Iowa History Project
From the founding of their Society to the present time the Friends have been a people much attached to their homes, not seeking their pleasures in the diversions of the outside world. Home life to them has always stood next to religion.
Sedate and reserved as the Quaker appeared to the world, when met and known in his home he proved to be one of the most congenial of men. Within the domestic circle there was not the slightest show of formality; and the guest who came, whether high or low, was received on a par with the members of the family and given the heartiest of welcomes. Along with the kindnesses or attentions shown there was no attempt at strained entertainment; for the guest was fully expected to indulge himself as he pleased, while the necessary work of the house or of the farm went on as usual. Above all, the guest was told, after the Quaker manner, “to be free”, and that to ask for what he wanted was but to show agreeable contentment. Their hospitality was born of the long custom among themselves of frequent and uninvited visiting, especially I this western country.
To the visitor from the world conversation among the Friends seemed limited, for rarely did they discuss topics of common political or social concern: their chief interest was in church and neighborhood affairs. With them it was not uncommon, while sitting together, for a long period of silence or religious reflection to occur, which often-times ended with prayer or religious discussion without the slightest reserve. On the other hand, the Quakers had a wit and humor all their own, which not infrequently displayed itself. Seldom making use of sarcasm or hurtful personal reference, the Quaker joke in anecdote form is thoroughly enjoyable. Much of their humor concerned itself with amusing incidents known to have occurred—such as the story of the eccentric old Quaker who refused to allow his wife to grow red roses in her garden because they reminded him of the devil, while at the same time she might raise as many white roses as she wanted to; or that of the old Quaker preacher who contended that his was the best example of a pure and unadulterated Gospel, because he could neither read nor write.(439)
Noticeable, too, in general was the simple plainness in the furnishings of the Quaker home. The Quakers were trained to this principle, for back in New England the ancestors of the Iowa Friends had been taught through disciplinary requirement to “keep to plainness in household stuff and furniture…avoiding in particular Striped and Flowered Bed or Window hangings of Divers Colours, and Quilts. Counter paines and Table Carpetts [cloths], of like gaudy Colours & Double Vallants [drapings] and fringes”, and especially that “all Friends that have vessels of Silver do not set them up in any publick place nor no other flowered painted vessels, seeming more to bee seen than otherwise.(440) Nothing was to be kept for mere show, not even pictures or paintings; and even in Iowa to-day, among the more conservative members of the Society, what few pictures there are to be found are almost invariably of a simple religious character, set in inexpensive frames.
Lacking in expensive furniture though they were, one thing almost invariably attracted the visitor’s eye in the Quaker’s home, namely, his collection of books. Among those old-time leather-bound, or black cloth-covered, volumes one would seldom find the recognized masterpieces of the world’s literature; but, on the other hand, seldom was there lacking a copy of George Fox’s Journal, Barclay’s Apology, or the writings of William Penn. A glance at the family calendar would also be of interest, for, much to the surprise of one untutored in the Quaker ways, he would find the common names of the days and months all missing, and in their places the simple system of numeration, First Day, Second Day, Third Day, and so on, or First Month, Second Month, and so on to the end. On inquiry for the cause of this strange custom the unembarrassed reply would be that the common names of the days and months were of pagan origin, except for the months of September, October, November, and December, which were intended in the Latin to stand for the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the year, but in the change of the calendar these appellations were made incorrect, and were in consequence rejected by the Quakers.(441)
Of no less interest were meal-times among the Friends; for with the abundance of simple but wholesome foods and the good cheer that prevailed, the visitor was always welcome, whoever he might be. Little given to superfluity of any kind, the question of saying grace at the table was a serious one, for, thought they, better nothing said than that which came not from a reverent and honest heart. In consequence it was their custom when all were seated to observe a time of meditative silence, and if any one were moved to vocal utterance, he should prove obedient to his promptings. Not infrequently it occurred that for days or even weeks at a time no grace was said; but when it came, or come as frequently as it might, it was almost invariably sincere in tone and free from stereotyped expressions.
Thus have the Quakers lived in contentment, peace and plenty. Patiently have they toiled and worshipped. Bravely, too, have they met their problems, conscious of a mission and a given end and destiny. Through all the storms of their troubled course, nothing has seemed permanently to disturb them: nothing has destroyed their faith. Well have they served the world, queer though they may have seemed to be.
439- Many interesting anecdotes of this character may be found in Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Philadelphia, 1870).
440- Taken from notes by Clarence M. Case on the Minutes of New England Yearly Meeting, Vol. I, 1683-1789.
441- Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism, Vol. I, pp. 291-293.