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  • Writer's pictureKaylin Beach

Winter Woes and Wonders

The National Colonial Farm imagines a fictional family—the Boltons—to reveal the realities of life for non-wealthy landowners and enslaved people in early America.

How like a winter hath my absence been From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year! What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen! What old December’s bareness everywhere! - William Shakespeare

The spring equinox is just days away, purple crocuses have emerged as small pools of color among the brown landscape, and the song of the spring peepers serenades park goers each afternoon. It feels as if the change of seasons is well and truly underway, but before we move forward to warmer weather, we present you with a look back (way back, in fact) to winter on a small 18th century Maryland tobacco farm. Here are some lesser known facts about how early Marylanders braved the cold.

1. Biphasic Sleep Patterns

During the time between sleeps in the winter, folks on rural farms would work on indoor projects (sewing, woodcarving, etc…) and eat breakfast or a late night snack. People in towns may call upon one another at 1 am in the morning, visiting friends and family. It was absolutely normal for everyone to wake up and break their fast with merriment and visiting. Imagine that!

Sleeping and waking periods changed throughout the year, but the 2 sleeps in winter are my personal favorite.

2. What do farmers do during the winter?

Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region didn’t stop farming just because winter came. Winter is an excellent time to plant crops that will feed the family and the soil. If you stop by the National Colonial Farm this winter, you’ll see gardens and fields featuring cover crops such as winter wheat, red clover, mustard, and more. These plants will serve as food for the animals and for the soil, a necessary thing when you farm tobacco.

There are many fruits and vegetables that can be grown during the winter, such as lettuce, parsley, potatoes, kale, cabbage, and more. One of my favorites is the skirret, an 18th century vegetable that is a cross between a modern day carrot (taste) and a parsnip (coloring). Skirrets were very popular to plant in England because they like cold, wet weather (perfect for winter here in North America!). In 1770, they were used in place of carrots because carrots, at the time, were very tart and bitter. Now, due to genetic modification, carrots no longer hold the thick woody centers and tart taste that they once did. As a result, the popularity and use of skirrets died away.

Skirret crown. source:

3. What did the Boltons eat during the winter?

Apples hung to dry for the winter season

Storing food in the 18th century was very different than it is today. Instead of refrigerators and freezers, the Boltons stored root vegetables and such in a root cellar. Cellars were commonly underground, sometimes under an existing building. At the Bolton’s farm, they use a hollow log filled with a sand/salt mix and covered with boards. In it one will find potatoes, turnips, carrots, skirrets, parsnips, and more.

They would also dry or jar a lot of their fruits and vegetables. One commonly dried item in the 18th century was beans/peas. In fact, dried beans looked so much like the britches made of leather that the men wore at the time that they adopted the name ‘leather britches’ to describe them.

This time of year, however, would be particularly hard for the Boltons. With winter starting in November, as it did at the time, most of the stores would be eaten or spoiled by late February. Mild winters were few and far in between, so people would need to find a way to obtain more food at this time of the year. That is why farmers would sow crops in the winter and early spring. For the Boltons, their diet changed based on what was available—soups and stews at this time of year were especially common due to having access to salted meat from the smokehouse and the last of the root vegetables from the cellar or the garden.

It’s also calving season, so milk, cheese, and butter are plentiful!

4. No shoes to snow shoes?


The Native Americans wore snowshoes in the 18th century, but the colonists did not (at least not what we wear nowadays). Research on the topic references the use of pieces of wood and bark to keep shoes dry. Shoes are a fun subject in the 18th century, especially for a farm family like the Boltons. Shoes were expensive and usually foregone during the summer to save money. It would not be uncommon for folks in the lower middling class and lower class status to fair without shoes during the winter, or bind their badly worn leather shoes with cloth.

Another fun shoe conversation is the use of clogs in the American colonies. Most people think of clogs in relationship to the Scottish or Danish people, but wooden clogs were highly popular here in the colonies. They served as a means to avoid ruining good shoes (clogs being worn under the regular shoes to block mud and other unpleasantries). They also served farmers as they tended to their fields during wet, cold times of year.

