Title: Children at the HearthChildren at the Hearth
Author: Barbara Swell
Pages: 72
Reading Level: 10 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

Children at the Hearth, written by Barbara Swell, is an abstract of the people, manners, cooking, games, and living conditions of the 19th Century. On the opening page, Mrs. Swell writes,

This book is an invitation to learn about the lives of children past at the kitchen table of today. Why in the kitchen, you ask? Because for as long as people can remember, the pulse of family life beat hardest where kinship and stories of the day’s adventures blended over a pan of chicken and dumplings.”

I appreciated this homage to the family dinner table, though in the subsequent pages, this intent became diluted. Recipes – many archaic – are provided to give a ‘taste’ of the 19th Century, but also included are photographs, sayings, games, and quaint historical tidbits.

The format feels very chaotic. There is no set pattern for how the material is presented – it’s just mishmashed into a series of boxes. A recipe here, a quote there, a random picture planted between them, and no coherent thought to bind them together.

Here are a few of the interesting tidbits.

  • It was once thought that adding milk to tea created a substance related to leather. That’s why people would say “People who put milk in tea are drinking boots and shoes in disguise.”
  • Slave children didn’t like to play games in which players were left out or eliminated, because they lived in the fear that they could in fact be separated from their friends and siblings, should their master decide to sell them.
  • Chewing gum was called “wax” in the South, and it was scarce. Instead of chewing the gum for a while and spitting it out, it was passed around from child to child for days!


Quite a few superstitious rhymes are mentioned – you know the type “Make a wish when you try on another person’s shoe and it’ll come true”. Also, the superstitious medical practices of the time are mentioned. The only story which went beyond the natural realm occurred on page 17 where a tale named “The Greenbrier Ghost” is included.

The reward of finding a red ear at a corn shucking is mentioned.

Perhaps a petty complaint – but one which I will nevertheless mention – occurs on page 8. Mrs. Swell included the 1646 Massachusetts law that exacted death as the punishment for intractable and rebellious children, which I thought was interesting, but she says that this law was passed because “citizens thought children were getting too wild and unruly.” As if any parents would invent the death penalty as a preferred method of chastening children! No, this law was passed because the inhabitants of Massachusetts were Christians who believed in the validity of God’s law, not because they thought children were getting ‘unruly’!

Courtship is discussed. (Nothing unduly romantic.)

Conclusion. Interesting, but definitely not essential. Children would probably be entertained to read about living conditions from 150 years ago and try the strange recipes.

Review © 2013 Laura Verret

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