Mary Powers was born in Ireland to John Powers and Catherine Quinlan, probably in 1828 or 1829 in Stradbally, Ireland.
While I can’t find a baptismal record in Ireland for Mary, baptismal records for her siblings—of whom we know from multiple sources, including Joseph Fitzgerald—provide more information.
Four of Mary’s siblings, Edward, Anastasia, Catherine & Patrick, were all baptized between 1830 and 1832 in Stradbally Parish, County Waterford—a seaside parish about 10 miles east-northeast of Dungarvan. John Powers and Catherine Quinlan were the parents on their baptismal records, and there’s a marital record for the couple in Stradbally for 17 February 1827. Her sister Ann also married in Stradbally in 1851.
What happened to Mary’s family during the Great Hunger is an open question, but it sparked a chain migration to the United States.
Likely the first to flee Ireland were Mary’s sister and brother-in-law Ann and David Organ, who came to the United States in 1851 via Boston. Mary may have taken flight the same year: in 1900, she reported that she had been in the U.S. for 50 years. There are plenty of unmarried twenty-something Mary Powers who came to the U.S. in the early 1850s. The 5 May 1851 arrival of the Alert, which departed Waterford for New York, is particularly attractive, but then, there were also plenty of Mary Powers born around Waterford at the same time as our Mary.
Mary’s brother Patrick followed, arriving in 1853, and then John in 1854, again via Boston.
I have found no record of either Mary’s father’s arrival or her brother Ned’s. But by 1860 those two men were living together in DeKalb County, Illinois, and her father had remarried.
That means that sometime between 1837 and 1860, Mary’s mother, Catherine Quinlan, passed away. I’ve found no evidence of when and where, but it’s hard to discount the Great Hunger. I imagine that she died from of one of the several diseases which ravaged the island during the famine, possibly along with her daughters Catherine and Anastasia, then teenagers.
That brings us to 13 May 1854 in St. Charles, Illinois and the first actual documentary evidence of Mary’s existence. At the age of 23 or 24, she married another famine refugee: John McGirr, a man about fifteen years her senior.
Mary bore twelve children, only six of whom lived to become adults. Her husband died in the summer of 1878 when she was 48, just a year older than me. She helped her children run the family farm for a decade or two. In 1899, she moved to this house in the town of DeKalb, along with her two youngest daughters, both of whom were beyond the normal age of marriage. She lived long enough to see one of them, 32-year-old Theresa, marry in 1901 to a shopkeeper in Maple Park named James Fitzgerald.
And it’s at this point that I feel I have failed to adequately describe the lives of our female ancestors.
It’s such a dissatisfying pattern. I can find loads of details about our male ancestors, at least relative to the time and place. When it comes to women though, the most I can hope to find before the 20th century are records of her birth, her marriage, the birth of her children and—if I’m really lucky—her death.
So what was Mary’s daily life really like? Cooking? Cleaning? Tending a vegetable garden? Raising children? Well, yeah. But anything more than that?
One way to understand Mary’s daily life is to look at the family farm. The U.S. took an agricultural census in 1860, 1870 and 1880, measuring bushels of crops grown, dairy production, livestock population and more.
The McGirr farm produced mainly butter and corn, along with some wheat, pork, eggs and wool. Farm labor was often gender-specific, and butter was women’s work. In 1860, when Mary had small children, she churned out 200 pounds of butter annually, a number which doubled to 400 pounds in 1870, and sextupled to 1,300 pounds in 1880 when she had daughters to help with the job.
I’m about to bore you with butter, but those pounds of butter represent a significant part of Mary’s life beyond cooking, cleaning and child rearing. Churning butter was a manual job that probably hadn’t changed much in centuries. First, she would spend 30 minutes to 60 minutes churning the butter. Next, she would spend an hour squeezing water from the butter after washing it. Finally, she would’ve spent another quarter hour adding salt and shaping the butter into bars. With preparation and clean up, this could be anywhere from two to three hours of work to produce a few pounds of butter.
A contemporary of Mary’s, a New York farm wife named Ann McMath, wrote in her diary on 7 December 1859 that she “Churn yet three times a week… My right wrist is lamer working butter I expect.” That year, the McMath farm produced 1,600 pounds of butter, though Ann had the help of one Lizzie Alexander from March through November.
