How the People of New Haven Lived in Colonial Days

“Could those pious Puritans who landed at Quinnipiac in 1638 return to life and spend a day in modern New Haven, they would hardly know where they were or what to do with themselves. They would need to learn again how to live. The uses of almost everything would be unknown to them, and they would require a guide to show them around and explain things. If they came again by boat they would find that their old landing place was more than a mile from the harbor, and that the creek leading to it had entirely disappeared. Wandering, and probably somewhat frightened by the strangeness of their surroundings, they would seek the old market-place, the present Green.   

First the tall buildings and modern brick houses would astonish these old Puritan visitors. There were large houses in New Haven when they lived there in the seventeenth century larger than those in most of the  other New England settlements; but they were built of wood and were not as comfortable or convenient as modern houses. The rooms were large but the floors were bare or sprinkled with sand. Very few people could afford carpets. Mr. Eaton had some but he was a rich man.

The furniture in these early homes was very plain. The chairs were hard and straight-backed; children usually sat upon benches both at home and in school. The beds were not as comfortable as modern ones; there were no springs on them, and in winter, before going to bed, it was necessary to warm them with a warming pan. There were no furnaces or stoves in those days; and there was no coal. The fire in the great fire-place served for both heating and cooking. It was difficult to heat the big rooms in winter for most of the heat from the fireplace went up the chimney. Water often froze in another part of the room and it was necessary to keep close to the fire to keep warm. The windows were small and, at first, covered with oiled paper. When glass could be obtained it was very imperfect and made objects look blurred and indistinct.

These visiting settlers of old New Haven who required two weeks to move from Boston to Quinnipiac in 1638 would be unable to understand how the same journey could be made in three or four hours to-day. Railroads and trolley-cars would seem marvelous to them. To make a journey was a very great undertaking in their day. The easiest way to travel was by water. When that was impossible, walking or riding horse-back was  necessary. Many years passed before people could travel far in wheeled carts; even then the roads were so rough that traveling was slow and dangerous. Horses or carts frequently were mired and sometimes travelers were tipped over in swollen streams. That, of course, was very unpleasant.

These old New Haven colonists would be interested in the modern method of supplying people with water. The network of pipes  extending to all parts of the city would puzzle them. Water was brought by hand in wooden pails or leather buckets from nearby springs or streams, while they were building New Haven. As soon as they could find time they dug wells near their houses and built wellsweeps with which to draw water. A wellsweep was made by setting a forked stake upright in the ground a short distance from the well. Across this was fastened a long pole in such a manner that one arm was much longer than the other and reached high into the air. The shorter end was usually weighted with a heavy stone or log. On the end of the long arm was tied a slender pole to which a bucket was attached. By pulling down the tall sweep by means of the slender pole the bucket was lowered into the well; the heavy weight on the short arm of the sweep helped to raise it again. A few of these old-fashioned well-sweeps may be seen in the country around New Haven to-day.

These Puritan founders would be dazzled by the gas and electric lights of the modern city. The ordinary kerosene oil lamp would amaze them; they would not know even how to scratch a match. To light a fire was not an easy thing to do in colonial days. If the fire in the fire-place went out, the easiest way to start it again was to send someone with a pan or piece of green bark to fetch  glowing coals from a neighbor’s hearthfire. The only way to start a new fire was to strike a piece of flint and steel together and let the spark thus made catch on a piece of tinder or cotton. To do this successfully required great skill. It would be difficult for anyone to do it now-a-days.

Pine knots and tallow candles furnished the colonists with light. A pine knot was a very dirty and smoky thing, but many an old Puritan minister wrote his long sermons with the aid of such a light. Candle making was an important household duty. Every bit of tallow was carefully saved and melted. The candle wicks were made of hemp or cotton, and were dipped in the hot tallow, then taken out and allowed to cool. This was done over and over again until the candle was of the right size. Sometimes the melted tallow was poured into molds. All candles were carefully laid away and sparingly used. How valuable they were considered is clearly shown by the proverb, ‘Don’t burn the candle at both ends.’

The different styles of dress worn at present would seem peculiar to Puritans of the seventeenth century. The men of that early time wore knee-breeches and shoes with silver buckles and wooden heels. All cloth was made at home and all clothing made from ‘home-spun.’ Spinning was an important part of a Puritan girl’s education and weaving was the chief home-industry. The settlers of New Haven wore finer raiment than those of the other New England colonies because many of them were well-to-do merchants; as a class they were accustomed to richer garments than farmers or sailors. The New Haven Court never passed laws forbidding people to wear expensive clothes as was done in other places. No doubt bright colors and ruffled collars were frequently seen in the first church that stood on the Green.

It would surprise these early dwellers in colonial New Haven to hear every man addressed as ‘Mister’ to-day. They were accustomed to hear Theophilus Eaton and men of his rank only, called ‘Mister.’ The different ranks to which people belonged in colonial society were strictly marked. Only those men, who, to-day, would be addressed as ”Honorable,’ were called ‘Mister;’ a man of ordinary rank was known as ‘Good-man’ when New Haven was settled. People sat in church according to their rank and it was a serious social offence for a person to sit in the wrong pew. Great respect was paid to persons of high rank in public gatherings, on the street and even in the home. Children were not expected to speak in their presence and always stood aside when they passed.

