Historical Notes

Compiled from early 1900s magazine articles.

The cultural, historical setting of A Jury of Her Peers is rural Midwest America in the early 1900s when large numbers of country people were migrating to the cities in search of jobs. Traditional social activities of the farm communities such as quilting bees, barn raisings, and harvesting parties were breaking down.

Rural families experienced increased isolation, particularly farmers' wives, who rarely left the farm, their work being exclusively in the home. A husband usually picked up what his wife needed in town on his weekly trip. The women had little news except what their husbands relayed to them, and what they read in the newspapers that were wrapped around the bundles from the store. They were fortunate to have a monthly local paper. They had no pictures or books, except possibly a bible.

In the early 1900s the Secretary of Agriculture sent a letter to American farmwomen asking them to write him their needs and desires. He received piles of heart-rending letters asking for electricity, telephones, medical attention, pictures, books, newspapers, flowers, shrubs, trees, information on vegetables and how to cook them.

Rural women worked alone until their children were old enough to help them unless they were fortunate enough to have a hired girl. Without the traditional social gatherings, they hardly saw their neighbors and friends. Very often their relationship with their husbands was one of work rather than friendship. The advent of the telephone eased this isolation somewhat, but many rural women suffered painful loneliness.

Most farmers' wives were overworked, their hours uncalculated and long. They were responsible for preparing food, cleaning up, cleaning house, laundering, ironing, mending, making clothes, growing vegetables, fruits, chickens, eggs, and making butter. They were also required to feed, launder, iron, sew, and mend for however many hired men their husbands employed.

The farmer's wife's work wasn't considered real work, so she rarely had hired help, even with a large family and many hired men. Some women were lucky enough to have a husband who allowed a hired girl. But hired girls were traditionally paid very low wages, consequently they didn't stay long, and were often inexperienced. A farmer thought nothing of hiring a man to help him put in a new field of crops; he also thought nothing of his wife taking on this extra burden with no additional help.

Farms were considered modern if they had the latest farm machinery, whether or not the farmwoman had domestic labor-saving devices such as hot and cold running water and clothes washers. It was the rare, enlightened farmer who saw the need for such “luxuries” for his wife.

A reporter visiting a dairy farming area in the Midwest in the early 1900s noted that all the dairy workers by law had to wear freshly washed, starched, and ironed white aprons every day. Of course that was the job of the dairy farmer's wife (and she was not likely to have a washing machine). The reporter did his own unofficial survey of the farms in the area, and found that every dairy farmer, without exception, was married a second time, his first wife having died young, probably, the reporter felt, from overwork.