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Americanitis and the Holiday Hustle

November 3, 2015

holiday entertaining 1870It’s the first week of November. For many people, this is the beginning of a wonderful harvest and holiday season running all the way into January. For many others, this is the beginning of a hectic two months of busy schedules, lots of demands to shop, work, be seen, and overall, a time of stress. As we head into this busy time, we often think of the pace of modern life as a recent affliction and the pace of past rural life as a quiet, stress-free environment.log house 1850

We assume that living before the internet, cell phones, and even electricity automatically made life less stressful. When guests come out to the museum for programs, they often tell our historic interpreters, “Oh, life was so much simpler back then.” Well, not exactly. Farming had it’s own special stressors–the weather, the markets, food production for the family, and the health of livestock and crops. Much of this stress was beyond the farmer and his family’s direct control. Emily Hawley Gillespie, an Iowa farm wife, wrote in her diary on August 5, 1882, “we are all tired. I get so nervous when I am warm cooking over the hot stove, it seems just as I burned up twenty years of my life by the heat off the stove, but for all I must try to always be pleasant.”stove

Even in the 19th century, Iowans had a perception of life moving on too fast. After the Civil War (which in itself caused any number of stresses on both the home front and the battlefront), Iowans felt pressured by the pace of their own “modern” life-styles. Industrialization pushed farmers to buy new machinery, farm more land, and keep up with consumer culture. They were pressured to produce more and sell more and to buy more things. In 1855, a Dutch Farmer in Pella, Iowa wrote to friends in Holland, “Farming here is entirely different than in Holland. Whatever can possibly be done by machine is done by machine. Wheat, oats, hay…(are) all harvested by machines. I have one myself which cost $160…I expect to purchase a threshing machine in the fall, with which we can thresh 360 to 450 bushels a day.”

McCormick Twine Binder 1884

“The People’s Favorite! The World-Renowned McCormick Twine Binder! Victorious in over 100 Field Trials! New and Valuable Improvements for 1884!”

Horse-drawn mowers and reapers were only the beginning. Farm machines cut down on the number of workers that were needed on a farm. Cities continued to boom with industry and new opportunities. Throughout the country, farm youth were already feeling the call to leave the farm and move to the city to seek jobs and wealth. New-fangled inventions arrived, seemingly every day. Telegraphs, trains, sewing machines, printing machines, gas lights, then telephones, then electricity, and so forth. These new inventions made laborious tasks easier, but were already creating new consumer demands and production expectations—in the workplace and at home. For every new home cleaning product, washing machine wringer, and sewing machine, a new ideal followed of how clean the house should be, how perfect the baby should look, and how much cut glass should appear on the Sunday dinner table.

In the midst of all this stress and expectation, 19th century doctors were facing a new trend. Their patients suffered with cases of mental exhaustion ascribed to the busy lifestyle many faced. Considered very much an American ailment, stressed-out women and overworked businessmen were being diagnosed with “neurasthenia” or “Americanitis”. Iowa’s cities, such as Des Moines, echoed the fast pace in bigger cities.

Colfax spa

Spa hotel in Colfax, Iowa circa 1900–a retreat for fashionable Iowans to take the mineral waters and relax.

Even our own wealthy farmer and businessman, Martin Flynn, felt stressed by his lifestyle. He and his wife Ellen made regular trips to the mineral spas in Colfax, Iowa and retreats for rest and relaxation to health spas in Michigan.

