February 1996

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Letters to Suzanna

Cash and Barter


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

In the early settlement days of this area around Seneca Lake in New York State—or indeed anywhere in what would become, in time, the United States—having cash for purchases was a strange mix. There was no treasury department, after the War of the Revolution, until 1789. Even then, the federal government was not issuing any standard currency to everyone living in this country.

Until I was a grown woman, people still used the shilling and sixpence as an everyday form of coin just as when still British subjects. I also remember having half-pennies which were not at all like your pennies sliced in half. About the most widely-preferred exchange item was gold. In cities where there were major mercantile establishments, Spanish milled dollars were certain to be allowed.

As states came into being, most of them issued some kind of currency. If you had funds in a bank, the bank might allow you some paper "bills" good for varying amounts. These could be used as cash and the recipient would take them to the bank to be redeemed. Or they could "endorse" them to some other person who could take them to the bank.

Often, people wrote a sort of promissory note when they borrowed money or received goods or services from another person. When due, these might be paid in one form or another of cash or by barter. Barter, or trade, was perhaps the most common way to buy anything or pay debts during my growing years. Storekeepers would sell items which a family could neither raise nor make for themselves, nor go without, and take payment in farm produce or labor or homemade cloth or thread.

One man in our neighborhood, who never seemed to have a spare half-penny, would pay his debt at the store by running errands for the owner. He might go pick up goods or deliver orders, for instance. I suspect he also actually cleaned the store or may have been the one to keep the big weeds out of the wooden-slat walkway in front of the store.

You may have heard of homemakers whose only spending money came from eggs and butter they took to the general store. Sometimes, Mama had enough eggs to trade this way. It depended on whether we found all the hens' nests or whether some were well hidden so they hatched babies instead. Trading goods and services actually did very well in place of ready cash.

I have heard of pin money although I never knew a lady who had such an income in the traditional way. Once, even straight pins had to be individually handmade. Each woman tried to collect money to buy these necessities. Whoever heard of safety pins anyway? They did not exist.

Sometimes, when a couple got married, the woman had a dowery. This might be in cash, goods or animals. It might be in the form of cloth and household linens and dishes or her cooking pots.

When cash money was part of the dowery, the bride's father might specify that a certain portion of it be saved or banked so that, every year, his daughter would receive some of it to use any way she wanted. Or the father might promise a yearly payment for a specific period of time and stipulate that his daughter always personally be allowed the say in how it was used. The lady with this kind of parental support was not quite as subject to male domination as others were.

You must have heard or read about gold and silver mines and maybe you know about copper and lead mines. Folks were always looking for ways to get more cash in hand. One way was to find one of the valuable ores. When the Hitchcock family moved into Reading Centre (that is how it was originally spelled), part of Buttonwood Creek ran through their property. Early on, Mr. Hitchcock dug holes in the shallow waterway and panned for gold. He found a few flakes, over a period of several months, but nothing bountiful and he soon gave up.

Johnny asked Papa about looking for gold in our creek. Papa discouraged him. He believed that finding any was highly unlikely. Whatever little bit Mr. Hitchcock may have found was merely some remnant of ore which arrived with the last glacier to scrub through the Finger Lakes and did not indicate a hidden lode, Papa was sure. Johnny did, one summer, spend some time hunting in the creek. He dug gravel loose with a stout stick and sifted it through his fingers. He had asked Mama for the loan of a pan but she did not feel she had an extra. Besides, she feared that any he used that way would never again see duty in our kitchen work.

A few times, Johnny found shiny slivers of something but it was never gold. Eventually, he tired of such fruitless endeavors.

Telenemut told us that the Indians knew of a supply of some precious metal near Seneca Lake, but he did not know what or where it was. It was simply something that he had always been told. The story was that there was, in one of the hillsides, a ravine with an L-shaped turn where it emptied into Seneca. He had been told that white man would kill for possession of this cache of nature. For that reason, the Indians who knew the source did not readily share their knowledge. It was kept secret even from other tribes in the Iroquois Nation. As long as I lived, no one ever reported the discovery of such a treasure. Curiously, it seems that only our Buttonwood Creek had a sharp turn in it immediately before dumping into the lake.

Our general store did not always have every item in stock which housewives or farmers needed. The storekeeper could order specifics but delivery might take months. The neighbor who ran errands for one of our stores even went as far as the city and harbor of New York with a pack horse to bring back goods, now and then. That was always a trip of many days.

So there was a need for back-pack peddlers or drummers as some called them.

When these men arrived at some farm home in a remote area, if the housewife wanted some of his goods, he might take, for part of his pay, overnight lodging and a meal or two or some journey cake to take on his travels. If a family was willing, he might leave his extra items in their home while he spent a day around the neighboring farms and then go in a different direction, next day. Once Mama wanted a good silver thimble. One of these peddlers told her he could melt some silver piece she might already have and shape a thimble to fit her finger precisely.

And he did, too! He had a funny black pot which he hung over a fire kindled in the yard. I cannot describe what he did, but he took two of the serving spoons which she had brought as a bride from Connecticut and she ended up with a thimble which she used all the rest of her life.

Other travelers happened by, now and then, to break the monotony of daily life. I recall a weaver who came with part of a loom. After he determined that several families would pay for his coverlets, made to their order, Papa helped him find young trees of the right type and size to make a frame for his loom. The fellow set it up in our barn and did his work right there. He slept in the barn, too, and ate meals with us. Mama did not have to pay much for the coverlet he made for us.

I do not recollect exactly how long he was in Reading but it was many weeks of that summer. He made Mama a beautiful coverlet. It was a deep blue and creamy white. Although both colors appeared on both sides, one side was mostly blue and the other mostly white. The pattern was reversible. It had big ferns which he called palm trees. I had never heard of a palm tree but Papa explained about them. He told us they grow in climates that never have snow.

Along the border, our coverlet had rows of small ducks. Each corner was woven with geometric patterns. In one corner, he wove Mama's name and the date. The lettering could not be read on the reverse because it came out backwards.

Sometimes, a cobbler traveled through but Papa made and repaired our everyday boots. Mama had brought with her, as a bride, one pair of fine slippers. She wore them only for very special occasions and Papa mended the soles when they grew thin. She was so careful of them that Ruth was able to wear them the day she married.

I have heard of traveling dressmakers and milliners. Usually they had relatives or close friends wherever they set up business. Otherwise, they would have been looked upon as of questionable virtue.

Around Reading, all the women I ever knew were seamstresses, themselves. Some did better work than others and might be paid to create a special garment like a wedding dress. For the most, ladies here rarely bought a new Sabbath bonnet. Once she had the basic frame, each woman would cover and decorate it according to her own taste. If it needed changing later, she would remove materials down to the bare shape and then recover it to a later fashion.

Nobody wasted cloth. If an adult wore out a garment or no longer could use it for any reason, it was carefully taken apart. The thread was pulled in such a way as to keep it in long strings, wound on a twig to be reused again. Pieces of cloth, which could be cut from an adult discard in pieces large enough, would be used in making some clothing item for a smaller person. Any pieces too small for such reuse but still with strength were usually saved for quilt pieces or perhaps for rag rugs. Only the very weakest bits were thrown away if not suitable for a dish rag or other cleaning purposes.

Rugs were crocheted on big hooks whittled from a scrap of wood. Cloth was cut in strips which were sewn together at the narrow ends and rolled into balls until the housewife deemed she had enough to start the project. Girls learned to do all these things while still quite young.

Quilting was part of a female's housekeeping education and would be started as soon as she could ably cut pieces or sew in small enough stitches so the finished quilt would not pull apart where pieced. I was only five when I learned. Mama cut the shapes and I was taught to put them together to make pretty patterns. At first, I tended to take rather long stitches. Since these would not hold together well, Mama would make me take out thread, using great care not to snap it into small lengths. Then I had to start again. For a while, it seemed like she was forever saying.

"Tiny stitches, Sukey, Tiny!"

Ruth went through the same rigamarole when she began to sew. She was six though. She seemed to take to it more easily than I. She finished a whole quilt cover all by herself when she was eight. I was ten before I managed so much.

Sometimes, Grandmother sent us a supply of linen thread which she had made from her own flax. Mama paid a neighbor to weave it into cloth but usually her payment was some kind of barter.

Papa was a handy craftsman with wood. He could make furniture which he traded at the blacksmith's, for instance. He did this work mostly in winter because he had more free time between harvest and spring planting. He made sledges which we used to haul stones off plowed fields or were used to carry hay and grain to the barns. Not everyone had horse-drawn vehicles for this. Sledges were usually small enough to be towed by a man or big boy and, in some families, by a strong girl.

