The Ladies of the 17th Century Were Way More Hardcore Than You

by Alexandra Cervenak

I’m a “historical interpreter” at Plimoth Plantation, which is living history museum — think Colonial Williamsburg, but in Massachusetts — that represents the lives of the people we now affectionately call the Pilgrims (Plymouth Rock, buckle hats, turkey and stuffing not included). Among other things, the museum offers reproductions of the Mayflower named (surprise!) Mayflower II and the village built by the Pilgrims, New Plimoth. By wearing reproduction clothing and speaking in a particular dialect; cooking, cleaning, and gardening in the fashion of the 17th century; and, most importantly, learning about the life and taking on the role of a particular woman who lived in the actual New Plimoth, I must convince museum visitors they really, really, really just walked into the 1600s.

So anyway, this is where I “live” (above).

And by trying to live in the 1600s I’ve learned that 17th-century women were badasses. The 17-century Martha Stewart and male author of The English Housewife, Gervase Markham, claimed the “complete woman” had “skill in physic, surgery, cookery, extraction of oils, banqueting stuff, ordering of great feasts, preserving of all sorts of wines…distillations, perfumes, ordering of wool, hemp and flax: making cloth and dying; the knowledge of dairies: office of malting; of oats…of brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household.”

That’s a lot to know, and the Real Housewives of New Plimoth could throw it down. But just in case you aren’t convinced, here are five ways 17th-century Massachusetts housewives were more badass than you.

From Gabriel Metsu, A Woman Reading A Letter; photo courtesy Michael French

The Clothes: Even in the 1600s there were a multitude of ways to dress, but here’s the routine I go through every morning, regardless of whether the heat index is 115: First I put on a smock (like a long-sleeved linen nightgown), next comes my bodies (a precursor to the corset), followed by woolen petticoats, knee high stockings held up by garters (elastic is a great invention, you guys), a little jacket called a waistcoat, and it’s all topped off by a head covering of some sort, usually a coif (a white linen cap). There are other accoutrements, too, which might include a wide-brimmed hat, apron, girdle (belt), pocket (separate from clothing!), and even a knife.

Clara Peeters, Still Life With Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries; photo courtesy Don Rothemich

The Cooking: Seventeenth-century cooking usually involves some combination of fire, hot coals, clay pots, heavy cast iron implements, and strange ingredients, and it’s my job to recreate ye olde timey recipes following ye olde timey methods. I’ve singed clothing, burnt my fingers on a cast iron frying pan, smelled like fish for three days after I scaled and gutted some herring, covered my body in ash, bled from thorns while picking gooseberries, and gotten so much smoke in my eyes that I looked like a meth addict. The upside is that cooking food for hours over a fire in well-seasoned cast iron pots and pans makes it taste great.

From Pieter de Hooch, A Woman and Child in a Bleaching Ground; photo courtesy Michael French

The Laundry: One night last summer my roommate and I had to call the fire department because our washer was smoking mysteriously, the consequences of which were that we had two handsome firefighters in our house at 11 p.m. and that we had to use the local laundromat for a few months. The latter was annoying. Or so I thought, until I did laundry Pilgrim-style. There are a few ways a New Plimoth housewife might have done laundry, depending on what materials were available and even the time of year, but the method I’ve done is known by the absolutely delightful phrase of “laying the buck.” Laying the buck (stop giggling) means you layer dirty linens with ash and hot water, the combination of which makes lye, in a wooden container called a bucking tub. You then reheat the lye water that’s formed — careful! It’s caustic! My coworker burnt her fingers this way recently! — and do this whole layering process two or three more times if necessary. But wait, the fun continues! Next you beat the dirty clothes with something called a battledore, which looks like a square ping pong paddle, to make sure the lye really, really gets in there. Then the laundry is rinsed and laid out on the grass to be bleached and dried. By the time it’s all over I kind of want to make out with the Maytag Man.

Frans Snyders, Still Life With Fruits and Vegetables; photo courtesy Michael French

The Garden: While not every 17th-century woman kept a full garden, in New Plimoth they were necessary for producing English plants not found in the New World. These gardens provided not only foodstuffs like cucumbers and beans, but also the ingredients for medicines and remedies. According to Markham, “one of the principal virtues” of the English housewife is her “knowledge of physick,” or, in other words, “the preservation and care of the family touching their health and soundness of body.” From what seeds to plant, to when to plant them and just what the heck each plant is and does, it’s a ridiculous amount to know. Take for instance the many uses of beet (what we call Swiss Chard): Its cold, wet quality could help balance someone with a hot, colicky disposition, a broth of beet could clean away dandruff and lice, and the cool feeling of the leaf meant it made a perfect refrigerator — that is, a leaf you put on your head when feeling hot to make an old-school ice pack. (Did it last week. Looks ridiculous but totally works.)

Willem van de Velde the Younger, Ships on the Roadstead; photo of Mayflower II courtesy Plimoth Plantation

The Travel: One of the most iconic images we have of the Pilgrims is the journey of the Mayflower, a roughly two-month voyage during which, according to eventual Plimoth governor William Bradford, “many were afflicted with seasickness,” and “they were encountered many times with cross winds and met with many fierce storms with which the ship was shroudly shaken, and her upper works made very leaky.” And if that weren’t enough, we know at least three women were pregnant on the Mayflower, and one of them, Elizabeth Hopkins, gave birth while the ship was still at sea. But wait, what’s that? The stewardess ran out of Diet Coke before she got to your row? That bottle of shampoo you brought exceeds three ounces? Your train is running an hour behind schedule? Sorry to hear it. But did you give birth on a leaky wooden ship in the middle of the ocean while about a hundred other people puked their guts up around you? Oh, you did? Hm.

Alexandra Cervenak spent her academic career studying English and history and other things useless in the real world, so she now spends her time pretending to have time-traveled to a different world.