Dr. George Miller Beard

Dr. George Miller Beard

Defined by Dr. George Beard in the 1880s, “Americanitis” was considered a result of the pressures of city and modern life, characterized by migraines, depression, and general nervous exhaustion. The cure prescribed at that time was often bed rest and a retreat from work and society. The “cure” had mixed results. Complete bedrest was often more trying to busy minds than the pressures of society. Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a well-known short story about a woman placed on bedrest for her nervous exhaustion in 1892, titled The Yellow Wallpaper. The heroine of the story is locked in her bedroom with no mental stimulation to “rest”. As a result of nothing to do, she suffers from hallucinations—seeing people in the patterns of the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. The Yellow Wall Paper

For better or worse, doctors treating patients with “Americanitis” suggested a refocusing on simple pleasures and simpler lives. Perhaps, that simple life we think about for the 19th century was not so simple. Whatever our thoughts on 19th century simple life, the next few months will certainly be a hectic rush for many of us. How do we combat the modern stress?

This past month, Living History Farms embraced an emerging trend in stress management with an adult coloring party event in the Flynn Mansion. We asked guests to come drink tea, listen to relaxing music, and most especially to COLOR! Recently, psychologists have recommended coloring as a way for adults to de-stress and relax. The act of focusing on choosing colors and the repetition of coloring in spaces are thought to help the mind relax and let go of troubling problems. Museum staff made coloring pages from 19th century fashion plates, merchandise catalogs, and architectural drawings for guests to color. coloring sheets

By registration, museum guests were able to enjoy some sweet treats, relax in the Flynn Mansion for an hour or two and apply colored pencils to these historic images.   Coloring Party

These Adult Coloring Party – “Get Happy” Hour events at the Flynn Mansion are offered periodically and are by advanced reservation only. Keep an eye out on the Living History Farms’ website and Facebook page for upcoming coloring parties as the holiday season progresses! Life may not have been completely simple in the past, nor is it completely simple now, but a few minutes to stop, relax, and refocus can help any generation keep their sanity in busy times.

Family Research

October 19, 2015

Flynn houseAt Living History Farms, we are constantly researching. Many different sources are used to provide the facts that ultimately help interpreters tell the stories our guests experience every time they come to the museum. In fact, we frequently joke that you can tell if an interpreter has just stumbled upon some good information because that’s all he or she wants to talk about! Constant research is necessary because new sources are being digitized or made available every day, and new information can help us to be more accurate and complete in our storytelling.

Flynn Mansion

At the Flynn Mansion, interpreters and volunteers tell the story of Martin and Ellen Flynn, and the Flynn children. This family history research is now easier than ever. Websites and services, as well as efforts by libraries and the United States government to digitize historic materials, have allowed us to learn more of the story with nothing more than the click of a mouse. If you are curious about your own family, or would like a few ideas about additional resources to check into, here is a look into how Living History Farms is researching the Flynn story.

Des Moines Leader

Des Moines Leader, December, 1875


Des Moines’ newspapers covered not only news, but also society. Period newspapers such as the Des Moines Leader, the Iowa State Register and the Des Moines Tribune offer a look into the Flynn’s world by reporting on topics from the construction of the Flynn Mansion from 1870-1871, to accounts of parties the Flynns attended or threw for their friends. We have also found advertisements for cattle auctions and other business matters. Obituaries can also provide information about an ancestor’s parents, children, occupation, and more.

People's Savings Bank ad

Newspaper Ad for People’s Savings Bank, one of Martin Flynn’s business ventures.


censusCensus Records

Census records can be a mixed blessing in that they are not always 100% reliable; spelling and age are sometimes incorrect. That caveat aside, they are always a fantastic starting place. The United States government has done a census every ten years since 1790, though individual listing of household members did not begin until the 1840 census. Individual states did their own censes as well. The census will include information such as name and age, as well as marital status, education level and occupation (amongst other things). The census records helped establish the birth years of the Flynn family members, and also sometimes provided insight into how long they attended school. Searching census databases can provide where your ancestors lived, if you need a starting point or a clue.

Birth/Marriage/Death Records

Though sometimes more difficult to track down through internet database searches, some counties have digitized these records. Once you determine the county of your ancestors’ birth, marriage or death, you can often contact the courthouse for copies of these records. There are also databases online where you can locate an ancestor’s gravesite which can provide birth and death information.

