Stump the Interpreter: Widow’s Weed


Its great when visitors are interested in history to ask questions that lead to amazing discussions with interpreters.  This summer we’ve had a lot of great questions that have helped expand our understanding of life during the 1800s. This week’s questions was about Widow’s Weed during the mid to late 1800s.

Widow’s Weed is an 18th century term for the black crape widows would often wear while mourning their loved ones.  It comes from the Old English word waed meaning garment.  Prior to the Victorian period, it was considered customary to mourn lost loved ones but the Victorians took it to a whole other level.  They developed and encouraged certain rules of behavior that were particularly focused on widows.  It was customary for a widow to go into what was called full mourning for a year.  During this time she was to wear a veil (the widow’s weed) over her face, she not permitted to attend social functions, or generally be seen out in public.  Then for another half year to a year she was in half mourning and was permitted to attend some social occasions and could start adding more texture to her black wardrobe.   During her last six months of mourning, the widow could start adding more color to her clothes including white, gray and light purples.  (The Met in New York had a great display about mourning fashion. )

After her period of mourning ended, women were expected to remarry-particularly if they were young and had inherited money.  A widow was some what socially dangerous; she no longer had a male protector (either father or husband) and as a widow could own property. This could give her a freedom unknown to her peers.  Because of they were able to engage with men as slightly more socially equal standing.  A widow can gain some power without loosing her reputation. This side was often seen in political cartoons through the 1800s.

Men had it a bit easier.  If they were a ‘junior’, they couldn’t drop the junior from their name until their father was buried.  Men’s mourning clothes was not that different from their regular day wear. A widower was generally expected to be in mourning for about 6 months to a year for his wife.

Mourning was very expensive.  Like today’s wedding shops, the 19th century saw mourning parlors where people could go and buy anything they needed.  Going into mourning could bankrupt a family.  Often times frugal family members would just overdye their clothes to make them black.  Armbands were an option as well. Nevertheless, proper society considered them socially inappropriate for anyone not in uniform.  This was often the method used by individuals who did not have a lot of disposable income.

World War I really saw the end of the strict Victorian standards.  With so many people dying during the Great War it was just impractical to keep the strict traditions.  And the 1920s, saw the transformation of the widow’s black dress into the little black dress.  Today, while many people still wear black to funerals, it is not always necessary.  Its considered more appropriate for people to look well attended and to honor the memory of the person.

Now you know a little bit more about life during the 1800s. This blog is written by Katherine Muller, Executive Director of Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm.  It is intended to help visitors explore and learn about life on the farm throughout history and as Katherine explores and learns more about the farm too.


Stump the Interpreter: 1800s Toiletries cont.

In my previous post we addressed a question raised by a visitor regarding 1800s toiletries, specifically toilet paper and toilets.  This got us curious, what about toothpaste and toothbrushes.

Toothbrushes and Toothpaste

It seems that people have been trying to clean their teeth for as long as we’ve had civilization.  Some of the earliest recipes to make toothpaste were written by the Egyptians and Babylonians around 35000 BC.  Throughout most of history toothpaste was a powder that was rubbed onto the teeth with a frayed stick, a finger, or a cloth. The Egyptians seemed to prefer a toothpaste with lots of grit….yum.  Ingredients such as charcoal, crushed burnt bone, oyster shell, sand, and pumice are common ingredients.

By 1600 BC the Chinese were selling chewing sticks from aromatic trees to clean teeth.  They invented recognizable toothbrushes around the 1400’s.  This consisted of bristles made from boar neck hair attached to a bone or bamboo base.

18th and 19th century toothbrushes

The first commercially produced toothbrushes were made around 1780 by William Addis in England.  Toothbrushes were not exceedingly common for most of American history.  It is estimated that only 1 in 4 Americans owned a toothbrush in 1920. Toothpaste was usually burnt bread mixed with spices such as cloves, salt, and vinegar.

A dentists named Peabody produced a toothpaste that contained soap in 1824.  Soap was an ingredient in toothpaste until 1945.  Many toothpastes during the mid 1850’s contained chalk powder.  And many cookbooks contained recipes for toothpaste that involved charcoal.  By about 1850 toothpaste began being sold in jars usually with labels like “Creme Dentifice”.  And finally toothpaste began being put into tubes by Dr. Washington Sheffield in 1890.

Amazingly tooth care hasn’t changed too much but our technology and methods have gotten updated.  So now you know something new.


The Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm blog is written by Kat Muller, as she explores and learns about the farm during her first year employed here.  This blog post is part of a series answering the questions posed by visitors and often times stump or puzzle the interpreters.