Should these visiting founders of New Haven be invited out to dinner much of the food served would be strange to them and the dishes unfamiliar. China was rare in New Haven so early in its history. Plates were made of square or round pieces of wood hollowed out, and were called ‘trenchers.’ Pitchers were wooden, too, and usually called ‘tankards.’ Forks were not used at early colonial dinners as most of the food was prepared in such form that it could be eaten with a spoon. Potatoes were not thought fit to eat by the New England colonists; even cattle were not allowed to have them. Tea, coffee and chocolate did not come into common use until long after New Haven was founded. Maple sugar was used for sweetening as other kinds were very rare.  Little butter was used, but cheese and milk were plentiful. The Indians taught the white settlers how to grow corn and prepare it for eating. At first this was the ‘staff of life.’ The abundance of fish and game furnished the colonists with meat; wild turkeys and pigeons were very numerous.

Clocks and watches would be unfamiliar objects to the founders of New Haven. They had no watches; and there were few clocks in their day. Mr. Davenport owned a clock at the time of his death, but whether or not he brought it to Quinnipiac when he came is not known. The colonists used sun-dials and noon-marks to tell the time of day. The ordinary family clock was the noon-mark. It consisted of a mark on the floor in a doorway or on a windowsill where the shadow of the sun fell at noon.

Newspapers would be entirely strange to the New Haven colonists. The only way to obtain news in colonial days was by means of letters or chance travelers. When anyone received a letter from England or another colony he usually passed it around among his neighbors or read it to a crowd gathered at the inn. Travelers entertained the men of the village by telling them the latest news from distant settlements or foreign lands. Sometimes this ‘latest news’ was many months old.

Could these visiting Puritans of old New  Haven remain over Sunday in the modern city they would hardly realize that it was the Sabbath Day. Sunday was the most important day of all the week with them. ‘Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy’ was one of the Ten Commandments and was strictly obeyed in all Puritan settlements. The Sabbath began Saturday evening because the Bible story of the creation of the world says, ‘The evening and the morning were the first day.’ There are many still living who can remember when that was the custom; a few old persons observe it even to-day.

Saturday was a very busy day with these strict Puritans. Food was prepared, the house cleaned, the floors freshly sanded and the wood brought in for over Sunday. As soon as the first star appeared Saturday night all unnecessary work ceased and quiet reigned in the community. Sunday was a day of rest but not of recreation. Everybody was up bright and early ready for church. At the beat of the drum they started out, walking slowly and solemnly. None were allowed to stay at home except on account of severe sickness or accident. Woe to the lazy or indifferent who were missing from their pews! In church all the men sat on one side and all the women on the other. Young men sat in the rear seats and servants in the gallery. Boys were seated together, usually on the pulpit stairs, and an officer called a tithingman was appointed to watch them and keep them quiet. Any noisy or unruly youngsters were sure to be prodded with a long stick by the tithingman. The services lasted several hours and must have been very tiresome to restless children. The prayers were sometimes more than an hour long and the sermons still longer. In winter it was difficult to keep warm, for the churches were not heated. To keep their toes from freezing women carried with them small foot stoves or metal boxes containing a few hot coals. Men kept on their hats in church except when Mr. Davenport announced his text; then they stood up and took them off.

As the Sabbath began Saturday evening, so it ended Sunday evening. Just as soon as the first star could be dimly spied by the boys and girls, the severe restraint of the day was removed. Then was the time for neighbors to make friendly calls and young men to court Puritan maidens. All courting was done under the watchful eyes of the stern father or strict mother, however. It was the custom for those intending to marry to have their names ‘called out’ in meeting beforehand. Ministers were not allowed to marry people in those days; only magistrates could do that.   

The children who lived in New Haven two hundred and fifty years ago must have found the days much longer than they would now. They had their games of hopscotch and tag and the rest but no toys or picture books. They were not allowed to celebrate Christmas and never had visits from Santa Claus. The boys never played baseball or football as they do to-day; and they never ‘went in swimming.’ The girls had no dolls except those they made for themselves out of woolen rags, and they were not allowed to become very fond of these, for their mothers did not think it right. They never enjoyed the pleasures and excitements of birthday parties or children’s entertainments; they were taught to think of more serious matters.

Puritan children did have their times of enjoyment, nevertheless. The early settlers of New Haven did not forget that ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ and they did provide some holidays. There was no noisy Fourth of July, of course, but children did have a good time and nice things to eat on Thanksgiving Day. Another enjoyable day was ‘Training-day,’ which came six times a year and furnished much excitement. It was fun for the children, (and the older folks as well), to watch the train-band  drill and see the soldiers run races, engage in jumping contests and take part in other athletic games. After all, when compared with the pleasures of the boys and girls of the  twentieth century, these children of the Puritan founders of New Haven must have had a very stupid time; but, in spite of their hard-ships and discomforts they grew to be strong, brave and true-hearted men and women.”
-Excerpt and (top) image courtesy of the Internet Archive, The Library of Congress, “Stories of Old New Haven,” by Ernest Hickock Baldwin, 1909

-Image courtesy of the Internet Archive, University of California, “Beginnings of Yale (1701-1726),” by Edwin Oviatt, 1916
-Image courtesy of the Internet Archive, University of California, “Beginnings of Yale (1701-1726),” by Edwin Oviatt, 1916

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