Church Records

The Flynns were members of St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Des Moines; parish records provided dates of the children’s baptisms.

city directoryCity Directories

Once you know the city in which your ancestor(s) resided, these directories can provide street addresses (as well as interesting advertisements of the time).

Family Stories

Like the census, family stories are a great starting point; however, we do call them stories for a reason. Backing up family stories with facts from newspapers and census records can provide depth to your family’s existing knowledge. Even if the facts turn out to be inaccurate, hearing stories from your relatives is a fantastic way to learn about your family.

This list is not exhaustive, but it does cover our most commonly used research methods. The best advice we can offer for your own family history research is to visit libraries and internet databases, and also talk to your living relatives, particularly great-grandparents and grandparents, as well as others in their generations. Ask them as many questions as you can, and if possible, record the interviews. Look through photographs and label them so your descendants can see their ancestors’ faces and know to whom they belong. Though you may find stories and ancestors you never knew existed, you will certainly discover that your family has a fascinating story to tell.

Cast Iron Cooking Showdown

September 30, 2015

Fall is sports season in Iowa. Football, volleyball, and cross country running are all big high school and college sports. The fall puts us all in the spirit for a little friendly competition. On September 12, our museum held our own competition–a Cast Iron Cooking Showdown! Living History Farms has five historic food preparation areas for guests to visit. Staffers in each of those areas were given a basket of 4 ingredients. They each had an hour and a half to use those ingredients to prepare a historically themed main dish and a side plate for our three volunteer judges. The judges then scored the plates based on the historic techniques used, taste, and final presentation. The mystery ingredients for the challenge included butternut squash, apples, pork ribs, and sorghum syrup.

Cooking Showdown

Museum guests were able to observe the cooking phase of the challenge at each historic kitchen as they toured the grounds. The 1700 Ioway Farm staff prepared their dishes over the coals of a fire pit. Site interpreter Melinda explained to guests that apples, pork, and sorghum were not ingredients known to the Ioway in the early 1700s. All of these ingredients were brought by European settlers. Using Ioway cooking techniques, she prepared the “new” ingredients in traditional ways.


The 1850 Pioneer Farm interpreters created their dishes over an open hearth fire as well. They had the advantage of a bricked-in hearth with hooks for hanging cast iron pots and a stone hearth floor for bake kettles.

hearth1850 interpreters

Cooks at the 1900 Horse-powered Farm gathered all of the garden produce that they had handy. Cooking in a late 19th century wood burning stove, staffers pulled the oven shelves out to give more room for cooking in the oven.


Guests became caught up in the competitive spirit—offering to spy on competitors for each kitchen and coming back multiple times to see how dishes were progressing. Guests were also caught up in the judging aspect—asking the kitchens great questions about why they were using certain techniques and how typical the ingredients and flavors would have been for that time period.

The historic kitchens created their dishes at the historic sites and then plated them in our modern Visitor Center building.


Three judges and our moderator tasted and judged each and every dish. The cooks had two minutes to present the dish, reminding judges of how the cooking was done, why the techniques were used, and highlighting any cookbooks or historic references that were being emphasized.

Plates from all the sites were beautifully presented and guests, as well as judges, were impressed with the presentation talks.


1700 Farm staffer Melinda emphasized how the secret ingredients were used in ways that more traditional Ioway ingredients–such as bison, Jerusalem artichoke, maple syrup and wild plums–would have been treated. The pork and squash went into a traditional Ioway stew, along with wild mushrooms, corn and beans, seasoned with wild garlic. The apples were roasted whole in coals in the fire, along with sweet corn in the husks. Blue corn meal was ground and baked in corn husks to create corn bread seasoned with sweet sorghum on top.

judges tasting

1850 Pioneer Farm took full advantage of their hearth and bake kettles. They braised the pork ribs with a sorghum glaze over the fire and served the meat with tomato ketchup—made this summer from tomatoes in the pioneer farm garden. plates

The apples and squash were roasted and seasoned with herbs from the garden. The presentation included a pumpkin from the 1850 farm fields. The judges commented on the bold use of tarragon in the seasonings.


