In the last post, we began talking about the histories of our female ancestors in the Florida panhandle for Women’s History Month. In this post, I want to talk about what their lives were like. Since that has changed over time, I will pick a time period of great change in the United States, and in Florida, when women’s lives both inside and outside the home were changing; the late 19th century. It is a time period I find fascinating on many levels. The economic environment was rapidly changing from agriculture to industrial, many items produced in the home for generations was now being manufactured and purchased by many, governmental roles in daily life were changing, men and women’s roles were changing, the nation’s image of itself was evolving; well, you get the idea. There was a lot of changing going on.
The Period of 1865-1885
The end of the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, aka War Between the States) left many women in the Florida panhandle widowed or with a husband who was permanently injured. Many men came back home absent an arm or leg and my guess is more came back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though that was not recognized at the time. While drinking alcohol well preceded the War for Southern Independence, just based on what we see today with men and women coming back from the battlefront, alcohol was likely the numb-inducing agent of choice. So, in the two decades after the war, trying to re-build lives could not have been easy. Even if the husband returned uninjured, the economy in the South was severely wrecked and the sense of community in the Florida panhandle was likely strained from the fact that men from the area fought for both sides of the war (see posts on the war in the panhandle – here, here, here, here, here and here). From fallow fields to destroyed railroad tracks for transporting goods, there was much hard labor ahead in re-building.
It has been suggested that Southerners from this time period, and through social memory into today, have more in common with Europeans than with Northerners. We have experienced the devastation of our lives, households, and economy; in real time, in our front yards. Regardless of the argument about how that came to be, it is a mind-searing experience that obviously lingers and colors the perceptions going forward. Women, in the South and in the Florida panhandle, had to grapple with maimed husbands; drunken and depressed husbands; fallow fields and missing or damaged farm equipment and animals; a weak national economy and a wrecked household economy; feeding, nursing, and clothing the family; and helping everyone to recover. If they were rural, they really had to be prepared to do anything to keep the family together. All while being pregnant every two years. Doesn’t that sound like a full day!
In the 1870 and 1880 census, we can see a gradual change in the role of women in households; both wives and heads of household. In the 1870 censuses available (there do appear to be some areas of the panhandle that just aren’t indexed or available) we see many female heads of household doing some of the following activities for income generation: cooking, housekeeping (servant), spinning, weaving, and sewing. We also see this for wives of black men but we also see some of these black women were listed as “laborers”, which would have meant farm labor.
The South moved from yeomen farmers and plantations with slaves to large landowners and sharecroppers, as well as fewer small landowning farmers as the several decades moved forward. For women in the white sharecropper households, they were also farm laborers, though we seldom see that listed on the census. If a man was listed on the census as a farmer, but he did not own the land he was on, he was a sharecropper. This meant he “rented” land from a large landowner. The landowner often provided the seed, at a cost to the sharecropper, and had a say on what was grown. He then received half or more of the harvest, plus whatever he had provided at the beginning of the season. Sharecroppers often wound up in debt with nothing left after selling the crop, especially when prices were falling.
By the 1880 census, we don’t see much evidence of women working outside the home to help support the family. Nearly all of the white women in the 1880 Federal and 1885 State censuses in the panhandle are all “housewives” or “keeping house”. Black women were still working to help keep the family solvent, or the fact that they did was acceptable for recording on the census. We do see a few single women as boarders who are listed as “schoolteachers”, an approved calling until they got married and settled down to raise children. By this point, social norms had white married women defined back in the house.
The 1880s saw reasonably efficient wood stoves replacing fireplaces for cooking. Safer, easier to use, more efficient and less back-breaking. Cold streams and ice houses had already been replaced by ice boxes and refrigerators were beginning to be more available to the middle-income household. Sewing machines were treadle, which allowed women to move the functional quilting art more toward the art of quilting. Everyday clothes for the family were easier to make and store-bought Sunday clothes were readily available at the local general store. Some food items, such as finely-ground white flour, were becoming more available and more accessible than the unbleached flour available before manufacturing took hold.
