Domestic Life In the 17th Century


The English colonists built their first permanent dwellings in the cottage style they had known at home. The structures were of wood, with a framework of heavy, hand-hewn timbers. The frame for each wall was constructed flat on the ground; the frames were then raised into position and fastened together. The outside walls were covered with clapboards (called weather-boards in Virginia), the inside walls with wide vertical boards. The space inside a wall was filled with straw and clay or with bricks for insulation.

The few windows were at first of oiled paper or thin sheets of horn, later of small, diamond-shaped panes of glass. There was an attic under a steep-pitched roof, which in the early period was covered with thatch, later with boards and shingles.

In New England stones were used to build the walls of the cellar, which was a New World innovation that provided frost-free winter storage, and the fireplace and chimney. In a one-room house the fireplace was toward the corner at the end of the room. If there was a second room, it was on the other side of the fireplace, which then opened into both rooms. When more space was needed, a one-story lean-to was added across the back, and the main roof was continued down over it. The resulting shape was the origin of the so-called saltbox house, a popular New England style for many generations.

In Virginia, where stone was scarce, bricks were used for the chimney, built outside the end wall. Because of the distance from neighbors and the hostility of the Indians, plantation homes usually had shuttered windows and often had gun slits in the walls of upper rooms.

The settlers' homes in New Sweden were log cabins, a kind of structure common in the forested Scandinavian countries. Since whole logs were used for the walls, log cabins were much easier to build than English cottages, for which it was necessary first to split the logs into timbers and planks. After New Sweden (as part of New Netherland) was absorbed into the English colonies, the log cabin was adopted by most settlers moving to the frontier.

In New Netherland the Dutch built high, narrow houses of brick, with steep red tile roofs. The windows had shutters and the doors opened in two sections, upper and lower. The homes of the Flemish who came to New Netherland were low and wide, with overhanging eaves, built of stone or wood with shingled roofs.


Furniture in the English colonies at first consisted largely of simple pieces that the settlers could make for themselves—a table, at least one chair for the head of the household, some stools and benches, chests for storage, and beds. As soon as possible, better furniture was imported from England, especially by the tobacco planters in the South. In New England, however, cabinetmakers were soon producing fine furniture. The Dutch settlers, who were well supplied by the Dutch West India Company with goods from home, had ornate furniture, pottery, pewter, and silverware from the beginning.

Artificial light other than from the fireplace was obtained by burning hot fat or wax. A rushlight was a dried rush soaked in grease and held upright on a metal support. A Betty lamp was a dishlike container of grease or oil with a wick. Candles were made of tallow or bayberry wax. Fire was started by the use of flint and steel. Making fire was neither quick nor easy, and an effort was made to keep the fireplace fire going always.

Family Tasks

The English settlers in both New England and the Southern colonies lived at first as pioneers in a wilderness. In the early colonial period members of the household produced all of their own food, soap and candles, clothing, household linens, and bed coverings, as well as most of their utensils.

The men and boys farmed, fished, hunted for game, butchered the domestic animals, cured the meat that could not be eaten at once, tanned the hides, and made simple footgear. The many wooden items used by the family were made at home—trenchers (dish-platters), mugs, spoons, storage kegs and barrels, farm implements, and the family loom, among others. Breaking up the stalks of flax to extract the fibers for spinning was a man's work, and the men also assisted with such domestic jobs as boiling soap.

Preparation of food by the women and girls included the hand-grinding of grain into meal or flour. However, the greatest amount of women's time was used making textiles and clothing. Flax (linen) or wool fibers were combed clean, hand-spun into thread or yarn, dyed if desired, woven into cloth, and sewed by hand into garments or household articles. (Since the home-made looms were quite narrow, all sheets and blankets had to be seamed.) Girls began learning to spin at the age of five or six and were experts at the loom by the time they were married.

As towns developed, specialists in various crafts set up in business, and articles such as boots, felt hats, iron and pottery utensils, and barrels could be bought. The establishment of tanneries, gristmills, and sawmills further reduced the home labor of the families living within convenient distance of them. In rural areas the workload was lessened by itinerant craftsmen who traveled from one farm to another, staying as long as their services were needed. These welcome specialists included the shoemaker, the weaver, the tailor, the tinker (a tinsmith who repaired metal items), and the chandler (a candlemaker who also made soap).

