Stump the Interpreter: sewing machines

From time to time, and sometimes more often, historic interpreters hear a question for the first time.  Sometime are really great questions.  Others, particularly ones that seemed less informed on the part of questioner, can lead to amazing engaging discussions.  When I receive a question I’ve never considered I always find myself saying, “That’s a great questions,” as a way to stall while I consider the answer.  This series is about some of those great questions.

Yesterday while learning the presentation for the New (1890s) Kitchen, one of the visitors asked about the sewing machine in the corner.  “When did people start having sewing machines in their homes?” Great questions but neither the interpreter or myself knew for sure.  Here is a little bit about personal sewing machines.

The first machine that used a needle and shuttle to sew cloth was invented in 1790 for working leather and canvas.  Due to poor marketing it wasn’t widely known.  The first United States patent for a sewing machine was given to Walter Hunt in 1832.  (He would go on to invent the safety pin in 1849.)

In France, Bathelemy Thimonnier had invented a sewing machine and had a factory with 80 machines to sew uniforms for the French Army.

By the 1850s sewing machines had developed many of the functions we are familiar with today such as sewing forward, backwards, up, and down.  The cloth at this point was generally held vertical across the machine. (Many earlier versions had you hold the cloth horizontally across the machine.) In 1851 Isaac Merritt Singer added a foot to the sewing machine to help hold fabric in place while working.  The 1850s saw a series of patent wars rage their way through courts across the country between major inventors and company owners.

Isaac Merritt Singer and Edward Clark played a big role in bring the sewing machine into the homes across the country.  In the 1850s sewing machines cost about $125 (the average family’s income was $500 a year). Singer and Clark allowed people to purchase a sewing machine in monthly installments of $3 or $5.

By the late 1860s sewing machines were becoming much more reasonably priced.  Sophie Best of Minnesota wrote to her parents, “It is wonderful what progress civilization makes! My head is filled with those pretty sewing machines that are being bought by so many families and are so delightful to have! Some people have been able to get these little fairies for between $10 and $60. The stitches they make are so strong, so pretty, and so guide to make.”

Sewing machines were rather controversial for a time.  Women and men generally spent a lot of time sewing by hand.  It could take up to 14 hours to sew a man’s dress shirt by hand.  With a machine that time could be cut down to just 1 or 2 hours.  But what would people do with all this new free time? A common belief throughout history was “idle hands do the devil’s work.” People could get into trouble without work to do.  Many people became unemployed because of the sewing machine for a time.  There were factories where people used to hand sew clothing.  With the sewing machine you needed less people to produce the same amount.  So until the factory could buy enough machines for all the workers, people were laid off.  There was also a fear that women wouldn’t be able to learn a complex machine like a sewing machine.

Many of the sewing machine manufacturing companies hired women to demonstrate the machines at fairs and in store fronts and women were highlighted in advertising. Many people who owned sewing machines took in mending or custom work and thus earned money and filled leisure time with projects. And generally if someone has some down time, they fill it with something.

Just for Nice: clothing

This weekend, I spent a good while struggling with pleating a petticoat. (The skirt part of an early 1800s working outfit. See side picture.) It got me thinking about the role clothing plays in living history.  It helps create the scene, inform visitors and volunteers/staff alike.  (There is a stiff learning curve when you first wear a historically accurate outfit.) It is important the the clothing is perceived as historically accurate.  This can be a challenge meeting modern expectations with historic realities. When conducting research on clothing there are a number of sources we can use including surviving examples, art work or printed material, and reproductions.

Around the world there are some amazing collections of clothing such as the Kyoto Costume Institute or more recently the garments put on display from a 1600s shipwreck. (See side picture.)Examples of clothing generally survive either because they were important (owned by a famous person or a treasured family member) or just by luck.  The latter is particular true with archaeological examples such as the dress preserved on the shipwreck or items preserved in bogs.  Their owners did not expect that they would be preserved for future study. Many times ordinary clothes got remade several times over.  Great sources to inform fabric selections are actually quilts because often times they contain parts of old clothes.  

