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Embroidered Tidies – keeping the 19th century home clean and pretty!

February 28, 2017

All winter, the 1875 Tangen House has been open to dinner guests. In March, the Flynn Mansion will also be hosting guests for a special 19th century meal. These homes showcase Victorian furnishings, artifacts and many, many hand embroidered linens. When you think of 19th century embroidery—what do you picture? Google brings up exquisite images of delicate and profuse works on silks and linens; the sort of work that creates heirlooms. The sort of work that takes forever, because it’s closely worked satin stitches with scallops and French knots and other tricky-to-do-nicely stitches. Whitework embroidery enriched house linens and personal clothing throughout the century.


But in the 1870s, not all embroidery was meant to go in a hope chest. A lot of it rested on dressing tables, on the backs of sofas, and ended up mostly covered by lamps. Instead of satin or fine linen, tidies and antimacassars could be worked on Java canvas, with geometric designs embroidered in wool. They were meant to protect furniture from things that might damage them: the hard edges of metal and glass lamp bases against tabletops, hair oil, and abrasion against upholstery. And why not do that in a way that looks pretty?


Unlike white doilies, these tidies were not very washable. They were quickly worked in large stitches on sturdy grounds. Dyed wool on canvas would have to be washed carefully to avoid shrinking the wool or having the color run. But deeply colored wool on a natural-colored ground would not look dirty quickly, and could be shaken to remove dust, so it might not need washing at all.


Here we have several tidies made and used at the Flynn Mansion. The designs come from Peterson’s Magazine, January 1874 and January 1875. The tidy above is protecting the marble-topped bedside table in the master bedroom from the lamp and jar on top of it. The design is from January 1874, p83. The center stars are long straight stitches, bordered by herringbone and running stitches. Canvas tidies were often fringed around the edges.


Look at the great big stitches used to embroider the fabric. Aida canvas, like the original two-over-two weave of Java canvas, makes counting stitches easy, so designs can be lined up with each other. Unlike more formal embroidery stitches, which need practice to execute correctly, the stitches used here are ones used in basic plain sewing.


This tidy lives under one of the candelabra on the piano in the front parlor. Its design in red and black wool uses blanket, cross, and running stitches. The cross stitches in this case are long horizontal X’s with a short stitch over the cross.


Both of these were designed by Mrs. Jane Weaver, who contributed many textile projects to magazines like Peterson’s. Accessing 19th century patterns is not always easy. Above we have a scan of a photocopy of microfilm held by the Parks Library at ISU. The engraver of the original was careful to depict the texture of the Java canvas as well as the stitches, but the image is degraded to the point where such detail adds to the overall fuzziness. The stitches, though, are simple and bold enough to puzzle out how to do them.

The text reads “These designs may be worked on Java canvas, or honeycomb cotton material. Red and black ingrain Andalusian wool is generally used. The edge of the material, frayed out, forms the fringe.”


This design, from January 1875 of Peterson’s Magazine p79, came out clearer than the first two. The border of seven close-packed rows of chain stitch—in seven shades of red, no less–was skipped by the embroiderer who worked the tidy below in blue and yellow. It uses the border of one of the 1874 designs, but the star pattern from this one. It’s upstairs in the east guest room of the Flynn Mansion, where the colors combine nicely with the rest of the furnishings.


None of these designs state how big the finished project should be. A tidy might be just big enough to fit under an object and still show off some of the center motifs and border, or cover most of a table or shelf. Antimacassars were sometimes big enough to cover an entire chair back, but often just protected the top, where a head might rest against the upholstery. The maker was expected to work out the whole piece, in whatever size needed, from the corner shown in the design. And if she didn’t want to work lots of stars close together, she wouldn’t have to.


This blue and red tidy is usually under the lamp beside the bed in the west guest room of Flynn Mansion.

Come take a peek at the Flynn Mansion tidies for yourself in March for a Flynn Mansion Dinner or in April for a Flynn Victorian Tea!

Dinner Tidbits

January 11, 2016

Hi! I’m Lucy, the Historic Dinner Program Coordinator at Living History Farms. I wanted to share a few behind the scenes tidbits about our winter historic dinners.


One of the unintentionally best-kept secrets here at Living History Farms is our Historic Dinners Program. While many of our guests return year after year, people new to our programs are often surprised to hear that Living History Farms serves a historically-based meal in three of our historic homes throughout the winter months. These programs have been successfully running for 30 years at the 1900 Farm, close to 20 years at the Tangen Home, and the newest dinner program at the Flynn Mansion is just beginning its third year.

Kate at Tangen

Each dinner program offers guests an opportunity to experience a meal in the historic sites, almost as if they lived there. Dinner is a set menu, chosen ahead of time. The recipes are adapted from historic cookbooks and heritage family recipes. Many of the historic interpreters find these intimate dinners to be their favorite programs, providing a chance to interact with guests in a relaxed and personal atmosphere.

The historical interpreters at Living History Farms share many interesting historic side notes when you attend one of these dinners. Topics for discussion at the dinners vary from historic foods, manners, and chores, to farming and historic events. For example, did you know that the average farm wife would walk more than 50 miles a year to bring water into her house from a water source? Or that a million people were living in Iowa by 1875?

1900 kitchen

But there are many interesting aspects about historic dinners that aren’t mentioned as often. Here are a few highlights about our dinner programs:

Homemade yeast rolls are probably our most iconic recipe on every table at the 1900 Farm and Tangen house. These rolls are the starting point to all the dinner menus and none of us could imagine a dinner program without them. You need to look no further than the numbers to tell you that these rolls are an essential part on the menu. Between the 1900 Farm and Tangen house, we serve 1232 rolls per month! That’s 6160 rolls per dinner season. We estimate that we’ve made over 150,000 rolls since the dinners programs started!


Next are the work horses of the historic dinners. Well, not the real work horses of our farm (even though they too play an integral part of our 1900 Farm historic dinners.) What I refer to are the wood-burning stoves that we use day in and day out for these programs. Our stoves at the 1900 Farm house and the Tangen House were cast in the 1870s and 1880s! No one can argue that these stoves aren’t excellently engineered machines that can run all day, year after year with few operating issues and that they provide tasty food every day. You cannot say that for many modern kitchen appliances!

The Tangen House and 1900 Farm wash all of their dinner dishes by hand. The program houses do not have added modern dishwashers. In one winter season, 1900 Farm dinner staff will wash almost 3,000 forks!

The draft horses and mules at the 1900 Farm are something akin to celebrities for this historic program. Living History Farms has had many different horse teams make the half mile walk back and forth from the guest greeting area to the 1900 Farm since the beginning of the 1900 Farm Historic Dinner program. If we added it all up over 30 years, the horses have walked 1800 miles which is roughly the distance from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angles, California.

Erin with pie

Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the wonderful food. The recipes we use for these historic dinners are based on recipes we have found from cookbooks from the time period. What is notable about this is we have over 150 recipes in our database that we can mix and match to create menus for new delicious dinners each year. We don’t stop there though; we are constantly developing new historic recipes to be added to this lineup. Many of the food demonstrations you see during the summer in our historic kitchens are recipes being perfected for use in winter programs.

If you haven’t had a chance to visit us for a historic dinner this winter, there are still opportunities. Guests make their reservations online at Each house seats up to 12 guests at each dinner. Smaller groups are combined to create a full table. More information can be found here.

New Year’s Calling

December 30, 2015

It is almost 2016! Many people are planning a New Year’s Eve party on December 31st and then a solid day of parades and football watching on January 1st.

Flynn Mansion in Winter

In the 1870s, our Mr. and Mrs. Flynn would have had a slightly different take on ringing in the new year. New Year’s day was a day for gentlemen—especially young, eligible bachelor gentlemen—to go from house to house making New Year’s day calls. Ladies would get together to hold open houses on New Year’s Day, with punch and buffet snacks at various homes. The men would go from house to house sampling the food and punch, and making eyes at the various young ladies. Of course, the men would leave a calling card and sign an autograph book at every home they visited.

