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Daily Schedule for an Urban Gentry Housewife

Daily Schedule for an Urban Gentry Housewife

by Pat Gibbs

Urban gentry housewives, responsible for managing daily household affairs, depended on and supervised a staff of servants that occasionally included white women who served as housekeepers or governesses but was mainly comprised of male and female slaves. These men and women “domestics”, owned by the family or hired locally, performed the “drudgery” about the house, kitchen, laundry, garden, and stable.

Because this schedule deals with the day-to-day activities of the housewife, her husband’s role may appear subordinate but this was not the case. As head of the household he exercised ultimate authority and was the legal representative of the family, controlled family finances, oversaw the rearing of young children (and their sons until they were grown), and generally represented the family in the outside world.

The woman who used her time as outlined below was, of course, the ideal housewife and manager. The routine as set out here was always subject to disruptions due to illness in the household, mothering of infants, and the training of new household slaves.

At about 6:00 A.M. she rises, awakens the family, and sees that breakfast preparations have begun. (If a trusted slave assures her that the household is up and at work, she might remain in her chamber.) Freshening up, dressing with the assistance of her personal maid, and arranging her hair are part of the housewife’s morning routine. Some women used the couple of hours before breakfast to listen to their children’s catechism and prayers and for their own private devotions.

About 7:30 A.M. she surveys the house and kitchen (and perhaps the garden) to see what tasks need to be accomplished that day and to make certain that breakfast will be served on time.

At 8:00 A.M. breakfast is served. The housewife presides at the meal and spends about a half hour at table with her family. (Sunday breakfasts were later and longer in some homes.)

Beginning about 8:30 A.M. while the slaves eat breakfast in the kitchen, the housewife washes the fine glasses and china used the previous day and for breakfast either in the dining room, passage, or in a nearby room. She then arranges serving pieces and condiments for the dinner table. After the slaves finish eating in the kitchen, she gives orders to the cook and measures out ingredients for each dinner dish. She then instructs other workers on their chores for the day and dispenses necessary supplies.

From about 10:00 A.M. to about 2:00 P.M. she supervises work in and around the house, perhaps assisted by teenaged daughters while younger children receive lessons. Daily household chores include cooking, cleaning, dairying, and gardening. Two to four times a month washing and ironing is done. Depending on the season, she might cut out and supervise the sewing of slave clothing, hemming and marking household linens, spinning and knitting, preserving fruits and vegetables, butchering and salting meats, or making sausages.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays the Williamsburg housewife, generally accompanied by her cook, buys fresh meats, fish, dairy products, and produce from the market. She might also shop or send one of her trusted slaves to purchase goods from one of the town stores. (Because of the market twice a week, urban housewives spent less time around gardens, diaries, and poultry yards than plantation housewives. Williamsburg inventories list few garden tools, few milk pans and churns, and no fowl.)

Just before 2:00 P.M. she checks on the cook’s progress with dinner and then goes to her room to freshen up and perhaps change outer garments before dinner.

About 2:00 P.M. she presides over the table with her family and possible guests. Dinner, the largest meal of the day, was also the most formal and the longest. At the end of the meal she and other females leave the men at the dinner table and retire to the hall or parlor for conversation over tea or coffee.

After dinner she sees that the kitchen is put in order and directs the afternoon’s baking of hot breads for supper and of desserts and bread for the next day’s dinner.

Beginning about 4:00 P.M. she has three hours or so of her own time, since the staff has already received instructions for the whole working day. She shops at local stores or pays visits to friends or to the sick or needy. If she stays home, she might give needlework lessons to young daughters, practice music, read, or entertain friends over tea or coffee.

About 7:30 P.M. she checks on the preparations for supper, which was generally little more than a snack and very simple to get ready.

8:00 P.M. is suppertime for the family and possible guests, and afterwards she sees that the kitchen is put in order and fires are banked for the night.

From about 8:30 P.M. until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. the housewife, her family, and guests socialize at home or with neighbors. Their evening activities include conversation, singing, listening to music, reading aloud, and playing cards. Occasionally the housewife and her husband attend plays, lectures, or balls.

This schedule probably began about an hour later in wintertime. We know that a kind of “daylight savings” time was observed at The College of William and Mary and on some Virginia plantations. All times are approximate.