For the Record

Roy Dunn


Early Life in Texas

At Washington on the Brazos, March 2, 1836, Texas declared its independence. Four days later, on March 6, the Alamo fell. Those brave fighters never knew about Texas gaining Independence. I was interested in knowing how the citizens in the state and most importantly in Southeast Texas lived, their customs, how they survived and the methods used to make do with what they had or didn’t have.

With no ice and no refrigeration, food storage and preservation were very basic. Eggs, for example, were sorted in large barrels. A layer of lard, of animal fat, was spread in the bottom, then a layer of eggs. Another layer of lard, a layer of eggs and so on until the barrel was full. This protected them from spoiling and ensured a supply of eggs in winter when the hens weren’t laying. There were smokehouses for preserving meat and root cellars for storing potatoes, onions and carrots. What could be dried was dried, including some vegetables, meat, corn, tomatoes, herbs for flavoring, berries and strips of pumpkin and squash.

Most farms had a huge. black caldron out back as a “wash pot” with a pit for fire under it. Clothes boiled in that pot were rinsed in a barrel of water hauled from well, creek or river. When the washing was done, the children were bathed in the pot. Nobody was going to waste that much warm water!

Women washed their hair twice a year. It was considered an unhealthy thing when done more often. Sometime small amounts of cornmeal were rubbed into the scalp and combed out, to remove excess oil. Fine-tooth combs, called “nit-pickers,” removed lice from the hair. They could buy the combs, but more often they handmade them from turtle shells. The turtles didn’t miss their shells as they were cooked and consumed. Very little was ever wasted.

Baths were a weekly or bi-weekly affair. Soap was made from a mix of lye, lard and ashes. A long-held belief maintained that bathing too often sapped one’s strength and made one susceptible to illness. It could have been that no one wanted their skin eaten off by lye soap. For deodorant, a little rose water was splashed on the skin or sometimes mint rubbed on the body.

Underwear was worn day and night for a week and changed on bath day. Toothbrushes were fashioned by snapping off a twig of a young sweet gum, splitting the stem several times with a knife, then vigorously rubbing it against teeth and gums. The astringent sap made a satisfactory toothpaste.

Ironing was done with a heavy hunk of shaped iron set on the wood stove to heat. It wasn’t done often. In winter irons were often wrapped in flannel or sacking and placed at children’s feet after first ironing the bed; the precursor to electric blankets. Quilts, usually made of cotton grown in the side yards or fields, kept the family fairly toasty on cold nights.

Acquiring medicines was a problem, so most people collected and dried herbs, or even had patches of garden devoted to healing herbs found in Southeast Texas. “Horesmint” or “oswego tea” settled the stomach of humankind as well as ailing animals. Mullein, called “Indian tobacco,” was smoked to relieve colds, coughs and sore throats. Tobacco smoke was often blown into the ear to ease aches. Blueberry leaves were infused into a tea for diabetes; the disease was a death sentence within a year or two at most.

 A mild tea of foxglove was used for heart problems. It is known now as digitalis. The most popular painkiller was laudanum, an opium derivative bottled and sold without a prescription. During the war it wasn’t available to farmers; it was all sent to the front.

Children were dosed for worms with a mixture of sugar and turpentine. It did terrible things to the liver, but it did dispatch the intestinal parasites. Tobacco, chews and swallowed, served the same purpose. Leeches were attached to “thin the blood” of someone who was ill or even injured and already had a low blood count. Sulphur, readily available in the area, was used topically as an antibiotic on cuts and burns and given internally to children daily during the summer to ward off disease.

There were no neighborhoods, as such. A man’s nearest neighbor might be miles away, unless he lived in the town proper. Neighboring children often married; they were betrothed by their families as small children, a practice that may seem archaic today, but was good sense then. The nearest neighbors might well be the only children other than relatives those children would ever see. They grew up knowing and accepting the tact that they would someday be wed.

Families most often lived together all of their lives, several generations sharing the work. Everyone benefitted. Most sons never left home. Daughters went to their husband’s homes, took their names and became part of that family.

And Then The War Came…