Flynn Mansion Party

Serving special treats at a Flynn Mansion Party

The Des Moines Leader newspaper listed before New Year’s in 1874 that:

“Our New Year’s callers will not be disappointed this year, for the ladies will very generally throw open their houses, and New Year’s will be a merry day. We have not been able to obtain a complete list of those intending to keep open house, but give those we have and will publish a complete list before next Saturday. The following ladies will receive at their homes . . .” What followed was a list of four social matriarchs in Des Moines and all the ladies that would be assisting at that house. Such as “Mrs. Dr. Baker and daughter” assisted by “Mrs. Judge Rice, Mrs. J.S. Polk, Mrs. Alex Talbot, Mrs. F.M. Hubbell, Mrs. W.L. Bird, Mrs. Clarke Shackleford, Miss Alice Cooper, Misses Mary and Maggie Shackleford, Miss Nellie Griffith, Miss Mary LeBosquett and Miss Kate Johnson.”

Holiday calling was not limited to the big city. Winterset, a bustling county seat town at the time, reported in their paper The Weekly Madisonian, on January 6, 1876:

“A Happy New Year—. . . .a large number of our gentlemen put in the afternoon calling. We again insert the names of those who kept open houses for our list of last week was not complete [following was a list of eight houses and all the ladies present at each one]. At all these houses tables were spread, loaded with the delicacies of the season and weighted down with all that could make them look inviting. In many of the houses the dining room was darkened and then brilliantly lighted with lamps. Some were also elegantly and tastily wreathed and adorned with mottoes in evergreen.”

festive decorations at Flynn

“The whole contrasted most delightfully with the elements outside, not least of which in making the contrast were the smiles of fair women, and the words of welcome and wishes of joy. Vocal and instrumental music made the time pass still more pleasantly in many of the houses. On the whole it was a most enjoyable day, long to be remembered by the people of Winterset.”

music at Flynn Mansion

Piano recital at the Flynn Mansion

“In the midst of the snow a dozen or so of young men procured bells and gave us a street concert, a la Swiss Bell Ringers. Marching around the square singing John Brown’s Body, and keeping time with the bells, the snow and the sleet heightening the effect it added to the general jollity…”

The bell ringing may be explained, perhaps, by pointing out that a great many punch recipes for the 1870s did contain alcohol. The Temperance movement of the time did offer housewives other fruit only recipes, but a good rum punch was pretty common. If you think of young men attending four or five houses and imbibing a cup or two of punch at each one, it’s a pretty good thing that they were driving sleighs with horses that probably knew their own way home.

Thanks to the Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project historic food research site, we are able to share with you a couple of punch recipes for your own celebrations. The first, a strong Roman Punch, is from The Ideal Bartender, published in 1917 by Thomas Bullock, a bartender at the St. Louis Country Club. This very strong punch is meant to be cut with shaved ice and served to a good sized group of people who will sip it slowly while chatting together.

Roman Punch

The second recipe can be served with or without alcohol. It is from La Cuisine Creole, published in New Orleans by Lafcadio Hearn in 1885.

Temperance punch

Have a very happy (and safe and responsible) New Year!

Fun and Games

December 23, 2015

Everyone is getting into the holiday spirit by now, and starting to make time for festivals, soirees, and visits amongst

These are often full of food and revelry, and sometimes friendly competitions. Some families get together and play cards. Euchre and Spades tend to be quite popular with Midwestern families now, while some families prefer “Minute to Win It” style games and yet others get pulled into never-ending games of Monopoly.

card game

While researching holiday traditions at the turn of the century from magazine called The Delineator, Erin at our 1900 Farm came across a delightful article on games to play in the holiday season. The author notes that these games are particularly useful as they take little set up and are nice to have on hand in case visitors happen to arrive.

Hostesses in 1901 were just as concerned as ever that everyone have a good time, and to that end would provide merry entertainment, sometimes in the form of games, for the visitors. This was helpful, as winter was a social time when there was not as many chores to do on the farm and people could spend time in amusement. Without an endless supply of holiday movies to put them in the spirit of the season, people would look to their host for direction. Charades, word games, and trivia were popular forms of leisure, with prizes being handed out to the winners or forfeits being paid by the losers.

The Delineator

Mary Howard cleverly names her gathering, “A No-L Party for Noel Tide.” Take a look at some of her game ideas, which have been edited for ease of reading below. Try them out with your friends and family this holiday season.