Sharecropping Speeds Up the Transition from Rural to Urban Living
But for the sharecropping families, life was still hard work. They lived and worked on rented land and they lived in a rented house, usually not all that well kept. They worked hard to produce a crop that mostly benefited the landowner and the merchant. Women in these families still had a never-ending life of cooking over open fires; trying to keep what food was available from spoiling; keeping clothes on the family; nursing sick children and spouses; helping in the field; nursing babies and of course, being pregnant every two years. It really isn’t surprising when we look back at the lives of women in American history that we see many dying young and our male ancestors having two or three wives in their lifetimes.
As the sharecropping system proved increasingly to only benefit the landowner, many families gave it up, moved to a larger city and at least the male of the household got an industrial job. In the Florida panhandle, that was more often than not work in the lumber industry. The jobs were plentiful in the panhandle and there were many towns that exist today that have their inception in the harvesting, processing, and shipping of lumber. Nearly every county in the panhandle had one or more mill towns. Women in these households were more likely to live in a small community, have close neighbors, and over time have access to some of the appliances mentioned above and the “easier” life that brought.
This time period also saw a major rise in fraternal organizations and social groups that provided “insurance” to members. Many of the available jobs were incredibly dangerous and the small fees provided to groups like Woodmen of the World provided help to families when the men were injured or killed. While these were not big payouts, they did help the families transition without the breadwinner’s income.
Using the Census to Find Clues on Female Ancestors
For many family historians who try to find their ancestors in census records, they find the family and note the names and ages and maybe where each was born. But there are clues scattered in the census records that can help a researcher know a bit more about their female ancestors. As most of us know, prior to 1850 the only females listed in the census were the few heads of household, so we will start with the 1850 census and move forward.
The 1850 and 1860 census can provide information on whether a couple was married within the year, whether your female ancestor could read or write and possibly some information on certain infirmities. The 1870 census can provide information on whether either of her parents was foreign-born, whether she could read or write, and if married within the year it includes the month of marriage. The 1880 census can provide places of birth for parents. The 1890 census is unavailable to us in the Florida panhandle due to a fire many years ago. The 1900 census can provide month and year of birth, the number of years of present marriage, how many children she had borne and how many were alive in 1900. Also, if an immigrant, there is information on when she immigrated and if naturalized.
The 1910 census may provide you with the name of the street the family lived on along the far left margin running up and down. In addition, the 1910 census can provide whether she is able to speak English, her trade or profession if she had one and the industry she worked in, and whether she was out-of-work and how long. The 1920 census expands the information provided on her parents and their native language. The 1930 census is pretty much the same information as 1920 but the 1940 census added quite a few new questions. Whether the person had a social security number, their usual occupation and what industry, their residence on 1 April 1935, were they seeking work, were they working with the WPA, number of hours working, income and other sources of income other than wages. While all of these can be helpful for your male ancestors, they can also give you clues for your female ancestors.
In the latter censuses where children listed are clearly noted as being the son or daughter of the head of household (though possibly not the children of his current wife), coupled with the census that asked about number of children and how many are alive, the family researcher can begin to determine children in the right order and identify gaps where there were stillbirths or young children who died. If there is a larger than usual gap in the children, this might indicate that the current wife is a second (or third) wife. Care needs to be taken here if there are previous marriages by either of the adults.
Our female ancestors can be a challenge to research and are often nearly invisible in the national sphere until the latter half of the 20th century. But it is rewarding to begin to see that female ancestor as a real person, with skills and responsibilities. Between researching her in official records and reading books on the time period, especially those that deal with the lives of women, we can begin to truly celebrate their lives.
Until Next Time
- Florida Memory, Florida Photograph Collection
- Wikipedia, Woodmen of the World
- FamilySearch.org, free access to census records
- The Hidden Half of the Family, Christina Kassabian Schaefer
- A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors: Special Strategies for Uncovering Hard-to-Find Information About Your Female Lineage, Sharon Debartolo Carmack
- Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History, Katherine Scott Sturdevant
- At Home: The American Family 1750-1870, Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett