Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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ElizaBTweetin: March 26-April 1, 1872: Weather and Home Improvements

Posted on April 1, 2013

EBW 3/28-4/2/1872

Eliza B. Wheaton's diary, 3/28-4/2, 1872.

Readers are probably noticing what appear to be errors in the diary transcripts.  For example, Mrs. Wheaton’s March 25 entry begins with “25d a. 0”.  How many of you have determined that this means “25 degrees above zero”?  This sort of shorthand puzzled us at the outset of the transcribing process, but as the project progressed, we noticed how important weather was (and is) to daily life.  Even for someone living a life as comfortable as Eliza Wheaton’s, weather affected daily activities, gardens, crops, and travel.  As spring approaches, we are all acutely aware of cold mornings!

During the spring of 1872, Eliza decided to spruce up her home.  Last week work began on the kitchen. Eliza’s meticulously kept cashbooks provide additional detail.  Related purchases included a four-foot galvanized iron kitchen sink ($6.50), lead piping ($1.00), and varnish ($3.00).

Taunton Galvanizing Co.

Receipt for 4 ft. galvanized sink.

Although these prices seem low, they are more reasonable when compared to pay-for-hire wages.  Mrs. Benjamin Briggs, who provided heavy cleaning such as weekly window washing (Mrs. Wheaton’s house fronted on a busy dirt street), received 12.5 cents per hour.  Her pay varied somewhat, perhaps based on the type of labor; on April 2 she received 35 cents for working two hours.  Her husband earned 17 cents per hour for similar work around the house.  Another worker, Charles Hagerty, earned $2.75 a day for painting; Mrs. Wheaton employed him steadily from at least 1871 to 1874.

John L. French receipt

Receipt for wallpaper from John L. French.

This week, Eliza and her companion Mrs. Beane decided to paper the “long rooms”, or double parlors on either side of the central hall.  She chose the wallpaper from a local Taunton merchant, rather than one in Boston. Her cashbook and accompanying receipt show the purchase of 12 rolls of “Paper Hangings” from John T. French, for $7.63.  French, who had been in business for about twenty years by 1872, was mentioned in D. Hamilton Hurd’s History of Bristol County, MA… (1883, p. 834). To see the types of  papers from which Mrs. Wheaton may have chosen, we recommend checking out Historic New England (formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities). Historic New England collects historic wallpapers, and their website features samples of papers organized by time period. 

Salmon Washburn receipt

Receipt for white lead from Salmon Washburn.

This receipt records Mrs. Wheaton's purchase of 50 lbs. of white lead for paint. During this period, lead was added to paint to speed drying, increase durability, and resist moisture that causes mold (critical here in southeast MA!).  The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief 28, “Painting Historic Interiors”, explains the process of grinding pigment and paint preparation before 1875.

Mrs. Wheaton’s diary entries will increasingly describe fatigue and back pain; could these be linked to adult-age lead exposure? The dangers of lead were identified during Mrs. Wheaton’s lifetime. U.S. medical authorities first diagnosed childhood lead poisoning in 1887, although it wasn’t linked specifically to lead-based paint until Australian doctors discovered the connection in 1904.  European countries banned lead-based paint beginning in 1909, but the U.S. allowed its use until 1978.

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