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Life in Colonial America

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Although the life in the thirteen colonies varied greatly  due to geographic and climatic conditions, each of the colonies had similar needs. To be successful, each of the colonies had to set up procedures or systems to produce or procure the needs and wants of the colony. Most important were the necessaries for life: water, food, and shelter. Soon thereafter the colonies needed to provide opportunities for the people to work and gain economic rewards while providing for the needs of the colony. Providing forums in which people could practice their religious faiths were an important part of colonial life.

It is important to remember that life in the colonies was not uniform geographically, between social classes or throughout the colonial period. The lifestyle of the colonists in Massachusetts was much different from the life led by the Georgian settlers. Within each colony the more wealthy colonists lived differently from the poorer people living nearby. The lives of those who experienced the frontier experiences when the colonies were first established in the seventeenth century differed greatly from those who lived in the well-established colonies just prior to the American Revolution (Homelife; Murray; Oliver).

     Equally important to remember is that living in the colonies required a lot of work. As the colonial era progressed, life became more like it is in the United States today, but for an extensive part of the American colonial period people had to work to supply all of their needs. Except for the very old, the very young and the ill, most of the people worked much of the time. Even among these exempt groups the elderly would help with less rigorous chores to ease the burden on others.

There were no supermarkets, no central heating, no electrical stoves. If someone wanted to cook a meal, he or she had to provide the food, either by hunting the food, gathering it from the wild, or growing it him or herself. Wood had to be cut to use to build a fire to do the cooking. This amount of labor was multiplied for each meal of the day for each day of the year. Food had to be preserved for use in the winter. Wood had to be cut to provide for both cooking and heating throughout the upcoming winter (Homelife).

The food eaten by the colonists was dependent on the climate and native species. Foods that had been common in England and Europe were no longer available. Colonial foods included new world foods such as corn, squash, beans, and potatoes. Locally available fare included clams and mollusks, fish, wild game and fowl, berries, and nuts. The colonists supplementd their local diet with a small amount of imported foods such as tea, coffee, citrus fruit and spices. People raised gardens and fruit trees, kept chickens, pigs and cows to provide food (Oliver).

Many colonists, even those in more urban areas, were much less dependent on others to provide products and services than Americans are today. They provided their own food. They used herbs and folk medicine to treat illness. They built their own houses, barns and outbuildings. They made their own clothing and shoes.

Despite this jack of all trades trait of many colonists, there was a variety of tradesmen who performed specialized skills for those who needed their services. As time advanced, the popularity of these tradesmen grew.

Apothecary’s provided not only herbs and medicines, but also provided medical care, performed surgery, and acted as midwives. Blacksmiths would build and repair all the iron products used within the colony. These items were so diverse as to include horseshoes, agricultural tools, tools for other tradesmen as well as household items such as cooking grates, andirons and utensils (Colonial Williamsburg Trades).

Carpenters built houses from the ground up, being involved with every aspect of the building, not just a specialized part, as is the case today. Carpenters prepared the foundation, laid the floor and framed the walls and roof supports. They roofed the house, hung doors, and any other necessary task to build the house (Colonial Williamsburg Trades).

Other tradesmen included basket makers, saddlers, brick makers, shoemakers. Coopers made barrels and casks, wheelwrights made wheels for wagons and carriages. Gunsmiths built and repaired firearms necessary both for hunting food and protection for the colonies.

As the colonies prospered tradesmen provided items that were less necessary and more likely to be luxuries. Milliners provided professionally made clothes for women, printers provided books, silversmiths provided fine utensils and decorative items, tailors provided fine clothes for men and wigmakers provided wigs according to the latest style (Colonial Williamsburg Trades).

Religious practice was important in the colonies. In New England the right to practice their own religious beliefs was a major reason for many who came to the New World. The Puritans were English Protestants who wanted to purge the English Church from any remaining vestiges of Catholicism. By 1630, as many as 20,000 Puritans had emigrated to America to gain religious freedom (Religion in Eighteenth-Century America).

By the eighteenth century a high level of religious activity was growing in the Colonies. It is estimated that between 1700 and 1740, 75 to 80 percent of the population attended church (qtd. Religion in Eighteenth-Century America). In the mid-eighteenth century a religious revival occurred.

This revival signaled a belief that the essence of religious experience centered in a new birth based on the reading and preaching of the New Testament. The new evangelical viewpoint enhanced the status of Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists, while diminishing the importance of Anglicans, Congregationalists and Quakers (Religion in Eighteenth-Century America.

At the same time, a new religious movement that was antithetical to evangelicalism developed. Deism emphasized morality and rejected the Christian view of the deity of Jesus Christ. Deism was popular among the higher classes and included many of the founding fathers, including, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (Religion in Eighteenth-Century America).

In summation, the Colonial Life was in many ways very different from life today. Work was more physical and providing those things necessary for life was more difficult and dangerous. Nonetheless, the readiness with which the colonists adapted to the new geography, climate and foods, then turned these new items and experiences to their advantage has a distinctly American flavor to it.


Works Cited

Colonial Williamsburg Trades. 2006. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 28 June 2006 http://www.history.org/Almanack/



Home Life in Colonial America. Montclair State University. 28 June, 2006 < http://www.csam.montclair.edu/njsoc/PDFs/



Murray, William. 13 Originals: Founding the American Colonies. 2005. The TimePage, 28 June, 2006 <http://www.timepage.org/spl/13colony.html>.


Oliver, Lynne. Food Timeline—history notes: Colonial America & 17th and 18th century France. 2000. Food Timeline.org. 28 June 2006 http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcolonial.html.


Religion in Eighteenth-Century America. 27 October 2003. Library of Congress. 28 June 2006 <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/


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