Social Customs in Early Rural Days

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

It is difficult to find one reference work devoted solely to this topic. However, it is possible to locate ample references to social activities and customs in various published and unpublished materials. Regional and local histories, personal diaries, newspapers and literary journals are some of the more common references in which accounts of social activities can be found.

Social customs followed certain patterns and can generally be categorized based upon the triple focus of rural or folk society – namely, Family, Church and School. Most social customs fall under the Family heading, however, as the family served as the foundation for social stability in eighteenth and nineteenth-century rural society.

Weddings were particularly joyous occasions not only for the immediate families involved, but for their surrounding neighbors as well. Stevenson Fletcher, in the first volume of his Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, provides the following account of marriages in Pennsylvania, circa 1735:

The marriages are very chargeable, many times the Wife’s Fortunes being expended at the Celebration of the Nuptials. Marriage is usually celebrated about noon, generally at the home of the bride’s parents. They not only have a sumptuous wedding feast at the home but also send out cakes, meats, punch, etc. to everybody in the neighborhood, rich or poor alike, whether close friends or not. In the evening, the bride and groom are escorted to their new home by a long procession of gigs or on horseback.

After supper all dance “Sir Roger de Coverly” or, as we term it here, Virginia reel, with music by negroes playing by ear only. Occasionally a few who have been to the city go through the mazy movements of the minuet. Games of forfeit are played. About nine o’clock the bride is spirited away by her maids, and shortly after the groomsmen conduct the groom to his bride. At a later hour the company ascent to the bridal chamber taking with them refreshments, mostly liquor. After the bride has been kissed by every man present the assembly disperses.

In contrast to an English wedding in Pennsylvania, which by custom could prove to be very expensive for the chil­dren of prosperous farmers, the following is an account of a wedding between people of German extraction that took place in Lancaster County in 1780. This annotated description was compiled by Professor Herbert H. Beck and appeared in The Pennsylvania Dutchman published February, 1954.

Ensign Thomas Hughes, a British officer who was prisoner on parole for eighteen months at Lancaster, Pa., has much of local interest to say in his diary, which has recently been published by the Cambridge University Press. When he made the following fascina­ting entry the twenty year-old officer was living at the house of Caleb Cope, at the northeast corner of Lime and Grant Streets, Lancaster; which had been occupied four years earlier, and under the same con­ditions of parole, by Major Andre.

June 26th, 1780. Went with some ladies on an excur­sion into the country; in our tour hearing by accident of a wedding within 5 miles of us, nothing would please the girls but we must be there. We arriv’d just as the ceremony began, and were ushered into a large room where 50 people were seated at two long tables. At the head of the room stood two old men who pray’d alternately, to appearance extempore, but it being in German I could not understand them. After long praying mix’d with long pauses, the couple were brought in the middle of the floor, when the old men gave them good advice as to their future behavior and asked if they were willing to live together – on their ascenting their hands were join’d and the affair was finish’d. It was about 12 o’clock – the tables were immediately spread and we had an excellent German repast (where everything was boiled and roasted to rags) with plenty of cyder, toddy, and beer. After the appetite was satisfied, the whole company adjourn’d to an extensive lawn where the young men and women play’d at various games till 4 o’clock, when we receiv’d notice that the dinner was ready. This meal was a profusion of soups, meats, pies, etc., enough for a regiment of soldiers. The attendants were the bride­groom and his men; the bride, who was remarkably pretty, did the honors of the table supported by her maids. The signal for the whole being over – after which people depart without ceremony – is the hand­ing a plate round the table in which every person puts what they think proper; this is suppos’d to be a gratification to the cooks for their trouble. These people are or a sect call’d Mennonite. I could never gain a perfect knowledge of their tenents – I believe they approach nearest the Quakers; like them they never wear buckles or metal buttons. There are num­bers of these people in this part of the country who are rich farmers. This wedding was esteemed a very poor one – they sometimes have 500 guests.

In contrast to the wedding as a happy family event, the funeral was certainly the mournful occasion. In 1754 Gott­lieb Mittelberger described a colonial period funeral in Pennsylvania as follows:

When someone has died, especially in the country, where on account of the intervening plantations and forests people live far from one another, the time appointed for the funeral is always indicated only to the four nearest neighbors. In this manner such an invitation to a funeral is made known more than fifty English miles around in twenty-four hours.

