Getting the historical details right

By Carol / July 18, 2013 /
Iowa farm women, c. 1913

Iowa farm women, c. 1913

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.

A Living History Farm interpreter shows just how big "wrappers" can be.

A Living History Farm interpreter shows just how big “wrappers” can be.

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.

Butter kept cool in the root cellar. No refrigeration.

Butter kept cool in the root cellar. No refrigeration.

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.

Horsepower came from real horses in 1900.

Horsepower came from real horses in 1900.

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.

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  1. Paulette Mahurin on July 19, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Important and great post. Some of the worst criticism from mine has been complaints on some of the historical facts, mainly I let some dialogue slip in that was not time specific and it jarred a couple of readers. Also, another couple of readers complained that I had the spread of news during that time period off, but that point was well researched and documented, notes kept with source references (eg: NY Times, etc.). Hours were spent culling through the Sears & Roebuck Catalog for photos to describe scenes and to figure out what to stock in the general store, finite details, that took hours. My work was six years in the making mainly from all the research, fact checking, etc. and still it fell short from accurate on all points. Reading this reminds me that the door to learning and editing is always open. Thank you!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 19, 2013 at 9:52 am

      Writers of historical fiction carry a particular burden, Paulette. Like you, I’m taking every step I can think of to ensure I’ve got the details right, but fear something will slip through on me. The sequence of verifiable news is a particular concern to me since I’ve changed the time frame of my novel repeatedly. I’ve really enjoy the research, though, as I learn something new all the time. Have I been successful or not? I’m sure readers will tell me! Thanks for commenting.

      • Linda Austin on July 19, 2013 at 12:04 pm

        Very interesting about the women’s clothing. I know the rest because my dad and in-laws grew up in the 1940s-50s farming – and from reading your excellent farm-life memoir. Working now on my mom-in-law’s childhood stories and recipes, just for family and friends. I like to read historical fiction and I do see how mean reviewers can be when something doesn’t jive with the history of the times. That genre does carry a special burden, but even in other types of novels and in memoir you’d better be accurate with any historical tidbits or real-place details. I did a lot of research for my mom’s Japan WWII memoir and had a beta reader born around the same time and place as my mom and who also lived through WWII in Japan.

        • Carol Bodensteiner on July 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

          It was interesting to me, too, how similar things were between farming in 1900 and farming in the 1950s. The big difference was my dad had tractors. The details of planting five acres of corn a day – with horses and a 2-row planter – were just what I needed. How fortunate for you to find a beta reader like that to read your mother’s memoir, Linda.

  2. Shirley Hershey Showalter on July 19, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Love this post, Carol. You are doing such good work. Did you see Dinty Moore’s quote today?

    “Any nonfiction work excluding the role imagination plays in forming a life would be sadly lacking, and any fictional work that entirely skirts facts would necessarily be starved.” ~ Ben Miller

    Do you know the origin of the term “pin money”? I think it’s related to that selling butter and eggs idea.

    Also, if you want another village, I recommend this one. I’m going to be there on Oct. 3 with my book. It would be lovely if you wanted to visit at the same time: Or some other time.

    Keep going! You are going to write a great novel.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 19, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      Wonderful quote, Shirley. Perfect for memoir writers like us. And it certainly applies to my writing of historical fiction.

      One of my favorite resources is the Online Etymology Dictionary – – for tracking down terms like “pin money.” Here’s what they say: Pin-money “annual sum allotted to a woman for personal expenses on dress, etc.” is attested from 1620s. Other sources add that the money is given to the woman by her husband. I wonder if the term was so common by the 20th century that farm women borrowed it to mean the small (though important) amount of money they made selling eggs and butter? Worth further research.

      I wish I could join you at Sauder Village. Good luck with your book promotion. I’m really looking forward to your launch!

  3. Delores Wunder on July 19, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    My grandparents lived on a Story County farm; in the 1930s I frequently stayed there a week at a time. In our family, women’s everyday dresses were termed “house dresses.” They were usually a dark print, made at home on a Singer treadle (non-electric) sewing machine.. Children’s everyday shirts and dresses were often made of printed feed sacks. They were scratchy and all farm dwellers were familiar with the patterns; there wasn’t much variety. I occasionally wore my feed sack dresses on the farm, but my mother knew I didn’t like them. Usually I wore cute dresses she made for me. According to her, in the depths of the depression, the fabric cost “a nickel a yard.”

