Early Habits, Customs, and Dress in Loudoun County

Taken from the book by James W. Head, History and Comprehensive Description of Loudoun County, Virginia, published by Park View Press in 1908.


The earliest permanent settlements of Loudoun having been separately noted in the foregoing paragraphs a generalized description of the habits, customs, and dress of these settlers, as well as their unorganized pioneer predecessors and the steady promiscuous stream of homeseekers that poured into the County until long after the Revolution, will now be attempted.

Waterford Virginia farm

Waterford Virginia farm

The early settlers, with but one class exception, had no costly tastes to gratify, no expensive habits to indulge, and neither possessed nor cared for luxuries. Their subsistence, such as they required, cost but little of either time or labor. The corn from which they made their bread came forth from the prolific soil almost at the touch of their rude plows. Their cattle and hogs found abundant sustenance in the broad pastures which, in the summer, yielded the richest grass, and in the woods where, in the fall, the ground was strewn with acorns and other like provender.
The pioneer lived roughly; the German from the Palatinate kept house like the true peasant that he was; the planter lived somewhat more sumptuously and luxuriously; but, in nearly every case, the table was liberally supplied. Hominy, milk, corn-bread, and smoked or jerked meats seem to have been most popular with the humbler classes.

Ice was not stored for summer use, fruits were few and not choice, and the vegetables limited; our ancestors, at that time, having no acquaintance with the tomato, cauliflower egg-plant, red-pepper, okra, and certain other staple vegetables of today. The Indians had schooled them in the preparation of succotash with the beans grown among the corn, and they raised melons, squashes, and pumpkins in abundance.

Corn for bread was broken in a mortar and ground in a grater or hand-mill. Mills, in the early days, were few and far apart, some of the back-settlers being compelled to travel many miles for their grist. This condition gave origin to the adage "first come first served," and frequently carried the late arrivals over night and, at times, prolonged the trip to procure a few bushels of meal three or four days. "Bandmills," run by horses, and small water mills, where the situation permitted, came into use to supply the demand of larger ones. The building of a good mill, it must be confessed, was hailed with greater satisfaction than the erection of a church.

The more primitive of these peoples ate from wooden trenchers and platters; sat upon three-legged stools or wooden blocks; used bear's grease in lieu of lard and butter, and cut their foods with the same sheath-knives used in disembowelling and skinning the deer killed by their rifles. They had no money and their scant furniture was essentially crude, sometimes including a few pewter dishes and plates and spoons, but usually nothing beyond wooden bowls, trenchers, and noggins, with gourds and squashes daintily cut. The horse trough served as a wash-basin, and water buckets were seldom seen. The family owning an iron pot and a kitchen table were esteemed rich and extravagant, and china and crockery ware were at once practically unknown and uncraved. Feather-beds and bedsteads were equally eschewed, these hardy men who had conquered the wilderness not disdaining, when night came, to sleep upon a dirt floor with a bear-skin for covering.

With muscles of iron and hearts of oak, they united a tenderness for the weak and a capability for self-sacrifice worthy of an ideal knight of chivalry; and their indomitable will, which recognized no obstacle as insuperable, was equaled only by their rugged integrity which regarded dishonesty as an offense as contemptible as cowardice. For many years they dwelt beyond the pale of governmental restraint, nor did they need the presence of either courts or constables. Crimes against person, property, or public order were of so infrequent occurrence as to be practically unheard of. In moral endowments even if not in mental attainments-these sturdy pioneers of Loudoun were, it must be admitted, vastly superior to many of those who followed them when better facilities for transportation rendered the County more accessible.

Society before and for many years after the Revolution was easy, agreeable, and somewhat refined. Traveling was slow, difficult, and expensive. For society, the inhabitants were mainly dependent upon themselves; the ties of social life were closely drawn. Books, newspapers, and magazines were rare; men and women read less, but talked more, and wrote longer and more elaborate letters than now. "Cheap postage has spoiled letter writing." Much time was spent in social visits; tea parties, and supper parties were common. The gentlemen had their clubs and exclusive social gatherings, sometimes too convivial in their character, and occasionally a youth of promise fell a victim to the temptations of a mistaken hospitality. "Gaming was more common among respectable people than at the present day."


