In the nineteenth century, women, who were uprooted from their families and hauled into primitive conditions, had to make due with the housing structures their husband’s provided.
Their first home once they arrived to their location could be a tent, a one room log cabin with no doors or windows or floor, mining shacks with dirt floors and canvas ceilings, flimsy tar-paper shacks, dark and desolate dugouts or soddies. The men were busy staking claims, putting in crops, or working jobs and only came home to sleep. The manner of the house didn’t matter to them.
But the woman spent every hour of every day in the home other than the hours her chores took her outside. Reading letters by some of the pioneer women it is easy to see how their dreary conditions would be hard to handle. Especially if they had several children in a small drafty, leaky home.
One woman used grass and fern mixed with mud to fill the cracks in the walls and floor to keep out the drafts, vermin, lizards, and snakes. Many of the floors had cracks so large the eating utensils would fall through the cracks and the boards would have to be pried up to retrieve the tableware.
Another family decided to move to a larger parcel of land and to save time of building another house, they pulled the 12’ x 12’ chicken coop to the new site. Before she could get her things moved in pack rats dragged in their sundry plunder. They cleaned out the debris and the rats and lived in the building with five children. The woman didn’t like the gray walls and smell of chickens so she covered the walls with newspapers. Later the family moved into a more permanent living quarters. This building had a ceiling made of muslin tacked up to the plaster. When it rained hard the muslin would hang down with mud in it, dripping dirty water on everything. After every rain they would have to take the muslin down and wash it. She whitewashed the walls and as the family became more prosperous she bought calico cloth, sewed it together and tacked it to the walls. The one front room window had a cheese cloth curtain she attached crocheted lace to. When she desired a nicer place for her babies to play than the rough plank floors, she spent a winter making a carpet from rags. She even went to the dump and dug out flour sacks that she died a dull brown using copper.
One woman sewed sheets together to tacked them up between the joists of the cabin to make the home more cozy and less drafty. A woman married to a civil engineer, used his geological survey maps to line her walls.
In South Dakota there were the “tar paper homesteaders”. These people had the choice of lining their interior walls with red or blue tar paper. The red was thinner and cost three dollars a roll while the blue was thicker and six dollars a roll. Everyone knew the difference in quality and cost so the blue paper on walls became a sign of class on the frontier.
Source: Pioneer Women; The Lives of Women on the Frontier by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith