A few weeks ago, I read something written by A. B. Simpson (1843-1919) that made me think about my farming ancestors and the Bright Shiny Objects in their lives. A Bright Shiny Object (aka BSO), for those unfamiliar with the term, is anything that distracts a person from the task at hand for more than just a short time.
Simpson, who was a preacher, said, “Very often, and before we are aware of it, we are absorbed in a lot of distracting cares and interests that quite turn us aside from the great purpose of life.”
City folk vs. Farming folk
I can see how this idea applied to the folks where Simpson lived, like New York City. I mean, city folk had greater access to distractions than farming folk. And there were more people around to get distracted with.
I wondered if Simpson’s quote applied to my farming ancestors who lived in Maryland and South Carolina. After all, farming folk seemed to work from sunup to sundown, all year round. Then I wondered how many distractions could there be in a farmer’s world in the 1800’s?
Well, more distractions than I thought
I posed the question to a FB group I’m in, and the feedback was wonderful! It was fun to share thoughts, and the comments went on for that day and into the next. Many people said they enjoyed the thread. Here’s what I got from the responses.
For farmers of the 1800’s, Bright Shiny Objects fall into six basic categories:
Recreational substances: Alcohol was readily available in any community; and if a person couldn’t find any to buy, they could brew their own. Powerful drugs like opium, morphine, and cocaine could be obtained, too, but not as easily as alcohol. Of course, snake oil salesmen sold all kinds of ‘feel good’ remedies.
Community and social events: dances, picnics, plays, and the like; be they at church or at school. And not just the event itself but the prep time needed before the event. Also, social clubs like The Grange.
Games: This could be anything from marbles to shooting targets to playing cards or horseshoes. Even checkers.
Gambling: Like alcohol, gambling probably wasn’t that hard to find. Any game has the potential to morph into gambling or betting. It didn’t have to be just cards.
Making music, singing and storytelling: My grandparents, J. Daniel MARTIN (1886-1955) and Florrie THOMAS MARTIN (1894-1979), both played instruments and sang. He played the mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. She played the piano. Many of us who came from a farming heritage can say the same thing about our ancestors. And the stories they could tell! Oh, I wish I had written them all down.
And finally…lollygagging, daydreaming, and everything else: If a person wants to be pulled away by a Bright Shiny Object, one can always be found. It could be a farm cat or a barking dog; meandering through the fabric at the general store imagining the grand clothes that could be made, taking extra time to craft something beautiful when the item only needed to be practical, reading, and other things.
What surprised me was the amount of potential BSOs in my farming ancestors’ lives. I didn’t think for one minute that nineteenth century farmers did nothing but work and sleep. They needed downtime, of course. Taking a short mental break makes for better concentration and often an improved mood.
And there is nothing problematic with most of the things I named. The bothersome part is when they become more important than what has to be done.
I have a better understanding of my farming ancestors’ lives now. They probably struggled with staying on task at times, like I do some days. And the BSOs I struggle with are some of the same ones they contended with. Some things really don’t change.
What did I miss in this list of distractions? Please comment and let me know.
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