A Girl’s Education in Little House in the Big Woods
It was so hard to be good all the time, every day, for a whole year. “You mustn’t tease the children, Peter,” Aunt Eliza said. Ma said, “Laura, aren’t you going to let the other girls hold your doll?” She meant, “Little girls must not be so selfish.”
“So you see, Laura and Mary,” Pa said, “you may find it hard to be good, but you should be glad that it isn’t as hard to be good now as it was when Grandpa was a boy.”
“Did little girls have to be as good as that?” Laura asked, and Ma said:
“It was harder for little girls. Because they had to behave like little ladies all the time, not only on Sundays. Little girls could never slide downhill, like boys. Little girls had to sit in the house and stitch on samplers.”
Ma’s delaine dress was beautiful. It was a dark green, with a little pattern all over it that looked like ripe strawberries. A dressmaker had made it, in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa and moved out west to the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa, and a dressmaker had made her clothes.
The delaine was kept wrapped in paper and laid away. Laura and Mary had never seen Ma wear it, but she had shown it to them once. She had let them touch the beautiful dark red buttons that buttoned the basque up the front, and she had shown them how neatly the whalebones were put in the seams, inside, with hundreds of little criss-cross stitches. It showed how important a dance was, if Ma was going to wear the beautiful delaine dress.
Uncle George was home from the army. He wore his blue army coat with the brass buttons, and he had bold, merry blue eyes. He was big and broad and he walked with a swagger.
Laura looked at him all the time she was eating her hasty pudding, because she had heard Pa say to Ma that he was wild. Uncle George had run away to be a drummer boy in the army, when he was fourteen years old.
Laura had never seen a wild man before. She did not know whether she was afraid of Uncle George or not.
Ma and Grandma cleared away the dishes and washed them, and swept the hearth, while Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby made themselves pretty in their room.
Laura sat on their bed and watched them comb out their long hair and part it carefully. They parted it from their foreheads to the napes of their necks and then they parted it across from ear to ear. They braided their back hair in long braids and then they did the braids up carefully in big knots.
They fussed for a long time with their front hair, holding up the lamp and looking at their hair in the little looking-glass that hung on the log wall. They brushed it so smooth on each side of the straight white part that it shone like silk in the lamplight. The little puff on each side shone, too, and the ends were coiled and twisted neatly under the big knot in the back. Then they pulled on their beautiful white stockings, that they had knit of fine cotton thread in lacy, openwork patterns, and they buttoned up their best shoes. They helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby’s corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers.
“Pull, Ruby, pull!” Aunt Docia said, breathless. “Pull harder.” So Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder. Aunt Docia kept measuring her waist with her hands, and at last she gasped, “I guess that’s the best you can do.” She said, “Caroline says Charles could span her waist with his hands, when they were married.”
Caroline was Laura’s Ma, and when she heard this Laura felt proud. Then Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia put on their flannel petticoats and their plain petticoats and their stiff, starched white petticoats with knitted lace all around the flounces. And they put on their beautiful dresses.Aunt Docia’s dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them. Aunt Ruby’s dress was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a feathery pattern in lighter wine color. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved on it. Aunt Docia’s pretty white collar was fastened in front with a large round cameo pin, which had a lady’s head on it. But Aunt Ruby pinned her collar with a red rose made of sealing wax. She had made it herself, on the head of a darning needle which had a broken eye, so it couldn’t be used as a needle any more.
They looked lovely, sailing over the floor so smoothly with their large, round skirts. Their little waists rose up tight and slender in the middle, and their cheeks were red and their eyes bright, under the wings of shining, sleek hair.
Ma was beautiful, too, in her dark green delaine, with the little leaves that looked like strawberries scattered over it. The skirt was ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon, and nestling at her throat was a gold pin. The pin was flat, as long and as wide as Laura’s two biggest fingers, and it was carved all over, and scalloped on the edges. Ma looked so rich and fine that Laura was afraid to touch her.
Ma was not sitting with her mending basket as usual. She was busy getting everything ready for a quick breakfast and laying out the best stockings and petticoats and dresses, and Pa’s good shirt, and her own dark brown calico with the little purple flowers on it. The days were longer now. In the morning Ma blew out the lamp before they finished breakfast. It was a beautiful, clear spring morning.
Ma hurried Laura and Mary with their breakfast and she washed the dishes quickly. They put on their stockings and shoes while she made the beds. Then she helped them put on their best dresses‚ Mary’s china-blue calico and Laura’s dark red calico. Mary buttoned Laura up the back, and then Ma buttoned Mary. Ma took the rags off their hair and combed it into long, round curls that hung down over their shoulders. She combed so fast that the snarls hurt dreadfully. Mary’s hair was beautifully golden, but Laura’s was only a dirt-colored brown.
The storekeeper took down bolts and bolts of beautiful calicos and spread them out for Ma to finger and look at and price. Laura and Mary looked, but must not touch. Every new color and pattern was prettier than the last, and there were so many of them! Laura did not know how Ma could ever choose.
Ma chose two patterns of calico to make shirts for Pa, and a piece of brown denim to make him a jumper. Then she got some white cloth to make sheets and underwear. Pa got enough calico to make Ma a new apron. Ma said: “Oh, no, Charles, I don’t really need it.” But Pa laughed and said she must pick it out, or he would get her the turkey red piece with the big yellow pattern. Ma smiled and flushed pink, and she picked out a pattern of rosebuds and leaves on a soft, fawn-colored ground.
Eva was a pretty girl, with dark eyes and black curls. She played carefully and kept her dress clean and smooth. Mary liked that, but Laura liked better to play with Clarence. Clarence was red-headed and freckled, and always laughing. His clothes were pretty, too. He wore a blue suit buttoned all the way up the front with bright gilt buttons, and trimmed with braid, and he had copper-toed shoes. The strips of copper across the toes were so glittering bright that Laura wished she were a boy. Little girls didn’t wear copper-toes.
All text from Little House in the Big Woods.
Text copyright 1932 by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Text copyright renewed 1959 by Roger Lea MacBride.
Illustrations copyright 1953 by Garth Williams.
Illustrations copyright renewed 1981 by Garth FIlliams.