Sunday, February 15, 2009
I've been watching the PBS series Frontier House (I got it from Netflix). And after seeing a couple of hours of it, I'm completely convinced that if anyone from 21st century America actually had to experience any part of the Western Expansion in, say, 1883, they'd be dead.
The three families on the show who have agreed to live as though they're in 1883 got about 2 weeks of training in all sorts of things from house building to animal wrangling to gardening and cooking and sanitation and the list goes on and on. So they're admittedly at a disadvantage from the start just because they haven't grown up cooking over an open fire or building log cabins.
Priorities were completely centered around food back then, and I don't think people in modern America have any concept of that. The people on the show are all worried about building houses and that's great, but they sort of forgot to start a garden until the shelter was done, hence the food shortage. People are also whining about walking 150 ft to get water every morning and walking a mile to milk the cows.
It is clear why there were such huge families, and not just because people were religious. They needed the HELP. Birth control was illegal, even spreading information about birth control was punishable by a $5000 fine. Doing a quick google search about the worth of the dollar over time, that fine is over $90,000 by today's standards, so the government was pretty serious about expanding that population back then. About the only form of birth control available was a pig's intestine tied in a knot to use as a condom. How sexy is that? "Heeeey baby, you're looking mighty fine after slaving over a hot woodstove, and I know I'm feeling pretty good after dragging logs around all day, even if I am 2 days away from my weekly bath... let me to find my pig intestine and show you a good time!" Right.
So picture it, you and your family of mother and father in their early 20s and 3 or 4 kids pack up the wagon (which is about 4 feet wide by 10 feet long) and head west until you find a piece of land that is suitable for farming or ranching and you start building a house. All 5 of you. You have to either cut a lot of sod or start felling trees that weigh hundreds of pounds and pile them on top of each other without getting crushed. Meanwhile, the cow has to be milked, a garden started, the family fed and clothed, and any injuries seen to. So good luck! Have fun with that! Once the house is finished the real fun starts with planting crops and hoping they don't just shrivel up and die. And one day you might have neighbors way out there in the middle of freaking nowhere. You had better pray that no one gets sick or badly hurt because they're surely going to die. The average life expectancy was 40.
Anyway, life was a lot of really tough physical labor and I think the show does a good job of demonstrating that. One of the fathers on the show was mad because he wasn't going to get to do any hunting (modern laws still apply...), but I don't think he would have done much hunting even if it was allowed to because there was too much other work to do. He had really romanticized the experience of the wild west in his head and I think he's really disappointed. His family is from California and they aren't doing well, while the family from Tennessee is doing fine. (It seems a little obvious, doesn't it?) The spoiled California girls whine a lot, while the Tennessee mom is getting pissed because they've never been asked for help from their neighbors. And it is all boiling down to economics. The family who is used to living on a budget can ration out their food without a problem, while the family who is used to having everything the minute they want it are struggling and maybe starving.
I am SO GLAD I live in the times I do. Vaccinations, hospitals, cars, and grocery stores are only the tip of the iceberg....