Food and Drink

Food was plentiful in the colonies, although at times there was little variety. The forests were full of game and fowl, and seafood was abundantly available, especially in Virginia and Maryland. Cattle were imported from Europe at an early date. At first they were kept more for their hides and for breeding oxen than for food. The Dutch, however, used milk to make butter and cheese. Pigs were the most common meat animal.

When an animal was slaughtered, as much, fresh meat as possible was eaten at once, and the rest was preserved by salting or smoking it. Salt pork was the common meat of the poorer colonists. In the South, fresh cooked meat was sometimes kept in a crock sealed with fat.

Corn was the native grain used for food by the Indians, who taught the settlers how to grow it and eat it. It became the staple starch food of the English colonists. They ate corn as a fresh vegetable, as hominy, as boiled cereal, or as the main ingredient of bread, cake, and pudding. Wheat did not grow well in New England but was a successful crop in New Netherland. The Dutch were especially fond of fried cakes and waffles made of wheat flour.

Green vegetables were a seasonal item in New England, but available much of the year farther south. Root vegetables (but not including either sweet or white potatoes in the 17th century) were stored for winter use. Pumpkin could be stored, but was also dried. A popular type of bread was made of boiled, mashed pumpkin mixed with corn meal. Apple trees, imported from Europe, were widely grown to provide fruit for making cider.

Cider, usually fermented, and beer were the most popular drinks. The Dutch imported wine and brandy, and so did the prosperous planters. Everyone, including tiny children, drank alcoholic beverages. Water was considered dangerous, and because of ignorance about sanitation it often was. Milk was generally not used as a beverage. During the 17th century tea, coffee, and chocolate were introduced in Europe and became available in the colonies.

All cooking except baking was done in great open fireplaces. Some iron pots were hung over the fire; others had legs and long handles and were set on the hearth. Stews and porridges were the common food, although meat and game might be roasted before the open fire, turned on a spit by hand, generally by a child. Corn pone and pudding could be baked in a covered pot buried in embers, but a bake oven was required for raised bread. The oven was usually built into the side of the fireplace in Northern homes, but in the South it was often outdoors.

Food was eaten from wooden trenchers, two or more persons sharing a dish, with spoons and the fingers. Linen napkins were customarily provided for each meal. Table salt was imported at first, but maple sugar and honey were American products. The English did not spread their bread with butter; this custom was later learned from the Dutch.


As much as possible, the colonists dressed in the fashion prevailing in Europe. The planters in the South soon began to send back to England for fine clothes. Even the New England Puritans liked trimmings of silver and gold lace and silk dresses. Elegant apparel, however, was considered a sign of social status, and in several colonies there were laws against the wearing of finery by the poorer classes.

Cotton was an imported luxury. The common fabrics were wool and linen, or linseywoolsey, a combination of the two fibers. Coarse linen, dyed blue with indigo, was the usual material of work shirts and women's house dresses. Leather, especially deerskin, was used for workingmen's breeches as well as for jackets.

Women wore long, full skirts throughout the colonial period. Upper-class men customarily wore knee-length breeches while men of the lower classes frequently wore pantaloons. From the time children stopped wearing baby clothes they were dressed exactly like their elders. Head coverings were worn by all adults, inside the house as well as outside. Women wore small white linen caps, covering these when outdoors with the hoods attached to their cloaks (which were usually scarlet). Men wore wool work caps or felt hats.

In the early 17th century no such garment as a coat existed. Men's tunics sometimes had separate sleeves that were tied in with tapes or ribbons. By the end of the century the sleeved tunic had developed into a coat with a flared skirt. The custom of wearing silver and gold buckles on shoes apparently was introduced by the Dutch, who had a taste for ornate dress. Another style favored by the Dutch colonists, fluted ruffs around the neck, had been given up by the English settlers, who preferred the flat collar.