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DAILY LIFE IN THE COLONIES

Colonial Americans lived in drafty houses heated in the winter by fireplaces in one or two rooms. Bedrooms, churches, and schools had no heat, air conditioning, or even fans. The bathroom was an outhouse 20 feet out the back door, and baths, when they happened, meant boiling a lot of water and pouring it into a tin tub barely big enough to sit in. Garbage disposal meant

tossing garbage out the window, where it was taken care of by hogs or buzzards. Light at night may be a flickering whale-oil lamp, and everybody had to ask whether whatever they were doing instead of going to bed was worth the candle. Going to bed early was easy, because most people were tired from a workday that ran 12 hours from first light until sundown, when they couldn't see anymore.

Entertainment meant getting together with a good excuse like a militia muster, when citizen soldiers drilled and partied, or a barn-raising, quilting bee, funeral, or wedding. All these events could be accompanied by a good deal of drinking and flirting. Northerners liked sleigh rides and skating; Southerners went for fox hunts and playing cards. Southerners thought that plays and dancing were just fine; Northerners took a few years to warm up to those ideas.

The Middle states were, as usual, in the middle when it came to entertainment. Not much fox hunting happened, but plays and dancing were okay with most people. Everybody played the lottery. Lotteries were used to fund churches, hospitals, and colleges like Harvard.

The relative prosperity of the colonies

The idea that anybody had a chance to make a good life in America started in the early 1700s. It was true; by the time of the Revolution, the early states had some of the most prosperous people in the world.

In fact, unless you were one of the growing number of slaves, America in the 1700s was the place to be. Most people were farmers, but jobs were always available in towns for skilled craftsmen. Even if you were an indentured servant, you could potentially earn your freedom and rise to prominence, which is what two originally indentured signers of the Declaration of Independence did. George Walton was only 26 when he risked hanging by the British to sign the Declaration; he was an orphan who had been indentured to a builder. George Taylor had to indenture himself to earn his ticket from Ireland, but as an old guy of 60, he was important enough to sign the Declaration.

Although every free person had a chance for success, the number of rich people who earned far more than the average farmer grew over time. That doesn't mean life was easy. Between the late 1600s and the Revolution in 1776, the colonies were dragged into one European war after another. Wars burn up lots of military supplies, so the merchants in the big cities made big money by supplying the troops. By 1750, the richest 10 percent of the people in Boston and Philadelphia owned more than half of the property. They got reserved seats in the churches and schools.

Although a few poor people in the cities were supported by charity and sometimes had to wear a large red P (for Poor) on their clothes, poverty in the colonies was nothing like it was in Britain in the 1700s, where as many as one out of three people lived with next to nothing. The colonies were full of land that could be farmed and opportunities in trade and skilled jobs.

The colonies prospered despite British attempts to use them as a dumping ground for British problems. The government in London tried to drop its problems on the colonies by sending over 50,000 convicts. These convicts included real hard cases as well as plenty of people who received harsh sentences for little more than stealing a loaf of bread. Some of them became upright citizens in the New World, but they had no love for their British persecutors.

The worst poverty was within the growing slave population. White people were afraid of slave violence like the Stono Rebellion in 1739 and made periodic attempts to limit the importation of more slaves, but British leaders vetoed these attempts. Thomas Jefferson tried to put language opposed to slavery in the Declaration of Independence, but he was overridden by Southern slaveholders (see Chapter 9).

 
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