Sunday, August 5, 2012

Recommended book: "Huckleberry Hill" by Elizabeth Gemming

If you're looking for some light, quick reading that's rich on historical details, I recommend that you track down a copy of 1968's "Huckleberry Hill: Child Life in Old New England" by Elizabeth Gemming.1

(It shouldn't be hard to find a copy. Plus, there are plenty of super-cheap used copies available on Amazon.)

The book is exactly as described in the title: A look at everyday life for New England children in the early to middle of the 19th century, with anecdotes culled from various original sources and accounts.2

The book is split up by the seasons, taking you through a whole year — starting in winter and finishing in late autumn.

Here is just a sampling of 19th century tidbits from the 147-page book:
  • Winter mornings: "First in the yawning fireplace came the shaggy, snowy backlog, perhaps a foot and a half in diameter and five feet long, drawn in on a hand sled and imbedded in the ashes. It was an art to select a backlog of just the right size, so that it would break in the middle and the ends would fall in just in time for raking up in the evening."
  • The value of everything: "Children grew up knowing the value of everything in the household and the time it took to make it. They were taught never to waste anything. ... Many boys did odd jobs to earn a few pennies of their own. They saved up to buy a good jackknife, a country boy's most treasured possession."
  • Night-time reading: "Fathers liked to read aloud to their families. Newspapers were treasured, and never tossed out carelessly.3 The Farmer's Almanac urged men to use the long [winter] evenings well, and read for pleasure and instruction. The almanac hung in the chimney corner. It contained jokes, proverbs, puzzles, strange tales, home remedies, and household hints. It gave stagecoach timetables and the names of the tavernkeepers along the various routes."
  • Winter roads are good: "People did all their heavy hauling in winter, over the smooth snow-packed roads and frozen rivers. For one thing, every man had to cut firewood from his woodlot and haul the logs out of the woods, ready to be cut at the sawmill in spring."
  • Spring roads are bad: "The land was much wetter than it is now, for the ancient forests and thick matting of pine needles and moss and rotten wood, centuries old, held moisture like a sponge until the land was gradually cleared of trees and the sun evaporated the moisture from the open fields. ... The mud — no telling how deep it went — held wagon wheels fast, up past the hub. ... People just stayed home in mud time."
  • Traveling salesman: "The Yankee peddler was a traveling novelty shop. He was a clever trader because he had to accept all kinds of farm produce and goods in payment and then sell them later on to someone else. Same fast-talking peddlers got rid of all their goods and by the end of the season sold the horse and wagon besides."
  • You'll never drink apple cider again: "In cider time, the boys ... raced full tilt up the hill to the cider mill to suck the fresh sweet cider straight from the tubs. It was frothy as it squirted out of the press, and it was flavored with the juices of drowned bugs and caterpillars, and once in a while even an unfortunate bulge-eyed rat, soaking peacefully at the bottom of the tub."
  • Food for the Thanksgiving feast: This will help you get your appetite back. Here's what they had in New England for an early 19th century Thanksgiving feast:
1. Some of Gemming's other books include:
  • "Lost in the Clouds: The Discovery of Machu Picchu"
  • "Blow Ye Winds Westerly: The Seaports and Sailing Ships of Old New England"
  • "Maple Harvest: The Story of Maple Sugaring"
  • "Wool Gathering: Sheep Raising in Old New England"
2. Kirkus wasn't very kind to Gemming's book in its original 1968 review. Here's an excerpt:
"As a corrective to juvenile euphoria, this performs a real service but the style -- simple expository sentences which become monotonous en masse -- will deter many readers. And Mrs. Gemming tends to generalize as if everyone not only acted but responded the same way, even the animals. ... In sum, a supplement to such standards as Earle and, yes, Tunis, well-indexed for access to the many homemaking, farming, trading, entertainment topics, also to school and church and the nascent city."
3. Old newspapers, Gemming wrote, could be pasted together in layers to make the cardboard stiffening for summer sunbonnets.
4. Of their pumpkin pie, Gemming wrote: "The traditional pumpkin pie was made with molasses. Occasionally a town even postponed its Thanksgiving observance because there was no molasses to be had. Then, when a barrel could be brought in some days later, they had their feast."

No comments:

Post a Comment