The Colonial Home


rior to the nineteenth century, few homes had spaces dedicated exclusively to reading.  From the time of the first settlements in Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth (1620) until the establishment of a few early institutions of higher learning and subscription libraries in the 1730s, the private home library remained the primary place devoted exclusively to reading.  Most individuals, however, could not afford lavish libraries in their homes, so the open kitchen hearth was often the most practical reading space. A sunny window, a lantern, or a single tallow candle provided enough light to pursue one’s reading pleasures, whatever the location in the house. Children learned to read in the home, and once proficient at reading, colonials continued reading at home until death or poor eyesight rendered this activity impossible. [figure 2.1]

“She did her Self approve
where ever god by his providence
did cause her to remove
a careful mother eke She was
unto her children all
in teaching them gods word to read
when they were but Small
in reading of gods holly words
most diligence She was ” 
Deacon John Paine’s Journal,
28 April, 1704,
in The Mayflower Descendent, 1906.

Mothers, entrusted with the care and well-being of their children’s souls, faithfully sat them down and taught them to read at home. Reading the scripture and devotional texts was the first step in the long process of religious enculturation. The Puritan minister Increase Mather (1639–1723), of the prominent Massachusetts Mather family, came from an elite, educated household.  Still, he wrote, “I learned to read of my mother.” Rich or poor, mothers were expected to teach their children to read. [figure 2.2]

Following the English practice as noted by Francis Bacon, children were taught to read through the “ordinary road of Hornbook, Primer, Psalter, Testament, and Bible.” These and other instructional reading texts were frequently imported and then reprinted in the colonies. [figure 2.3]

The Bible, however, was the staple instructional reading text. The most humble of homes usually possessed a Bible or two with which to instruct children and to engage in daily religious devotions. In fact, by the early eighteenth century, the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut helped provide a Bible for those too poor to buy one themselves.

Children were considered ready for further educational instruction outside the home once they had mastered reading the Bible, but not before then. Fathers and/or grammar schools typically taught boys to write, a job-related skill not deemed essential for girls. Thus a typical colonial girl and boy could both read, but only the boy could also write. [figure 2.4]

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) certainly learned to read at home. He wrote that his “early readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read)” prompted his father to send him to grammar school to learn to write and cipher in preparation for the ministry. After only two years, the expense of educating his youngest son became a burden to the family. Eventually Franklin was apprenticed to his elder brother, James Franklin, a printer.

Continuing to improve his reading and writing skills as an apprentice, Franklin borrowed books from a bookseller and recalled how “often I sat up in my room reading for the greatest part of the night, while the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, least it should be missed or wanted.” Franklin’s story reveals not only where he read and how he obtained books, but also when a typical working man/boy could find time for reading. “My time … for reading was at night, after work or before it began in the morning, or on Sundays when I contrived to be at the printing house alone.” [figure 2.5]

Not only was reading taught and mastered in the colonial home, but the home was the primary place of reading throughout people’s lives. For those of Protestant faiths, morning and evening devotions required reading and contemplation of religious texts, and often families and neighbors gathered in the home for further religious study.
Cotton Mather (1663–1728) wrote a section in his diary titled “How My Time is Taken Up,” which makes it clear that, at least in the Mather household, reading took place at home throughout the whole day. [figure 2.6]

In the morning:
“Going down to my Family, I read a Portion of the sacred Scriptures, and fetch a Note out of every Clause, and then pray with them, turning what I had read, into prayer.” 

Around noon:
“At the Table, when I come to Dinner, I am solicitous to contrive some Discourse, by which the Minds of my Family will be edified.  I rarely sit down, without relating to the Children some Story out of the Bible, from which I inculcate some Lesson upon them, or, it may be some other Story.” 

“Going to Bed”:
“I carry some agreeable Book with me; and read until I fall Asleep; which is rarely much before eleven a clock: oftener after, than before.”

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that reading in the colonies was restricted to religious texts. Classical and humanist works were popular reading matter, just as in Europe, along with newspapers, almanacs, chapbooks, novels, and books on proper conduct. [figure 2.7 and figure 2.8]





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