“Unlike men’s work, which was often specialized, women’s work, by nature of its diversity, touched every aspect of the farm operation,” Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: The Middle Land.
Farming and agriculture played a large part in the identity of many Iowans. Women’s roles in the 1900s varied greatly from the roles we have today. If you lived on a farm, you would be responsible for a wide variety jobs ranging from home upkeep to taking care of chickens.
Women oversaw the farmhouse, adjoining yard, and outer buildings. They spent most of their days running the home. It could mean waking up at 5am to light the stove for the day’s cooking, and then going out to milk the cows before breakfast. After breakfast, there was a variety of chores to complete for the day. The chickens needed to be fed and the eggs collected (but you might have had to do that before breakfast if you wanted something to eat), the house needed to be cleaned, clothes needed to be mended, and if it was anytime between spring and fall, the garden would need to be tended. Don’t forget that you would also have to take care of the children!
Gardening was an important part of women’s roles from the spring time to the fall. The garden provided fresh vegetables and some fruits for the family’s table. These vegetables could also be preserved or canned for use later in the year when it was snowy and blustery and fresh vegetables were not readily available.
Some women were able to earn an income on the farm. After collecting eggs and milking the cows, women could prepare those products for being sold or traded. The milk from the cows would be used to make cream, butter, and, on special occasions, cheese! Butter churning could take anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half. These items could be sold or traded with local merchants or townsfolk. The money could be used to purchase additional food, or materials to mend or make new clothing.
In Iowa by 1900, there were more options for women to receive an education. At this time, both county and state institutes offered short course programs featuring courses of interest for farm women. Iowa State College Extension Service would provide materials on the latest developments in domestic practices and how to maintain and expand gardens.
On the farm, it would have been difficult for women to talk to friends due to distance, and the amount of chores that had to be done. Letters could be written back and forth, but in order to send and receive that correspondence, you would have to take the time to travel into town to pick up the mail. In 1900, Free Rural Delivery was introduced, and this would have given women and rural families more access to newspapers, magazines, and letters from close friends.
Here at Living History Farms, we offer several different opportunities to explore and experience what life was like during these times. Throughout the spring, fall, and winter we offer Historic Skills classes that offer a taste of some of these activities and chores, such as making different foods in a wood-burning stove or taking care of animals at our 1900 Farm. Join us during the summer when the museum is open to see our on-site interpreters demonstrate the activities women would have done on the farm each day, from garden tending to butter churning, cooking, and more.