As pioneers cleared new lands for crops, around this area, there would be many a load of stones to remove so plow points would not be ruined. Some people dumped these stones and cobbles in heaps in an area which would never by plowed. Some were used in foundations of new buildings. A few folks created attractive stonewalls about their yards. Many Reading families wound up with Papa's sledges, over the years.

Papa could mend wagons and make wheels but it took a blacksmith to shape good iron rims on wheels, reinforce bottoms or box corners. The Roberts who was a blacksmith was always busy.

Papa made a few sleighs, too. They were much like large sledges with wooden runners. Most people would take them to the smithy for metal on the runner bottoms. For the most, the blacksmith brought in his raw materials from a city at the far end of Catharine Creek. However, there was an iron bog up in the hills near the Preemption Line. Some people harvested that. For a while, there was a small manufactory near the bog where the crude ore was turned into iron but the product was never of equal quality to the imported. The business did not long endure.

When I was still the only child in our family, Papa made a small sled with broad and stout wooden runners. It was ultimately used for every one of us when our parents went for some gathering or neighboring in the winter. Pulling us was easier than carrying. And we used it ourselves when we were big enough to take it out for a slide downhill. Papa had to replace the runners a time or two because they became worn or cracked if we ran over a sharp rock or protruding tree root.

One of the ways families used to manage hard times and lack of money was far different than you may ever have heard of. For decades before I was born, and even after I was grown up, when a family was in dire financial straits, perhaps threatened with severe hunger, one or more of the children might be sent to live with more affluent family members. Or a child, even as young as age eight, would be "bound out" to work either as a homemaker's helper or a farm hand.

A bound child's parents were then supposed to receive a specific income but the child was unpaid. He or she would be given room and board.

In all too many cases, the bound servant was poorly fed, in comparison with members of his employer's family. Sometimes, such a child was adequately but not generously clothed but, more often, he or she had only worn out hand-me-downs, often pitifully inadequate in cold weather.

When contracting for such servitude, a specific number of years was usually agreed upon, the duties to have been fulfilled until the young person was old enough to be self-supporting. It was not uncommon for that "freedom" to come at age fourteen. Another clause in such an agreement was supposed to provide the "freed" person with a suitable amount of clothing (which could be interpreted quite loosely) and a sum of money. All too often, the person accepting a bound child failed to thus provide.

Bound children seldom went to school once they left home, and, of course, they never had any say in the matter. They had to do whatever parents decided no matter what reasons the older generation may have had.

It did not always work out as a hardship, however.

There were times, especially if a child were bound out to a childless couple, when the young one became a beloved member of the family, the substitute for the birth child never realized. In such cases, there would be education, sometimes carried beyond the one-room school and even as far as a university. The child would be well clothed, doctored when needed and taught to work but not as a servant. Come end-of-the-contract time, the one who had been thus treated was most apt to remain with his or her foster parents rather than return to the bosom of the family who had chosen to let him or her go.

All too often, when a child was treated as a slavey, overworked, underfed and poorly clothed, he or she would someday turn up missing—a runaway. Then the employer would try to collect from the pauper parents all monies previously paid and perhaps even what would have been due to the end of the contract. Although it failed to work out as compensation, it was not unknown for the employer to take the hovels, furniture and even clothing from the original parents. Or maybe a second child would be bound to make up for the runaway sibling.

Most of the time, families, so poor that they bound out a child because of their extreme poverty, never did get ahead. As often as not, it was because the father of the family, which never seemed to stop increasing until the mother died, was a drunkard who could not do the work necessary to care for his own needs, to say nothing of those of a large brood of young ones and a wife worn out by poor home conditions and frequent child-bearing.

You need to remember that it was unheard of, in my day, for a mother to get a job except for such work as doing other people's laundry in her home. It simply was not done. Even single women did not appear in the open work place, the majority of the time. Almost the only exceptions were those who became teachers or midwives.

The government never gave anyone money for support, or otherwise cared for poor folks. In some other civilized countries, and certain cities here, there were poor houses where paupers could go but, even then, children were rarely allowed to remain with parents. They went to orphanages or might even be bound out by those in charge of the children's homes, only when that happened, it was usually without the benefit of a contract. Even when the home managers received income from such a source, the future of the child was rarely arranged in contract.

I hope you now understand how people with little or no cash, in my day, could get by.

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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