Cooks at the 1875 Tangen Home offered a savory plate and a sweet plate. The main plate included pork ribs seasoned with onions and sage fresh from the garden, alongside a mashed butternut squash.

The squash recipe was an especial judge favorite. Taken from Mrs. Hill’s New Cookbook, 1872, it included butter and cream and a smooth squash puree.


The dessert from the Tangen staff was also a hit. They made doughnuts, with apples in the batter, fried in oil, and glazed with sorghum and sugar frosting.

In 1880, Mrs. Flynn may have had a cook and housekeeper. On this day, however, Flynn Mansion interpreters were happy to do their own cooking and plated their food on reproduction Mulberry colored transfer ware plates.


They presented braised pork ribs rubbed with sorghum, brown sugar and mace, roasted squash and a dessert named “Baked Apple Porcupines” created from a recipe in the 1884 Boston Cooking School Cookbook. The apple was cored, seasoned and baked, then filled with cherry preserves. The outside was frosted and decorated with slivered almonds to make it resemble a porcupine! Oh, those clever Victorians!

The last presentation came from the staff at the 1900 era Farm. Their plates included bacon, onion and sorghum-glazed pork ribs, savory cabbage and apples, and fried potatoes with onion. The 1900 cooks also presented a dessert of squash pie and freshly whipped cream. The puff pastry crust was a recipe from the 1896 White House Cookbook. plates

Our volunteer judges asked the cooks direct questions about whether their techniques were typical of the historical era, why they selected certain herbs and flavors, and about the amount of labor and time that went into each dish. They tasted all of the dishes and their point scores were very close for all of the kitchens.


In the end, the cooks at the 1900 Farm were victorious! The 1900 Farm staff earned 72 out of a possible 75 points for taste, presentation, and historic technique! Judges commented especially on the unique pork rib glaze and the flakiness of the puff pastry in the squash pie.1900 Farm cooks

When the historic kitchen staff demonstrates food preparation during our general visiting season, museum guests are not allowed to share in the food tasting. There are plenty of smells, and sometimes even chances to help peel, mash, knead and even do dishes afterwards—but no tasting. Demonstrations are hard to regulate for food safety and for the amount of guests visiting with us. But, there is a chance to sample some of the wonderful foods coming out of Living History Farms historic kitchens in the winter season!

Historic Dinners Historic Dinners

Visit our website to learn about the historic dining experiences available at the 1900 Farm, the Tangen House, and the Flynn Mansion coming up in the winter months.

Is it a hat? or maybe it’s a bonnet . . . ?

September 7, 2015

ladies hatsEvery woman in the 19th century wore a hat when she appeared in public. Women’s hats were made custom for them, either by very crafty homemakers, or more likely at a Millinery shop in town. Mrs. S.J. Elliott’s Millinery shop can be found in the Living History Farms’ town of Walnut Hill. Here’s a little 1875 fashion conundrum for you, courtesy of the shop’s site supervisor, Laura: millinery

Is there a difference between a hat and a bonnet? Often, we automatically categorize anything with side brims around the face as a bonnet (think of a sunbonnet) and smaller, decorative items on the top of the head as a hat. But is it really that simple? No.

1874-1875 was a time of complex ladies’ headgear. No longer content to merely protect a woman’s head, the hats and bonnets of fashionable ladies at this time were platforms for ruffles and twists of fabric, feathers, bows, and bouquets of artificial flowers. In fact, display was considerably more important than function.

millineryHarper’s Bazar, “Paris Fashions,” writer Emmeline Raymond penned, “There is no change in bonnets. So long as the hair is piled on top of the head, the little device which takes the place of a dress cap must remain as it is. The brims are generally flattened at the sides, swelling above the front, and turned up behind in order to make room for the hair, which would not find room whereon to lodge if the precaution were not taken, here and there, to punch out what is called a brim of what is called a bonnet. It is said, however, that straw hats of the Pamela shape are in preparation, that is, turned up behind, but shading the forehead. It would be so sensible to wear a bonnet that would protect the face from the sun that I give this news with due caution. For my part, I can not believe it. “– April 11, 1874.

