South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel

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Life and Leisure in Colonial South Jersey

      Indoor life for most in the earliest days of South Jersey was a cramped affair. Whole families ate, drank, and slept within the confining four walls of a single, tiny room. During most seasons, the householder, away at work in the fields or the furnaces, could breathe the air of the out-of-doors and stretch his legs in the open spaces. On the other hand, the housewife had only the garden patch alongside the cottage to relieve the tedium of the dark, crowded interior where she sewed, spun, wove, cooked, cleaned, and raised their offspring, some of whom were always underfoot.

      More often than not, the one-room building was made of notched logs, a type of construction attributed to the Swedes. Access to the outside was by way of a low door, through which one could pass only by stooping. Glassless windows, admitting light and fresh air on warmer days, were covered by a wooden board in winter or in rainy weather. The log walls were chinked with clay. Several cubic feet of precious space were sacrificed to make room, in one corner, for the fireplace and chimney, a lumpish fixture of gray stone or thick clay from which came heat and warm meals.

      At mid-18th century, poorer families still lived in such cabins, or worse. Peter Kalm decried the poverty of some Swedish houses at Raccoon - - comfortless places without shutters, walls with open cracks, and rooms without a fireplace or chimney. It was a cold existence for the inhabitants on days when winter chilled even the better homes almost beyond endurance. In January, 1749, to cite an instance, the cold was so bitter inside Kalm’s house at Raccoon that it froze the ink on his pen before he could write two lines. He was forced to place his inkwell on the hearth, or in his pocket, to keep its contents in a liquid state.

      People a step above the Impoverished on the economic scale lived in clapboard houses. Among the more affluent, dwellings with shingle facing or made of brick (occasionally of fieldstone by mid-18th century), supplanted the first rough cabins.

      The Swedish brick dwellings, initially, were one-storied edifices, with gambrel roofs. Before long, second stories were added, creating the high, narrow, brick houses of a style known as Swedish Colonial. In Quaker Salem County, brick dwellings that resembled the townhouses of 18th-century Philadelphia were erected on the manors of the wealthy. They were of two stories, with interior chimneys at each end. The fronts were wide, some with plain entrances, but others with elegant doorways, carved and transomed, an outward evidence of the graceful style of living enjoyed by the dwellers within. A distinctive feature of the Salem houses was the patterned ends, in which, standing out boldly against the background of red bricks were the figures of diamonds, zigzags, or checkerboards done in glazed bricks of a contrasting color -- blue, purple, or gray.

      Frame dwellings were the rule, even among the wealthy, in Cape May County, in the shore areas of old Gloucester County, and along the Delaware as far north as Salem. (The mansion house of the Somers plantation was a notable exception.) They were lower and more rambling than the brick houses further inland, Constructed over a framework of oak and pine timbers, they were faced, on their exteriors, with white cedar shingles. According to Kalm, white cedar was preferred for the exteriors, including the roofs, because it was both durable and lightweight, obviating the necessity for thick walls and strong beams to support the roofs. Being light, the shingles did little harm when they fell to the ground or upon the pate of an unsuspecting passer-by. Furthermore, white cedar, being somewhat absorbent, could "easily be wetted in case of fire." The large-headed, wrought nails, used in construction, were often forged in the owner’s own blacksmith shop.

      Ventilating grilles, cut in the wood panels over the closets which flanked the fireplaces, were a novel component of South Jersey domestic architecture in the 18th century. Some examples, still observable today, are in the Somers Mansion at Somers Point and in the Vauxhall Room, formerly in the Thomas Maskell house of Greenwich, now one of the restored rooms at the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington.

      Floors in modest South Jersey homes were bare, for the most part. Small, hooked rugs, although known, were uncommon. Such floor coverings as were used, as in places of heavy wear and before the hearth, were braided from a potpourri of left-over cloth. The earliest furniture, made of such natural South Jersey woods as gum, pine, walnut, cherry, and red cedar, less often from chestnut, maple, ash, hickory, or apple, was plain and sturdy. Tables, corner cupboards, dressers, and beds were built by local carpenter-joiners, craftsmen whose pieces were too unprofessionally done to merit them the title of cabinetmaker.

      Diners sat at table on portable stools; although outfitted with upholstered pads in the homes of the wealthy, they were still no more than stools. Eventually, stools were replaced by chairs with curved legs and carved feet, or by plainer, slat-back chairs with rush seats. Best known of the latter were the Ware chairs, made in Cumberland County late in the 18th century by the father and sons of the Maskell Ware family. The wood of the Ware chairs was swamp maple; the seats, rushes gathered from the marshes.

      Popular in Cumberland and Salem Counties were dressing tables (lowboys) which, like the chairs, had cabriole legs and web feet. Usually the 18th-century lowboys from this area are attributed to cabinetmakers in Philadelphia or New York; it is possible, however, that some were done locally, because numerous furniture makers were working in South Jersey before the Revolution. The names of at least seven are known. From 1760, or thereabout, when the Chippendale style came into vogue, to the period immediately after the Revolution (the Hepplewhite-Sheraton era), local furniture makers, as others of good reputation in the colonial cities, copied the patterns given by Chippendale in his guide, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, a work published in London in 1754.

