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What visiting Elfreth's Alley taught me about working from home


If you're been following my little art business for the last couple years, you might have noticed I'm just a *tiny bit* obsessed with Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia. I visited the Elfreth's Alley Museum House for the first time in the Spring of 2017, and it immediately became one of my favorite Philadelphia attractions. During the tour, I learned the street was unique because it was a rare example of a preserved  working class neighborhood. Elfreth's Alley has a long history of being home to artisans, tradespeople and small business owners and being a working artist and wannabe entrepreneur, I immediately felt a connection to the past residents of the street.  
Like myself, the small business owners of Elfreth's Alley all worked from home. Working from home in 2019 might seem like a modern trend in the American workforce, but actually, for most of history, ALL work was done from home. It wasn't until the industrial revolution that the idea of going "to work" at somewhere outside of your own house became more commonplace. Here's some work from home tips I learned from Colonial America:

1) You Don't Need Your Own Office to Get Work Done
I currently work at a makeshift desk in my living room, often trying to type while a few other family members watch TV all the while thinking, "I would get so much more done if only I had an office away from all these distractions", but visiting Elfreth's Alley made me realize that was just something I would tell myself so I could procrastinate. The average colonial house on the street was under 1000 square feet, shared by 10 people, everyone would, sleep, cook, eat, and live in just 3 or 4 rooms and STILL manage to work along with the incredible amount of other tasks necessary to stay alive. The working class didn't have the luxury of their own private office, nor would they want to be hidden away from other people - craftspeople on the street would purposely work at their open front window so that passersby could see their wares and buy them...think of it as the 18th century version of following someone's Instagram feed.  

2) Give the Kids a Job

Childhood was not the carefree, kid-centered time it is now, children were expected to WORK and work hard. From toddler age up until 12 or 13 when they were old enough to get an apprenticeship and start making money outside the home, there were few toys and little to no time to play or spend long hours attending school - kids helped out with both the family business and household chores. Now that I'm thinking about it, I have a 12 year old who's old enough to apprentice out.... there's no reason why she couldn't write a few blog posts for me ;) 

3) No Pulling All Nighters

It's tempting to try to get a few extra hours of work in when you should be sleeping, but for the colonial era residents of Elfreth's Alley this was not very practical. The purpose of large front windows in colonial homes was not just to let passersby see their handiwork, but also to let as much sunlight in as possible. Without daylight, 18th century homes were very dark and for many types of makers, it became difficult or impossible to work. While candles were used during this time, they were pricey and conserved as much as possible -  especially during the gloomy winter months, one really had to decide if their work was "worth the candle". With all the current research on the dangers of not getting enough sleep, maybe colonial people actually had the lack of light to their advantage. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 If you haven't visited the Elfreth's Alley Museum House yet (or it's been a few years since you've been), make a point to make it there this summer. The museum has gone through a few changes recently and has a few new features, including my favorite - a new garden filled with plants that would have been growing in the colonial era. The admission fee is just just $3 for adults ($8 for a guided tour) you can visit in less than an hour, and get a great feel for the life of Philadelphia's earliest residents. I've made a few items featuring Elfreth's Alley, including a kitchen towel, postcards and letterpress map and you can find them on my site here: PhilaCarta Elfreth's Alley Products  or for sale in the Elfreth's Alley Museum House gift shop.

Have you been to the Elfreth's Alley Museum House? Let me know in the comments!

1 comment

  • I love thinking about earlier trends and times, it really does provide perspective. Great post!

    Stacey

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