With all that turning and twisting of the brim, it becomes hard to distinguish between hats and bonnets. Formerly, one could assume that any piece of headgear that enclosed the head, back and sides and top, which tied with strings under the chin was a bonnet. A hat, on the other hand, would cover just the top of the head, and possibly stay on by itself like a man’s hat, though children’s hats sometimes needed strings as well. But by 1874, the bonnet had shrunk to hat like proportions, and the hats were small enough to require pins to keep them on the head.


The fashion writers themselves admit confusion:

“Strings are seldom seen, and this does away with the last distinguishing feature between bonnets and round hats; the same head-covering now serves for each, as it is a bonnet when worn far back on the head, and a hat when tilted forward.” –Harper’s Bazar, “New York Fashions,” April 4, 1874, p219.


Harper’s Bazar original editions in the collection of Cornell University library HEARTH program.


All nine of the ladies above are wearing bonnets.

“Out of forty French bonnets only two were found with strings to tie under the chin; hence they can scarcely longer claim to be bonnets; and, moreover, they are to be placed further forward than at present, as round hats should be worn.”— Harper’s Bazar, “New York Fashions,” March 14, 1874, p171.

Below we see two hats and a bonnet. Can you tell the difference? Both of the hats are nearly level with the eyebrows, while the bonnet’s brim is tipped up. It may cover slightly more of the head, as well. Ignore the ribbons trailing down the back of all three.


An 1870s reader might find these hats a bit jauntier than the bonnet, and the bonnet more dressy. Hats were considered less formal than bonnets. They were fine for walking, for wear in the country and at watering places, but not for mourning. One would wear a bonnet to church in the 1870s, even if the brim never came close to the ears and exposed the back hair.

Does that make it clearer?

Test yourself: Below is a plate from the January 31, 1874 issue of Harper’s Bazar, showing hats, bonnets, and one headdress of black tulle and flowers. Which one is which?

harpers fashion

All of these illustrations show high fashion as worn in New York City and Paris: elaborate and extravagant, and liable to be wrecked entirely if caught in a Midwestern downpour without a carriage to resort to for protection. The work of our interpreters in Mrs. Elliott’s Millinery is quiet and plain in comparison. But it still begs the question: Is it a bonnet? or is it a hat?hat

You can explore bonnets, hats and head-covers at Living History Farms’ second annual Hat Day event on Wednesday, September 30. Celebrate the opening of our annual fall clothing and quilt exhibition! Wear your favorite fancy hat to the Farms and get $10 admission. Explore the Flynn Mansion where clothing, quilts and other historic textiles will be on special exhibition. Visit the 1875 Millinery shop for a close up look at Victorian hat stylings and a chat with our milliner. Join us for tea and cookies in the Visitor Center and sign up for a drop-in class in hat-trimming. In the morning, classes will make French beaded flower trims and in the afternoon class, we will make ribbon cockades. At 11:00am, sneak a peek at 19th Century undergarments in a presentation by our historic clothing expert!
beaded flower trim ribbon cockade

(Answer Key to Ladies’ “Winter Hats, Bonnets, and Head-dress”, January 31, 1874, from left to right: 1: Bonnet. 2: Hat. 3: Hat. 4: Hat. 5: Bonnet. 6: Head-dress. 7: Hat. 8: Hat. 9: Hat.)

