Find Things from the Past on Display
Lamps and Lanterns – In the 1800's lanterns were boxes with a candle inside. Whale oil was used in the 1820's, and by the
1830's glass globes appeared. The glass
globe, lifted with a lever, helped protect the home from fire. In 1849 the Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner
patented a liquid fuel from coal and called it kerosene. A kerosene lamp shed a
yellow light into the room as powerful as 4-15 candles. Victor Samuel Johnson introduced
the Aladdin lamp in 1909. The Aladdin burner produced a blue flame for maximum
heat output and emitted 60 candlepower. It shed a soft white light that was
brighter to work by.
Farmsteads – The first farmsteads were located near streams. Farm buildings
included the home, barn, corncrib, granary, woodshed, milk house, buggy shed, and
Silos –Fermented feed, or silage, was essential for livestock such as cattle
and sheep and stored in silos. Neighbors worked together to haul the feed to
the silo where machines cut it into small pieces and blew it up a metal pipe
through a window at the top of the silo.
The first wooden silo was built in 1891 by F.H. King. Later models were poured concrete, brick,
tile, or metal
Weather Vanes – Weather vanes told farmers the speed and direction of the wind on a
daily basis. Many weather vanes were
decorative, usually depicting farm animals, and including the four cardinal
directions. Lightning rods were sometimes
a part of the weather vane.
Outhouses –Also called the privy or backhouse was part of every small village
and farm until running water became common. Most outhouses had two holes, a
small air vent, and were supplied with an all-purpose Sears catalog. The worst visits to this little building were,
of course, in the winter and at night.
The most common “trick” on Halloween was to topple the outhouse,
sometimes with an unfortunate resident.
Woodpiles –A nice woodpile was high,
neatly stacked, end to end, with the split sides showing to form a roof. Trees common to the Midwest were oak, pine,
aspen, birch, cedar, maple, hickory, walnut, cherry, and poplar. Oak, hickory, walnut cherry and maple
provided the longest lasting heat.
Kitchen Stoves- The kitchen wood or coal burning stove provided warmth, cooked food
and held a reservoir of hot water. Most stoves had a “warming oven”. Stoves
required daily removal of ashes. Cast-iron stoves had a stovepipe to the chimney,
which had to be cleared of soot once a year.
Draft Horses – Before tractors there were draft horses; they plowed, hauled hay,
and tackled many difficult jobs.
Belgians, Clydesdales, and Percherons were used on farms and became
beloved members of the farm family.
Walking Plows – Early plows were wooden and cast iron contrivances that dug a trough
in the soil. In the Midwest, dirt stuck
to the plow bottoms until John Deere, a Vermont blacksmith, polished a steel
plow that worked even in the sticky, clay-laden soil. By 1847 John Deere manufactured 1,000 plows a
year. After the walking plow came the
riding plow, called a sulky, with a
14-16 inch bottom, three wheels, and a seat for the plowman. The gang
plow had two plow bottoms and required 3-4 horses to pull it.
Windmills –Windmills ground flour, sawed wood and pumped water. In 1854 Daniel Halladay patented a windmill
that pumped water. The Wheeler’s Eclipse
of 1867 could withstand much higher winds.
The first all-metal windmills were developed by the Matt Foos Company in
1872. Thomas Perry and Laverne Noyes
collaborated on the Aermotor windmill, the first
truly scientific windmill. It was
constructed of metal and cast iron and had to be greased twice a year. By 1908 Sears sold steel and wooden
Gasoline Engines –As an alternative to steam engines, internal combustion engines were
sold in the 1800's with 3 - 65 horsepower.
Fuller and Johnson offered the “Farm Pump Engine” in 1911 which used
400-1,000 gallons of gas per hour. This
pumped water, powered wood saws, operated washing machines, and ran milking
machines. There were some hybrid
gas-electric engines offered by Fairbanks Morse, Delco, Fuller and Johnson,
Kohler, and Genco Light. Electricity engines
replaced the gasoline engine for many tasks.
