Roles and Activities of Work-Play Parties

A Review and Analysis of “Huskings, Quiltings, and Barn Raisings; Work-play parties in early America”

Author: Victoria Sherrow

Published by Walker in London, 1992

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A barn raising near Toronto Canada.

Summary of Book

Victoria Sherrow’s 1992 book, “Huskings, Quintings, and Barn Raisings; Work-Play Parties in Early America”, takes a view back to the roots of America, to rural frontier culture. This book describes the need for rural people to rely on their neighbors in times of abundance as well as during times of hardship. Making one’s way as a farmer has always been hard work yet it was especially taxing in the days when the infrastructure was still being created, when the people broke the prairie sod for the first time, felled the forest and started from scratch. These huge tasks were usually done at the family scale but at times, outside help was needed. Fortunately, getting together with one’s neighbors can also be fun. These work get-togethers are the “Work-Play Parties” described in Sherrow’s book. The rural people would make an occasion out of the work gatherings, calling them work-parties or more specific names such as quilting bees, barn raisings, and sugaring-offs. There was always food involved with these gatherings as a payment of gratitude for the neighbor helpers. There was a time of work and then a time of fun, often with games and dances after the work was finished for the day.

The author, Victoria Sherrow, is a prolific author of young adult’s literature, haven published over 60 books (Good Reads).  Many of her books are nonfiction and of historical content.

This book’s intended readers are young adults in the age range of 8 to 14 and is a part of agriculture literature non-fiction genre.  This book contributes to the understanding of rural culture in America which revolved around the farm and homestead since this country was founded.

Thesis

As we read children’s and young adult’s literature, which are created to inform young minds,  the messages and morals being taught in the stories are highly important. One theme that is not blatant but that reoccurs often is the difference of roles between men and women during work-play parties. In the next few paragraphs I will show examples of this and explore how it may be interpreted by young readers while contributing to their understanding of agrarian culture.

Analysis

In all examples of work-play parties described in this book, it included what men and women would each be doing. The roles were generally divided by hard outdoor labor for the men and home, food, and cloth-related duties were for the girls and women. A good example of how a passage from this book explains the roles is as follows, “During the 1800s, in the western frontier areas, men joined together to raise a log cabin. Some took up to three days to build… The women and girls of the settlement might spend weeks preparing the food that would be served.” (Pg. 17, Sherrow). Males do the work of raising the cabin in a day or more and the females spend weeks preparing food to nourish all of the helpers. While physical work is seen as more difficult, spending weeks to prepare food is equally taxing and just as important.

In the following passage, we hear about the clearing of land for homes and fields, where both men and women helped in the effort. This is an example where women used tools in outdoor labor, which is the only mention of such activities in the text, “Women and children helped to cut smaller trees and bushes with a small ax or a bushwhack, a metal tool with sharp edges that was often use to chop away underbrush,” (Pg. 11, Sherrow). This had to be done when clearing land for the first time for fields and homes, indicating that this occurred in the east, south and Midwest during westward expansion, most likely in conjunction with the Homestead Act era after the 1860s. Perhaps, by the 1800s and beyond, women were gaining more flexibility in their roles on the farm. As time has progressed, women have gained more and more access to work alongside men in the fields and with tools and machinery.

Women were crucial to the establishment of rural communities. From a section on settling the Great Plains, it is said about gender, “On the plains, very few single men attempted to operate a farm or ranch by themselves; they clearly understood the need for a hard-working wife, and numerous children, to handle the many chores, including child-rearing, feeding and clothing the family, managing the housework, feeding the hired hands… During the early years of settlement in the late 19th century, farm women played an integral role in ensuring family survival by working outdoors,” (Great Plains).

Women played a vital role in the rural communities, often being the ones who initiated and organized their social lives. This quote gives examples of the types of events they would create: “(Women) often sponsored activities that combined work, food, and entertainment such as barn raisings, corn huskings, quilting bees, Grange meetings, church activities, and school functions,” (Northern Plains). This passage shows us that women helped build the connections and relationships that initiated the work-play parties as well other important social events that not only allowed for socializing but also helped the families survive.

I began to wonder about the universality of gender roles divided between physical labor and tending to home and family. While exploring this question, I came across a paper about gender roles in Africa. In the cultures studied, men do the physical hard labor while women tend the home and for people, as is often the case in Europe and America, (World Regional Geography). This is a big question, but it is worth noting that from a young adult’s novel on rural culture, a question about universal truths has been born. This book has great inspiration for all its readers and provokes some necessary questions.  It is hard to say if men’s work or women’s work is more taxing, but what is certain is that both sexes worked hard in their daily lives as well as in the times of work-play parties.  This book does a good job of not instilling a hierarchy on the different jobs done and acknowledges the different but equal roles that men and women played.

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Women and men work side by side at a volunteer event to build an adobe bench at a park in Moab, Utah.

Works Cited

Cover photo: Galbraith, Alexander W. A barn raising north of Toronto, Canada. Digital image. City of of Toronto Archives. City of Toronto. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

Pulsipher, Lydia M., Alex Pulsipher, and Conrad M. Goodwin. World Regional Geography: Global Patterns, Local Lives. New York: W.H. Freeman, 2002. Print.

Sherrow, Victoria. Huskings, quiltings and barn raising: work-play parties in early America London: Walker, 1992. Print.

“Victoria Sherrow Books.” Victoria Sherrow Books. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

“Victoria Sherrow.” Goodreads. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.

World Heritage Encyclopedia. “Great Plains.” Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

World Heritage Encyclopedia. “Northern Plains.” Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

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