In Memoriam

August 19, 2015

interpreter churn butterWhen guests visit Living History Farms, they meet historians who demonstrate historical skills, share insights into museum spaces and historic people, and who help to make connections between the past and the present. These historians may be wearing reproduction period clothing or a museum staff uniform. At Living History Farms, these front line guides are called historical interpreters. When we tell guests we are historical interpreters, often people ask, “Interpreter? What language do you speak?” We speak history, farming, and rural culture. Our staff interprets history, translating the often unfamiliar concepts of agriculture and rural life of the past into the vocabulary of the present.

Historical interpreters at Living History Farms come from many walks of life. Sometimes the historical interpreters come to work at our museum already possessing needed historic abilities—such as woodworking, farming, and cooking. Many of our staff learned skills such as knitting, canning, gardening, or driving tractors alongside several generations of family members. More unusual skills, such as spinning, blacksmithing, and broom making, are taught by other museum interpreters on the job. Historical interpreters read teaching manuals, period newspapers, diaries, primary and secondary history books, and attend seminars and workshops about the historic areas in which they work. Every day is an opportunity to develop new skills and discover new information about old processes.Interpreter picking cherries

Guests meet many different historical interpreters during a Living History Farms visit. Some of these interpreters work in the museum field as their primary occupation—this is their “real” job. Many interpreters work at the museum as a second career, teaching or working in an office at other times. Many interpreters volunteer their time at the museum, receiving equal training and sharing enormous amounts of energy and enthusiasm with coworkers. Museum guests, especially our members, come to recognize interpreters and track their progress throughout the season. Guests notice when interpreters work in new sites or make progress on site projects. I am often told, “You were in the print shop last time we were here,” or, “we remember you were learning to cook when we saw you last month, how did it turn out?” We become familiar faces, first-name friends like “Farmer Tony” or “Printer David” to guests from all over the state. We’re “people” people. Interpreters love talking about their passions and sharing their skills with guests who come to care about those passions just as much.

Historical interpreters work closely with each other. A summer spent hoeing corn together in wool clothing makes you a family. Interpreters help each other keep positive, learn new information, and seek professional development.

interpreter dinner

As you can imagine, the interpretive staff does change from year to year as interpreters move to other life callings. They are never forgotten. We are so proud of the professionals in other museums, other occupations, and other places who worked with us for even the smallest amount of time.

Wade suffrage debate

Wade Franck performing during a Suffrage Debate in Walnut Hill. Photo Courtesy Steve Davis.

Today, our museum staff mourns the loss of a former historical interpreter. Wade Franck passed away this week after a tragic bicycle accident. Farmer Wade was a long time historical interpreter here at Living History Farms from the mid-1990s into the 2000s. Wade began his career at LHF as a college intern in 1995, became a historic site supervisor, and developed many historic skills while at the museum. He learned to drive both oxen and horses. You may remember him driving horses for your 1900 Farm Historic dinner.

wade tangen dinner

Wade helps to serve meal at Tangen House Historic Dinner. Photo Courtesy Steve Davis.

wade med show

Acting as Professor Savage during the Medicine Show. Photo Courtesy Steve Davis.

He was a blacksmith and a farmer, a Walnut Hill Store keeper, and even stood in as Professor Savage in the 1875 medicine show. A great proponent of hands-on learning, you may have plowed with him at a LHF Farmers’ Fair event, seeded ground around the implement warehouse with a two row hand held corn-planter, or groomed cattle with him at the 1850 Pioneer Farm. Wade was one of the best of us, excited to share knowledge with others, going out of his way to teach, support, and get the most out of every situation.

Farmers Fair

While Site Supervisor at the Implement Warehouse, Wade conducts plowing at Farmers’ Fair. Photo Courtesy Steve Davis.

