Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Antique Spice Cabinet

The Farm House Museum has many different furniture objects in the permanent collection, quite a few of them dating back to the late 19th century which can give us a greater perspective on the people that lived during that time. One interesting piece of furniture is this Spice Cabinet, which hangs on the wall in the Farm House’s 1860s era kitchen. While there is not specific date for this cabinet, it can be assumed that it is from the late 19th century because other spice cabinets similar to the woodwork and the writing style of this cabinet are from the late 19th century. In all likelihood, this cabinet is from that time as well. While this Spice Cabinet is from the 1800’s, spices have been utilized since ancient history.When spices were first noted in historical records they were often traded goods that were seen as having healing properties. Within ancient Egypt, China and Mesopotamia spices were used for medicinal remedies and were often grown and purchased by the elite. Chinese courtiers even used cloves in the 3rd century BC
to make their breath smell sweet when addressing the Emperor. Ancient Indian surgeons would use mustard to ward off spirits and include ginger in their treatment. Ancient Romans would use spice-scented oils after baths to improve their skin tone. Spice prices were kept high throughout the medieval period due to the Arab monopoly on spice trade. The spice trade continued to grow throughout the world as spices were seen as a high commodity due to their unique tastes and projected health benefits. During colonial times in America, the British still controlled the spice trade, so it wasn’t until the revolution that the United States entered the world spice business. The spice trade was largely controlled by New England until the mid 1800’s when spice commerce became more decentralized. Still, spices remained a commodity used by upper class people. It was during this time that the Farm House’s Spice Cabinet was probably constructed.
 While spice cabinets had been common in other locations around the world before this time, Pennsylvania gave rise to traditional American spice boxes. Spice boxes were seen as a status symbol in colonial America as they were desirable and a luxury reserved for the wealthiest. These square boxes would often be found in the parlor area on top of other furniture, similar to sugar safes. Many of these boxes wouldn’t just have spices in them but other treasured items like jewelry, tea or even salt. They also would be designed to reflect the furniture fashion of the time. These boxes were mostly made in Pennsylvania but their simple design influenced other spice cabinetmakers. The Farm House’s Spice Cabinet reflects the simple rectangular shape of the Pennsylvania style.

One other thing to note about this Spice Cabinet is the spice names that are listed on the drawers. The first is cloves, a sweet and warming spice native to Indonesia and used most often in baking – especially this time of year as the holiday season approaches. The second is ginger; native to Southeast Asia this spice wasn’t used widely as a food seasoning until the 16th century. The third is allspice, which was discovered in Jamaica and is similar to cloves but is far more pungent. The fourth is pepper; native to India this spice is often called the king of spices and is found in many different forms. One of the other drawers is partially erased so the only word visible is “powder.” This could refer to many different spices as a lot of them have been ground and use powder at the end of there title. When looking inside the drawer there is small plaque that says mustard. Maybe the previous owners had erased some of the writing on purpose so they could put mustard in the drawer instead? Three of the drawers don’t have any writing on them at all so this could be where they put some other valuables or treasured items. On the top of the Spice Cabinet there is a box labeled salt, which isn’t connected to the Spice Cabinet. The reason that the saltbox isn’t connected to the Spice Cabinet is that salt isn’t a spice but a mineral. Salt, unlike spices, doesn’t come from a plant and it won’t lose flavor over time. This Spice Cabinet can teach us a lot about what people ate and how they flavored their recipes back in the 19th century.  Even though this object is period appropriate and was not actually in the Farm House back then, it is an example of what could have been in an 1860s era kitchen, and shows us the emphasis placed on spices, cooking, and flavor.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Man of the North Wind Chair

One interesting thing to look at in the Farm House Museum is some of the older furniture that has been in the house for many years. Within the main floor library there is a black chair with a carved picture on the backrest, which appears to look like a stylized Scandinavian man. This is actually called the Man of the North Wind chair and it belonged to Charles F. Curtiss, first dean of Agriculture, when he lived in the house. There is even a historic picture of the chair when it sat in the Curtiss library in 1907, the only known image of the historic interior of the house. This picture was used in an Iowa Agriculturalist magazine describing the room as a “well thought-out decorating plan.” It was in 1947, after Dean Curtis
s passed away, that Ames native Ann McCormack purchased the chair. The house wouldn’t see the chair again until 1976 when in
becoming the Farm House Museum, Mrs. McCormack would decide to donate it back to the historic home museum.

