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The Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891

by Alice Morse Earle, Seventh Edition, To the Memory of my Mother Mother

Chapter 9.

The Noon-House.

There might have been seen a hundred years ago, by the side of many an old meeting-house in New England, a long, low, mean, stable-like building, with a rough stone chimney at one end. This was the "noon-house," or "Sabba-day house," or "horse-hows," as it was variously called. It was a place of refuge in the winter time, at the noon interval between the two services, for the half-frozen members of the pious congregation, who found there the grateful warmth which the house of God denied. They built in the rude stone fireplace a great fire of logs, and in front of the blazing wood ate their noon-day meal of cold pie, of doughnuts, of pork and peas, or of brown bread with cheese, which they had brought safely packed in their capacious saddlebags. The dining-place smelt to heaven of horses, for often at the further end of the noon-house were stabled the patient steeds that, doubly burdened, had borne the Puritans and their wives to meeting; but this stable-odor did not hinder appetite, nor did the warm equine breaths that helped to temper the atmosphere of the noon-house offend the senses of the sturdy Puritans. From the blazing fire in this "life-saving station" the women replenished their little foot-stoves with fresh, hot coals, and thus helped to make endurable the icy rigor of the long afternoon service.

If the winter Sabbath Day were specially severe, a "hired-man," or one of the grown sons of the family, was sent at an early hour to the noon-house in advance of the other church-attendants, and he started in the rough fireplace a fire for their welcome after their long, cold, morning ride; and before its cheerful blaze they thoroughly warmed themselves before entering the icy meeting-house. The embers were carefully covered over and left to start a second blaze at the nooning, covered again during the afternoon service, and kindled up still a third time to warm the chilled worshippers ere they started for their cold ride home in the winter twilight. And when the horses were saddled, or were harnessed and hitched into the great box-sleighs or "pungs," and when the good Puritans were well wrapped up, the dying coals were raked out for safety and the noon-house was left as quiet and as cold as the deserted meeting-house until the following Sabbath or Lecture day.

If the meeting-house chanced to stand in the middle of the town (as was the universal custom in the earliest colonial days) of course a noon-house would be rarely built, for it would plainly not be needed. Nor was a "Sabba-day house" always seen in more lonely situations, if the sanctuary were placed near the substantial farm-house of a hospitable farmer; for to that friendly shelter the whole congregation would at noon-time repair and absorb to the fullest degree the welcome cider and warmth.

In Lexington for many years after the Revolutionary War, the winter church-goers who came from any distance spent the nooning at the Dudley Tavern, where a roaring fire was built in the inn-parlor, and there the women and children ate their midday lunch. The men gathered in the bar-room and drank flip, and ate the tavern gingerbread and cheese, and talked over the horrors and glories of the war. In Haverhill, Derby, and many other towns, the school-house, which was built on the village green beside the church, was used for a noon-house by the church members, though not by their horses. The house of learning was never chimneyless and fireless, as was the house of God.

As churches and towns multiplied, a meeting-house was often built to accommodate two little settlements or villages (and thus was convenient for neither), and was frequently placed in an isolated or inconvenient place, the top of a high hill being perhaps the most inconvenient and the most favored site. Thus a noon-house became an absolute necessity to Puritan health and existence, and often two or three were built near one meeting-house; while in some towns, as in Bristol, a whole row of disfiguring little "Sabba-day houses" stood on the meeting-house green, and in them the farmers (as they quaintly expressed in their petitions for permission to erect the buildings) "kept their duds and horses."

In Derby, after several petitions had been granted to build noon-houses, it was found necessary, in 1764, to place some restrictions as to the location of the buildings, which had hitherto evidently been placed with the characteristically Puritanical indifference to general convenience or appearance. While the town still permitted the little log-huts to be erected, and though they could be placed on either side of the highway, it was ordered that the builders must not so locate them as to "incommode any highways." As early as 1690 the thoughtful Stonington people built a house "14 foot square and seven foot posts" with a chimney at one side, for the express purpose of having a place where their minister, Rev. Mr. Noyes, could thaw out between services. The New Canaan Church built on the green beside their meeting-house a fine "Society House," twenty-one feet long and sixteen feet wide, with a big chimney and fireplace. The horses were plainly "not in society" in New Canaan, for they were excluded from the occupancy and privileges of the Society House.