Of leisure, all classes at all times had a superabundance, and it was cheerfully devoted to mutual assistance without thought of recompense, except in kind. If anyone fell behind through sickness or other misfortune, his neighbors would cheerfully proffer their services, often making of the occasion a frolic and mingling labor with amusement.

harvesting wheat, drawingOn days set apart for the pulling of flax and wheat-cutting, the neighbors and their children assembled in happy mood and as cheerfully applied themselves to their gratuitous tasks. While the men were pulling the flax or reaping and shocking the wheat, the women at the house were preparing the harvest-noon feast. The rough table, for which the side and bottom boards of a wagon were frequently used, was placed when practicable under the shade of a spreading tree in the yard. The visitors contributed from their meager store such additional dishes, knives, forks, and spoons as were needed. Around the table, seated on benches, stools, or splint-bottom chairs, with such appetites as could only be gained from honest toil in the open field, the company partook of the bounties set before them. These consisted, in addition to the never-failing corn-bread and bacon, of bear and deer meat, turkey, or other game in season, and an abundance of vegetables which they called " roughness." The bread, styled "jonny-cake," was baked on journey or " jonny" boards, about two feet long and eight inches wide. The dough was spread over the boards which were then placed before the fire; after one side was browned, the cake was reversed and the unbaked side turned toward the flames.

However strictly it might be abstained from at other times, a harvest without whisky was like a dance without a fiddle. It was partaken of by all--each one, male and female, drinking from the bottle and passing it to his or her nearest neighbor. Drinking vessels were dispensed with as mere idle superfluities.

Dinner over, the company scattered, the elders withdrawing In a body and seating or stretching themselves upon the ground.

After the filling and lighting of the inevitable pipe, conversation would become general. The news of the day-not always, as may be imagined, very recent-was commented upon, and then, as now, political questions were sagely and earnestly discussed. Stories, mainly of adventure, were told; hairbreadth escapes from Indian massacre recounted and the battles of late wars fought again beneath the spreading branches of the trees. Meanwhile, the boys and girls wandered off in separate and smaller groups, singing and playing and making love much in the manner of today.

Another amusement of those days, and one that did not fall into disfavor for many years thereafter, was what was known as "shucking bees." To these gatherings were invited both old and young. Stacks of corn in the husk were piled upon the ground near the crib where the golden ears were finally to be stored. Upon the assemblage of the guests, those with proud records as corn-huskers were appointed leaders, they in turn filling the ranks of their respective par- ties by selection from the company present, the choice going to each in rotation. The corn was divided into approximately equal piles1 one of which was assigned to each party. The contest was then begun with much gusto and the party first shucking its allotment declared the winner. The lucky finder of a red ear was entitled to a kiss from the girls.

Supper always followed this exciting contest and after supper came the dance. Stripped of dishes, the tables were quickly drawn aside and the room swept by eager hands. Then came the struggle for partners and the strife to be "first on the floor." Usually the violin furnished the only music and the figures most in favor were the reel and the jig, in which all participated with a zest and abandon unknown to the modern ballroom. "They danced all night till broad daylight and went home with the girls in the morning," some on foot and some on horseback, practically the only means of getting there.

bw drawing men drinking woman children looking on"Dreadful prodigality" does not too extravagantly describe the drinking habits of the people of Virginia in the latter half of the eighteenth century. They consumed an enormous quantity of liquors in proportion to their numbers, and drank indiscriminately, at all hours of the day and night. West India rum was the favorite drink of the people, because the cheapest, and was bought by the puncheon. Most every cellar, especially in the Cavalier settlements, had its barrel of cider, Bordeaux and sherry and Madeira wines, French brandies, delicate Holland gins, cordials, syrups, and every sort of ale and beer. Drunkenness was so common as to excite no comment, and drinking after dinner and at parties was always hard, prolonged, and desperate, so that none but the most seasoned old topers-the judges, squires, and parsons of six-bottle capacity ever escaped with their sea-legs in an insurable condition.

While a large proportion of the home-seekers that had settled in the County immediately after the Revolution had received a rudimentary education, and had lived among communities which may be said to have been comparatively cultured, most of them were hardy, rough, uncultivated back woodsmen, accustomed only to the ways of the frontier and camp. Many of them had served in the war of the Revolution and all of them in the border wars with the Indians. Though brave, hospitable and generous, they were more at ease beneath the forest bivouac than in the "living-room" of the log-cabin, and to swing a woodman's axe among the lofty trees of the primeval forest was a pursuit far more congenial to their rough nature and active temperament than to mingle with society in settled communities. Their habits and manners were plain, simple, and unostentatious. Their clothing was generally made of the dressed skins of the deer, wolf, or fox, while those of the buffalo and elk supplied them with covering for their feet and heads. Their log-cabins were destitute of glass, nails, hinges, or locks.

