The Good Ol’ Days?

4 comments Posted on July 2, 2013

by Vickie McDonough

Years ago, when I was a young girl of twelve, I remember driving from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania to visit my Aunt Maude and her family. One thing that fascinated me was the ringer wash tub in the basement of my aunt’s house. Mom had an electric washing machine, and I couldn’t imagine doing laundry in a metal tub. Aunt Maude happily let me run the clothes through the ringer until my arm got too sore to crank the handle.

I know my mom had an electric dryer back then, but I remember hanging clothes on the line and clipping them with a clothespin. I loved to crawl into bed and smell the fresh, sun-scented sheets, but I didn’t much care for the fly specks that I sometimes found on them.

As a writer of historical fiction, I enjoy penning stories of the 1800s, but I don’t know that I’d enjoy living back then. I’m too spoiled by today’s conveniences. How about you?

I thought it might be fun to take a short trip back in time to life in the early 19th century.

WhispersPrairieThe first sewing machine patent issued in the United States was in 1846, but it would be many more years before they became common in homes. Before then, women not only made most of their many layers of clothing, undergarments included, but they also made the fabric—and they stitched it all by hand. Common handmade fabrics were cotton, wool, and linen. Women often wore a dress all week, changing only the collar and cuffs. You can understand why they wore aprons when they were cooking and cleaning. My grandma had ten children, and I can’t imagine the work involved in providing clothing for so many youngun’s. I can see why children wore hand-me-downs.

Not only did a woman have to cook for her family, often over a campfire or in a kitchen separate from the rest of the house, but she had to grow the vegetables and can them so they had food year round. Have you ever considered how limited early Americans’ food fare must have been? No chocolate, no ice cream, no tasty casseroles. Oh, I feel sorry for those folks.

I once read a book about a woman who had lived on meat all winter. She was a new bride and hadn’t lived with her husband the previous spring and thus hadn’t planted a garden. She craved something green to eat and was ecstatic when she found a patch of wild onions early the next spring. She served them to her husband every meal until they both got sick of them.

I enjoy getting up in the morning and heading to the refrigerator or well-stocked cabinet to find breakfast. I’m thankful I don’t have to go out to a chicken coop and wrestle cranky hens for their eggs. I wrangle the hose each morning to keep my flowers alive during the hot summer, but I don’t have to milk a cow. Did I mention I’m spoiled to modern conveniences?

I don’t know what’s so engaging about the “old” days. Maybe it was the slower pace, although with all they had to do, I’m sure they were busy from dawn to dusk. Or maybe I admire those plucky women for braving the west with their adventurous husbands and overcoming the odds. Whatever it is, I enjoy telling stories set in the 19th century.

As I was looking for a new story idea, my husband and I visited the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop in Olathe, Kansas, several years ago. I fell in love with the place and its charming history. The 160 acre Mahaffie farm was purchased in 1858, and a small wooden frame house was pulled to the location from nearby downtown Olathe. J. B. and Lucinda Mahaffie operated the stagecoach stop for the Barlow and Sanderson Stage Line from 1863 to 1869, providing livery service and meals. I was fascinated with the large stone basement that was set up with tables and benches and used to feed the stage travelers. Because the basement was partially underground and made from stone, the temperature remained comfortably cool. Also, with the travelers eating there, strangers weren’t constantly traipsing through the Mahaffie’s home. It was an ingenious set-up.

My trip there sparked an idea for a new series called Pioneer Promises. It’s the story of a close-knit family with three grown sons who run a stagecoach stop on the Santa Fe Trail. The first book, Whispers on the Prairie, has just released. My heroine, a city gal from Chicago, endures many hardships as she leaves the comforts of the city and travels the rugged prairie in a covered wagon. When things go wrong, she ends up stuck at the Harpers’ stage stop. All she wants is to get back home to Chicago. But with marriageable women being few and far between, the Harper sons battle not only each other for Sarah’s attention, but a number of other men looking to marry.

Opportunities for education and employment for women were fairly limited in the early 1800’s. Working class girls mostly either went into domestic service or worked in factories, while respectable middle class girls often became teachers. But from the 1850’s onward, more employment opportunities became available. Women began to go into nursing, medicine, work in offices and libraries, while others went into journalism or sought jobs in shops and stores. Women were no longer strictly confined to the home.

Things have changed a lot since the 1800’s, and it makes me wonder if the women of 2100 will look at us as lesser privileged because of the innovative inventions they enjoy. Still, whenever I think of it, I thank God that I was born in the 20th century and that I can live in the 19th century through my characters’ eyes. I get to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Vickie McDonough grew up reading horse stories and dreaming of marrying a rancher, instead, she married a computer geek who is scared of horses. But those old dreams have found new life as she pens stories of ranchers, lawmen, and others living in the Old West. Vickie is the award-winning author of 27 books and novellas. Her novel, End of the Trail, recently won Best Fiction Novel in the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc’s 2013 contest, and Long Trail Home won the 2012 Booksellers’ Best Award for Inspirational Fiction. Her books have also won the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Contest, Texas Gold, the ACFW Noble Theme contest, and she has been a multi-year finalist in ACFW’s BOTY/Carol Awards. Visit Vickie’s website to learn more about her books or to sign up for her newsletter.


  • 07/02/2013
    Wanda Barefoot said:

    Vickie, I could have been your sister! I often say I was born 100 years too late. I LOVE the 1800’s western life and often wonder what living in that time would be like. I’ll never know so I lose myself in books such as yours. Love your books and I hope I get the chance to read this one. Thank you!

    Wanda Barefoot

  • 07/03/2013
    Vickie McDonough said:

    I think you’re right, Wanda. I love reading historicals set in the late 1800’s too, but I’m not sure if I could give up my moderns conveniences to live back then. 🙂

  • 07/03/2013
    Cathy Hickling said:

    Nice article! I’d like to check out the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop sometime. Sounds like it would make a great set for a Whispers on the Prairie TV series. With gas prices the way they are, I occasionally fantasize about commuting to work on horseback, then I remember I live in the city and have very little horse-woman skills…

  • 07/03/2013
    Vickie McDonough said:

    I love the idea of a Whispers on the Prairie TV series, Cathy. My husband has prayed for a long time for one of my books to be made into a movie.

    As for getting around on horseback, it’s fun. I used to ride my horse all over our end of town.


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