He left Living History Farms to successfully finish graduate work at Iowa State University in History of Technology. He then went on to pursue his own personal passions in the world of biking—working as a bike technician and service provider in many shops locally. He was well known in that world as a friendly, patient, customer-oriented and enthusiastic team player, willing to help others learn the sport and understand their bikes. This makes us smile. We prized those qualities in him, while he shared his time with us and we flatter ourselves to think maybe we helped reinforce them in him, as well. Our hearts go out to his family and friends. He will be honored by our Living History Farms family and deeply missed.

Wade dec day

Wade carrying flag during Decoration Day exercises. Photo courtesy Steve Davis.

Aren’t you hot in those clothes?

August 10, 2015

One of the more common questions for our museum guides wearing period clothing is, “Aren’t you hot in those clothes?” As August temperatures climb, now is a good time to get some perspective on that question.

Chief Period clothing seamstress and Millinery supervisor, Laura P. wears some of the most fashionable 1875 era clothing at the museum, including many layers of period correct underpinnings. Here’s her answer to, “aren’t you hot in those clothes?”:

Laura in millineryThere are many possible answers to this question, but this exceptionally humid summer the one I use the most is, “Yes. It’s a very warm day. You’re hot, I’m hot, we’re all hot.” And then I try not to mop my face on my sleeve, because A: it’s unladylike, B: that’s what handkerchiefs are for, and C: I wear glasses, which get in the way. Of course, unlike my questioners, my sleeves are long, my skirt is long, and it’s worn over a corset and bustle. And that’s better than a tank top and shorts for summer, in the Victorian view.victorian clothing

It’s all in the materials used, and how they’re cut. In the 1870s, we had no Spandex and no microfiber. Our best material for wicking was linen, so that’s the fabric that was used for the base layer of clothing from shoulder to knee. The rest of the clothing was designed to get air movement to that base layer as much as possible without sacrificing the line of fashion.

Victorian undergarments


  • Linen chemise.
  • Linen drawers, to solve chafing issues.
  • Corset made of openwork netting, keeping solid coutil fabric only for covering the bones and busk, and keeping the waist stable.
  • Or a skeleton corset, with cotton or linen tapes connecting the bones to each other.
  • Corset cover of sheer cotton or linen, high necked for street wear, because the summer dress materials were thin enough to see through if they were in light colors, low necked and richly trimmed for at home wear.undergarments

The bustle was a problem in the heat. In the 1870s, most of the bustles were pillow pads, masses of horsehair ruffles, or lobstertails of fabric stretched over spring steel. Air does not pass through these, and it barely passes under the hollow arches of the lobstertail. “Heating to the spine” only begins to describe the effect of a pillow bustle worn on the back of the hips for an entire day. The lobstertail at least had the benefit of lightness, and any bustle would keep one’s skirts from sticking to the legs in back while standing. In 1875, the bustle was crucial for the fashionable line, so it was still a necessity.

2014-10-01 11.22.17 (2)

One petticoat was necessary, especially if the dress was of a thin summer material, to ensure that the skirts draped properly and did not (urgh) stick to the fair wearer when she rose from her chair. It was of a fine, translucent muslin, with batiste ruffles that were finer yet.

harpers bazar

The dress itself was made of thin or even transparent material: barred muslin, cotton or linen lawn, batiste, nainsook, airy wool grenadines, and bareges. A decent breeze would go straight through such fabrics. Unlike heavier dresses, the bodice could be made unlined and “loosely” fitted, rather than tight at the waist. White and ecru were popular colors, but navy blue trimmed with ecru lace was also fashionable, along with all manner of prints and plaids. High necks and long sleeves were de rigeur for daywear, protecting the skin from hot sunlight and concealing the inevitable perspiration. Separate cuffs and collars, starched until rigid, protected the dress at neck and sleeve; a cheaper option in 1875 were readymade tarlatan frills, cheap enough at 25 cents a dozen to throw away when they got grimy.

victorian clothing

Altogether the clothing shaded the body, created air movement around the lower limbs, and removed perspiration from the skin before it could bead up and drip (sorry for that image). If we’re going to sweat this much, we might as well look good doing it.–Laura P, LHF Period Clothing Manager and Millinery Supervisor.