If friends drop in unexpectedly during the Christmas season surprising the hostess without a plan for their entertainment, a No-L Party may be devised for them on the spur of the moment and will keep the room in a gale of merriment for an hour and a half at least. The fun of the evening consists in a series of games in which L is a tabooed letter. No L is recognized in the proceedings and from the first game to the last the person giving a word containing L forfeits a point. Guests are first seated in a row or circle and a book provided. The character of the book is of no importance. Some person is asked to read aloud during the space of two minutes by the hostess’s watch. If in reading he comes upon on any word containing an L this word must be omitted and another conveying the same sense substituted. If the player fails to notice that a word included contains an L and reads it aloud, or if he cannot supply another word to convey the meaning, he is banished from the circle. Each player reads for two minutes, the person at his left hand then receiving the book in turn. The player who unluckily slips into an L word is not tripped by the hostess but by his fellow players. This makes it necessary for each contestant to be alert. The reading is continued until all persons but one have dropped out of the circle. This last survivor receives the prize, a book about Christmas.

The second game is an exciting variation of the foregoing. A box of anagram chips is needed in playing it but if these are not at hand slips of paper may be substituted each having a letter of the alphabet written upon it. All letters are represented in this way except L. The hostess then announces a subject, which we will say is Famous Men. The player first in line then picks up at random one of the letter slips which have been jumbled together and placed face downward. On seeing the letter he has received the player must immediately name a great man beginning with that letter but containing no letter L. If the letter drawn is N, and the subject is Great Men, Noah will be correct, but Napoleon would banish one from the circle. The fun in this feature arises in the perversity with which the mind immediately reverts to words containing the letter L. An appropriate trophy for the clever person who cannot be overcome in this merry bout would be a well written book on any of the subjects proposed by the hostess. . .

While a No-L party is especially good on account of requiring no preparation for an impromptu affair, it serves exceedingly well for any Christmas entertainment – MARY DAWSON.”  The Delineator, Vol LVIII, 1901

parlor guests

The staff and blog writers here at Living History Farms wish all our friends and followers a very happy holiday season!


Trees that Glisten

December 2, 2015

We see them everywhere in December, twinkling with lights and full of colorful ornaments, but have you ever stopped to think about how old the tradition of the Christmas tree really is, and how it came to be? From 1837 to 1901, Victoria was Queen of England, and she was so popular that we now refer to that era as Victorian times. Many people wanted to emulate Queen Victoria, and she was definitely the trendsetter for the day. Her styles were greatly regarded, as were her ideas for decorating.


The Beginnings of the Christmas tree

Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, was a Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a part of Germany. This is important in the story of the Christmas tree, because presenting an evergreen at the Winter Solstice was a German tradition from medieval times. The green of the tree signified to those early people that spring would eventually come, and everything would be green again. German Christians in the 16th Century (about 300 years before Queen Victoria) started decorating the tree for the celebration of Christmas.

Victoria and royal family decorating tree

In 1848 a newspaper in London, called the Illustrated London News printed an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and the royal family decorating a tree at their home in Windsor Castle. While you can’t say that the picture went viral, it did start a trend, and by 1850 it was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine that was based in Philadelphia and very popular in America.

1870s Christmas tree

Decorating the Tree

Early mid-century Victorian trees were decorated with cookies, candies, and even small gifts. Crafty Victorians quickly expanded the décor.

glass ornament examplesBy the year 1870, German artisans were marketing pressed paper and molded glass ornaments and by 1888, people were starting to experiment with electric lights on trees as a replacement for the candles of previous times. By 1900, there were trees in 1 of 5 American homes, with the first White House tree being decorated by Mrs. Harrison in 1889.

1900 farm tree

A farm family’s tree in 1900 may have had a few of these purchased ornaments, but was often still mostly decorated with handmade items, such as cut out cards with ribbons attached, pieces of fruit, or popcorn balls. It may have had simple decorations, like popcorn or raisins strung with nuts, cranberries, or other bits of fruit. Since most farm homes did not have electricity at the turn of the century, a farm family’s Christmas tree would still have had candles for light, something that would have been dangerous because of fire. The candles would most likely have been lit briefly on Christmas, when the tree was still fresh.

delineator illustration 1901

The Delineator, 1901.

