Rummaging through old books in search of overlooked gems that will yield needed information for my writing is one of my favorite pastimes. Nothing else excites me like a pile of old books for cheap prices.
Over the past five decades, I have carried home enough books to fill the walls and floors of wherever I’m living. At times, an overflow of books has caused me to move to a bigger living space. I have favorite subject areas, and one of those is history.
Some time ago, I read that children’s books were a great source of basic information on almost any topic, so I added them to my list of books to sort through at library sales and thrift store shelves. One of the gems I found that has been valuable as I write about Cordelia’s life in 1855 is a book called How the Settlers Lived by George and Ellen Laycock. This little 113-page book once graced the shelves of a junior high library and, sadly, has a broken spine. Even so, the information by the Laycocks and the full-page illustrations of pioneer life by Alexander Farquharson make the tattered book worth keeping. I have seen only a few others available from online used book dealers.
The Laycocks vividly detail the journey west by horseback, wagon, and boat. They chronicle the methods of clearing the land and building a home, of planting crops and hunting game, of making clothes and staying healthy, and of having a good time when all the work was done. This little book introduced me to methods of felling trees to clear the land, a detailed way of hanging a door without iron hinges, and how to cook over an open fire on the hearth. There are step-by-step instructions for hunting deer and trapping beaver. There is an entire chapter on making clothing, from preparing deer skins to spinning the hair of wild animals, such as buffalo and bear, into clothing, sometimes mixing the animal fibers with plants, such as milkweed heads and flax.
In a chapter on staying healthy, the Laycocks reveal that hygiene was minimal. Bathing, when it was done, often occurred in a stream. In the home, one basin of water served everyone in the house as they took turns washing and drying their hands and faces. Insects were everywhere. A lack of cleanliness and understanding of the causes of disease resulted in many illnesses and deaths.
Yet, for all their hard work, the settlers had good times. Any get-together might lead to a party afterward. Work sharing gatherings, such as corn huskings, log rollings, and apple parings provided a reason for dancing, dinners, and contests involving shooting matches and other manly challenges.
For all the above reasons, How the Settlers Lived is one of my research gems. Do you have a favorite book for researching the past. If so, please leave a comment and let us know. We’ll build a list.