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A Day in the Life of the Powell Family

A photographic essay by 1998 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute participants

Introduction / Father / Mother / Daughter / Slaves / Summary


Daily activities as well as family and community interactions in the eighteenth century depended upon the season of the year, time of day, social and economic status, age, gender and health in ways that are difficult to imagine at the end of the twentieth century.

In the eighteenth century, all children received an education that prepared them for the work they would do as adults. There were expected behaviors for all children, and corporal punishment was considered to be the normal correction for breaking the rules. However, by the third quarter of the eighteenth century, reacting to the child-rearing advice of John Locke, parents were becoming more openly affectionate with their children, and devising new methods of teaching, such as "playing into learning". Young adults had more freedom in both courtship and in choosing a marriage partner, although they were still expected to ask for and receive their parents' approval to marry.

The workday in the eighteenth century began and ended with the rising and the setting of the sun. Everyone worked: men, women, children, rich and poor, black and white. The amount of work performed and the difficulty of the labor very much depended upon who you were. The roles of men, women and children were sharply defined, more so in a city like Williamsburg than in the countryside where everyone in the family did whatever work was necessary for survival. Slave families faced unique challenges to both the creation and survival of family life. Hard work, illness, and separation of families were some of the difficulties faced by slaves. Nevertheless, slave families, like white families, found the time for social activities. Music, dancing, storytelling, games and conversation were pastimes that relieved the burdens of work and kept cultural traditions alive.

Teachers participating in the 1998 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute examined many aspects of eighteenth-century family life during their visit to the Benjamin Powell House site. The teachers, in cooperative groups, examined the daily life of a Powell family member by participating in activities representative of an eighteenth-century urban household. At the same time, by translating these experiences into digital images, teachers were able to create a photographic essay of the life of the Powell family that could be used in their classrooms. Teachers suggested the following student activities in which they would use digital images:

  • Create a photographic autobiography paralleling a day in the life of a Powell family member and noting the similarities and differences in daily life then and now.
  • In cooperative groups, produce a picture book with drawings and text, from the perspective of each Powell family member, to share with children in a lower grade or library story hour.
  • Assume the roles of family members in eighteenth-century conversation, and compare conversational topics and interactions today and in the past.
  • Study eighteenth-century prints, portraits, artifacts, letters and diaries, and archaeological findings and architectural research to draw conclusions about eighteenth-century life.
  • s

As a result of their participation in some of the daily activities at the Benjamin Powell House, 1998 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute participants achieved a deeper understanding of the differences from and similarities to family life today. Choices, opportunities and responsibilities for family members in the eighteenth century depended on whether they were black or white, male or female, rich, poor or middling, free or enslaved, and living in country or city.

For additional information on Benjamin Powell or the Benjamin Powell House, go to the following links:

For additional information on eighteenth-century family life, go to:

Introduction / Father / Mother / Daughter / Slaves / Summary