Monday, July 27, 2009

1839 Michigan Settler Mary Clavers Ventilates Her Spleen

"Mother wants your sifter," said Miss Ianthe Howard, a young lady of six years' standing, attired in a tattered calico, thickened with dirt; her unkempt locks straggling from under that hideous substitute for a bonnet, so universal in the western country [Michigan], a dirty cotton handkerchief, which is used, ad nauseam, for all sorts of purposes.

"Mother wants your sifter, and she says she guesses you can let her have some sugar and tea, 'cause you got plenty."

This excellent reason, "'cause you've got plenty,' is conclusive as to sharing with your neighbors. Whoever comes into Michigan with nothing will be sure to better his condition; but woe to him that brings with him anything like an appearance of abundance, whether of money or mere household conveniences. To have them, and not be willing to share them in some sort with the whole community is an unpardonable crime. You must lend your best horse qui que ce soit to go ten miles over hill and marsh, in the darkest night, for a doctor; or your team to travel twenty after a 'gal,' your wheelbarrows, your shovels, your utensils of all sorts, belong, not to yourself, but to the public, who do not think it necessary even to ask a loan, but take it for granted. The two saddles and bridles of Montacute [Clavers' Michigan town] spend most of their time travelling from house to house a-man-back; and I have actually known a stray martingale [horse tack] to be traced to four dwellings two miles apart, having been lent from one to another, without a word to the original proprietor, who sat waiting, not very patiently, to commence a journey.

Then within doors, an inventory of your plenishings of all sorts, would scarcely more than include the articles which you are solicited to lend. Not only are all kitchen utensils as much your neighbor's as your own, but bedsteads, beds, blankets, sheets, travel from house to house, a pleasant and effectual mode of securing the perpetuity of certain efflorescent peculiarities of hte skin, for which Michigan is becoming almost as famous as the land "'twixt Maidenkirk and John O'Groats'." Sieves, smoothing irons, and churns, run about as if they had legs; one brass kettle is enough for a whole neighborhood; and I could point to a cradle which has rocked half the babies in Montacute. For my own part, I have lent my broom, my thread, my tape, my spoons, my cat, my thimble, my scissors, my shawl, my shoes; and have been asked for my combs and brushes: and my husband for his shaving apparatus and his pantaloons.

But the cream of the joke lies in the manner of the thing. It is so straight-forward and honest, none of your hypocritical civility and servile gratitude! Your true republican, when he finds that you possess anything which would contribute to his convenience, walks in with, "Are you going to use your horses to-day?" if horses happen to be the thing he needs.

"Yes, I shall probably want them."

"O, well, if you want them--I was thinking to get 'em to go up north a piece."

Or perhaps the desired article comes within the female department.

"Mother wants to get some buter: that 'ere butter you bought off Miss Barton this mornin'."

And away goes your golden store, to be repaid perhaps with some cheesy, greasy stuff, brought in a dirty pail, with, "Here's your butter!"

A giel came in to borrow a "wash-dish," "because we've got company." Presently she came back: "Mother says you've forgot to send a towel."

"The pen and ink, and a sheet o' paper and a wafer [wax seal]" is no unusual request; and when the pen is returned, you are generally informed that you send "an awful bad pen"....

--A New Home: Who'll Follow? by Michigan settler Mary Clavers, 1839

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