Tractors – Beginning with steam powered engines, tractors appeared in the
Midwest in the 1800's. Beastly black,
smoke spewing giants on iron wheels were developed by the J. I. Case
Company. By 1924 John Deere made the
two-cylinder Model D tractor. Henry Ford
offered an “Automotive Plow,” a tractor made from auto parts. Case, Ferguson, Allis-Chalmers, Massey-Harris
and other companies soon made tractors as commonplace on farms as horses had
been a century before.
Threshing Machines – As early as the 1700's threshing machines were being used in England
and Scotland; the first American threshing machine, water powered, was patented
in 1791. In the 1820's the Pope
Threshing Machine was hauled by wagon from farm to farm. The 1837 the Pitts and Pope threshing machine
was powered by horses walking on a treadmill that was dug into a pit so that the
horses walked on an incline. Early Case
threshing machines, usually wooden, became popular until the grain combine
appeared in the 1930's.
Barbed Wire Fences –“Don’t fence me in” hardly covered the disputes in the West over
fencing land. However, separating farms
on property lines, and enclosing livestock became the norm, and the tedious job
of pounding posts and stringing wire was complicated by making sure the fences
were absolutely straight. Joseph Glidden
perfected the twisted wire strands and barbs into a marketable product. A patent was granted for barbed-wire on Nov.
Dairy Cows –Almost every farm had a dairy cow, named and milked by the children. The production of different types of cows was
a common conversation topic. Black and
white Holstein cows came with the Dutch to New York in 1630. Fawn-colored Jersey cows were smaller, but
outnumbered the Holsteins, arriving from the Jersey Isles in 1850. In 1783 Shorthorns from Durham County,
England, followed pioneer wagons West.
Other dairy cows were the Brown Swiss from Switzerland, the Guernsey
from England, and the Ayrshire from Scotland.
Keeping in Touch
Depots and Trains –The train depot was vital to the community. The train brought people, livestock and freight. Train depots were heated, had hot plumbing and
Rural Mail Carriers –Rural mail delivery linked farms with the city and brought news to
lonely settlers. Tom Watson drafted
legislation for mail delivery in 1893 and it became law in 1896. Farmers began to subscribe to magazines and
newspapers, as well as ordering from mail order catalogs. Monday through Saturday the mail was sorted
and travelled by automobile through “rain, sleet, hail, and snow” to its
Telephones –The independent telephone industry began to develop throughout rural
America early in the 1890's. By 1912, the number of rural telephone systems had
grown to more than 3,200. The Communications Act of 1934 made the concept of
universal telephone service the law of the land. The goal of universal service
was to ensure that all Americans, regardless of where they live, receive
quality telephone service at reasonable rates. The early telephones were 'party
lines' or shared lines.
Box Cameras – After Sir Humphrey Davey experimented with photo images,
photographers improved cameras for centuries.
In the 1860's professional photographers with plate film cameras
traveled the country making a pictorial record for history. In 1860 George Eastman invented a film with
light-sensitive emulsion. He then rolled
it unto a spool, and the portable box camera became a reality. He started the Eastman Kodak Company with its
first camera on market in 1888 which could take 100 pictures. Soon everyone could afford a camera, and a
pocket Kodak was invented, followed by the “Brownie.” The Brownie was 6 inches deep, 7 inches high,
and 3½ inch wide, with a handle.
Radios – In 1895 Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor, sent the first radio
signals, and by 1920 Westinghouse had a 100-watt radio commercially
available. The first station was in
Pittsburgh, KDKA, and by 1922 radio stations numbered 537. Soon the average household had a radio, and people
could listen to the President announce the beginning of World War II on
December 8, 1941. There were broadcasts
aimed at farmers, weather, markets, and university researchers. WHA at the University of Wisconsin had
special programs on music, art, and nature for the area schools. Radio shows that gained long-lasting
notoriety included: Amos and Andy, Green
Hornet, Hopalong Cassidy, Tarzan, the
Lone Ranger, Red Skelton, and Milton
Berle. Sports were broadcast live,
and the Grand Ole Opry came on air in
1925. The amazing fact is that farmers
had radios before they had electricity, and for rural communities it was transforming.