If it is possible, one or more persons from each house appear on horseback at the appointed time. While the people are coming in, good cake cut into pieces is handed around on a large tin platter to those present. Each person receives then. in a goblet, a hot West Indian Rum punch into which lemon, sugar, and juniper berries are put, which gives it a delicious taste. After this, hot and sweetened cider is served … The assembled people ride in silence behind the coffin and sometimes one can count from 100 to 500 persons on horseback.

For properly attending to the funeral services of one John Middleton of Chester County in 1719, the following bill was presented to his family:

To 6 1/2 gals. of wine 2 pds. 2s.
To 3 ” of rum 15s.
To quarter of a hundred sugar and spice 15s.
To flowar 12s.
To a barroll sider 12s.
To butter and ches 16s.
To a holand sheet 1 pd.
To the cofing and digin the grafe 19s.

Phoebe Earle Gibbons. a Philadelphian residing among the Pennsylvania Germans in Lancaster County during the 1860s. provided the following on funeral customs among these people in a series of art ides entitled “The Pennsylvania Dutch,” and Other Essays.

The greatest festive occasion, or the one which calls the greatest number or persons to eat and drink to­gether is the funeral.

My friends. Jacob and Susanna E. have that active benevolence and correct principle which prompt to care for the sick and dying, and kind offices toward the mourner. or are they alone in this. When a death occurs, our “Dutch” neighbors enter the house. and, taking possession, relieve the family as far as possible from the labors and cares of a funeral. Some “redd up” the house, making that which was neglected dur­ing the sad presence of a fatal disease again in order for the reception of company. Others visit the kitch­en, and help to bake great stores of bread, pies, and rusks [sweetened biscuits] for the expected gather­ing. Two young men and two young women generally sit up together overnight to watch in a room adjoin­ing that of the dead.

The services at funerals are generally conducted in the German language.

An invitation is extended to the persons present to return to eat after the funeral, or the meal is par­taken of before leaving for the graveyard: hospitality, in all rural districts, where the guests come from afar, seems to require this. The tables are sometimes set in a barn, or large wagon-house, and relays of guests succeed one another, until all are done. The neighbors wait upon the table. The entertainment generally con­sists of meat, frequently cold; bread and butter; pickles or sauces, such as apple butter; pies and rusks; sometimes stewed chickens, mashed potatoes, cheese, etc.; and coffee invariably. All depart after the dish­washing, and the family is left in quiet again.

The common factor in these descriptions of funeral rites is the large number of friends and neighbors sharing the families’ burden of grief.

We are all aware of the major importance of the individ­ual members of the family con tributing to the work effort about the farm. The work day began at dawn and often ended after dark. It is no wonder that where possible, certain tasks were turned into social events involving, at times, all the members of the family and neighbors as well. These tasks were more of a seasonal or special nature and not of the type performed daily on a year-round basis.

Husking com was an activity usually confined to the late fall and winter months. It could certainly have become a monotonous task if some sociability had not been intro­duced into the process. The following account of husking parties was published in the Ladies Garland, printed in Philadelphia in 1838:

The husking party takes place in those long, bright evenings of autumn, when the harvest moon is up among the stars, and the streams and the hills, and the old forest trees are brightening in its beautiful illumination. A group of happy and kind-hearted beings, of all ages and sexes, from the fair young girl to the gray-haired old man, are assembled around the fruits of their neighbor’s industry – the long and heavy piles of Indian corn, gathered from the field with its covering of husks. The whole length of the ample barn floor is lined with huskers who, after a few pre­liminary jokes, betake themselves zealously to their task.

The huskers ply their tongues as busily as their hands, while engaged in their pleasant task. Stories are re­lated – songs are sung – jokes are passed – and soft words spoken. During the process of husking, if a red ear of corn is found by any of the ladies, she is liable to receive a kiss from some of the company. She, of course, hands the ear to her favorite beau, who readi­ly understands the signal and acts accordingly. The red cheek is sure to be redder before he leaves it.

After the task is finished, the company adjourn to the house – a supper is provided – and after partaking of it, the parties separate for their respective homes.

Butchering was another task done in the late fall and into the winter months. D. C. Henning, of Schuylkill County, related in 1911 that butchering

was one of the greatest fate days of the year for Pennsylvania Germans. It usually occurred late in November. Neighbors of both sexes were invited. They arrive about four o’clock in the morning to find huge log fires already burning and hogs and beef cattle butchered, scalded, and hung up. The day was spent cutting up the meat, making sausage, rendering the lard, making scrapple, and smoking the hams and bacon over fires of green hickory chips …. At nights, after partaking of schnatz betz (rye whiskey), all go home carrying with them as much sausage and fresh meat as needed. Often 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of meat are thus prepared for a single family.

