I am guilty of perceiving pioneer women of southern Florida as Annie Oakley types, with a baby in one arm, a rifle in another and a pot of hog stew cooking in the kitchen.
However, a history book I’m currently reading called Public Faces Private Lives, by Karen Davis, has given me a completely different perspective of what life was like in Florida during the late 1800s.
Instead of using historically significant dates, commerce or transportation to gauge the lives of those who lived here, Davis focuses on the private letters of a few very different women living in the area of what is now Miami and Coconut Grove.
These women could easily be from any town in Florida during that time. I thought I would share with you a few things that surprised me about the women in Davis’ book.
|This group of women and girls is enjoying the water near Cedar Keyand donning bathing suits, circa 1896.|
They wore bathing suits – No, you would not find a pioneer woman from the 1800s donning a bikini worthy of a cameo on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, but women in Florida weren’t wearing corsets and silk skirts like other areas of the country either. They fished, they swam and yes they wore bathing suits. Bathing suits that looked like something you might dress your six month-old-baby in today, but bathing suits nonetheless.
They were fashion forward – Now granted, you wouldn’t find today’s equivalent of Carrie Bradshaw living in the Florida sticks. However, Anne Bonker, who lived in the Miami area in the 1870s, might come close. Bonker was a self-professed tomboy who loved hunting, fishing and fashion. After a storm, Bonker saw a flamingo that had likely been blown in from the Bahamas. After admiring the beautiful bird, a specimen she had never before encountered, she shot it and kept its red plume until her next trip north where she had it made into a hat. “I had a muff and skating cap made, which I wore, to the envy of all my girl friends,” she wrote.
They cooked outside – There is nothing quite like firing up your barbeque grill and feeling the warmth of the sun hit your face as you flip your burger with an oversized spatula. In the late 1800s, grilling over hot coals or wood chips was common. However, it was more of a safety precaution then anything else. In order to prevent fires, pioneer women set up outdoor kitchens where they prepared their meals via grill or Dutch oven.
|Often snakes were allowed to live in the rafters of the home because they ate insects that lingered in the palmetto leaves.|
They had pet snakes – I know the mention of any pet snake always makes you think of your creepy cousin Teddy who jammed out to Metallica while caressing his pet pythons. However, snakes (the non-poisonous kind) were welcome guests in the homes of pioneer women. Many pioneers lived in Palmetto shacks. While pretty, clean and green when they are newly constructed, the palm fronds eventually turned brown and attracted bugs, especially roaches. Frequently house snakes would inhabit in the roof of the hut and were allowed to remain there because they feasted on the roaches.
They didn’t eat dairy – Today women all over the country are opting for diets banning or greatly limiting their daily intake of dairy products. Pioneer women rarely consumed dairy products, but it wasn’t by choice. There were cows in Florida, but they were wild and small in size. Unlike fattened diary cows, these heifers did not produce much milk. Pioneer women were forced to learn to make their favorite cakes substituting milk with water. What did they miss the most? That would be milk in their morning coffee.
Their homes stayed smoky – Today smoking is banned in restaurants and frowned upon inside homes and vehicles. However, if you lived in the 1800s you would definitely get your fill of indoor carcinogenic emissions. I’m not speaking of smoke from a pipe, cigarette or cigar. In order to keep mosquitoes out, pioneer women burned smudge pots. Back then, there were no screens on the windows; only wooden shutters. When the sun went down, every nook and crack was plugged, even the keyholes, to prevent the pesky bloodsuckers from getting in. Families learned to entertain themselves in the dark as even a dull lamp would attract the bugs. Everyone slept under a mosquito netting as a final precaution.
|Many women were comfortable manuvering a boat on their own. This unidentified woman was photographed on the Miami River.
Jan. 2, 1910
They were excellent skippers – Women in the 1800s did not rely on their husbands to captain the family skipjack. There were no railroad tracks this far south and roads were rough and hard to navigate. Sailing a boat allowed women to go to and from their friends’ homes, go shopping or catch dinner and thus were the preferred means of travel for men and women alike.
They were interested in Science – While not all pioneer women had the time to document it, most kept a tally of the different plant and animal species they encountered whether for medicinal or safety purposes. Anna Bonker (the fashionista mentioned earlier) collected specimens of snakes and bugs, which she displayed in her home. Unlike many women of her time, Bonker had a college education and was very interested in science.
They could make anything out of palm fronds – Palm fronds weren’t only good for thatched roofs. During the 1870s, Marion Greer, a woman who came to the Fort Worth area in 1876, wrote the housewives would often “turn an honest penny” by mending clothes for other settlers. When the clothes got too frail to mend and cotton was scarce, Greer and her team of seamstresses learned to “split, braid, bleach and sew” palm fronds into clothing of “any size or style.”
|This unidentified young woman from Monticello dons a beautiful hat.|
For the most part, they lived an isolated life – Pioneer women did not have social media or newspapers to keep them abreast of worldly events. In many cases, other families were their only source of gossip. Often husbands would leave for weeks at a time to get supplies and it would be up to the women of the house to forge dinner or scare any wild animals from the homestead. News was hard to come by and delayed by the time it got to pioneers living off the grid. In one entry, Greer writes that the news of President Garfield’s death reached the settlement only because a passing steamer threw a newspaper into a fisherman’s boat.
They had a sense of humor – Pioneer women dealt with their frustrations in different ways. Greer used sarcasm. Upon her arrival at Fort Worth in 1876 she describes it as being “A Garden of Eden where the sky was bluer, the flowers sweeter and the birds more musical than anywhere else on the continent. Could a mortal woman ask for more? We did not.” Marion goes on to describe all the horrible experiences, which she relates in a comical tone, her family went through at the time of their arrival. Her spunky tone was a favorite in the publication The Lake Worth Historian.
Reading Davis' book has been a welcome lesson in judgement. The personalities of these women has presented me with a greater understanding of the struggles they faced and the way the coped with starting a new life in an unknown land.
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