Education during the early settlements received but little attention in Loudoun, and school-houses, always of logs, were scarcely to be seen. Schools were sometimes opened at private houses or at the residence of the teacher; but "book larnin" was considered too impracticable to be of much value.

While the standard of morality,commercial as well as social, was of a high order,few of these settlers were members of any church. Many of them, however, had been reared in religions communities by Christian parents; had been taught to regard the Sabbath as a day of worship, and had been early impressed with a sense of the necessity of religious faith and practice. Some of the prominent citizens encouraged these views by occasionally holding meetings in their cabins, at which the scriptures and sometimes sermons were read and hymns sung, but no prayers were offered. The restraining and molding influence of these early Christian efforts upon the habits and morals of the people was in every respect whole-some and beneficial. The attention of the people was arrested and turned to the study and investigation of moral and religions questions, and direction was given to the contemplation of higher thoughts and the pursuit of a better life.

bw drawing wooden tubIn the meantime, other elements were introduced which effected a radical change in the habits of the people for both good and evil. The first settlers lived in the country, in the woods and wilds, whose "clearings" were far apart. Not one in ten of them had dwelt in any town, or even visited one having as many as a thousand inhabitants. And now there came the merchant, the lawyer, the doctor, and the mechanic who resided in the towns which began to grow and to take on new life. Most of these had enjoyed superior advantages, so far as related to education and that worldly wisdom which comes from experience in older communities. Some of them had come from across the ocean and others from the large American cities, bringing with them manners, customs, furniture, and wares, of which the like had never been seen by the oldest inhabitant.

And thus were gradually introduced the methods and appliances of a more advanced civilization. The pioneer and his wife, hearing of these things, would occasionally "go to town" to "see the sights," and would there discover that there were many useful and convenient articles for the farm and kitchen which might be procured in exchange for their corn, bacon, eggs, honey; and hides; and although the shrewd merchant was careful to exact his cent per cent, the prices asked were little heeded by the purchaser who was as ignorant of the value of the commodities offered as he was delighted with the novelty and apparent usefulness.


The subject of dress is approached with reluctance and its description diffidently essayed. But the task has seemed mandatory as the manners of a people can not otherwise be fully understood. The stately, ceremonious intercourse of the sexes, the stiff and elaborate walk of Loudoun men and women of Colonial and post-Revolutionary times traceable almost solely to the costuming of that period. How could ladies dance anything but the stately minuet, when their heads were veritable pyramids of pasted hair surmounted by turbans, when their jeweled stomachers and tight-laced stays held their bodies as tightly as would a vise, when their high-heeled shoes were as unyielding as if made of wood, at their trails of taffeta, often as much as fifteen yards long, Dane great feathered head-dresses compelled them to turn round as slowly as strutting peacocks? How could the men, with their buckram-stiffened coat-shirts, execute any other dance, when their elaborate powdered wigs compelled them to carry their hats under their arms, and their swords concurrently required dexterous management for the avoidance of tripping and mortifying falls?

Children were laced in stays and made to wear chin supports, gaps, and pads so as to give them the graceful carriage necessary to the wearing of all this weight of stiff and elaborate costume, which was all of a piece with the character of the assemblies and other evening entertainments, the games of cards-basset, bo, piquet, and whist-with the dancing, the ceremonious public life of nearly every class of society, with even the elaborate funeral ceremonies, and the sedulousness with which "persons of quality" thought it incumbent upon themselves to maintain the distinctions of rank as symbolized in costume.