"James June & all that lives at Larences" were allowed to build a "Sabbath-House" on the green near the New Britain meeting-house "as a Commodate for their conveniency of comeing to meeting on the Sabbath;" at the same time James Slason of the same village was given permission to "set yp a house for ye advantage of his having a place to go to" on the Sabbath. Frequently the petitions "to build a Sabbath Day House" or a "Housel for Shelter for Horss" were made in company by several farmers for their joint use and comfort, as shown by entries in the town and church records of Norwalk, New Milford, Durham, and Hartford.

Noon-houses were much more frequent in Connecticut than in Massachusetts, and in several small towns in the former State they were used weekly between Sunday services until within the memory of persons now living; and some of the buildings still exist, though changed into granaries or stables. There was one also in use for many years and until recent years in Topsfield, in Massachusetts. We chanced upon one still standing on a lonely Narragansett road. A little enclosed burial-place, with moss-grown and weather-smoothed head-stones and neglected graves, was by the side of a filled-in cellar, upon which a church evidently had once stood. At a short distance from the church-site was a long, low, gray, weather-beaten wooden building, with a coarse stone-and-mortar chimney at one end, and a great door at the other. Two small windows, destitute of glass, permitted us to peer into the interior of this dilapidated old structure, and we saw within, a floor of beaten earth, a rough stone fireplace, and a few rude horse-stalls. We felt sure that this tumble-down building had been neither a dwelling-house nor a stable, but a noon-house; and the occupants of a neighboring farm-house confirmed our decision. Too worthless to destroy, too out of the way to be of any use to any person, that old noon-house, through neglect and isolation, has remained standing until to-day.

It was not until the use of chaises and wagons became universal, and the new means of conveyance crowded out the old-fashioned saddle and pillion, and the trotting horse superseded the once fashionable but quickly despised pacer, that the great stretches of horse-sheds were built which now surround and disfigure all our country churches. These sheds protect, of course, both horse and carriage from wind and rain. Few churches had horse-sheds until after the War of the Revolution, and some not until after the War of 1812. In 1796 the Longmeadow Church had "liberty to erect a Horse House in the Meeting House Lane." This horse house was a horse-shed.

The "wretched boys" were not permitted even in these noon-houses to talk, much less to "sporte and playe." In some parishes it was ordered by the minister and the deacons that the Bible should be read and expounded to them, or a sermon be read to keep them quiet during the nooning. Occasionally some old patriarch would explain to them the notes that he had taken during the morning sermon. More unbearable still, the boys were sometimes ordered to explain the notes which they had taken themselves. I would I had heard some of those explanations! Thus they literally, as was written in 1774, throve on the "Good Fare of Brown Bread and the Gospell."

In Andover, Judge Phillips left in his will a silver flagon to the church as an expression of interest and hope that the "laudable practice of reading between services may be continued so long as even a small number shall be disposed to attend the exercise." Mr. Abbott left another silver flagon to the Andover Church to encourage reading between services; though how this piece of plate encouraged personally, since neither the deacons nor the boys got it as a prize, cannot be precisely understood. The noon-house in Andover was a large building with a great chimney and open fireplace at either end. It has always seemed to me a piece of gratuitous posthumous cruelty in Judge Phillips and Mr. Abbott to try to cheat those Andover boys of their noon-time rest and relaxation, and to expect them, wriggling and twisting with repressed vitality, to listen to a long extra sermon, read perhaps by some unskilled reader, or explained by some incapable expounder. The Sabbath-school did not then exist, and was not in general favor until the noon-houses had begun to disappear. The Reverend Jedediah Morse, father of the inventor of the electric telegraph, was almost the first New England clergyman who approved of Sabbath-schools and established them in his parish. In Salem they were opened in 1808, and the scholars came at half-past six on Sunday mornings. Fancy the chill and gloom of the unheated, ill-lighted churches at that hour on winter mornings. The "Salem Gazette" openly characterized Sunday-schools, when first suggested, as profanations of the Sabbath, and for years they were not allowed in many Congregational churches. When the Sabbath-schools were universally established, and thus the attention and interest of the children was gained during the noon interval (the time the schools were usually held in country churches), and when each family sat in its own pew, and thus the boys were separated, and each under his parents' guardianship, the "wretched boys" of the Puritan Sabbath disappeared, and well-behaved, quiet, orderly boys were seen instead in the New England churches.

