Did farm women wear corsets in 1913? Is there a particular name for the everyday dresses they wore? How many acres could a farmer plant in a day and what was the equipment like? How many men did it take to run a farm?
When I write, I need to see the people and places in my mind. That can be tricky when the events took place 100 years ago. As I fine tune my novel set in the early 1900s, I was stuck on some details so I headed to the Living History Farms near Des Moines. I spent an afternoon walking the 1900’s farmstead and the 1875 village, talking with the interpreters. I discovered the answers to my questions and much more.
Called “wrappers,” these voluminous dresses gave the women ample room to move, protected them from wood stove sparks and could be used for any number of other tasks. Sometimes women added a belt; sometimes (as you see in the 1913 photo above) they did not. Aprons kept the dresses clean so they didn’t have to be washed so often. Women donned the restrictive corsets only for dress up occasions.
I’d known that farm women took care of the chickens and eggs but learned they were responsible for all food-related tasks. They milked the cows, which were often shorthorns, a breed that served for milk and meat. The women used the milk for cooking and drinking; they also made butter and cheese. They sold anything beyond what the family consumed. Eggs, butter, and cheese were a woman’s entree to the social world of town and to some financial independence.
Farms today are labor intensive; in the early 1900s they were more so. Corn was planted two rows at a time. With a planter, a man could plant five acres a day. Some equipment required two men to operate – one to drive the horses; the other to work the equipment the horses pulled.
I grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s-60s, and talking with the interpreters, I realized farming at mid-Century hadn’t changed much from the 1900s. Farms were 160 acres. It took more than one man to do all the work. Dad grew corn, alfalfa, and oats, just as farmers did in 1900. Pigs were Dad’s cash crop, too, though he also sold milk. We had more conveniences (thank goodness!), such as refrigeration, electricity, and tractors, though Dad farmed with horses in the early years.
Many of these details will find their way into my novel ensuring that readers will be able to step back in time and experience the farm as if they’d walked up the lane in 1913.