By 1901, there were already recommendations on how to add more glisten and sparkle to the tree. An entry in the kids’ column of the New York Magazine, The Delineator, (1901) shared some new methods for trimming the tree, by recycling a household object, tin foil. It mentioned that tin foil was, “the common kind of foil to be found at the florist’s. It also comes around cakes of chocolate, rolls of cream cheese, large packages of tea, and inside the paper around tobacco.” In our kitchens today, aluminum foil is much more common, and you can use it to make the same sorts of decorations found in homes in 1901. The article talks about this decoration which, “catches the light and glistens beautifully.” Try it out yourself, following the instructions below. It involves cutting a folded piece of foil into shapes with scissors — but be sure to be careful, foil tears and bends easily. This is a great tree trimming activity to do with kids! We used aluminum foil for the examples below, but we cut them in half to begin; then followed the diagrams. The instructions state,

“You can make the trimming any length desired by pasting strips of the tinfoil together, but before joining the pieces, fold one at a time and cut slashes on each side nearly across to the opposite edge as in Fig. 1. (folded view). Unfolded the strip resembles Fig. 2;”

tinfoil fig 1 and 2

“Pulled (open at) each end, it opens and lengthens out into Fig 3.”

tinfoil fig 3  foil decoration

Our version ended up looking like this!

“Another effective trimming made of tinfoil is in the form of fringe ruching. Use three layers of the foil and cut them into fringe as in Fig 4, tinfoil directionsthen take a strong, coarse string and twist the tinfoil fringe around and around it forming a rope of silvery fringe as in Fig 5.”

Our version of the fringed garland looked like this.


If you would like to read the whole article from the 1901 magazine, you can find it here.

It was so much fun to make garland for the tree at the 1900 Farm this year, we hope you try and make some to put on your tree at home. While you are decorating, remember Queen Victoria, and how the Christmas tree tradition came to be. Have a merry holiday season!

For a better look at 1870s Christmas trees, join us this Saturday, December 5 from 3pm to 7pm for a holiday open house filled with Christmas cheer! Bundle up for a horse-drawn wagon ride to visit the festive Flynn Mansion. Enjoy an old fashioned holiday social with dance music by the Barn Owl Band in the Church of the Land. Kids will enjoy printing their own holiday greeting cards, decorating cookies, making crafts, and visiting Santa Claus! Adults can shop for unique gifts in the MarketPlace Museum Store. Advanced tickets are available at

19th Century Thanksgiving

November 23, 2015

Thanksgiving is one of America’s favorite holidays. Generally filled with food and family, and often football, it is a time to reflect on the blessings of the year and share our table with each other.

Thanksgiving table

Iowans in the late 19th century prized the holiday as well. They were already filling it with prized traditional recipes and visits from family.  As for museum guides at Living History Farms, we love being able to see how that food tradition evolved through historic cookbooks and magazines. By the 1860s, many cookbooks already listed suggested bills of fare for Thanksgiving day laden with pies, roasted vegetables, oyster soups and, of course, Turkey. With that in mind we share a favorite adaption of a historic dressing recipe, for those who are still in need of inspiration for that course of their own Thanksgiving feasts.

Thanksgiving meal

Mushroom-Sage Dressing

3 cups (8 oz.) mushrooms
1 medium Onion
9 cups Bread Crumbs
2 Tbls. Chicken Bouillon Paste
1 cup Butter
1 tsp. ground Sage
2 tsp. Leaf sage
1 Tbls. Parsley
1 tsp. Pepper

Chop fine, onion and mushrooms. Melt butter in a shallow pan. Add herbs and bouillon to pan. Cook onion and mushrooms in butter mixture until tender. Add mixture to breadcrumbs. Mix thoroughly. Bake in covered dish at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes.

–Adapted from Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867.


