Life was very different in the "olden days." Most children had a full complement of chores and other responsibilities and quite a lot was expected of the youngsters in a family. Your students will be interested in trying their hand at some of the "chores" described in this project. Interestingly, candle dipping and butter churning were considered "drudge" work by most children in the olden days. Ask your students if they would like these chores to be part of their regular routine!


As your class participates in this project, keep in mind that primary age children are still forming a concept of time. You may wish to use less precise references to times past  --  such as the "olden days" or "long ago before your parents, your grandparents, and you great-grandparents were born." The goal of this project is to provide experiences that will a)serve as a foundation for what students will learn about history in later grades and b) inspire an appreciation for the uniqueness of the past as well as the present.

To guide you in tailoring your olden days unit to the particular history of your community or region, contact the following places in your locality for field trips, class visitors, and artifacts to borrow:

  • Local historical society
  • Antique shop
  • Nature center
  • Farm
  • Vintage book shop
  • Craft shop or local artisans' guild
  • Farrier
  • Living history museum

We have also found many books and videos (see Additional Resources) that are helpful in bringing this unit to life and providing additional details. As you plan your unit, consider whether you want to enjoy these hands-on activities over the course of a week or concentrated into an olden days festival such as a "Homestead Day." Your decision will probably depend on the availability of space and adult volunteers, but you'll find these activities give you lots of flexibility to tailor the unit to your own situation.

Candle Dipping

Life without electricity, especially the electric light at night we all take for granted, is difficult for young children to fathom. One of the biggest family jobs in the olden days, especially before oil lamps became popular, was to make candles. In the past, candle wax was derived from beeswax or boiling animal fat into tallow, and it was a greasy, messy job disliked by most children. However, by using a few simple modern materials and exercising some caution, your class can have the experience of making their own beautiful candles. Candle-dipping is not only an art; it has interesting science applications your students can discuss, such as the effect of hot and cold temperatures on the wax, and the fact that a substance can change from solid to liquid.

This process is easiest and quickest if you have access to a stove where you can heat water in some deep pots.

Safety Note: set up your dipping area far from the stove. We also recommend having one or two parent volunteers on hand for this activity to monitor for safety, since the wax does get hot.


  • Paraffin blocks, such as those used for canning (8-10 blocks per class) Beeswax can also be used, but it is a more expensive alternative.
  • 8 tall, thin metal cans without paper labels; tennis ball cans are the perfect size
  • broken crayon fragments, with labels peeled off, sorted by color groups (have each child bring in a supply from home)
  • cotton string for wicks, cut into 18" lengths (or you may purchase wicks from a craft store)
  • very cold tap water
  • wooden stirring sticks (available at paint stores) or an old wooden spoon
  • newspaper to protect your tabletop
  • old potholders
  • small labels or masking tape to identify each child's candle
  • one or two deep pots of boiling water, and a stove

Safety Note: The paraffin is Never melted directly over the heat source! Always create a "double boiler" effect as described below.

Break up one block of paraffin in each of six cans. Add a generous amount of crayon pieces, a different color family in each can. Set the cans upright in a deep kettle (or kettles) of boiling water, so that the level of the water is halfway up the side of the cans. Stir and break up paraffin and crayon wax until it is entirely melted and the color in each can pleases you.

Fill the remaining two cans with very cold water.

Two children at a time can dip candles -- each child gets a wick and works with three wax cans and one water can. Leaving about six inches untouched by wax to hold on to, dip the string first into wax, then immediately into cold water...then into another color of wax...then back into cold water...repeating the process for about five minutes. After the first few dips, you may need to carefully straighten out the wick if it curls in the hot wax. Each layer of wax on the wick is hardened by the cold water and allows the next layer of wax to adhere. Gradually, the candle begins to thicken and take shape. It's fascinating to watch the different layers of colors build up. When it is about 12 inches long and 3/4 inch in diameter at the bottom, let the candle sit in the cold water for about 30-60 seconds to let it get firm. Attach a name label to the wick, and set aside for further hardening. Talk about why the candle is thicker at the bottom and thinner, or "tapered" at the top hence the other name for candles -- "tapers."

You or an adult volunteer will need to add and melt more paraffin and crayon pieces as the level in the cans decreases. You will also need to replenish the ice cold water every 10 minutes or so, as students take their turns at dipping.

It's fun to have background music playing while doing this activity, and have students march around the table, alternating dipping in wax and water. Students may be interested to learn that in authentic candle dipping, double-length wicks were used, held in the middle, so that two candles at a time could be dipped on one wick. Many double wicks were suspended from a dowel and a dozen candles could be made at one time! They were hung to dry by the exposed bit of wick between the two candles and snipped apart later. You may be able to find fine handmade candles today that are made this way. However, we think your students will be amazed at the beautiful results of their own first efforts at candle making! Remind students as they take their candles home, that they should only be lit and used under an adult's supervision.

