Daily Life in the 13 Colonies for Kids
What did the colonists eat? Much of daily life revolved around farm work. The New World colonists did not, for the most part, go hungry.
They ate a great deal of meat. Fried beaver tail, cooked over an open fire, was extremely popular.
They ate some foods that we enjoy today like pumpkin bread and corn pudding, and some strange ones like pepper cake.
As crops were harvested and stored, the colonists got into the habit of eating a great deal of bread. Bread was filling and could be quite nutritional. They grew oats and corn and wheat and rice and used these grains to make healthy breads.
The colonists imported cows and poultry from England. Farmers used these animals for food products such as milk, cheese, and eggs. (They also imported other animals such as pigs and horses.) Some colonists brought animals with them.
What did they wear? Much of daily life was dictated by religion, and that included the clothes they wore. In the beginning, by necessity, clothing was very simple. It took every bit of their time and energy simply to stay alive. As the colonists became more settled, clothing became more elaborate. Rules were established, laws actually, that stated what clothing designs and what colors people could wear. These laws were dictated by their religion. Clothing reflected the beliefs of the colonists. You could tell who was a Quaker and who was a Puritan by their clothes alone. Take a look.
Wealth: As time went on, colonial life also began to be dictated by wealth. An individual's position in society dictated their lifestyle. Status affected their clothing, their food, their education, and their occupations. The rich had slaves. The poor worked very hard. People on the poor end of things were often resentful, but there was not much they could do about it. They were too busy working to rebel and believed it was too risky to move away from the coastal areas of the towns and villages and move west, deeper into the forests. Not many were that adventurous.
Health: Unfortunately, in short supply were capable doctors and medicines. One of the jobs of a barber was to act as a physician. Barbers were poor trained for this. Even if people had access to a trained doctor, there were not cures available anywhere for deadly diseases such as smallpox, measles, or the flu. The barbers were not treated with respect because they had trouble curing anything and had little access to medicines. As a result, people tried to take really good care of themselves. They worked hard. They ate well. They wore warm clothes in cold weather. They chopped ample firewood so their homes would be warm. They knew if they got sick, they could die. Prayer was a very important part of daily life. They prayed for many things, but always they prayed for good health.
Daily Prayer: Many Christian denominations were represented in the colonies. The Middle Colonies had religious freedom. The others did not. Whatever their religion, nearly all the people in the colonies believed daily prayer was essential for survival of the body and the soul. Some had to attend church on Sundays no matter what was going on in their lives. The only acceptable excuse was grave illness or child birth. In church, rich people sat in the front and poor people sat in the back. The rich had slaves to do much of work for them, especially on the bigger farms and plantations. The poor were not so lucky. The further back you sat in church, the more you were surrounded by really stinky barnyard smells.
Daily life for kids: Kids were kept busy.
Kids had many chores to do. Kids collected stones from the fields to make stone fences. They collected berries. They helped with the farm animals and the harvest. They helped their mother make candles. They helped to make clothes. Everyone had to pitch in.
Kids in the New England and Middle Colonies especially spent a great deal of time in church or in prayer. Sermons were long. Sometimes kids fell asleep. If they did, in some churches they were poked with a long pole with a brass knob on it, to wake them up.
Kids went to school. They often had homework, sometimes lots of it. School was very different in all three regions because of the difference in lifestyles. Take a look at what school was like for colonial kids.
- With their parents permission, kids still found time to play. In winter, when the weather was cold enough to freeze various waterways, kids had fun skating on the ice. In all the colonies, kids played with balls and bats and marbles and dolls. They played tag. In the south they played lawn bowling. In the north, they played shuffleboard. There were dances and parties enjoyed by kids and their parents. For some, it was a big deal to go into town. For others, it was fun to visit a country fair and eat candies and watch a puppet show. Kids did not have a lot of free time, but with the free time they had, they had fun!