Not everything on Thanksgiving was about food in the 19th century. The editorial staff at The Iowa State Register reminded readers on November 27, 1890:

 “This is Thanksgiving Day—one of the best days of all the year. It has a mission all its own and a blessing all its own to bestow upon all who open their souls to its eauty and good cheer. It should not be wholly given up to turkey and cranberry sauce. To eat, ddrink and be merry is a good way to give thanks—better than long prayers rendered with long faces, but it is not all that one ought to do today. A kind word kindly spoken to some one in distress; a worthy gitt worthily bestowed upon some one more unfortunate—these are thanks acceptable on earth and in Heaven alike . . . There is no man or woman so humble that their thanks to you for a gift bestowed to-day is not an incense that will rise to Heaven.”

As quoted by William Petersen, in “Thanksgiving in Iowa”. The Pamimpsest. Vol XLIX, December 1968 no. 12. Pg 569.

Living History Farms wishes all our blog readers, members, museum guests, friends, and family a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Winter is Coming! Break out the Carding Paddles

November 16, 2015

yarnNow that the inevitable chill of winter is beginning to set in, it’s time to start getting out the fleece petticoats, wool bonnets, and knit hats, gloves, and shawls. Our museum guides offer several cold weather programs at the 1850 Pioneer Farm and cold weather means we need warm clothes! In 1850, Iowa pioneers would have been doing the same around this time of year! In fact, they likely would have started the process of making and repairing warm clothing months before the chill set in. In Iowa, you learn pretty quickly that unseasonably warm weather at the beginning of November is not going to last long – it’s going to get cold fast.

Unlike today, when a trip to a nearby department store to pick up a few more winter clothes is in the realm of possibility, pioneers would have had to make their wool clothing by hand. One way to ensure a large supply of wool for constructing the necessary cold weather clothing and accessories was to own a flock of sheep. Although not a large cash crop, over half of Iowa’s farmers did raise some sheep in 1850. sheep

Sheep were easy enough to keep (if you didn’t mind their baa-ing). They required open pasture to graze, a water source, and protection from predators, but generally didn’t require a lot of other tending. The most maintenance a sheep would need was their spring shearing, usually occurring sometime between May and June.

Processing wool was often a bigger undertaking than raising the sheep themselves. The wool after shearing was fluffy, but coarse in spots, and often quite dirty. The first step after shearing this raw wool was carding. Carding is a term used to describe the process of brushing and cleaning the wool.

carding wool

Using carding paddles made of wood with prickly metal wires as essentially two big hairbrushes, pioneers would pull the paddles in opposite directions with the wool stuck in between. Carding cleaned the wool by getting rid of little bits of grass, dirt, and grime, but also served another purpose. Carding got the fibers in the wool going in the same direction, so when the wool was peeled off the carding paddles it was ready to be used on the spinning wheel and made into yarn. spinning

Carding can be a tiring job, and if you’ve ever visited the 1850 Farm while we are carding then we’ve probably asked you to help out and give our arms a break! This is a good job to do while waiting for bread dough to rise, or on a somewhat easy-going Sunday afternoon. The need to card larger amounts of wool gave rise to several water-powered carding mills in eastern Iowa as Iowa settlement progressed. Small amounts of raw wool could be hand-carded into bats for spinning, but large amounts would be sent to a carding mill to be machine-combed into a long, continuous piece of fleece called roving. Roving allowed a spinner to spin continuously, instead of stopping often to re-splice the smaller combed bunches that were made with hand-held wool cards. One early Iowa City carding mill accepted, “Cash, wheat, wool, dry hides, and beeswax,” as payment for carding roving. Another took bacon, flax seed, tallow, beans, and goose feathers.


Pioneers were not the first people to card and process wool into warm clothing, and wool carding as a trade dates back to the agricultural revolution of the early 11th century. Today, we take for granted the convenience of going to buy warm clothes when we outgrow them, lose them during a move, forget where we put them at the end of last winter, or just want a change of style. It’s important to remember that for centuries before us, our ancestors have had to make all of their own clothing, and many would have had to grow, in a way, the materials that they would have needed to make those clothes. If you’d like to give carding a shot, come give us a hand at the 1850 Pioneer Farm! This winter, there’s also a chance for you to learn the basics of transforming wool into yarn in a “Spinning with a Spinning Wheel for Beginners” class, held at Living History Farms. Find more info on this and other adult education opportunities at

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