Butter Churning

Before people were cholesterol- and fat-conscious, butter was a common condiment on every table. Today's children have no idea of where many foods come from, and it's fun to watch their amazement as something as basic as butter forms right before their eyes.

If it is possible to locate an authentic butter churn, that would be the ideal way to show the children how long and hard adults and children had to work to make butter in the olden days. Some people disliked the job of churning so much that they invented a DOG-driven churn! (See Historic Tools and Gadgets, by Bobbie Kalman. Crabtree, 1992, pp. 5 and 7.) Just follow the description in Chapter Two of Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder for use with either a standing churn or a tabletop jar-mounted model.

For a less complicated process that still shows part of the complexity of making butter, you can churn the cream in baby food jars. If you are able to start collecting the jars early enough, then each child will be able to have his or her own jar of butter to churn and sample in school and then take home to share with the family. Labeling the jars with each child's name before starting the project will eliminate confusion when the process is finished. An alternative procedure is to make one or two larger batches in clean plastic peanut butter jars and let everyone take turns churning the big jars.

The process itself is really quite simple. Purchase, or have families donate, containers of heavy cream (not light or half-and must be heavy!), enough to fill each jar 2/3 full. Keep the cream refrigerated until you are ready to begin. Fasten each jar lid securely. Then have the children begin toshake the jar up and down vigorously. While shaking, or churning, we like to sit in a circle and talk about where the cream came from, and how in the olden days cream would rise to the top of a bottle of milk.

To pass the time while churning, children often used to recite this traditional chant:

Come, butter, come!

Come, butter, come!

(Peter) standing at the gate

Waiting for a butter cake......

Come, butter, come!

In our classes, we go around the circle, giving each child a turn to substitute his or her name in the chant. After about 10 minutes of shaking, the children will notice a change --  no more sounds of sloshing cream inside the jar! At this point, what they have made is whipped cream! Encourage them to keep just another minute or two, a round ball, surrounded by liquid, will begin to form inside the jar. This round ball is the butter, and the liquid is buttermilk. This is an excellent opportunity to "talk science" -- about how a substance can change its properties from a liquid to a semi-solid, and finally to a solid plus a liquid.

Children should then drain off the water into a cup -- some adventurous children may enjoy drinking the rich buttermilk. A special treat right after making the butter is to spread it while still soft on saltine crackers or bread and enjoy some of the freshly churned butter. When done, cap the jars, label with each child's name, refrigerate, and send home at the end of the day.

If you find you have more cream than you need for each child's butter jar, use the extra to fill a larger jar 2/3 full, and proceed as above, but stop the process when you reach the whipped cream stage. Serve with fresh berries and a bit of sugar.

Natural Dyeing and Weaving

Most clothing was made at home in the olden days, and many pioneer families had to spin their own yarns and make their own cloth. Color was extremely important to these people as a way of brightening what otherwise might be a dreary existence. Of course, they looked to nature as a source for the colors they wanted.

This hands-on activity lets children discover the natural sources for some of their favorite fabric colors. They can dye 6-inch samples of cotton fabric or thick cotton twine. We suggest you set up the activity by reading Charlie Needs a Cloak, by Tomie DePaola, focusing on the different steps involved in creating dyes and making cloth.

About two weeks ahead of time, ask your families to save and send in onion skins. Also put out a call for several bunches of beets (or cans of plain sliced beets); two bags of raw cranberries; several pints of blueberries; and if available in your area, black walnut hulls. Finally, you will need one crock pot for each dye you prepare, some old spoons, a strainer and some tongs.

The day before you plan to use the dyes, put your materials in the pots, add water to fill the pots 1/2 to 2/3 full, and cook on high. Start your pots cooking first thing in the morning, let them cook throughout the school day, and then unplug before you go home. Refrigeration overnight is not necessary -- just cover the pots. All you'll have to do the next morning is plug them back in to allow the dyes to reheat and strain the liquid to remove the food solids. Explain to the children that, although these dyes are made from are food items, we are not preparing or preserving them to be eaten, and nothing should be put in their mouths.

To simplify our project for first graders (and to keep our borrowed pots from discoloring), we did not add any mordant such as alum to the dye solutions to make them permanent. For longer-lasting results, however, you may wish to do so.

Children use the tongs to dip their cotton cloth strips or twine into the solutions. Have a good supply of newspapers laid out to provide a drying area, labeled for each of the dyes used. When the dyed cloth or twine is dry, the students can glue their samples onto stiff paper or cardboard and write the name of each dye next to the samples.

Another dimension to this activity can be accomplished by using plain white woolen yarn cut into 18 inch lengths. Your beautiful dyed yarn can later be used on handmade cardboard looms to create small woven projects. Your librarian can direct you to craft books showing how to make these projects.