The photos of Laura and her underpinnings were taken during a presentation on Victorian Fashion–you can see this presentation on September 30, 2015 at 11 am in the Church of the Land during our Hat Day event, as part of our annual Historic Textile Show!

Grain Harvest and Threshing Time

July 28, 2015

Summer is slipping away and it is time to start harvesting small grains on the farm! Today when we think of important crops in Iowa, we think of corn and soybeans.wheatWe forget how important grains, such as wheat and oats, were to farmers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. On a pioneer farm in early Iowa, wheat was a main cash crop. Price and demand for wheat were much higher than that of corn, and money from the sale of wheat allowed families to improve their farms.

Wheat is planted in early spring and ripens in early July. Farmers with only a few acres of wheat cut it with a grain cradle. A grain cradle is a type of scythe with long fingers attached on one side.grain cradle

The fingers catch the grain as it is cut and then deposit it in a pile at the end of the cutting swing. A skilled cradler could harvest 1 ½ -2 acres a day. cradle shotOne or two people followed the man with the cradle and tied the wheat into bundles using the straw itself. After cutting and binding into bundles, the wheat was piled into shocks and allowed to dry in the field. tying wheaatAfter the bundles were dry, they were stored in a barn or a carefully built stack, and capped with prairie grass to shed rain until threshing tine. wheat stack

Wheat and oat plants have a head of edible grain at the top of a long stem. After the grain is cut and dried, the seed heads have to be removed from the stems. This is called threshing. Threshing on farms with small amounts of grain was done using a tool called a flail. A flail has a long handle connected to a short heavy club with a flexible joint. It is used to break the seed heads apart.  flailingThe bundles of grain are laid on a tarp or a tight fitted floor and the heads are beaten with the flail. A man with a flail could thresh about 7 bushels (420 pounds) of wheat a day. When the threshing was completed, the straw was raked away and used as bedding, and the wheat and chaff were winnowed. For small amounts, the wheat and chaff would be dropped through the air on a breezy day. The lighter chaff would blow away and the heaver grain would fall onto a tarp on the ground.

As farmers put more land into production and the size of wheat fields grew, cutting, binding, and threshing grains by hand was too slow. Between 1850 and 1900, harvesting equipment and methods changed and became more efficient. The grain cradle was replaced with the mechanical reaper–a horse-drawn machine that could harvest 10-12 acres a day! In the 1880’s, a knotting device was added to the reaper to tie the bundles of grain automatically, eliminating the tedious hand tying.

binder pict color IHC Catalog No 20 (3)As wheat production increased, hand methods of flailing and winnowing were replaced with threshing machines and fanning powered thresher (3)

The threshing machine and fanning mill were eventually combined so that threshing and winnowing were done at the same time.IHC wood tresher IHC Catalog No 20 (3)

By 1900, threshing machines had increased in size and were powered by steam engines instead of horses. Neighbors often went together to hire engine crews and threshing machines to share costs. Because of these changes, the labor required to harvest of grain dropped from 23 hours per acre in 1850 to 8 hours in 1900.

Wheat production in Iowa peaked in the 1870’s then slowly declined. By 1900, wheat was a distant fourth in importance of Iowa crops after corn, oats, and hay. In early Iowa, the importance of oats increased as horses replaced oxen as a power source on the farm. Oxen can get all the nutrition and energy they need from grass, but horses need grain for energy when they are working hard. In 1900, over 168 million bushels of oats were produced in Iowa, mostly as feed for livestock.

grain harvest

On Saturday, August 1, the 1850 Pioneer Farm will begin threshing their newly harvested wheat crop. At the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm, a steam engine will be driving an vintage threshing machine as the farmers begin threshing oats! Find a full schedule for this year’s Grain Harvest on our website.


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