    My grandfather had a tractor, but a lot of work was done by a pair of horses. The farm was one of the last to get electricity so they milked by lantern light and used a hand cranked milk separator.

    The farm had a large stock tank where water was stored; the horses drank from it. When the family went fishing, they brought home every fish, no matter how small. They were kept in the fish tank. When you wanted fish for dinner, a child was sent to scoop out enough for the meal. A small net was hung in the pump house and reserved just for that.

    A huge treat on a summer Sunday was to go into Roland, a nearby small town, to buy ice for homemade ice cream. It was strawberry, made from their own berries. They had no refrigerator so everyone ate their fill.

    Even as a child, I realized there was a lot of work on the farm. A daily chore for the women was to wash the glass lamps of the oil or kerosene lamps and, of course, to fill them again.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 20, 2013 at 10:18 am

      You’ve provided wonderful details of farm life, Delores. The farm I grew up on didn’t get electricity until after 1945. No indoor plumbing until 1950 when Dad built the “new house.” Dad farmed with horses in the first years on the farm because tractors weren’t available because of the war. I grew up after the feed sack dress era and am fascinated by the idea of women going to the feed store and choosing feed based on the colors and patterns of the sacks. I didn’t realize women washed the glass lamps daily, though now that you mention it that makes total sense. Thanks for sharing your memories. I hope you’ve written all this down!

  4. Charlie Farrow on July 26, 2013 at 8:58 am

    I think the woman in the 1913 photo above is wearing a pinafore ( a sleeveless apron) not a wrapper over her outer clothes, which is a regular dress not a wrapper either. A wrapper is an outer garment for indoor use or for household work worn straight over the undergarments – there is no need for an apron and wrappers are often described as dirty as a result – except in ‘What Katy Did’ where they are described as filled and pretty for the daybed in a sick room, rather than for work or play when aprons are worn.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 26, 2013 at 9:04 am

      An interesting distinction, Charlie. I have other pictures of the woman wearing what you described as a pinafore. I’ll check them to see if there’s a difference in style. I know in none of the pictures does she wear a belt. The woman in the second picture described her dress as a wrapper and she wore an apron over it. Thanks for sharing!

      • Charlie Farrow on July 26, 2013 at 9:41 am

        I might be wrong of course..

        I’d say defining quality of a a wrapper is that it is the outermost layer so wrapping the form so no apron over but whether my pinafore definition is correct I don’t know, now I recall this from
        “Nobody came near them, and their movements showed a mechanical regularity; their forms standing enshrouded in Hessian “wroppers” — sleeved brown pinafores, tied behind to the bottom, to keep their gowns from blowing about — scant skirts revealing boots that reached high up the ankles, and yellow sheepskin gloves with gauntlets.”

        • Carol Bodensteiner on July 26, 2013 at 9:55 am

          When I’ve Googled images of wrappers, I find many variations on the theme. One of the interpreters at the Living History Farms said that women often wore an apron, even over wrappers, to keep the wrapper clean. When you see the volume of material in the wrapper in the picture, you can imagine that it would be easier to wash an apron. If you could make the wrapper last a full week, what luck!

  5. Mary Tod on January 9, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Saw you tweeting this one today, Carol! Looks like there are several interpretations for ‘wrappers’ which, of course, makes getting the details correct even more challenging! Hope your writing is going well!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 9, 2014 at 8:42 am

      Yes, there are several interpretations for ‘wrappers.’ I’m using the term in my novel for what Iowa farm women wore because the Living History Farm interpreters called them that. At least I’ll be able to cite my source! I can imagine getting the details right is even more challenging when you’re writing about another country, as you do in your wonderful novel UNRAVELLED, Mary. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  6. Carol Bodensteiner on January 9, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Yes, there are several interpretations for ‘wrappers.’ I’m using the term in my novel for what Iowa farm women wore because the Living History Farm interpreters called them that. At least I’ll be able to cite my source! I can imagine getting the details write is even more challenging when you’re writing about another country, as you do in your wonderful novel UNRAVELLED, Mary. Thanks for joining the discussion here.

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