Wichita was founded in 1871, and to most of us, that pretty much just means it’s old. In a world of Apple watches and air conditioning, it’s hard to imagine just what living in Wichita around the time it officially became a city would have been like. Most of us picture horses and carriages, but this wasn’t common in Wichita, according to Anthony Horsch, Education and Interpretation Coordinator at Old Cowtown Museum.
Midwestern life in the 1800s was much harder than life today, and Wichita was no different. Typical middle-class homes both in the city and in the country woke before the break of day. Mothers, daughters and sometimes servants hurriedly revived cooking stove embers to begin making breakfast and heating water. Farmers woke at the same time, allowing them to complete chores like milking cows, feeding livestock, chopping wood, and drawing water before breakfast.
Children also woke before the sun in order to help with daily chores. In rural areas, this meant working in the house and in the barnyard. Children who lived in town used this time to break up coal for use in the stove, help with cooking, and get water for the day. When each member of the family completed these tasks, it was time for breakfast.
Breakfast was a hearty meal, consisting of beefsteak or pork, fried potatoes, eggs, hotcakes, fruit pie, and coffee. During the winter, many families favored a warm porridge for breakfast. Dry cereals, developed by Dr. John H. Kellogg, were also newly available at this time.
Though businessmen and professionals did not have to begin work until 8-9 a.m., factory workers, store clerks and other day-laborers had to be at work by 6 a.m.
Schools in the city ran from about 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., and country schools started and ended approximately an hour later to allow for travel time.
McCormick School Museum
During the day, women saw that tasks like laundry (which was done entirely by hand), cooking, cleaning and shopping were done, whether by doing them on their own or by directing servants to take care of them. Women also frequently called upon other women of similar status during the day.
The noon meal was the biggest of the day, and most families returned home to enjoy it together. Lasting for about an hour, this meal typically consisted of a combination of fresh and processed foods, including canned goods, factory made dairy products and more. After the meal, children returned to school and fathers went back to work.
These commutes were made on foot. Though many automatically picture horse-drawn carriages flooding the streets during this time period, such was not the case in Wichita. The need for daily care, stalls, and feed for horses made use of wagons unrealistic in the city.
Evening Activities and Entertainment
Wichita High School Commencement Program, 1896
Via Wichita History From My Perspective Facebook page.
When fathers returned from their 10-12 hour work day between 6 and 7 p.m., families once again sat down to dine together. Supper was a light meal, usually offering fresh fruit, cold meats and potato salad.
Time spent after supper was the most flexible of the day, varying from family to family. This time was spent together, usually in the living room, gathered around the kitchen table, or on a veranda when the weather was nice.
Often, this is when children completed their school work, fathers read newspapers, and mothers wrote letters and sewed. Reading was also common, and mothers and fathers regularly read aloud to their children. A variety of literature was available at the time, from authors like Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain. In addition, dime novels that chronicled the exploits of Buffalo Bill, Ned Buntline and more were available and were largely popular.
Weekly and monthly periodicals as well as a variety of general home journals, included topics of fiction, poetry, politics, fashion, gardening, childrearing, home decoration, history, biography, travel, and current events were also common. Families also played games together in the evenings, including charades, board games, a variation of 20 Questions, and more.
Wichita Entertainment in the 1800's
Other sources of entertainment were available outside the home, including events like spelling bees and graduations at Wichita schools, a Fireman’s ball that was held twice each year and lectures. Wichita was also a stop on the tour of many traveling shows like Barnum's Great Centennial (brass) band, Allied shows of Cooper, Bailey and Company (circus), and the Original Peak Family, who were known throughout the United States as the “Swiss Bell Ringers."
Many new recreational crazes were popularized during this period, including archery, bicycling, croquet, lawn tennis, and roller skating.
Via Wichita History From My Perspective Facebook page.
Most men continued to work on Saturdays, and children used their time off of school to help around the house. Girls, especially, were helpful, keeping house and preparing meals. Often, all weekend meals were prepared on Saturday so that on Sunday, families could observe the Sabbath without working.
Intended to be a day of rest, Sundays meant Sunday school and church in the morning for most families. After church, families ate the dinner that they had prepared the day before. The rest of the day was reserved for quiet activities such as napping, reading, letter writing, picnicking, and carriage-rides. An evening church service ended the day for many older children and adults.
Wichita's Growth by the late 1870's
Wichita had significantly grown and diversified by the mid-to-late 1870’s, with a sprawling business industry to prove it. By this time, the city was home to:
- 25 grocery stores
- 9 dry goods stores
- 4 banks
- 7 real Estate
- 8 hardware stores
- 9 Agricultural implements
- 8 painting firms
- 13 plasterers
- 10 blacksmiths
- 4 liquor stores and saloon
- 13 hotels
- 6 restaurants
- 6 drugstores
- 2 clothing stores
- 2 furniture stores
- 2 photographers
- 2 barbershops
- 4 Saddlery shops
- 4 grain elevators
- 2 flour mills
- 7 meat markets
- 23 Livery stables
- 4 newspapers
- 2 ice dealers
- 3 coal dealers
- 12 dressmaker/milliners
- 15 laundries
- 5 lumber dealers
- 18 liquor stores
- 4 sewing machine dealers
- 3 Cigar manufactures
- 3 cigar and tobacco stores
- 9 boot and shoe manufacturers
- 11 carpenter/ building firms
- A soap factory
- A soda water factory
- 3 wagon factories
- 3 wagon dealerships
- 4 watchmakers
- and Professional services including medical care, dental care and legal services.