Items that are saved for “propriety” are often saved because they reflect the lives of famous or important people. Often these people were wealthier members of societies such as kings and queens, or now a days, famous musicians or movie stars.  These examples are often the easiest ones to find. But while we all dream of having the fancy dress, the high fashion of the land, generally doesn’t reflect the simple life of someone living on a farm.   

While a fair amount of artwork are generally portraits of rich people, enough artists also painted ordinary folk. (Unless Strum and Drang is a popular technique, which tend to feature great scenery elements and teeny tiny people.) One really good example for the late 1700s to the early 1800s is the paintings of John Lewis Krimmel. Based out of Philadelphia, he tended to paint people from all walks of life.  Another great resource are fashion plates. Fashion plates were usually produced to advertise clothing, kind of like a catalog today.  But again, these often show off high fashion but can lend themselves well for inspiration. Sometimes diaries and journals can offer insight into clothing. Sophie DuPont: A young lady in America: Sketches, Diaries, and Letters offers great insight into the early 1800s.  While from a wealthier family, she sketches a lot of everyday things.

Reproductions are a good source of inspiration for recreating historic outfits as well. But you must be careful with your sources.  It really helps to look at other museums and see what they have been up to.  (But, this can also lead to continuations of historic myths). There are some really amazing reenactors and groups that make historic costumes.  A big part of making a historically accurate outfit is the material.  Reproductions are really good guiding fabric selection and how easy/difficult it is to work.

It is generally a good idea to draw inspiration from all of the sources, historical examples, artwork, and reproductions. I like to keep in mind also what the clothing needs to do.  (I need to be able to run while wearing this to chase sheep, cows, children, run from snakes, etc., bend and lift while wearing this bodice, climb a fence and not show off non-time period underpinnings. etc.)

Great Farm Technology: the wheelbarrow

Everyday we encounter hundreds of inventions that we overlook for their ingenious simplicity.  Doors, latches, zippers, buttons, and hammers just to name a few. One of the presentations we engage school students with here at Quiet Valley is called Simple Machines.  We walk the students through simple problems that can be salved with machines such as levers and fulcrums.  How do you place a nail into a board of wood? With a hammer; your arm is the fulcrum allowing the hammer head to pivot and drive the nail into the wood.  Hold it close to the head and you have a lot of accuracy but not a lot of force.  Hold it low on the handle and you have a lot of force but lower accuracy.

Presenting problems like that and walking students through solutions allows them to see how simple tools and machines can be combined to be more complex. How a lever, fulcrum, wheel, and axle can combine to make a slightly more complex machine-a wheelbarrow.   I was astonished, along with the students, while watching a presentation the other day.  I had never thought how many parts are in the humble wheelbarrow.  From long years of moving dirt in archaeology to mucking stalls here on the farm, I have a great appreciation of the kind of work that can be done by one.  The presentation got me thinking and I looked at the wheelbarrow in a new light.

The wheelbarrow, as we know it, is probably a Greek invention from around 406 BC.  Though the Chinese invented one around 100 BC as well. Though their’s tended to have the wheel coming up in the middle of a raised platform. Some of their  also had sails to assist going up and down hills. It appears also that in addition to moving goods, the humble wheelbarrow has also been used as an escape vehicle.  It seems that there are a number of historic accounts of kings, politicians, etc ending up on the wrong side of a rebellion and making an escape either hidden in a wheelbarrow or carrying others in them.  The little wheelbarrow has a long history and without it, it would be difficult to do almost anything on the farm.

All About Goats

So this week we had our first goats born for this year on the farm.  Ginger gave birth to a little boy on Sunday.  So I thought I would explore a little bit about goats and their history.

Goats are one of the earliest domesticated animals.  They were first domesticated from the Bezoar Ibex around 7,000 BC.  They were generally domesticated for their milk, fur, meat, and skin. Goats are considered small livestock and, like many other farm animals, are ruminants.

A female goat is called a nanny, a male a buck or a billy, the babies are called kids.  Goats tend to reach sexual maturity between 3 to 15 months of age.  Generally  a nanny can be breed when she reaches 70% of her adult size.