Country Taverns – The old-world tavern was reinstated in the states as a cultural
institution and gathering place in the 19th century. The oldest tavern in Iowa opened in 1852,
opened by a federal permit from President Fillmore. Only men were allowed in
the tavern, especially in the German communities. The country tavern was not a
fancy place, but the common man’s gathering place.
Gristmills –The gristmill is a mill equipment with large grinding stones to grind
grain. Many were water powered until
electricity became popular.
Country stores – Almost every town in early America had a general merchandise
store. These stores sold groceries,
seeds, cattle feed, bait, hardware and sometimes housed a post office. Often there was a gathering area for the
local residents to meet. The stores were
social centers for both men and women.
Barbershops – Cutting hair, shaving beards, shining shoes, and in the early years,
surgical operations were performed in barbershops as its customers shared news,
told stories, and listened to barbershop music. Barbershop music was
unaccompanied four-part close-harmony singing that was popular from 1900 to
1919. Barbershops served as community centers.
4-H Clubs – Learning how to sew, cook and can, raise livestock, plant crops, and
to do everything rural was the realm of the 4-H Club. The 4-H clover and motto, “To Make the Best Better” represented an
emphasis on unity of Head, Hands, Heart, and Health. In 1914 Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act
which created the Cooperative Extension Service in the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, which gave 4-H a government liaison. The Cooperative Extension Service worked with
farmers to provide the latest research on crops and livestock, and organized
4-H clubs to educate youth.
Country Fairs - Colonial farmers began a
European tradition of fairs to display livestock to the community. As agricultural societies were organized in
America in the middle of the 19th century, competitions began for
farmers, and fairs in the Midwest were born.
Today 3,500 fairs are held every year in the U.S. and have developed
into show places for Future Farmers of America members, 4-H clubs, and
Town Halls – The oldest form of government in the United States began in 1636 in
the town of Providence, Rhode Island.
Over half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were members
of town government. The annual town
meeting allowed residents to talk with their local representatives about taxes,
roads, safety, and other concerns. Towns
maintained roads, held the elections at the local, state, and federal levels,
maintained laws, provided security and fire control. Towns regulated land use, building permits,
and local regulations.
One-Room Schools –All eight grades met with one teacher in a one-room building. The
teacher often lived in the building and took care of the grounds. Originally designed to teach children how to
read the Bible, the schools taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and
Churches –Country and rural churches were a vital part of Midwest culture,
especially in Scandinavian and German communities. The Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian
synods covered the landscape with locally built places of worship. Many of the earliest churches in the area
were built by Catholic missionaries. Many immigrants came to America for
Resting and Playing
Little Red Wagons – The Radio Flyer handcrafted wagons were manufactured in 1917 by
Italian Antonia Pasin. Children loved
the wagons and demand exceeded supply.
In the 1930’s the Radio Steel & Manufacturing company sold 1,500
wagons a day. The wagon was named in
honor of Marconi’s invention of the radio and with new airplanes in mind.
Sleds – Wooden sleds with metal runners and no steering crashed into trees
and bushes on a downhill trip. Samuel
Leeds’s Flexible Flyer, built in the 1800's, was the first sled to be
steered. The Flyer had an arrow and
eagle design on the slatted wooden seat as its logo. Winter sports such as ice-skating, skiing, and
the tobogganing increased interest in sleds.
Card Playing – Cards and checkers were a rural pastime. Five-card stud, gin rummy, cribbage, whist,
and pinochle were favorites, but some regions had their own games, such as the
German game of smear. People played
cards in homes, schools, community centers and even held competitions.
Polka Bands – Germans and Poles brought polkas to the Midwest. Polka bands were popular at weddings,
anniversaries and festivals. Every group, the Norwegians, Belgians, Slovenians
and Czechs brought their own music with them to the Midwest.
Porches – Gathering on the porch in the evening or on a summer afternoon was a
family affair accompanied by fireflies and lanterns. It was a place for families and neighbors to
talk, rest, and plan.
Adapted from: Apps, Jerry.
(2000). Symbols: Viewing a rural past.
Amherst, WI : Amherst Press.