The chair itself seems to depict the north wind and may be one of a set of four different chairs. This mythological Norse-like figure is a common characteristic of a style of furniture commonly called “North Wind” Chairs. This type of furniture was popularized in the 19th and early 20th century often depicting the wind god Aeolus carved into the backrest of a chair. Typically the images would depict him either stoic or blowing wind in a “grotesque” manner. The maker of this chair decided to carve a more stoic and haunting depiction.

This type of imagery was part of the Greek and Renaissance Revival furniture movements. The Greek style, which happened in both Europe and America, would put images of Greek gods on furniture with curved legs and dark ebonized wood. The Renaissance Revival style would try to mimic 16th century designs using mahogany and walnut woods while having high relief carvings of flowers or classic figures to reflect the high style of the renaissance period. This chair is different however because of the Norse imagery, oval solid back rest, rounded seat, slightly akimbo legs and the overall rustic look of the chair’s design.
While this chair has some connections to the Renaissance Revival movement, it also is connected to the Black Forest style. Black Forest carvings come from the late 19th century, originating in Switzerland, not Germany as
commonly believed, and often depict detailed animals and plants made out of heavily carved wood. Some of the furniture that comes from this style depicts woodsmen that look similar to the Norse figure on this chair. The chair’s rustic look and rounded seat shows that the carver was at a minimum inspired by the Black Forest style, making a chair that wasn’t conforming to the current styles of that period. Ultimately, the Man of the North Wind chair doesn’t fit nicely into any specific style of its period. This type of furniture with a mythical figure on the backrest of the chair that has long flowing hair, has characteristics of several different styles. This chair would have been built around 1900. While the chair’s style is a little different for what was once rural Iowa, it is this uniqueness that make it so treasured and provides insight into the history of the Farm House, its owner Charles Curtiss, and early Iowa State.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Helen Curtiss Arbor Gate

A typical visitor at Farm House will enter the museum through its south-facing front door. Rarely does that visitor stumble upon the beautiful arbor on the east of Farm House. With thousands of burgeoning concord grapes spilling over the Osage orange and eastern red cedar wood structure, the arbor is a quiet spot to cool off in the shade and uncover some campus history!

The arbor gate was originally designed circa 1925 by Helen Curtiss, the youngest daughter of Dean of Agriculture Charles F. Curtiss, as a senior class project. She and her family lived in Farm House from 1897 through 1947 - the longest stay of any other residents! The family was known to be kind and approachable, so many students at Iowa State during the Curtiss era referred to Farm House as the "Curtiss House" instead.

Helen was born at Farm House on September 14th, 1901 in the second floor's southeast bedroom. She quickly grew into the "mischievous and vivacious" woman she is remembered as by her friends today. Playing with paper dolls in the Farm House parlor, riding the elevator in Agriculture Hall (renamed Curtiss Hall in October of 1947) up and down with her friend Marie Mortensen, riding horses through campus, and hosting waffle parties on Sunday evenings were among her most favorite things.

Helen, Edith, and Ruth Curtiss, October 1908 
Helen holding two piglets, ca. 1912
Oftentimes the question is asked during a visit to the Farm House Museum, "Are there any ghosts?" This is highly unlikely, but it has been suggested that Helen Curtiss' ghost would pull back the lace curtains hanging in the window of her old bedroom to see which boyfriend was going to take her out for the night. Being an exceptional beauty and thrill-seeker, it is no surprise that Helen was notorious for sneaking out of Farm House while her mother and father were fast asleep!