The tie-wig, bob-wig, bag-wig, night-cap-wig, and riding-wig were worn by the gentleman of quality as occasion required. At times he wore, also, a small three-cornered cocked hat, felt or beaver) elaborately laced with gold or silver galleon. If he walked, as to church or court, he carried, in addition to his sword, a gold or ivory-headed cane, at least five feet long, and wore square-toed, "low-quartered" shoes with paste or silver buckles. His stockings, no matter what the material, were tightly stretched over his calves and carefully gartered at the knee. If he rode, he wore boots instead of shoes and carried a stout riding whip. About his neck was a white cravat of great amplitude, with abundant hanging ends of lace. His waist-coat was made with great flaps extending nearly down to the knee and bound with gold or silver lace. His coat, of cloth or velvet, might be of any color, but was sure to be elaborately made, with flap-pockets, and great hanging cuffs, from beneath which appeared the gentleman's indispensable lace ruffles, His knee-breeches were of black satin, red plush, or blue cloth, according to his fancy. They were plainly made and fitted tightly, buckling at the knee. At home, a black velvet skull-cap sometimes usurped the place of the wig and a damask dressing-gown lined with silk supplanted the coat, the feet being made easy in fancy morocco slippers. Judges on the bench often wore robes of scarlet faced with black velvet in winter, and black silk gowns in summer.

The substantial planter and burgher dressed well but were not so particular about their wigs, of which they probably owned no more than one, kept for visiting and for Sabbath use. They usually yielded to the custom koshering heads, however, and wore white linen caps under their hats. During the Re voluntary War wigs were scare and costly, linen was almost unobtainable and the practice of shaving heads accordingly fell rapidly into destitute. Sometimes the burgher's hat was of wool or felt, with a low crown and broad brim, turned up and cocked. About his neck he wore a white linen stock, fastening with a buckle at the back. His coat was of cloth, broad-backed, with flap-pockets, and his waist-coat, of the same stuff, extended to his knees. He wore short breeches with brass or silver knee-buckles, red or blue garters, and rather stout, coarse leather shoes, strapped over the quarter. He wore no sword, but often carried a staff, and knew how to use it to advantage.

Mechanics, laborers and servants wore leather-breeches and aprons, sagathy coats, osnaburg shirts and hair-shag jackets coarse shoes, and worsted or Jean stockings, knit at home.

The dress of the women of these classes was shabbier still, their costumes, for the most part, comprising stamped cotton and white dimity gowns, coarse shift (osnaburg), country cloth, and black quilted petticoats. In the backwoods and the primitive German settlements the women all wore the short gowns and petticoats, also tight-fitting calico caps. In summer, when employed in the fields, they wore only a linen shift and a petticoat of home-made linsey. All their clothing, fact, was home-made.

The ladies of quality, however, as has been intimated, dressed extravagantly, frizzed, rouged, wore trains, and acted as fashionable women have done from the immemorial beginning of things.

The pioneers dressed universally in the hunting shirt or blouse, sometimes fringed and decorated, and perhaps the most convenient frock ever conceived. It fit loosely, was open in front, reached almost to the knees, and had large sleeves, and a cape for the protection of the shoulders in bad weather. In the ample bosom of this shirt the hunter carried his bread and meat, the tow with which to wipe out the barrel of his rifle, and other small requisites. To his belt, tied or buckled behind, he suspended his mittens, bullet-pouch, tomahawk, and knife and sheath. His hunting-shirt was made of dressed deerskin-very uncomfortable in wet weather- or of linsey, when it was to be had. The pioneer dressed his lower body in drawers and leathern cloth leggins, and his feet in moccasins, a coon-skin cap completing the attire.

His wife wore a linsey petticoat, home-spun and home-made, and a short gown of linsey or "callimanco," when that material could be obtained. She wore no covering for the feet in ordinary weather, arid moccasins, coarse, "country-made" shoes, or "shoe-packs" during more rigorous seasons. To complete the picture Kercheval, the historian of the Shenandoah Valley, is here quoted: "The coats and bed-gowns of the women, as well as the bunting-shirts of the men, were hung in full display on wooden pegs around the walls of their cabins, so that while they answered in some degree the purpose of paper-hangings or tapestry, they announced to the stranger as well as the neighbor the wealth or poverty of the family in the articles of clothing."

It is to be hoped that the desultory sketch furnished above will not be found uninteresting despite its imperfections. Many details have been omitted or neglected, but enough has been written to illustrate in a general way the qualities for which our ancestors were most distinguished, for which their characters have excited most comment and perhaps deserved most praise.

As a whole, they were a generous, large-hearted, liberal-minded people, and their faults were far fewer than their virtues. The yeomanry, in their own rude, rough-and-ready manner, reflected the same sort of personal independence of character and proud sense of individuality as the social aristocracy.