      Cases for clocks were fashioned by cabinetmakers. The working parts, and the faces, embellished frequently with colorful, decorative painting, were done by clockmakers. Colonial South Jersey clockmakers, whose names are known, included men from Burlington, Mount Holly, Bordentown, Pemberton, Greenwich on the Cohansey, Woodbury, and Salem.

      Tea and dinner services of fine porcelain were brought in from England or the Continent, or from the Orient by way of London. The less affluent ate and drank from red-ware, the earliest type of Jersey pottery. Plates, platters, mugs, and jars fired from local clays, were frequently ornamented with floral and other designs called "sup." The earliest South Jersey pottery was opened by Dr. Daniel Coxe at Burlington around 1684. A small pottery was standing at Salem as early as 1704.

      Alongside the expensive, delicate china, silver graced the tables and sideboards of the wealthy, while pewter sufficed for those who were merely comfortably well-off. Some of the silver was crafted locally. Silversmiths (a number of whom were also clockmakers) of known reputation worked at Burlington, along the Rancocas, in Pittsgrove, and elsewhere in South Jersey during the 18th century. On the other hand, no pewterers are known to have been working anywhere in New Jersey during the colonial period. Possibly, (perhaps not probably), as in other colonies, some South Jersey silversmiths made pewter objects as well. If so, either they did not mark their pewter pieces or none of them have survived. Extant pieces from the colonial era in South Jersey bear touchmarks of Philadelphia, New York, Connecticut, and European pewterers.

      Portraiture, landscape, and seascape painting were not South Jersey arts in colonial times. Doubtless, the well-to-do decorated the walls of their houses with works by European or Philadelphia masters, and possibly an itinerant silhouette artist paused at the better homes to memorialize the profiles of the family members in black and white outline, but no painter of note lived or worked in the southern counties in the 18th century. Most decorative art pieces, delft tiles, for example, or expensive glass bowls and pitchers, were imported. Among the ladies, the artistic impulse found expression in fancy needlework, especially in embroidering samplers, a devise by which small girls learned both stitchery and the alphabet. Late in the 18th century, embroidered pictures became the fashion.

      Professional weavers plied their trade in shops, as at Salem in 1676, or traveled from house to house and from settlement to settlement. Nevertheless, most of the weaving, and the spinning that preceded it, was done at home by the housewives and their older daughters on wheels and looms turned out by local woodworkers. More of a necessity than an art, homespun was a staple in the colonial wardrobe among the common people, but spinning and weaving were raised to a fine art by skillful mothers who executed patterns of great beauty and intricacy in the quilts and coverlets they produced for the hope chests of their marriageable sons and daughters.

      Although homespun was the customary material for clothing, there were exceptions. The first Swedish settlers wore jackets, waistcoats, breeches, and petticoats of animal skins. Shortly, however, they planted flax from which they wove linen cloth. Throughout the 18th century, elegant clothing, styled from imported fabrics of high quality, bedecked many a citizen of South Jersey. One ship, for instance, on a single crossing from London bore among her cargo quantities of broadcloth, fine linens, calicoes, chintzes, lawns and cambrics (both of them thinspun fabrics of cotton or linen), silks, and satins. On the same ship were silk stockings, and men’s and women’s shoes.

      An eye-witness account given by an 18th-century Greenwich lady tells that, on summer Sundays, the men often attended worship without their coats, for then they could display their beautifully tailored shirts, with full sleeves, "carefully pleated from the shoulder to the wrist, [and] a pair of silver or gold sleeve buttons, and a cambric stock with a buckle of the same metal." A letter written by Benjamin Franklin in 1748 shows that the young ladies of Cape May were sumptuously outfitted, too. A new hat became the rage when Mrs. Franklin presented the gift "of a new-fashioned cap" to a Cape May skipper’s daughter. When she, wearing her new bonnet, appeared in church, "all the girls resolved to get such caps from Philadelphia." They raised the money for their coveted finery by knitting worsted mittens for sale in the Quaker City.

      Among the colonial craftsmen who contributed their compositions to the South Jersey scene were the carvers in wood and stone. Along the shore, carving and decorating decoys was a thriving art. Other woodcarvers created articles for domestic use, while itinerant artists were commissioned to execute carved embellishments on the mantles, balustrades, wall panels, doorways, and porticos of houses. Unknown stonecarvers left monuments to their talents in the names and epitaphs on the gravestones that stand in dozens of churchyards across the countryside.

      For one South Jerseyman of the 18th century, music was the art that most "touches and soothes [the] Mind." Philip Fithian, the man so moved, was writing primarily about Scottish hymns, which, with other hymns, folk music, and popular songs of the 18th century were sung in homes at gatherings of families and friends. Musical instruments, among which the violin and the flute seem to have been the most common, were played in accompaniment to the singing or in performances of their own. Fithian, trained in both vocal and instrumental music, enjoyed entertaining friends -- and whatever "handsome" ladies whose acquaintance he happened to make -- by piping on his German flute. The well-to-do of South Jersey may have emulated their Philadelphia counterparts by holding private concerts of chamber music in the parlors or drawing rooms of their mansions. With the coming of the Revolution, the fife and drum added martial music to the repertory.

