Skip to main content
No. 170:
Early Texas

Today, a glance at the tools of a new country. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Republic of Texas seceded from Mexico and became a separate nation in 1836. And a wild, unsettled nation it was! Ellen Murry, at the Star of the Republic Museum at Washington on the Brazos, writes about the early technologies of this rough land.

First of all, early Texans were intimate with untimely death as we've never been. Mourning and memorializing death was a large social activity. Almost morbid attention was paid to the crafts of preparing, displaying, transporting, and burying the dead.

With death so commonplace, women sustained life by marrying in their mid to latter teens and by raising lots of children. Normally, six or seven kids survived after murderous infant mortality. Texas frontier women -- often managing with their husbands gone for long periods -- did the child-raising, educating, and civilizing.

These settlers had little access to any developed medical technology. They fought illness by trying to rid the body of whatever ailed it. They embraced the medieval idea of curing by blood-letting, emetics, and laxatives. "Puke and purge" was a saying that began and ended most medical treatment on the Texas frontier.

People did recognize that unsifted whole-wheat flour was good for the digestion. A major apostle of that notion was Sylvester Graham -- promoter of the Graham cracker. He also suggested that it reduced alcoholism and damped the bothersome sex drive.

Bathing was also a form of medical treatment. It had little other place in everyday life. In 1840 a writer denounced the bathtub as ... an epicurean innovation from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic.

Early Texans washed their hands and faces before meals, but it was normal to go a year or more between baths.

Tobacco, especially chewing tobacco, was an early Texas fixation. Children were taught to use the stuff. Cuspidors were universal items of furniture. A visitor to the Texas Congress observed,

The way the members were chewing Tobacco and squirting was a sin to see.

And an Austin church posted the notice,

Ye chewers of the noxious weed
Which grows in earth's most cursed sod,
Be pleased to clean your filthy mouths
Outside the House of God.

The Republic of Texas lasted less than a decade. Any way you hold them up to the light, the people who formed it were tough, independent, adaptive, and idiosyncratic. We get to know them when we look at their daily means -- their rough-hewn technologies. There was nothing ordinary about people who used these elementary tools to carve freedom -- and the good life we live -- out of a harsh, and seemingly infinite, land.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Murry, E.N., Notes on the Republic. Washington, TX: Star of the Republic Museum, 1991.

Kalman, B. Early Health & Medicine. Crabtree Publishing Company, New York: 1983/1991.

For more on the Star of the Republic Museum see the following website:


From Notes on the Republic, by permission