Indentured Servants and Slaves:
Indentured Servants: To immigrate to the New World, some people agreed to work for someone already in the colonies for a period of somewhere between 5-7 years. During that time, they could not vote. They not could buy or sell anything. They were not paid wages. They were not allowed to travel without permission. They were not allowed to marry without permission. They were treated like slaves.
Slaves: For the wealthy, slaves did most of the work. Unlike indentured servants however, who once their contract was concluded became equal colonists, slaves held their position as slaves for life. Slaves could not vote. Slaves could be bought and sold like cattle.
Servants and slaves were provided with the bare essentials of food, clothing, and shelter. Owners wanted to keep them healthy so they could work.
Women: Women could not vote. They had few rights. Their job was to take care of the kids, home, food, clothing, animals (in some cases) and the church. But they did have fun. Dancing was allowed at church gatherings. Women and men could dance together. Women held quilting bees, where women collected to sew and add embroidery. They took these opportunities to gossip and laugh. Women married when they were about 20 years old. Men about the same. If their husband died, nearly all women remarried within a year. Some religions allowed women to pick their husband. Other religions picked a husband for them. There was almost no divorce. Most woman had as many as 6-8 kids. Usually, more than half of the kids died before they were adults. Life was tough. Medicine was scarce.
The more settled the colonists became, the more differences in daily life appeared. Daily life was very different in the Southern Colonies than it was in the New England and the Middle Colonies. That was true for their homes as well.
In New England, industry thrived and town life developed. People lived in log cabins or town houses. They farmed land around villages, but the villages themselves were set up with town homes and businesses positioned around a center green or park. The town meetings were held in the park, weather permitting. If the weather was bad, they met in the church. Every town had a church or two or three.
In the Middle Colonies, known as the bread basket colonies, people lived in farm houses, because farming was the major industry. The middle colonies grew tobacco as well as grains. There were towns, but most towns were also ports, places crops and goods could be shipped out and shipped in.
In the Southern Colonies, people lived on plantations. These were the huge cotton and other crop plantations. Wealthy owners built mansions. Farm workers, usually slaves, lived in shacks on the property somewhere, out of sight of the main house.
The homes of the colonists did not have toilets or plumbing. They used outhouses as toilets and used hand operated pumps to get water from wells or from fresh water streams. They had no central heat. They used huge fireplaces for warmth and for cooking.
Men: Men hunted for wild game. Most managed or worked on farms. Some managed or worked in shops. They played card games and did some horse racing. Farming skills were the single most important skill in these early days. That gave farmers something they never had before - a strong voice in local government.
Upper Class: Daily life and the laws in various areas were dictated by wealthy men, especially wealthy farmers. Only wealthy men could hold office.
Middle Class: There was a middle class developing in the colonies composed of craftsmen and small smaller farmers. Middle class men could not hold office, but they could vote.
Lower Class: Poor men could not vote. Poor men had no voice in government and thus no voice in much of their daily life.
Transportation: There were dirt roads connecting various towns. Most travel was by boat. Trade between colonies was active as was trade with England. Everyone looked forward to the docking of a ship full of goods including food and animals, even if they could not afford to buy anything or could buy very little. Most goods went into shops and into the homes of the wealthy.
Getting the news: Town meeting were used in the New England colonies to get the word out. By the 1700s, there were newspapers in all 13 colonies. Each newspaper for some time was a single page, but there were many newspapers, at one time over three dozen of them. The colonies also established a postal system around the middle of the 1700s. People started to receive letters and pamphlets along with newspapers. In the Southern Colonies, the rich kept an eye on the fashions back in England. They tried to copy them. By the time they got word on what was popular back in England, though a pamphlet or a newspaper published in the colonies, fashions in England had sometimes changed. They did their best to stay current. At the same time, fashion in the Middle and New England Colonies was still dictated by religion.
Colonial inventions that affected daily life: The colonists did not have cars or television or the internet or cell phones. For some years, the colonists did not even have neighbors, but they found ways to make their daily life easier. Take a look (history.com)
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If you move your mouse around this picture, you will not find a thousand words, but you will find an accurate glimpse of daily life in the 13 colonies.