In many ways sheep and goats are a lot a like in many ways (To the point that they can actually interbreed.   If this happens the offspring, which are general sterile, are called geeps or shoats.)  One of the interesting difference between goats and sheep is that goats are “browsers” and sheep are considered “grazers”. Goats will eat vines and shrubs.  In China they are used to eat weeds in tea fields.  The tannic acid in tea, which tastes bitter, keeps the goats from eating the tea plants.  Sheep on the other hand are grazers and tend to eat mixed grasses.  It is a myth that goats will eat anything.  They might nibble on things to gain an idea of something but they won’t eat aluminum cans or cardboard boxes.

Goats are naturally very curious and like to explore their environment. They particularly like getting out of their enclosures. They constantly test the boundaries and can very easily find a way out of their enclosure.  One of our goats, Pepper, loves getting out and visiting the school kids, tasting their lunches, stealing from the gift shop and attending school in our one room school house.  Perhaps to satisfy their curiosity, we might add some lidded boxes with treats to their enclosure to see if they can figure them out.


Food for Thought: what is “food”?

We often explain ourselves in terms of food.  Take a look at social media and invariably there will be something about food or cooking.  (It’s so pandemic that my significant other took a picture of the grill the other night, albeit it did look nice with its smorgasbord.) Most of us don’t think too much about what where our food comes from.  I don’t necessarily mean from the Mexico via the grocery store or from our backyard garden.  How did our food become our food? Why did we select these plants or animals for our food sources?

I always find examples better illustrate arguments so here are two: 1. How did Italy becomes associated with tomatoes when they were originally domesticated in South America and the closest European related plant, belladona, is poisonous? 2. According to archaeologists acorns are a ‘starvation food source’ (food that a population turns too when there is food stress eliminating more viable foods sources) when they can be detoxified with little to no effort and food such as corn take a long time to process correctly through nixtamalization.

I suppose the easiest answers boil down to cultural trends; what a group of people label as food vs non food.  Europeans tend to think of dogs and cats as non food items where other cultures readily consume them and own ancestors did in the past. Its just amazing to think that our ancestors, most likely through trial and error, discovered what plants or animals were worth their while to become food and which were not.  This leads to certain species being favored as food in certain regions.

*For anyone who is curious there are answers to the two examples posed earlier. * According to one of my European history classes, an early entrepreneur in the shipping industry brought the tomato back to Italy.  He widely advertised that he would eat a large amount of them in full view of the public.  This caught many people’s attention since they believed the tomato was inedible and even poisonous. They came to watch him eat these strange things and die (public executions were great spectacles back in the day).  When he ate the tomatoes and didn’t die, the public relation stunt worked and tomatoes began to gain popularity.

The second example is a little bit harder to address.  Most of our written records of people eating acorns comes from populations under stress such as Native Americans forced off of their traditional lands.  Forced off of their traditional lands they may have relied on a food sources that they were previously familiar with.  Europeans were most likely bias in their reporting of acorn consumption since its for Europeans a ‘non food’ source.

All about Sheep

This week on the farm we had our first lambs of the season born.  Molly, who has never given birth to twins, gave birth to two little boys on Easter Sunday. Which prompted this weeks post about sheep.

Sheep are ruminants meaning that they have 4 chambers in their stomach to assist with digestion.  This process combines mastication (chewing with teeth, get your heads out of the gutter) and fermentation to increase the amounts of nutrients received from eating plants. Sheep are usually kept for their fur-commonly called wool-, meat, and/or milk.  Here on the farm we tend to use their wool most often and shear the sheep in the spring.  Wild sheep tend to come in shades for brown while domesticated sheep are in many colored varieties from dark browns to white.  Humans began selectively breeding sheep to have lighter coats to make it easier to dye the wool.

Sheep have a 5 month gestation period.  Since our sheep were breed in mid-December we should start having more lambs soon.  We only have one ram, Perry, in the Quiet Valley herd.  This protects our visitors from over aggressive rams and the sheep from each other.  Male rams often fight to establish dominance by ramming or headbutting each other.  Most female sheep, or ewes, have one to two lambs at a time.  Most lambs are born with long tails which are docked short for health reasons.  (If tails are left long, fecal matter can build up and encourage disease from flies.)