This fashion of sermon-reading at the nooning happily did not obtain in all parts of New England. In many villages the meetings in the society noon-houses were to the townspeople what a Sunday newspaper is to Sunday readers now-a-days, an advertisement and exposition of all the news of the past week, and also a suggestion of events to come. At noon they discussed and wondered at the announcements and publishings which were tacked on the door of the meeting-house or the notices that had been read from the pulpit. The men talked in loud voices of the points of the sermon, of the doctrines of predestination pedobaptism and antipedobaptism, of original sin, and that most fascinating mystery, the unpardonable sin, and in lower voices of wolf and bear killing, of the town-meeting, the taxes, the crops and cattle; and they examined with keen interest one another's horses, and many a sly bargain in horse-flesh or exchange of cows and pigs was suggested, bargained over, and clinched in the "Sabba'-day house." Many a piece of village electioneering was also discussed and "worked" between the services. The shivering women crowded around the blazing and welcome fire, and seated themselves on rude benches and log seats while they ate and exchanged doughnuts, slices of rusk, or pieces of "pumpkin and Indian mixt" pie, and also gave to each other receipts therefor; and they discoursed in low voices of their spinning and weaving, of their candle-dipping or candle-running, of their success or failure in that yearly trial of patience and skill--their soap-making, of their patterns in quilt-piecing, and sometimes they slyly exchanged quilt-patterns. A sentence in an old letter reads thus: "Anne Bradford gave to me last Sabbath in the Noon House a peecing of the Blazing Star; tis much Finer than the Irish Chain or the Twin Sisters. I want yelloe peeces for the first joins, small peeces will do. I will send some of my lilac flowered print for some peeces of Cicelys yelloe India bed vallants, new peeces not washed peeces." They gave one another medical advice and prescriptions of "roots and yarbs" for their "rheumatiz," "neuralgy," and "tissick;" and some took snuff together, while an ancient dame smoked a quiet pipe. And perhaps (since they were women as well as Puritans) they glanced with envy, admiration, or disapproval, or at any rate with close scrutiny, at one another's gowns and bonnets and cloaks, which the high-walled pews within the meeting-house had carefully concealed from any inquisitive, neighborly view.

The wood for these beneficent noon-house fires was given by the farmers of the congregation, a load by each well-to-do land-owner, if it were a "society-house," and occasionally an apple-growing farmer gave a barrel of "cyder" to supply internal instead of external warmth. Cider sold in 1782 for six shillings "Old Tenor" a barrel, so it was worth about the same as the wood both in money value and calorific qualities. A hundred years previously--in 1679--cider was worth ten shillings a barrel. In 1650, when first made in America, it was a costly luxury, selling for £4 4s. a barrel. That this thawed-out Sunday barrel of cider would prove invariably a source of much refreshment, inspiration, solace, tongue-loosing, and blood-warming to the chilled and shivering deacons, elders, and farmers who gathered in the noon-house, any one who has imbibed that all-potent and intoxicating beverage, oft-frozen "hard" cider, can fervently testify.

Sometimes a very opulent farmer having built a noon-house for his own and his family's exclusive use, would keep in it as part of his "duds" a few simple cooking utensils in which his wife or daughters would re-heat or partially cook his noon-day Sabbath meal, and mix for him a hot toddy or punch, or a mug of that "most insinuating drink"--flip. Flip was made of home-brewed beer, sugar, and a liberal dash of Jamaica rum, and was mixed with a "logger-head"--a great iron "stirring-stick" which was heated in the fire until red hot and then thrust into the liquid. This seething iron made the flip boil and bubble and imparted to it a burnt, bitter taste which was its most attractive attribute. I doubt not that many a "loggerhead" was kept in New England noon-houses and left heating and gathering insinuating goodness in the glowing coals, while the pious owner sat freezing in the meeting-house, also gathering goodness, but internally keeping warm at the thought of the bitter nectar he should speedily brew and gladly imbibe at the close of the long service.

The comfort of a hot midday dinner on the Sabbath was not regarded with much favor, though perhaps with secret envy, by the neighbors of the luxury-loving farmer, who saw in it too close an approach to "profanation of the Sabbath." The heating and boiling of the flip with the red hot "loggerhead" hardly came under the head of "unnecessary Sabbath cooking" even in the minds of the most straight-laced descendants of the Puritans.

When stoves were placed and used in the New England meeting-houses, the noon-day lunches were eaten within the pews inside the sanctuary, and the noon-houses, no longer being needed, followed the law of cause and effect, and like many other institutions of the olden times quickly disappeared.

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