So if I extrapolate from Ann McMath—assume she and Lizzie Alexander women produced 1,500 pounds of butter together churning three times per week, then the pair produced about 38 pounds of butter each week—that’s more than 150 sticks of butter, or 51 sticks every day they churned.
Each pound of butter takes about 2 ½ gallons of milk, meaning Ann and Lizzie worked through close to 32 gallons of milk each day they churned.
By that calculation, in 1879 when the McGirr farm produced ~1,300 pounds of butter, our Mary Powers—probably with help from her daughters Catherine, 20; Rose, 18; & Theresa, 11—churned 60 gallons of milk per week to make 25 pounds of butter or 100 sticks.
I don’t know how many gallons one of those churns could handle, but… looking at those video clips, I can’t imagine it was more than five or six gallons at once. So coming back to the two or three hours of work for each batch of butter, that means Mary and one of her daughters spent anywhere from 24 to 36 hours each week churning butter. That’s four to six hours per day.
Final thought: This was not easy work. With decades of regular work at the butter churn, Mary probably had some serious upper body strength.
Another is to think about the breadth of knowledge Mary needed to run her house. She cooked, she cleaned, but what did that really mean in a world with few cookbooks and no supermarkets? It wasn’t just that she would have made most meals from memory. What about the cleaning supplies? Our house has a dozen different detergents and cleaners for different purposes, but Mary likely made her own. What about the first aid cabinet? Who did you call with a pest problem?
There’s an 1829 book by Lydia Maria Child called The American Frugal Housewife that I think gives some insight into the breadth of domestic knowledge Mary would have acquired, but also of the myriad tasks she undertook on a weekly basis.
The book is now public domain, so you can download it for free if you want. In addition to cooking recipes, it has page after page of one- to -three sentence descriptions of ways to do things, roughly grouped into sections such as “simple remedies,” “herbs,” and “vegetables.” It’s not a page turner, but it’s an interesting time capsule that probably represented Mary’s life.
For example, without refrigeration, storage was a major issue. Child wrote that parsnips should be stored in sand in the cellar, potatoes and cabbages buried in the ground, and herbs sealed from the air. Onions and squashes should not be stored in the cellar because of the dampness—the exception being freezing temperatures, then they must go in the cellar.
First aid was another topic: hemorrhoids were treated with an ointment made of lard, sulphur and cream-of-tartar. Canker sores with tea from a dark blue violet. Plantain and leek, boiled in cream, make a soothing ointment.
Dealing with pests was yet another task.
“Poke-root, boiled in water and mixed with a good quantity of molasses, set about the kitchen, the pantry, &c. in large deep plates, will kill cockroaches in great numbers, and finally rid the house of them.”
“Red ants are among the worst plagues that can infest a house. A lady who had been troubled with them, assured me she destroyed them in a few days, after the following manner. She placed a dish of cracked shagbarks in the closet. They soon gathered upon it in troops. She then put some corrosive sublimate in a cup; ordered the dish [with the ants] be carried carefully to the fire, and all its [bark and ants] brushed in; and with a feather, wet all the cracks from whence they came with corrosive sublimate.
That last one highlights another point: while women in the 1800s might be blocked from an education beyond the 8th grade, it’s not as though you could suppress the intellect of half the human race. Women must have been constantly experimenting with different recipes, remedies and methods, and exchanging their ideas.
On 23 August 1902, twenty-four years and eleven days after her husband’s death, Mary passed away. She was in her mid-seventies. Her obituary stated that she had been in declining health for several months, noting that the day before she died, she “dropped into a deep sleep from which she never awakened. She breathed slower and slower toward the last until she expired at 1 o’clock [in the] morning.”
Mary’s will gave her youngest daughters, Ella and Theresa, 2/3rds and 1/3rds, respectively, of the $3,985 that her three sons owed her. This wasn’t a paltry sum: if you believe inflation calculators on the internet, that works out to about $129,000 today. In contrast, she bequeathed her sons one dollar each.
It’s worth noting that her husband’s will was imbalanced in the other direction: he left his three sons a roughly equal share of his farm, which was worth around $15,000, while his three daughters each received $1,000 in cash.
Mary is buried in the cemetery of St. Mary’s church in DeKalb.