FAQs asked by students researching Puritan customs
1). How did people dress?
Puritans dressed much like their English contemporaries. Contrary to myths perpetuated by the artwork of successive generations, Puritans wore all the colors of the spectrum as could be made from the natural dyes available at the time. In fact, some of the color combinations might strike our modern eyes as flashy and garish. Black and white were formal colors, much like they are today, and because people wore their most formal colors for portraits, often the clothing painted was black with stiff, white accents like fancy collars and cuffs.
Puritans, like the rest of English culture in the 17th century, were very class conscious. Massachusetts passed laws to regulate the wearing of frivolous and expensive fashions that might distract the wearers from more worthy uses of their money.
2). What type of foods did they eat?
Puritans ate foods typical to English culture, which focused primarily on meat and baked goods. Vegetables were usually “improved” by boiling. Every housewife would have maintained a garden for culinary and medicinal purposes, as well as made her own bread, made her own cheese and brewed her own beer. People of all ages drank beer and cider. Juice would have been very expensive to make from the berries native to New England and citrus fruits needed to be imported and were thus not practical for juicing. New Englanders adopted many of the foodways of the local Indians, including the extensive use of squash and pumpkins, cod and shellfish, and maple syrup for sweetening.
3). What was the life expectancy?
Many children died before age two. If they survived childhood however, they had a good chance of living to old age. Mothers often died in childbirth, though not as frequently as they died from infections caused by burns they received while cooking. The average life expectancy was 40, but that doesn’t mean that people were usually dying at age forty. It means that the large numbers of babies dying skewed the numbers of those living many decades toward the middle.
4).What were daily life routines for children and adults based on gender?
Around age seven, when boys were “breached” (which meant they stopped wearing skirts and started wearing short pants called “breeches”), boys and girls began to be trained for a profession. Before age seven, even little children might be employed in light housework or yard work such as collecting small twigs for the fire or turning the spit to help the roast cook evenly. Girls followed their mothers assisting with cooking, laundering, making medicine, gardening, sewing and knitting, etc. Boys studied the professions of their fathers or went to study under other masters of a trade. Specialized trades included smithing, barrel making, rope making, tailoring, millwork, etc.
5). What type of superstitions did people believe?
English culture in general held many charms and counter charms that often had to do with the health of crops, bodily health, and marital happiness. While the ministers and the educated pious frowned on using charms and fortune telling, many people engaged in the practices, often secretly.
6). What type of games did people play?
While there was little time for frivolity as a matter of survival, Puritans did have ways to enjoy themselves and each other’s company. Fun included word games, riddles and songs. Sports similar to soccer, bowling and badminton involved lots of people. While careful to discourage licentiousness, Puritans even engaged in segregated dancing. Card games and tavern games were often discouraged because of the association of gambling, not because of the games themselves.
7). What did their homes look like?
Colonial homes were patterned after English homes, but used the resources of the area. The homes were built around a large, central fireplace, which served as both the heat source and center of food preparation. In England structures were often brick because timber was hard to obtain and expensive. In New England, timber was in abundance so the houses were timber frame with wooden clapboards. The early houses had thatched roofs made from local phragmytes, but thatching was a fire hazard and was outlawed in the 1640s. In 1692, most roofs were shingled in wood.
The interiors usually contained whitewashed, plastered walls made from clay and ash and treated with lyme made from the local seashells. Floors were wood or dirt. Decorations tended toward the practical with most of the design elements coming from carved and painted wooden furniture, fine or embroidered linens and attractive brass, pewter and painted clay servingware.
8). What luxuries did they want?
Imported spices were highly valued as food was quite bland without them. Pure beeswax candles burned cleaner and smelled better than the more common candles made of tallow. Silk and fur made clothes more comfortable. Puritans drank a considerable amount of fine wine and spirits on special occasions such as weddings, graduation ceremonies, and ordinations of ministers.
9). What type of currency did they use?
The colonists used English currency, but also traded in the polished, seashell wampum beads of the local native tribes. The Puritans even accepting wampum as payment to Harvard College, which they established shortly after settling in Massachusetts. At times, the people of Massachusetts experimented with making their own paper money and coins, but this was frowned on by the English government.