According to the University of Illinois, sheep are rather intelligent animals.  They rank right under pigs, which are considered one of the most intelligent mammals. Sheep can easily recognize faces and facial expressions.  We experienced this the other day during on of our programs. When I walked through the room where the class was taking place the sheep bleated very loudly startling all of us.  She was saying hello and reminding me to feed her.

Sheep play a big part in our culture from religious symbols to childhood songs to truck brands and even sayings.  Some of my favorite things about sheep are all of the phrases around them.  To be sheepish is to be shy. The black sheep in a group or family is the out of place person.  You can count sheep when you need to fall asleep.  And perhaps my favorite is that  a group of people who go along with something without thinking are called sheeple. So that’s a little bit about sheep.

A year of PA German Holidays: Easter

Easter is right around the corner.  Most of our Easter celebration come from the Germans and traveled over the seas with them to America.  The Easter Bunny, Easter Eggs, and Easter candy all have their roots in German traditions.

Like Santa Claus or the Christ Child, The Easter Bunny would traditionally come the night before the holiday and leave gifts of eggs, candy and perhaps toys for the good children. Traditionally children would make a nest for the Oschter Haws or Osterhase (Easter Hare). In the morning good children would find treats in their nest and bad children’s would be empty (or filled with rabbit poo). This nest has now been supplanted by Easter baskets and the fresh eggs with candy filled ones.

At first glance it doesn’t seem like chicken eggs have a lot to do with rabbits.  But chickens and rabbits can actually co-habitat in the same enclosure.  Its pretty easy to image a young child going to feed the chickens and finding a rabbit resting on an egg and then their imagination abounds.  During the spring, chickens begin laying more eggs; after having hardly any eggs all winter its a little overwhelming to find uses for them all.  Often times, mischievous farm boys would hide the eggs from their mother in the days leading up to Easter. Then the eggs would mysteriously appear Easter morning.

Perhaps the abundance of eggs in the spring lead to the traditions of decorating them.  Egg decorating has ancient roots with some of the oldest examples being ostrich eggs dating back over 60,000 years ago.  Eggs can be simply dyed, intricately painted, caved or pierced, or a combination there of.  Perhaps some of the most famous decorated eggs are the Pysanky eggs done in Ukrainian. These eggs are dyed by applying multiple layers of wax to the surface of the eggs and dyed in a series of colored baths.




Just for Nice: Scherenschnitte

One of the things I’ve always found interesting about the Pennsylvania Germans is their folk art such as hex signs on barns and frakturs. Scherenschnitte (pronounced something like Sharon-Sh-knit-a) is the German and Pennsylvania German tradition of cutting paper.  Traditionally these paper designs were done by folding the paper and cutting to make a continuous design.  Like what we did in childhood to make snow flakes or paper dolls that hold hands.

In the beginning, scherenschnitte were often used as decorative pieces for birth certificates, love letters, and marriage certificates. These tended to incorporate flowers, birds, and hearts.  Since paper was originally expensive, old letters or newspaper were often used.  This offers some unique insight into the lives of the people who made them. During the Victorian Era scherenschnitte was used to make shelf paper for cupboards so that pretty designed dripped over the edge of the shelf.  Or doilies for under cakes and on tables.

Scherenschnitte can also create a picture or tell a story.   For the Germans many of the pictures created were from folk tales.  These images tended to feature people and activities, which shares a lot in common with the French tradition of silhouette cuts.  Silhouettes, white images on black paper, were often cheap forms of art work.  (They were far less expensive then paintings.)

Today, scherenschnitte is still going strong and seems to have gained a following.  With things like exacto-knives the artists are now able to create very delicate and detailed items. Now an artist is limited by their creativity.

I especially like this one which I found on the internet!

I think during the summer season, when Quiet Valley is open to the general public this might be a great way for visitors to get their hands on some history.  They can sit and try their skills at producing some scherenschnitte of their own.



