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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Native Alaskan Basket and the Swastika

               The object we’re going to focus on now has an interesting history with a lot of mixed reviews. The basket, pictured to the right, is woven out of grass which is really impressive in itself. The fact that it was woven in the 1920’s and is still in such great shape is even more impressive. This basket in particular is from a Native Alaskan tribe but exploring further, one could find many similar creations from Native tribes all the way to the Southwestern U.S. 

               Putting the craftsmanship aside, let’s look at the symbol that is on the basket. It’s one that we all most likely recognize, the swastika. This symbol has taken on different meanings for millennia but today, really just one sticks out. The swastika was used by Adolf Hitler in the 1930’s and 40’s as a symbol of the Nazi Party’s dominance and now it is linked to the atrocities that group committed. There is much more to the history of the swastika symbol, however.
               It’s probable that many of you have learned what the symbol originally meant and perhaps even to whom. The swastika, meaning “good fortune” or “well-being,” symbolizes these ideas and, for many people, invokes very positive emotions and reactions. The symbol is also very old! It has been found in remains from the Bronze Age in parts of Europe, as well as ancient Persian and Indian sites. The swastika is also used in Jain and Buddhist traditions, two religions originating in East Asia. It even enjoyed a spike in popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century in most western countries, U.S. included. Pictured to the right is a Coca-Cola watch fob designed like the swastika. The symbol was very much normalized and still a very positive image up until it was co-opted by the Nazi Party.

               In the late 19th century, a German archaeologists names Heinrich Schliemann found many artifacts in what is today Western Turkey that had the swastika symbol on them. He made the connection between those artifacts and similar ones with the swastika found in German pottery and proclaimed the significance of the symbol to the Germans’ Aryan ancestors. It’s important to note that the connection was helped along by German historians who were translating old Indian Sanskrit and noticed similarities between that language and German. They concluded that Germans and Indians must have a common ancestry and imagined a race of white god-like warriors that they called Aryans.

               In the 1930’s Adolf Hitler co-opted the swastika, called the Hakenkreuz, which most of us are more familiar with today as the black swastika in a white circle with a red background. The connection between the swastika and the evil committed by the Nazis was forever sealed in contemporary and material culture after that. 

               Despite the unfortunate reputation the symbol has gained since World War II, it can still be found in modern contexts, conveying the positive meaning of well-being. Jains and Buddhists still interact with the symbol on holy sites and within various traditions. The symbol is also still used in a popular design known as the Greek Key pattern (seen below). That pattern can be found on many tiles, decorative arts and textiles. 
               As I’m sure we all have experienced at some point, symbols can have significant impacts on our lives and the way we view groups and historical events. They pervade every area of life: advertisements and business logos that make us want to buy their products, the elephant and the donkey of the major political parties that annoy us, traffic signs along the road that keep us safe, and so many more. And it’s by using these symbols as a lens that we can understand societies from thousands of years ago and that future generations will understand us. Also, who knows what common symbols that we see today will change with time? What will the $ symbol mean one thousand years from now. Or, what about the American flag? For religions, it is probably really hard to imagine symbols like the crucifix or the Star of David changing significantly, but I bet that’s how people felt about the swastika. That being said, even today, those symbols mean different things and cause different emotions for different people.
There is always something more to the objects, words, and symbols that humans have interacted with for thousands of years. In the Farm House Museum, we love talking about these things and of course, telling stories too. The next time you want to stop in for 5 minutes or 50, feel free. We’d love to have you!

The Farm House Museum is open Monday – Friday, 12 to 4 p.m.