Clearing the land of trees and brush was also done on a community basis, providing another occasion for social contact among the rural people. The eighteenth-century physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, wrote An Account of the Manners of the German Inhabitants of Pennsylvania to which either he or his editor, the historian Israel D. Rupp, added the following description of a land clearing operation:

When the land was pretty well covered with old logs, the farmer commenced .. .laying the broken limbs and smaller trees across the logs and putting fire to it. The young members of the family, boys and girls, followed to chunck up the fires. In a few days, the logs were [trimmed off] al a length of 12 to 15 feet. Sometimes the entire tree was consumed. When the logs were thus reduced to lengths, that they could be handled by a few men, the owner had a log-rolling. He invited some of his neighbors. who assembled to aid him in his rolling. Usually, at such rollings, not a little hilarity prevailed, by reason of the free use of the German’s Brauntwein—-.

The church provided a means of sociability in addition to meeting the religious-spiritual needs of the rural com­munity. Out of necessity people on the frontier (of differ­ent denominations) banded together to attend sermons, as reported in The Fair Play Settlers of the West Branch Valley – 1769-1784 by George D. Wolf:

There were present about an Hundred and Forty people for a sermon which he (Fithian) gave on the banks of the Susquehanna, opposite the present city of Lock Haven, on Sunday, July 30, 1775.

However, in the following account from the journal of William Colbert, a Methodist preacher traveling in the West Branch Valley in 1792, not all the settlers were inclined to listen to preaching:

This is a town (referring to present-day Milton) with three stores, three taverns, two ball allies. Agreeable to its size it appears to be one of the most dissipated places I ever saw. I could not tell how to pass them – I inquired at one of the ball allies if preaching was ex­pected – a religious old Presbyterian standing by where they were playing answered that he did not know, I then asked them that were playing ball, they answered no. I farther asked them if they did not think they would be better employed hearing preach­ing than playing ball. Their answer was a laugh, that there was time for all things and that they went to preaching on Sundays. I told them they would not be willing to go to judgement from that excuse – they said they ventured that. So after a little conservation with the old man I left them ripening for destruction.

The school became another factor in the social amusements of the rural community particularly after 1834 with the emergence of the common school system in Pennsyl­vania. While many a student must have remembered the sound thrashings received during the course of his school years, the memories of more enjoyable occasions could also be recalled.

Henry K. Landis, co-founder of the Pennsylvania Farm Museum at Landis Valley, recalls in his unpublished auto­biography some of the popular amusements he participated in while attending a rural Lancaster County school in the 1870s:

At the school house there were such games as “Collie-up,” where the ball was thrown against the Oat end of the school house and had to be caught on the first bounce. Such games were usually played with the children divided up into two sides. and the side having the survivor would win the game. A similar game of “Sockum” was played by lining up one side against the wall, and each member of the other side tried to hit one of these with the ball. When hit, the victim was “out,” but if the thrower missed, he was “out” himself. “Duck-on-the-Rock” was played sometimes, and in the cooler weather in some schools, “Shinny” was a popular sport. It was played on the adjacent road with a rubber ball. The clubs were cut in the woods from young trees which curved at the roots. Sometimes the scuffle over a ball resulted in painful injuries on the shins or ankles. Some of the boys became very adept at dribbling the ball and at making long drives. Sometimes these shinny balls were lost and many years later were found in the fields beside the road.

One additional account involves an English school­master invited to a sleighing party in Schuylkill County circa 1850, quoted from the book Songs Along the Mahan­tongo, edited by Walter Boyer, Albert Buffington and Don Yoder:

One evening he went with the young folks of the community on a sleighing party, the destination of which was an old stone tavern, where the fiddlers sat in the window seats, formed by the thick stone walls; and the dance was lively until the small hours. The dancers made a business of it, and went to work with a will. The dances were called “straight eights”, forward and back, and mostly shuffles. Although at a tavern, none got drunk. Coming home, the driver increased the fun by upsetting the party in the snow.


Illustrations for this article are taken from H. L. Fisher’s Olden Times (York, 1888).


Carroll J. Hopf was recently appointed Records Management Analyst in the archives division of the executive department of the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston. Previous­ly he served as Director of the Pennsylvania Farm Museum at Landis Valley.