The 18th Century Amish

 

 

During the 18th century, large numbes of Germans flooded into Britain's American colonies seeking freedom from political oppression, escape from religious wars in Europe, and economic opportunity. Among them were large numbers of Amish and Mennonites, many of whom settled along the base of the Blue Mountain, the border between the British colonies and French-controlled Indian territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. 

 

Beliefs

 

As other Anabaptist Christians, such as the Mennonites from which they separated in 1693, the Amish believe in baptizing only those who are old enough to make a voluntary confession of faith in Jesus Christ; they do not baptize infants. In addition, they are nonresistant, taking literally the commandment not to kill and Jesus' command to turn the other cheek, and so they do not serve in the military. They also believe that Christians are to be separate from the world and live a plain, modest, and peaceful way of life. Their distinctive dress and lifestyle testify to these beliefs.

 

Because they refused to join the denominations, whether Protestant or Catholic, established by the countries in which they lived in Europe, they were denied many rights, such as the right to own land. They were often subjected to persecution, at times severe.. Many chose to flee to other countries, including America and Russia.

 

Daily Life

 

The Amish developed a reputation in Europe for being excellent farmers, and they naturally gravitated to areas in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other colonies where fertile soil was available. They quickly warranted land and established farms, called plantations; cleared fields; built substantial homes, barns, and other outbuildings; acquired livestock; and planted crops and orchards.

 

Life on the frontier was harsh, requiring constant toil. Every member of the family had to work, and as soon as a child was old enough to walk, he or she was assigned appropriate chores. The land had to be tilled and crops planted and harvested in season. Flax must be beaten and processed and sheep sheered so the flax fibers and wool could be spun into linen and wool yarn for weaving. Every housewife had a kitchen garden, and orchards and livestock had to be tended in addition to numerous other daily tasks. By working together and sharing the labor as was their custom, however, the Amish soon established thriving settlements in the new world. 

 

Although books were scarce, most Amish families owned a copy of the Bible, the Ausbund hymn book, and the book Wandelnde Seele. There were no public schools so children attended subscription schools, or their parents taught them at home. Sundays were reserved for rest and worship, with the Amish congregations meeting in members' homes. 

 

Harvest, butchering, and preserving food for the winter occupied summer and fall. These activities offered occasions for social gatherings and frolics to lighten the workload and provide entertainment. They also allowed the young people to socialize, and weddings commonly took place in late fall after the harvest was over.

 

Dress

 

Contrary to what you might think, Amish clothing has changed quite a bit over the centuries. There aren’t many resources that give descriptions of eighteenth-century Amish dress, but Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries by Melvin Gingerich includes much helpful information, though it lacks specific information about the 1750s. We can assume, however, that during that period Amish dress was similar to Mennonite dress, but plainer and with more limited colors.

 

In colonial times Amish men would have worn the customary long shirt that also served as nightwear, a waistcoat, and knee breeches, with long hose and plain shoes without buckles for footwear. A dress jacket was added for formal occasions such as attendance at church.

 

Women would have worn a plain mid-calf-length petticoat with a separate bodice pinned together in the front. For underwear, a voluminous shift did double duty as a nightgown. Over this and under their bodice, colonial women wore stays to support the bosom, but we have no way of knowing whether Amish women did so. A white linen cap, a neck cloth that covered the neck and bosom, an apron, hose, and shoes completed their attire.

 

Outdoors both Amish men and women wore black beaver-felt hats with a low crown in cooler weather. In the summer women wore wide-brimmed straw hats with low crowns. These were called scoops because of the shape that resulted when they passed a ribbon or cord over the crown and tied it under the chin, pulling the brim down on both sides of the head.

 

Language

 

The language spoken by the Amish from the Alsace region of Europe in the 18th century was an early form of the Alsatian German dialect. Those who came from Switzerland spoke a Swiss German dialect. The modern variations of Pennsylvania German developed from these languages.

Copyright © 2015 by Sheaf House Publishers.

Contact Joan M. Shoup at jmshoup@gmail.com.