Sunday, February 22, 2015

Passing the time

Cookouts in pioneer days often included the catching of the
entree, as at this 1906 fish fry. Credit:
I'm watching the Oscars pre-show, at least until Downton Abbey comes on, and I wonder what early settlers did for entertainment. Turns out, they did a lot, with less than we have at our disposal today. There are many similarities. The pastimes just weren't as embellished or as high-tech as ours.

Music resonated with all social classes. So did various excursions and get-togethers that included meals. Differences could be vast, though, particularly between wealthy winter visitors and backwoods settlers.

Emma Gilpin and her husband and teenage son spent three months annually in the Palm Beach area in the 1890s. Excerpts from her letters and journals in Karen Davis's 1990  Public Faces - Private Lives (Pickering Press) highlight details of the social life they enjoyed. Emma once compared contents of her "plebian" picnic lunch with that of the neighbors, whose basket contained  deviled crab on the shell, whole rolls, and white grapes, among other delicacies (55). On another day, young women had an outdoor"afternoon chocolate" (56) in a piazza. Sailing parties, musicales with violin and piano, and card parties featuring such games as whist and euchre were enjoyed. Moonlight sails on Lake Worth were popular, as were daytime dips in the ocean.

Cracker settlers, on the other hand, would be more likely to gather at what archaeologist Dana Ste. Claire describes as a perleu, "an extended cookout of sorts" (Cracker, the Cracker Culture in Florida History94). The women brought chicken, rice, biscuits, and the pot to cook it in. The food stewed over an open fire, and was served with coffee brewed over the same fires. Other times, the men and boys would hunt game that was then cooked for the crowd. Grits and palmetto cabbage might be served as side dishes. In between the cooking and eating, "sings" took place. In his book, published in 1998 by the Museum of Arts and Sciences, Ste. Claire elaborates on another Cracker leisure-time activity, the evening dance. These get-togethers occasionally lasted for days (100). Fiddle music ruled, and the steps ranged from square dancing to clogging.

Both these popular Cracker activities were powerful draws among settlers. No one wanted to miss a gathering. People lived far apart, and spent most of their waking hours working at the business of living. Social breaks were treasured, and neighborliness appreciated. We may partake in many of the same types of pastimes as our pioneer counterparts, but we have a lot more leisure time in which to enjoy them. And perhaps, not quite as much appreciation for them.

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