A little over three weeks ago we had piglets born on the farm.  Squeakers, the proud mama, timed it just right and gave birth on March 1st, which is National Pig Day! We even made the front page of the local paper, the Pocono Record.  (Finally some good news on the front page.)

Coming into work at Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm, I knew very little about livestock, thus the baby pigs have been an exciting challenge. My dad, in his twenties, had worked on a pig farm. He told me that if you fell into a pig pen, the hogs would eat you. (That’s why the farm hands freak out when Dorothy falls in during the Wizard of Oz.)  And no degree of Charlette’s Web or Babe could dissuade the thought in the back of my mind that was reinforced by  Criminal Minds; pigs are an excellent way to dispose of a body.   So I have to admit I’m a little surprised by how gentle and loving Squeakers is to her babies. I’ve learned a lot about pigs and wanted to share some of the fun facts about them.

Pigs belong to the genus Sus and fit into the Suidae family, which includes other even-toed ungulates.  This means that their weight is carried evenly across their toes.  To us non-scientific people that translates to animals with cloven toes like deer and pigs are related. (Which, apparently, also includes whales and hippos in the Suidae family.)

Pigs were likely first domesticated in China around 13,000 years ago. Most pigs are omnivores that means they tend to eat the same food as humans.  In one of my anthropology classes, we learned that people who live in desert regions tend not to keep pigs, since they compete for the same food source. It is much better to keep goats and sheep that eat things humans can’t, like grasses and shrubs.

Pigs are very intelligent animals.  They are able to be house trained.  During the 1700s and 1800s many country fairs where home to a Learned Pig.  These animals were often trained to pick up cards to spell words and perform math problems.  They often became a good source of inspiration for cartoonists and satirists.  The most popular pig in the United States appeared in 1798 and was billed as “Toby the Sapient Pig”.  Toby and other learned pigs have made a recent comeback in pop culture .

To end this post I wanted to share one of my favorite pop culture fun facts with you.  This is from the “Famous Pig Song” recorded by Clarke van Ness.

‘Twas an evening in October, I’ll confess I wasn’t sober,

I was carting home a load with manly pride,

When my feet began to stutter and I fell into the gutter,

And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

Then I lay there in the gutter and my heart was all a-flutter,

Till a lady, passing by, did chance to say:

“You can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses,”

Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.


Band Boxes, a historic craft

Hat and bandboxes  1825-50 from Shelburne Museum.

Reenactors, historians, and the general public often marvel at the creativity of our historic counterparts.  They were able to make from simple tools and equipment ingenious solutions to everyday problems.  Imagine us trying to do the same things without Google.  Recently I learned about band boxes during a training activity.

Band boxes are a catch-all term for decorative boxes constructed primarily from pasteboard with wallpaper on the outside and newspaper on the inside.  For an example, think of hat boxes. (Pasteboard is a thin board made from gluing multiple sheets together.  It has the thickness of thin cardboard or watercolor paper.) Wallpaper went on the outside because it is a bit more durable then regular paper to protect against usage and ware.  Inside the newsprint helps protect the contents from insects.

Band boxes started in the 1500s as a way to keep men and women’s ruffled collars from getting squished.  Pretty soon it wasn’t just for collars but for gloves, combs, hats, pins, ribbons, etc. In the beginning, people often made the boxes themselves.  Historically, for some women this was their only creative outlet. Band boxes seemed to reach their height of popularity during the 17th through the 19th century. The Victorians particularly liked having a box for ever purpose.

In America, perhaps the best known band boxes were made by Hannah Davis.  She began making band boxes after her parents died in 1818.  She used wood instead of pasteboard. Davis sold her boxes to the girls who worked in the fabric factories along the Merrimack River, including the famous Lowell Mill fabric factory. Small boxes tended to be about 5 cents while large ones that could be used as suitcases for clothing cost about 50 cents.  Peddlers would often sell them on the street like seen in this print by William Marshall Craig from 1808. 

Right now I’m trying make my own band box.  Thus far the trickiest part seems to be trying to sew the base to the sides evenly.  I’ve got a lot of lopsided boxes if anyone is interested.