adventure, history lesson, little house cookbook, movies

Frontier House (II)

A few days ago I gave an overview of PBS’ miniseries Frontier House, where three modern families live for five months on Montana homesteads as though it were 1883. Here are just a few things that were fascinating about the series:

  • the historically accurate division of labor. The men build the houses, sheds, and fences, while the women cook, do never-ending laundry, and try to sew (there’s just never any time). The kids care for the animals, do the milking, haul water, and help with the harvest. As you might expect, the women get the raw end of the deal. As soon as they’re finished making breakfast, it’s time to start making lunch for all those hungry workers who will be expecting a hot meal. And that’s without considering that they have to wash all their families’ clothes by hand.
  • the importance of family size. The families with four kids split up their work much as I described above. The newly-married couple with no kids has a much more flexible division of work: the woman helps her husband build fences and do a lot of outdoor labor, in addition to cooking and laundering. Now that I think of it, that’s just more work for the woman.
  • the families’ reactions to the hardships of homesteading. There’s a lot of crying. Mostly out of frustration (like when a mom finds out she can’t wear makeup for their family portrait, or when the dogs eat the breakfast that same mom spent hours cooking). And while some of the people try to work together, one family resists cooperation, which just leads to tension and conflict. This is probably the most “reality-show” part of the series.
  • the families’ reactions to poverty. They’re not given a lot of food to start with, since most homesteaders only had what they could bring with them. One family budgets their goods, while another family burns through their food and then spends all their money at the general store. To make more money, the father of that family builds his own still. And makes moonshine.
  • health concerns. One woman gets tendinitis in her arm because she’s doing so much housework. One man, who’s lost a good deal of weight, worries that he’s starving. The doctor who examines him reports that he’s actually much healthier than he was at the start of the show, he’s at a healthy weight, and his only problem is dehydration. 
  • the emotional impact of killing animals. Periodically they take stock of the hens and realize they have to kill the ones that aren’t laying. If they can’t harvest eggs, at least they can benefit from the meat. But one of the kids grows emotionally attached to every animal, and protests mightily when it’s time to chop off the head of his favorite chicken. “Then you shouldn’t have named her!” his mom says. Ah, the reality of knowing where your food comes from.
  • the adjustment back to modern life. One couple reflects that they don’t know what to do with their ocean-front mansion (it’s too darn big!). Another couple separates to work out the tensions that emerged during their homesteading experience. One girl discovers her affinity with animals and carries that back to her life in Tennessee. Two other girls reflect that they’re “bored” with modern life.

Josh commented that the final episode (showing the adjustment to modern life) was designed with a very specific message in mind: that modern life isolates family members from each other and makes it hard for people to be self-reliant. The producers of the show definitely emphasized this aspect. But to some extent, it’s an accurate message. How self-reliant are we really? Do we really need these big houses? Do we use computers and television to mediate our interactions with family and friends?

    This show has given me a lot to consider. Now I want to hear from you: are there weaknesses in our modern lives? If so, what do you think they are? How could we change for the better?


    2 thoughts on “Frontier House (II)”

    1. During our time at Brown, we attended a lecture (which had a delightful cheese spread afterward btw) by a psychiatrist who worried about the over-abundant means of communication available to us. She made that point that we used to communicate with people (call, visit) WHEN we felt something, but now we communicate (call/text/e-mail) TO feel something. She was worried about the effect this lack of self-reflection and alone time had on adolescents in particular.

      Although it seems like the 1800s family had less privacy in many ways, I imagine there was also a lot more time for self reflection while cooking all these meals and building the fences.

      I don't really have a point here about whether these things are good or bad- that lecture just stuck with me, so I thought I'd share.

      As always, great post!


    2. Oh, I remember that talk! (And the cheese.) The show reflected that idea to some extent, especially when the kids realized that they'd discovered “imagination” (as one adorable boy put it) by not being constantly surrounded by technology.

      Thanks for the thoughts!


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