Stump the Interpreter: 1800s Toiletries

Some of my favorite questions as a living history interpreter are ones that deal with ordinary activities we tend to overlook in our daily lives because they are so common.  These activities happen without us thinking about it.  For example, when walking from the bright sun into the Cellar Kitchen at Quiet Valley a visitor asked”can’t you turn on the lights?” Well, in 1820 there is no electricity to turn on; we have to light lamps or candles. That really gets a visitor thinking and lead to some interesting research on toilets, toilet paper, tooth brushes, and tooth paste.  Here is what we found out:

Toilets and Toilet Paper

The Romans were rather advanced when it came to most things including toilets.  They very famously had public ones where dozens of people could go at the same time connected to a sewer system with flowing water to wash things away.  Seems rather odd to us but privacy is a very new cultural trend.  Archaeologists, such as Ann Olga Koloski-Ostraw, are discovering that Romans even had some in their private homes. The first flushing toilet was famously invented for Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1596.  She did not care for it at all.  It was noisy and if she went to the room with the toilet the courtiers would know what business she was about.  A chamber pot or a toilet stool could easily be brought to you for your necessary needs. The embarrassment of people seeing you take a trip to the toilet or to by toilet paper took a long time to overcome.

The first practical flushing toilet appeared around 1778 and was invented by Joseph Bramah.  Toilets started to catch on in popularity but there was a problem.  Unlike the Romans, there were little to no sewer systems.  Most toilets lead down into a cesspool under the house or outside the house.  Most ordinary people had an outhouse or just dumped their waste into the street. It wasn’t until 1859 that the first planned sewer systems were built in both America and England.  By the 1890s sewage treatment plants were being built to help prevent disease such as cholera and typhoid. The Victorians started many campaigns aimed at living better lives and focused on everything from cleaner water to education.

It took a rather long time for toilet paper to appear on the scene.  The earliest toilet paper seems to have been invented in China around the 6th century. The first commercially made toilet paper was Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water Closet.  There were flat sheets instead of the roll to which we are all accustomed. The advent of a flushed toilet changed what was used as toilet paper.  When people used privies it didn’t really matter what was used as toilet paper since it went down a hole.  So items like corncobs, straw, water, and sticks were common. But these items couldn’t make it through the bends and turns of pipes.  Newspapers and pages from catalogs were used in outhouses to such a point early Old Farmer’s Almanac’s were printed with a hole in the corner to be easily hung on a hook.  It wasn’t until about 1930 that toilet paper was a commercial success since prior to that people were embarrassed to buy it in stores!

There are some fun facts to brighten your day.


The Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm blog is written by Kat Muller, as she explores and learns about the farm during her first year employed here.  This blog post is part of a series answering the questions posed by visitors and often times stump or puzzle the interpreters.

Stump the Interpreter: History of Hunting

Everyday offers another opportunity for the interpreters to learn something new at Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm.  Many times these lessons come in the form of questions from our visitors.  If you have ever been to Quiet Valley and gone on our tours, you’ve probably visited the 1820s Cellar Kitchen where we discuss life early in the farm’s history. We mention a little bit about hunting which prompted a visitor to ask, “What did you hunt and what were the regulations about hunting?” Great question! Here is what we’ve found.

Many of our ancestors came from Europe from the 1600s onward.  In Europe no one but nobility hunted wild animals; this was considered poaching and was punishable by hanging (at least in England).  People poached all the time and there was generally public support for poachers because often time they were just trying to feed their families.  For example, in the tales about Robin Hood, he originally becomes an outlaw because he poached on the the king’s deer.

The idea of the common person hunting was laid out in William Penn’s Charter in 1683. If you owned the land, you could now hunt on it.  This was one of the many incentives  for people to move to the new world. By the early 1800s many of the animals that once roamed Pennsylvania’s woods were becoming rarer. In 1801 the last bison was shot in Pennsylvania.  By 1820 Johan Simon and Susan Meyer, owned the property that would become Quiet Valley, would have probably seen deer, elk, stag, black wolves, and mountain lions. But by their children’s generation they would have been rarely sighted.

The first regulations regarding deer hunting were introduced in 1869 establishing hunting season as September 1st through December 31st.  In 1873 it became illegal to kill a fawn in spotted coat and hunt on Sundays.  Chances are deer would not have been nearly as plentiful in the 1820s as they are today but they would have still been present.  When the Meyer family hunted it was probably for small game such as birds or rabbits.  Refrigeration wasn’t possible yet in 1820, its much easier to consume a small amount of meat then try and store a whole elk in the middle of summer.

Thank you for the great questions visitors! Keep them coming!

This blog is written by Kat Muller, administrator at Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm, in her first year of working at the farm. Follow along on her discoveries and (mis)adventures as she learns about agriculture, animals, and much more.

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.