We were lucky one year to have a parent who raised sheep on her farm and was an experienced spinner. She volunteered to visit our class to demonstrate wool carding and spinning for our class. We used undyed yarn she spun for our dyeing projects that year. In other years, we have turned to our local craft shops to suggest names of spinners who could share their craft with our classes. Children are fascinated by the spinning wheel, so do try to include this as part of your activities.

Old Fashioned Tools

Life and work were hard in the olden days, but the inventive people of those times always had the goal of trying to make life just a little bit easier. A look at tools and gadgets of the past can tell us a great deal about the quality of life in those days.

In our community in upstate New York, we are very fortunate to be able to tap into the resources of our local nature center, which also has a small homestead. From the homestead collection, we are able to borrow a collection of about 20 unusual tools that were commonly used in the olden days, but which look absolutely foreign to most of us today. In your community, in addition to a nature center, you might consult your local historical society or perhaps an antiques dealer to help you put together a similar collection on loan. In the absence of any of these resources, obtain Bobbie Kalman's beautiful volume Tools and Gadgets from the "Historic Communities" Series (Crabtree, 1992) and utilize its excellent illustrations for a pictorial adaptation of this activity.

Arrange the tools in a big circle that allows the children ample room to walk around and look at all of them. Encourage them to pick up the tools with care (when appropriate -- use good judgment for sharp tools) and try to figure out what they are and how they might have been used. When the children have had enough time to investigate the tools, have each child sit near a tool of his or her choice. One at a time, go around the circle, asking the children what they think the tool might be and what it might have been used for. If the children are having a difficult time, give some clues about how the tool was used or ask the group what parts of the tool might remind them of. If no one correctly guesses the true name and purpose of the tool, then share that information with them. This is a very enjoyable guessing game; some of the real uses for these tools are as funny as the children's guesses!

Some of the tools and gadgets we have enjoyed examining with our classes include: rug beaters, ice tongs, milking stools, mortar and pestles, pulleys, popcorn poppers, toe-toasters, clamps, wringers, candle snuffers, leech barrels, bellows, dental tools, shoe scrapers, wash boards, foot warmers and belly warmers....just to name a few!

School Days

Not only were schools structured very differently long ago, but our national attitude toward formal schooling was very different, too. School attendance in the 1800's was largely determined by a family's geographical location, their financial situation, and even their race.

One fascinating contrast for young children is the fact that 19th century children grew into adult responsibilities so quickly that attending school was not always a family's top priority for their offspring. Usually, it was only city children who attended school on a daily basis for most of the year. Farm children in rural areas were needed to assist their parents during all but the winter months, and so could attend school only briefly each year. For many children, such as boys in coal mining towns, their only access to any formalized education was at Sunday School. It was a very rare situation for ANY child to attend school past eighth grade; the privilege of high school or college education was reserved for a wealthy minority, usually males. Today's children are also amazed to learn that many school teachers in the olden days began their careers at about 16 years old!

Bobbie Kalman's Early Schools (Crabtree, 1982) is a "must-have" resource for pictures showing all aspects of school life in the 19th century. Invite students to look carefully and critically at the pictures and see what similarities and differences they find in comparison to today's schools. Encourage them to pay attention to details such as the size of the class, clothing, desks, apparent ages of the students, learning materials in the room, etc. A debate over which was better -- "then" or "now" -- is sure to erupt!

For a delightful and memorable activity, try creating a facsimile of a 19th century one-room schoolhouse for your students. Bobbie Kalman's Early Schools is perfect for ideas to help you set this up realistically.

Here's what we assembled for our one-room schoolhouse:

  • facsimiles of McGuffy's Readers
  • teacher-made hornbooks created from cardboard, with a string for students to wear around their necks
  • individual slates
  • a pretend "dunce cap" made from poster board
  • a pointer for the chalkboard
  • old-fashioned calico dress and cap for the teacher
  • a school bell

During our 20-minute "lesson," we arranged our desks in rows; we sat stiff-backed (and were reprimanded for slouching!); and we practiced phonics using the hornbooks, did "sums" on our slates, and read aloud from McGuffy's Reader. To make the experience more realistic and fun, we also administered several mock "punishments" for minor infractions such as fidgeting or not looking at the teacher (having told parents and students in advance that we were going to do this!!) Before long all the children were clamoring to sit in the corner with the dunce cap on!

During the last 10 minutes of the one-room schoolhouse session, we stepped out of character back into the 20th century to help put things in perspective for the children. We felt it was very important to do this immediately following the schoolhouse activity. The students enjoyed comparing and contrasting the old fashioned rote and drill method of learning with our more modern ways. Although they had some trouble articulating the concept, they were quick to spot the very stern and didactically moral tone of the McGuffy's Reader as being totally different from anything they had ever encountered in school books. Of course, the comparison of discipline measures old and new was fun and instructive to talk about as well.