5. Skirting the chill

Ladies in the 18th century seldom wore anything under their shift: a nightgown-like layer of clothing that served as underwear. This means that, under all of those skirts, they wore no bloomers or anything to keep a draft from going up their skirts. This may have served well during the summer (and for using the bathroom) but certainly proved cold during the winter. That is why women would take a loose strap of leather or cord and gird themselves, tying it around their waist and tucking the hem of their shift from the back into the strap in the front. This helped to block some of the draft.

6. A Frozen Potomac

Thomas Jefferson wrote about the winter of 1780, and how the Chesapeake Bay was frozen all the way to the mouth of the Potomac. It would not have been uncommon for folks to cross the Potomac river during freezes such as these by simply walking across the ice. Can you imagine a freeze of that magnitude?

Well, the winters during the 1700’s were unforgivingly cold. This part of the world was enduring a mini ice-age at the time, so a completely frozen Potomac river was not unthinkable. In fact, it was probably expected.

7. Let there be a tiny bit of light at an exorbitant price!

Let’s do some candle math: If you wanted an hour of reading before bed and 2 hours of light between first and second sleep, you could use 6 candles (that’s one candle every half hour) in a day. Estimate 3 candles every half hour to provide light for the whole family. That’s 18 candles a day. Multiply that by the number of days for an average winter season (November 17 to March 31) and you get 2,430 candles. That’s a lot of candles for not a lot of light.

Not to mention the fact that candles were expensive to buy—due to need and taxation from England—so folks may choose to make their own. On average, I can individually hand dip 20 candles a day (the Bolton farm can’t afford a candle mold) while talking to visitors and dealing with the ever-changing temperature of the wax. Add the visitors’ candles and another interpreter helping; we might be able to reach 50-60 candles a day if we do it from 7am to 6pm. It would take us around 40 days to make 2,430 candles if we made 60 a day. That’s just dipping the candle, not making the wax from tallow fat, or building the fire.

8. Split and stack, gather and dry, without a fire we all may die.

Why so much? Well, fireplaces in the 18th century were especially inefficient. Instead of funneling the heat into the room, they absorbed much of the heat up the chimney, and replaced it with cold air (heat rises, cold air falls). Aside from the physics of the situation, what heat did survive in the house was lost quickly due to a lack of insulation. The Boltons would close off parts of their house to avoid losing the heat, cramming everyone into one room as a living space.

Hopefully they weren’t claustrophobic!

9. How did enslaved individuals survive the winter?

photo by Joe Tresh Photography, Inc.

On the National Colonial Farm, we tell the story of Cate Sharper, a real woman who lived on this land in the 18th century. Small farms may only enslave one or two people, so as the only slave on site, she slept in one of the outbuildings, like the kitchen. Just like the Boltons, she moved her bed linens close to the fire to obtain warmth. However, unlike the Boltons, she did not have the added benefit of additional bodies to share the bed with.

Firewood use for her may also have been limited. She was responsible for keeping the kitchen fire going, but a roaring fire was not necessary. As a result, she would use her spare time to create additional warm clothing to wear during especially cold nights. Most likely, she ate what was left after the Boltons ate,and if the farm ran short on food, she may have been the first to go hungry.

Life as the only enslaved woman on a tobacco farm was not pleasant during any time of year, but proved especially difficult during the winter.

10. Getting privy to the privy

If you’re not familiar with 18th century bathrooms, I’m sorry to say that the Bolton farm doesn’t have one. At least not like we’re accustomed to today. Instead, one would go outside into the woods to relieve themselves—an especially chilly experience during the winter. So, instead, the chamber pot (used inside) acquired a lot of use in colder months. Of course, this still meant the freezing sensation of cold pewter, stoneware, or porcelain as one perched upon it to relieve themselves. At least you were inside! Although, you’d have to hope the pot had a lid to place on it after you’d gone. Otherwise, your whole house would stink!

The fun came after it grew full, as the youngest in the family or a slave was tasked with dumping the chamber pot. Can you imagine? I suppose one could be glad to have frozen water nearby to wash it out with instead of having to walk to the creek during the summer to clean it.

The joys of no indoor plumbing.

Bonus winter fact!

During the winter, cows ate a lot of rutabaga.


To read more about the topics discussed above, check out these resources:

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