corporal punishment. By the early 1800s, perspectives began to shift, and childhood became a time for developing one’s character. Play not only helped children too young for chores to pass the time but also prepared them for culturally accepted roles they would assume as adults. Girls often cared for dolls, and boys played outdoor games requiring physical strength. When they reached adulthood, their attachments to family shifted as they married and looked to start a farm or enterprise of their own.
On average, newlywed wives conceived within 18 months of marriage. Pregnancy and delivery brought women together, particularly midwives, relatives, and neighbors, to assist the mother. Local midwives sometimes administered natural pain relievers or special fungi to intensify contractions during labor and presided over the delivery itself. The mother and infant faced serious risks—by some estimates, as many as 4 percent of women died during childbirth and around one in five babies did not survive the first year. Parents commonly waited to name their children, sometimes until the children were a few months old.2
Like other frontier Americans, early Latter-day Saints obsessed over the topic of health. Most medical remedies proved unreliable, and sickness frequently afflicted communities. Spoiled food, impure water, and a general lack of sanitation led to outbreaks of intestinal illness, the most frequent disease among rural populations. Personal hygiene consisted of rinsing hands and face with water and rubbing dirt off the rest of the body with cloths or towels. Soap served for cleaning the house and laundering clothes, but not for treating skin, because of the soap’s harshness.
The smells of manure, privies, perspiration, and compost pervaded towns and cities alike, as few people bathed the whole body with any regularity and disposing of waste remained a constant problem. Farmers would often bury their garbage, while urban folk would leave garbage in the streets for roaming pigs to eat. A combination of low public hygiene and difficulty in disposing waste encouraged the spread of disease. It would take another century before discoveries about the role of bacteria in disease would lead to widespread improvements in sanitation.
Respiratory sicknesses grew rapidly as well. Many 19th-century Americans subscribed to the theory that the body hosted four humors, which caused illness when out of balance. This idea was so common that most treatments for fevers in the early 19th century called for bloodletting, a practice of draining the afflicted person’s blood to bring the body’s humors back into balance. Physicians and other practitioners of the time sometimes unknowingly aggravated their patients’ conditions.
During warm summer months, mosquitoes transmitted diseases like malaria and yellow fever. Humans caught influenza and tuberculosis from blood contact and microscopic agents attached to dust. Cities were havens for epidemics; nearly a quarter of deaths in New York City in 1804 resulted from tuberculosis alone. Inoculation offered a defense against smallpox, but many feared the practice guaranteed infection and perhaps death, and doctors struggled for decades to treat patients skeptical of experimental medicine. Most would rather try a home remedy or a neighbor’s recipe than sanitize utensils, bathe frequently, or submit to a medical test.
The rigors of the daily cycle made work the highest priority, but families did have some time for leisure. Only the affluent and the very young indulged in extended periods of idleness. For everyone else, religious concerns about amusement’s inherent sinfulness intensified a general commitment to frugality and industriousness. Leisure often took the form of diversion in a work environment, like hunting, picnicking during mealtime, and making up games or sport out of manual labor.
Most agrarian families worked six days a week, took rest on Sunday for worship and relaxation, and otherwise socialized in formal gatherings or local taverns. Rural communities organized “bees,” or group drives, to raise houses, clear land, or harvest crops. These were often opportunities to revel in music, dance, and storytelling. Churchgoers were accustomed to longer meetings filled with exciting sermons. Speakers consciously varied their inflection and gestured dramatically, much like a performer rather than a reverent preacher or lecturer. Public gatherings, including church services, could run for hours; they were a form of entertainment in and of themselves.
The majority of first-generation Latter-day Saints, as with other Americans at the time, traveled by foot, horseback, stagecoach, or boat. Missionaries went on longer journeys, reaching other continents via ship, but their day-to-day travel consisted of walking and sometimes riding. Roads in North America accommodated stagecoaches and wagons, while footpaths coursed through forests and uneven terrain and could disappear overnight with a change in weather. Frontier Americans loathed springtime travel, as snowmelt left dirt roads muddy. Rivers, especially the Missouri and Potomac, with their unpredictable waterfalls and winding currents, endangered everyone but the most experienced oarsmen . Travelers during the warm season sometimes took advantage of canal boats on engineered waterways such as the Eerie Canal.
The most common mode of travel for longer distances remained the stagecoach. Teamsters drove stagecoaches across the settled country of North America at a price most early Latter-day Saints could afford only a few times in their lives. The coach would travel in stages, from one rest stop to another, usually a boarding house or tavern. Travelers enjoyed the changing scenery and the evening entertainments, but the trips were grueling compared to modern travel. Passengers would frequently have to assist the drivers in lifting a wheel from the mud, and horses were sometimes frightened into a wild gallop, requiring the teamster to regain control or help those aboard abandon the wagon. A ride from Boston to Palmyra, New York, a distance of around 400 miles, took about two weeks to complete.3
Modes of travel limited communication to what couriers could deliver via boat or stagecoach. The postal system in the United States relied on mail coaches and “post roads” to carry letters. Virtually all post offices remained confined to the northeast by 1800, but post roads expanded for the next couple of decades, making regular mail a possibility for frontier communities by the late 1820s onward. Early Latter-day Saints frequently corresponded by letter, even after the telegraph machine came into wide use in the mid-1800s.
Mass communication also relied on written media. Readers looked to newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and books for news and correspondence. Literacy rates in the United States reached moderately high levels by this period, and a majority of Americans participated in politics and public debate through print media.
An awareness of the state of medical and communication technology and the demands of rural life helps us better understand the early Saints’ missionary methods, their community-building practices, and the context of Joseph Smith’s revelations. Though they often go unmentioned, these facts of daily life heavily influenced the early growth of the Church and the Saints’ efforts to gather and build Zion.