      Rarely were musical instruments heard in the meeting houses, albeit in most of them the singing of hymns was an integral part of the worship experience. Quakers shunned the use of any music, vocal or instrumental, in connection with religious services. In Presbyterian meeting houses, psalms from the Geneva or Scottish Psalters, or the hymns of Isaac Watts, were sung without accompaniment. A precentor, having taken his pitch from a tuning fork, "lined out" the words and melody of the song phrase by phrase. As he paused at the end of each line or phrase, the congregation repeated what he had just sung, and so on until the entire hymn was finished. In South Jersey churches, only the Anglicans had organs, and they only after 1760, when the congregations were first able to afford them.

      Singing schools, in some cases, were the outgrowth of the need for competent singers in the organless churches. At Swedesboro, the Lutheran pastor, despairing of finding a vocalist who could sing in English, urged "with success the establishment of singing schools, and since then I have rarely been in want of singers." In other instances, it appears, these schools were more in the nature of entertainment than of the serious study of music. At Pleasant Mills, early in 1775, they met on Monday evenings, when the young men of the village and nearby Batsto would call upon their lady friends to escort them to what must have been the social event of the week.

      Much to the distress of their pastors, who railed against the evil with fearful admonitions, the young of colonial South Jersey loved to dance. These were frolicsome times when the feet would stamp and the fiddles hum. Often, to the further discomfiture of serious people, dancing and fiddling were not all that happened. With them were mixed vast quantities of rum or brandy, a combination that prompted the loosening of morals as well as the feet. Apropos of this, South Jersey in colonial times had something of a reputation for inebriation that could astound even the most liberated city dweller who happened to travel through the region. Pastor von Wrangel wailed that the ancient Swedish custom of celebrating weddings with three or four days of eating, drinking, dancing, and merrymaking, abandoned elsewhere, had been perpetuated in the Egg Harbor country.

      Other diversions that appealed to South Jerseymen in their hours of leisure, but which brought anguish to the sober-minded, were games of chance, card playing, and horse racing. Quoit pitching, too, offered colonials the opportunity for a friendly wager. One Quaker preacher espied the eroding of Quaker standards among their youth when, among other frivolities, they were consumed by a penchant for pleasurable sleigh riding.

      More innocent entertainments were the "frolics" and "bees" that accompanied barn-raisings, butcherings, harvests, and the like. Wrestling tested the skills of man against man. Young people along the shore were early enticed by the fun of parties on the beach. Adult men, relieved by their farms and herds from the necessity of fishing and hunting for food, turned to angling and gunning for sport. A fox hunting club was organized in Gloucester County early in the 18th century.

      Countless mugs were raised and tankards were drained at the taverns which beckoned from every crossroads. These accommodations offered, with beds and food for strangers, gathering places for local men seeking respite from the week’s labor and monotony. They assembled there for an exchange of views about the weather, the crops, and politics. They collected their mail, just arrived with the latest carrier, while travelers told them of happenings in distant places. On auction days, blocks were set up at the taverns; on election day, polls. Sometimes they housed courts and legislative bodies. As 1776 approached, some became scenes of revolutionary meetings.

      Established by law - - at one time every New Jersey town was required to provide facilities for the care and comfort of travelers - - inns and taverns were licensed and regulated by the authorities. In South Jersey, the county courts controlled the rates charged for food, drink, and lodging. The legislature prescribed suitable punishment for guests and regulars found guilty of drunkenness or tippling on the Sabbath.

      A number of South Jersey taverns attained a modicum of fame in colonial times. Hugg’s, at Gloucester Point, was known for its commodious third-floor banquet hall, which was the scene of courts and town meetings. There the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club met, rebellion was discussed and planned in the 1770’s, and Betsy Griscom was married to John Ross before she took up the business of making flags in Philadelphia. Taverns in Greenwich and Bridgeton, too, were associated with revolutionary activities. A handwritten newspaper, the Plain Dealer, a Revolutionary broadside, was posted for public reading at Potter’s Tavern in the Cumberland County seat. At the Indian King, in Haddonfield, the New Jersey legislature held sessions for a time in 1777, when Trenton and Princeton were under attack. A chain of taverns, that offered cover to smugglers and relief to travelers riding by stage or horseback through the Pines, stretched from the shore to Cooper’s Ferry.

      The proprietors were men of many parts: gracious host, efficient manager, master chef, fount and dispenser of information, referee in disputes, judge of human character, "bouncer," and often the most prominent local politico and overseer of justice. These versatile innkeepers sometimes were women. Among them was Ann Risley, who kept, at Absecon Bridge, a tavern that was known far and wide for its menu of succulent seafood, which patrons washed down with hearty drafts of Madeira or West India rum. Desire Sparks was proprietor of the Two Tuns, near Gloucester, a favorite watering place for British Regulars and Hessian mercenaries during the months of enemy occupation.

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