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Life in 1800s Bloomington: Wylie House

October 16, 2011

The 1835 Wylie House today. (Photo courtesy Wylie House)

Built in 1835, Wylie House provides us with a valuable demonstration of what life was like in Bloomington, Indiana, in the first half of the 1800s. Nearly all the architecture dating to the early years of Bloomington has been torn down over the years (the byproduct of  a constantly changing population and vigorous growth); probably fewer than ten brick or stone homes of that same era still stand in the city. [Click on any photo to enlarge.]

Imagine living in a home without a furnace, without running water, without insulation in the walls or roof, with a privy, a laundry house, a smokehouse and a barn in the back. But this was no hillbilly shack! Instead, it was the most stately mansion of its time and place. Built in 1835 as the elegant and impressive home of the first president of Indiana University, it spared no cost in construction or details. The president at that time earned about $1200 per year, a lordly sum compared with the ordinary townspeople in the early 1800s. Each of the corner blocks in the window trim of the front hallway cost a whopping 42 cents each, at a time when that sum represented a week’s wage for a workingman. Nevertheless, heated only by fireplaces, the home was so cold in the wintertime that ink froze in the inkwells.

The parlor is today adorned with wall stencils and handsome draperies.

The home is a blend of the Federal and Georgian styles that Wylie had admired when he was a young man growing up in the East. By 1835 these styles had passed out of vogue in the eastern United States but were still being built in scattered locations in “the West.” Bear in mind that Bloomington in 1835 was not far removed in time or geography from the western frontier; it was exceedingly difficult to travel there from outside due to the lack of navigable waterways and the absence of improved highways in this corner of the state. There would be no railroad until 1853 and anyone who wanted to import furniture or goods from outside the county had to have it hauled slowly and painstakingly by oxen or mules on a lurching wagon along unpaved trails. Anyone who lived in Bloomington needed to be hardy and self-reliant.

Like many homes today, the master bedroom is on the main floor.

There were no grocery stores as we would understand the term. Although there was a general store in the town, there was no store that would sell produce year-round. In winter fresh greens were not available and people lived on root vegetables and boiled stews. Every household raised its own food. Although Wylie was a gentleman and scholar, his house was actually a farmhouse, sited on a twenty-acre farm that reached north to what is now Smith Street and east to Henderson. The tiny university was located approximately where today’s Kroger parking lot is, on nearby Second Street, and a creek ran at the bottom of the hill, dividing Wylie’s property from the university campus across the way. He could stand on his front doorstep and see the university easily, with no intervening structures to block the view.

Herbs from the Wylie House garden dry on racks in the kitchen.

Wylie’s wife, Margaret, was either pregnant or nursing for 25 years. She gave birth to twelve children, none of whom died. This was in the era of cholera, typhus, whooping cough, dysentery, and countless other infectious diseases that killed nearly half of all children before they reached adulthood. It is a testimonial to her excellent parenting skills that all of her children survived. She tended her growing family and also was responsible for cleaning the home, cooking, sewing and knitting for the family. Many women of that era did their own spinning and weaving since factory-woven cloth was difficult to obtain away from metropolitan areas. Although it is possible she knew how to spin and weave, her father was a well-to-do merchant in western Pennsylvania and may have been able to supply her with the cloth she needed to make the family’s clothing. Servants were hard to come by in Bloomington and Margaret led a life of constant hard work.

Wylie House staff process heirloom foodstuffs the way it would have been done in the mid-1800s.

The Wylies kept cattle, horses, mules, pigs and poultry, and maintained an orchard. They grew grains for their animals and for their own bread (a local mill would grind flour for citizens). Margaret and the children tended a large garden in which they grew what are now called heirloom vegetables and fruits. They saved seeds from year to year to plant anew. They made their own tallow candles and made their own soap with which they washed themselves, their hair and their laundry. Their fireplaces burned wood which they cut on their own land. Cutting wood proved fatal to Andrew; in November of 1851 he was chopping firewood when his ax slipped, wounding his leg grievously. Exposed to the wintry weather while bleeding badly, he caught pneumonia and died at the age of 62. The home eventually was bought by his cousin Theophilus Wylie; it remained in family hands until 1913.

Wylie House in springtime. (Photo courtesy Wylie House)

Wylie House is today a historic house museum maintained by Indiana University. Its dedicated staff and volunteers maintain an heirloom garden behind the house and sell the seeds to local gardeners. (All seeds, coming from plants that have done well in the Wylie garden, are particularly well-adapted for this particular climate and soil.) A new interpretive center now stands in an antique timber-framed barn that was moved from across the county; workshops, offices and special events are held there. The home is furnished as it might have been in Andrew’s or Theophilus’ day, with family furniture, historically accurate wall and window treatments, and seasonal carpeting. Almost every object on display in the house has a story that can be related by the staff.

The front hallway now has decorative murals showing what the young Indiana Seminary once looked like.

“We try to talk to people about how the Wylie family lived,” said Jo Burgess, the Director of Wylie House Museum. “The Wylies knew how to do many things that we don’t know how to do anymore. Although life was hard, they still took time to make things beautifully; women spent hours making lovely undergarments that would never be seen, and tools were beautifully designed. Middle-aged people still remember Grandma’s water pump, or pit toilets at highway rest stops, but young people don’t have these experiences. Coming here gives people a new understanding of what it might have been like to live in those days.”

The thing that fascinates me most about Wylie House is the fact that once upon a time in this nation, everyone was responsible for furnishing and maintaining his or her own household rather than being able to jump into a car and drive to the nearest big-box store to buy cheap breakable goods made in China. Who derived greater satisfaction from the labor of a single day, these vanished people or us?

Wylie House Museum’s web site is http://www.indiana.edu/~libwylie/index.html

The Wylie House blog is http://wyliehouse.wordpress.com/

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From → Houses

2 Comments
  1. Jacquie Hancock Brattain permalink

    I used to walk by the Wylie House every day on the way to BHS. The house was used as offices. The view of lower level had women running mimeograph machines. They always waved. I remember the house was to lovely and historical to be used this wa

    • I know, it’s incredible how many houses around town have been misused for decades as offices. A lot of what happened to Wylie House in the mid-1900s had to be undone in order to return it to historic authenticity. –Thanks for writing!

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