Doing it the old fashioned way

I took my kids to an early settler farmhouse museum yesterday. We’ve been to these sorts of things before, and they’re always fun, but there was an especially good guide at this one who really got the kids into the spirit of the place.

He had them work the flax breaker that begins the process of turning flax stocks into linen. He had them sweep the porch with vintage style straw brooms. He had them pump and carry water to help him wash wool. In other words, he gave them a little taste of the work that would have been involved in running a farm in a time when almost everything had to be done by hand.

He showed them the drying racks and told them about how they had to preserve food for the winter. He showed them the beds and told them how the young boys would have to hold the geese and pluck out the down feathers so that the young girls could sew them into mattresses. He showed them the bedpans and told them how the kids would have to carry them out for their grandparents. My kids were suitably impressed.

Now, as I’ve written here before, I make sure that my kids have responsibilities around the house, because I want them to understand that being a part of a family means helping one another to get things done. I also want them to know how to do things like wash their clothes and cook their meals before they move out on their own. But it was a little eye-opening for them today to see how much work people needed to do to survive back then.

It took us 10 minutes (though obviously we’d get faster with time) to make a few inches of flax thread. It took another 10 minutes to fill up the tub with buckets from the hand pump. They heard how long it used to take to do things like sew quilts, make candles, carve tools, and weave cloth. They heard how the daily routine usually began with milking cows at first light and didn’t stop except for meals until it ended with milking cows in the evening.

The significance of all this really seemed to hit home when we stopped by a surplus store on the way home. “How would the settlers make this?” the kids kept asking each other, holding up everything from colouring books to sunglasses to gum. Then they’d take their best stab at it – “Maybe they could make the paper by grinding up wood and then make the pictures with charcoal.” – but sunglasses stumped them, as did gum.

I’m not sure that the whole experience will have much lasting effect on they ways that my kids think about work and manufacturing and consumption and the whole world of things that they have access to without every really having to worry about it. On the other hand, even if just for a moment, I think it was good for them to consider where their things come from and how little idea they would have about actually making these things for themselves.

It’s a lesson even their parents need to keep relearning.