Farming Vignettes From 1840

Check out these historical accounts of a man falling in love with a milkmaid, and a mysterious beekeeper in the mid Victorian era.

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by Artbalitskiy

These scribblings are offered under the heading, “Looking Back,” and this month we’ll look back as far as 1840. As June is “National Dairy Month,” the first story is about a pretty milk maid.

I have bound volumes for the years 1840 and 1841 of a farm paper titled “The Cultivator” that was published in Albany, New York, and from the March, 1840 issue is a letter to the editor from someone who signs himself “Tom Traveler.”

“Tom Traveler” writes: “Massachusetts’ shrewd, observer, Mr. Coleman, says that milking is no longer in fashion, by the fair fingers of America. I wish he had passed through the beautiful village of Hamilton [probably Hamilton, New York] with me last summer and he would have found at least one exception to his remark. After seeing my steed was well cared for, and laying in pretty bountifully with provender on my own behalf, I sallied out for a view of the town. Walking through a nice park, gazing on the romantic grouping of the distant hills, and then on the pretty houses with their charming dooryards; all at once I was brought up by the sight of a noble cow showing her Durham breed in her fine muzzle, short horns, thick loins, and distended udder. This was enough to make a person of my taste in kine flesh to pause for a profound view. But I had hardly taken a second look when out trips from the next white cottage, a charming, rosy cheeked girl, with a garland of flowers round her head, and a pail painted green without, and as white within as the plump, alabaster arm, bared to the elbow, from which it was suspended. Gracefully seating herself on a three-legged stool, and uttering sweetly, ‘so, my gentle Mully, so,’ she commenced stripping away. I declare, the sight made my bachelor heart almost leap from within me, and I thought, ‘that’s the girl for me'”

From the same issue comes an account of a Mr. Keith of Maine, who tried several ways of keeping bees, all of which failed, and who then tried an unusual method that, while successful for many years, came to a tragic end.

“He finished a room in his garret impervious to rats and mice, to which was a door secured against children and intruders. In this room was placed a swarm of bees, the hive on a level with and near the places made for their egress and ingress to the room. The young swarm soon filled their hive, and then commenced building all around it, filling in with the finest comb, and without the support of slats or bars, the space from the roof to the floor of their room.

“Mr. Keith, by the aid of a candle was able at any time to inspect the progress of his apiary; there was no swarming and the number of bees increased markedly. After the second year, Mr. Keith commenced taking honey from the room, doing it in winter when the bees were dormant, the external mass of combs always composing the best and purest part of the store.

“For many years Mr. Keith’s table was abundantly supplied with the choicest of sweets, until in 18__, his dwelling was destroyed by fire, and his bee-hive ‘containing at least eight hundred pounds of honey, and of living beings a multitude which no man could number,’ shared the common fate.

“The honey bee is one of the most valuable of our manufacturers; and that and the silk-worm almost the only insects that contribute by their industry to the comfort of man.”

In today’s world it’s hard to imagine that the mere sight of girl’s “plump, alabaster arm, bared to the elbow” would be enough to grab the attention of a young bachelor, nor do I think I’d want a huge bee hive residing in the attic of my house, but that’s the way it was nearly two centuries ago.

Sam Moore

  • Updated on May 5, 2022
  • Originally Published on Jun 14, 2021
Tagged with: beekeeping, farming life, history, Victorian era
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