Following Helen's graduation from Iowa State University, although it was still called Iowa State College at the time, she left Farm House in 1923. She married soon after to become Mrs. Helen Curtiss Whittaker. The quaint arbor gate she left behind at Farm House inevitably eroded with time, but the Class of 2002 funded a reconstruction of the arbor, herb garden, and water well. Because it is in the museum's permanent collection, visitors for generations to come may enjoy it.

Next time you walk by Farm House Museum, take a moment to experience this literally hidden gem - the grapes sure are tasty when they ripen up in the autumn!

Farm House Museum will close on Friday, July 29th at 4 PM until Monday, August 22nd at 12 PM. We hope to see you soon!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"Waste Not, Want Not" Trivet

Hot pads, table mats, pot holders, heat protectors... We each have our own name for what we put down to keep hot pans from burning into our countertops and dinner tables. The "real" name for such a device is a trivet.

"Trivet" originates from Late Middle English's borrowing of the Latin word tripes, or triped (tri- "three-legged" + pes, ped- "foot").  Traditionally, trivets are metal tripods that hold cooking pots above open flames - a design that ensures a steady surface for preparing food on uneven grounds. Metals were the first medium of constructing trivets, but that design has changed tremendously over the decades. Now trivets are commonly made from something as simple as a folded towel or an extra piece of tile. They may also be as complicated as intricately woven cast iron or as creative as wine corks wedged into a wooden frame!

Just as the design was revised, so too was the purpose of trivets altered. Trivets were previously used in the process of cooking (suspending cooking pots over a fire), but now they are mainly used after cooking is complete (protecting surfaces and hands from the bottoms of scalding pans). Because today's ovens come fully equipped with metal racks to place dishes on, three-legged trivets are certainly outdated in 21st century cooking. However, outdoor grills are a close relative to the original trivet.  

Why is the trivet located in the Farm House Museum so special? The proverb "Waste Not, Want Not" is carved into it. This exact saying was first recorded in 1772, but the earlier "Willful waste makes woeful want" can be traced back to 1576. Both versions suggest that wastefulness leads to wanting, a state of being that pioneer families as well as Farm House residents knew all too well, especially in regards to preparing food.

With large families, multiple students, and frequent visitors inhabiting Farm House year-round, cooking and dining was costly and demanding. Mary Welch, wife of Iowa State University's first president, Adonijah Welch, was instrumental in developing efficient cooking procedures. These are noted in Mrs. Welch's Cookbook, which you can see on display at Farm House Museum! Many modern cookbooks, food network programs, and culinary blogs have been influenced by the "Waste Not, Want Not" wisdom.

Come find Farm House Museum's lovely "Waste Not, Want Not" trivet in the old kitchen today! We are open Monday-Friday, 12-4 PM. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Samovar

 This is not your average coffee pot. In fact, this water-boiling contraption was typically used to make tea. The samovar, or "miracle water heater," was an early 18th century invention from Russia that spread to Central, Southeastern, and Southern Europe,  the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Samovars quickly became essential to any hospitality given in Russia, and they are still common today. The decoration, form, and materials used have changed over the 299 years of the samovar's existence, but the impeccable design has virtually remained the same.
Tea was introduced to Russia during the 1630s when a Mongolian ruler bestowed it upon Tsar Michael I. It was not until nearly one century later in 1727 that the Treaty of Kiakhta was signed, permitting the Russians and Chinese to periodically trade freely with one another. Being one of China's largest exports, it is no surprise that tea became prominent in Russian society. Their bone-chilling climate is another reason tea took off: a piping hot cup of tea kept them warm and comfortable during the harsh Russian winters.

A samovar's general duty is to heat water. The difference between this appliance and the customary cast-iron stove, however, is that it is portable! As shown in the diagram below, the samovar's heating capabilities rely on a central tube which separates the burning charcoal from the water. The spout at the base of the tank releases the hot water, and the crown at the top of the tank is used to warm a small teapot. You can watch a video  about how a samovar works and its importance to Russian life here. 

You might think that a samovar looks a little too exquisite for the Farm House to have utilized. Hot water has more uses than just making tea for guests, of course, and that was especially evident on farms. Samovars allowed cooks to prepare more food in less time because the stove space for boiling water would have been free. Cooking for about 30-40 farmhands, professors, and their families per meal, cooks at the Farm House needed all the space and time they could get!

Next time you stop into the Farm House Museum, keep an eye out for the beautiful, sparkling samovar in the first floor's northeast dining room. We'd love to see you there!

Farm House Museum is open Monday-Friday, 12-4 PM.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Stereoscope

               Entertainment through media has changed drastically over the last 150 years. Inventions like the telegraph, radio, television, and the Internet have shaped the way we laugh, cry, learn, and everything in between. These forms of communication get the most attention so today we’re going to talk about an object that is relatively unsung in the field of entertainment and education – the stereoscope. “The what?” – Exactly. Pictured to the right is the stereoscope located in the Farm House Museum. It’s essentially a viewing device that lets people experience far-away people, places, and things. 

               It’s not a very complicated device to use. All you have to do is hold it up to your face, look through the two lenses and enjoy! The engineering behind it, however, is more complicated. To use the stereoscope, you must have stereo cards, pictured to the left. These have two slightly different pictures of the same thing, in this case, the Coliseum in Rome. One picture is taken from the perspective of the left eye and the other is taken from the perspective of the right eye, about 7 centimeters away. When we look through the stereoscope, each eye looks at the corresponding image and our brain combines the images to make it seem 3D. Pretty cool, huh? 

               The stereoscope was first invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. His version looked very different but still got the job done. Seen to the right, his was much larger than later models and used two angled mirrors to achieve the same effect. Later, in 1849, David Brewster improved on the design by using lenses which allowed the device to be smaller. Queen Victoria found the stereoscope fascinating and had her portrait manufactured into a stereo card. The new device was displayed at The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London during the Great Exhibition of 1851 which today is known by many as the first World’s Fair. This attention made the stereoscope craze spread like wildfire across the globe, especially in America. 

               Americans took the stereoscope and ran with it. A man named Oliver Wendell Holmes further improved the design by making it more economical and therefore feasible for mass production. Holmes didn’t file for a patent for his design so companies began producing them on a mind-boggling scale. Between 1854 and 1920, there were an estimated 300 million stereoscopes sold. Companies, like one called Underwood and Underwood, started selling tours of factories, monuments, and other travel spots and marketed them as “edutainment” – something for the whole family. Schools also started to use stereoscopes which was the beginnings of forming a global student. With the stereoscope, one could appear well-traveled without having to leave their home state. 
               The really interesting thing about the stereoscope is how the technology is relatively timeless. There are instances of the same binocular depth-perception displayed with devices we use today. Remember those red and blue 3D glasses you got at the movies back in the day? All those did was force your eyes to focus on two slightly shifted images. To the right, you can see what the picture looks like without the 3D glasses. But, when you look through the color filters, it blocks the blue or the red for each eye, making it appear 3-dimensional. You can also find devices that are made by Hasbro and Google that use iPhone apps as stereo cards and create the same effect! 

               The story of the stereoscope shows another benefit to studying history through its objects. Even if it isn’t totally apparent, some technologies and designs don’t go away. At the heart of it, the stereoscope’s technology is being used in movie theaters today. Electricity is still generated through steam power plants like they were in the late 1800’s. The same can be said for fashion. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the Greek key pattern which is hundreds, if not thousands of years old and still can be found on textiles today. 

The Farm House Museum is a treasure trove of objects like these. Not only will you step back in time when you walk through the door, you’ll notice similarities between two very different time periods if you look closely enough.

Stop by anytime, Monday through Friday, 12 to 4 p.m.