Monday, March 6, 2017

Hair Straighteners and Curlers

Fashion is something that exists in everyone’s life and we all use a number of different devices and products to make ourselves look good.  Something used more often by women than men are hair styling tools, specifically hair straighteners and curlers. Today we are going to look at hair straighteners in the Farm House Museum. In most households women generally have hair straighteners and curlers, as they are relatively cheap and accessible. To straighten hair today, heat is often applied between two clamps to make sure the hair becomes less curly and more stiff. That same idea was used in the past as well. Straighter hair wasn’t that important until the 1800s, except in Ancient Egypt, where straight hair was prized. During that time people would heat up flat iron plates over a fire. When they were hot enough they would run the plates over the hair shaft to create a smooth look. This method led to some problems, as woman would often get burned on their face and hands.

       This method did change for the better in the 1800s. In 1872 Parisian Marcel Grateau invented the first “straightener” device, which was a heated iron rod. These early straightener devices were heated on a stove or in a fire. However they were still dangerous as it could singe off hair or burn the user, but they were safer than the Ancient Egyptian way as they were smaller and were less likely to burn the skin. Once they were heated, people would test how hot they were by closing it on a piece of paper and seeing what color the paper turned. If the color was yellow, it meant that it was too hot. Before the invention of the 1872 straightener, straightened hair for woman wasn’t as popular, but after the trend towards women straightening their hair began to grow.

       In 1906 Simon Monroe became the first person to patent the flat iron for hair straightening. He was upstaged three years later though by Issac Shero who invented a hair straightener that used two flat irons, which could be heated and hard pressed together. Lady Jennifer Bell Schofield wanted to try something different. During the early 1900s she became obsessed with straightening hair and wanted to improve the current straighteners of the time. The tool she invented had two metal plates that rested between a hinge in the center that one could clamp and unclamp from their hair. It was basically the combination of the ideas of Grateau and Shero. This model bears a close resemblance to hair straighteners of today and in the Farm House.

       There are three hair straighteners in the Farm House, all in the strawberry room. They all are the same design as Lady Jennifer Schofield’s hair straightener. On some of them there is still the visible burn marks from when they were heated by fire, which wouldn’t have been very nice for the women that used it on their hair in the house. There is also a much smaller hair curler next to the hair straighteners. The reason it is so small is because it was used for curling men’s mustaches. During Victorian times men would often have handlebar mustaches, which they would wax and groom. Metal and wood mustache curlers were invented as well, similar to the hair straighteners for women, which would help men create their handlebar curls. This device would also be slightly dangerous as it would be heated and used much closer to men’s faces. One mustache curler was patented in 1894, but after 1910 they began to fall out of fashion as was noted in the 1909 book, A Dictionary of Men’s Wear. In it, the hair curler was mentioned as being better “left altogether to women, who have hair to burn.”

       Even after the Farm House hair straighteners rose to popularity, women would still try new methods in straightening hair. During the 1950s, when straight hair once again became popular, women would lay their hair across a flat surface and move a standard home clothes iron across their hair. This was once again damaging to the hair and did fall out of fashion eventually when the standard hair straighteners of today became popular, but it is still practiced in some cultures around the world. These devices in the Farm House Museum reveal what some women used to look good, but it also shows that making oneself look good wasn’t just something women did.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

New Companion Sewing Machine

Today sewing machines are a very common item. But in the 19th, century, sewing machines were a new invention that began to appear in both factories and homes. Today we will be taking a look back at the history of sewing machines, like the one found on the 2nd floor of the Farm House Museum.

The art of sewing is much older than the 19th century. It is believed that when humans started living in colder environments in Central Asia 40,000 years ago, they would have needed animal skins to keep them warm. Archeological evidence shows they would have used sharp bones to poke holes in the skins so they could stick cords through. By around 9000 BC people began spinning wool and linen to make cloths as well as eventually using bronze needles. These early needles would have bent easily and made it hard to sew clothes together. Usually tight cloths would only be sewn in cold places. As more people wore different styles of clothes, having a job as a seamstress became more popular. Needles were eventually improved in the 14th century through the use of iron and it was only a century later that the first eyed needles appeared.

The history of the sewing machine is a bit more recent. Before the invention of the sewing machine, all sewing was done by hand and mostly by women. Many factories would have hundreds of women sewing individually all day. It was only a matter of time till a sewing machine would be invented. Many don’t completely agree on who actually invented the first sewing machine. The first mention of a sewing device was in 1755; a German immigrant, Charles Weisenthal, took out a patent in London for a needle to be used for mechanical sewing, however there was no machine to go with it. It was in 1790 that Thomas Saint patented his own sewing machine, but it was lost until 1873. When it was discovered in the patent office, officials tried recreating his chain stitch machine but it required a number of modifications to get it working. This isn’t to say that Saint was wrong about his machine, just that he had needed more time to work on it.

While Saint’s machine sat in the patent office, Baltasar Krems invented a machine that would sew the seams of caps in 1810. Krems’ machine was pedal operated with a continuous circular chain stitch. While an early machine, he never patented it. Five years later Josef Madersperger tried patenting one in Austria but the machine didn’t work right. In 1818, Adam Doge and John Knowles created a sewing machine that could actually stitch. The catch was that it could only sew a short length before having to be reset, which took forever. It wasn’t until 1830 that the first working sewing machine was invented by Barthelemy Thimonnier in France. His machine was made entirely out of wood and used a barbed needle to create a chain stitch. He was able to convince the government of its usefulness and gained a contract to sew uniforms for the French army. His factory had 80 machines, but Parisian tailors got mad. They were angry that the machine took their jobs away so they attacked his workshop and burned all the machines causing Barthelemy to flee to England. He tried selling it there but ultimately ended up poor.

For a time a number of different sewing machines and devices were created in both Europe and America. But in 1846 an American rural farmer, Elias Howe, invented a sewing machine that used thread from two different sources along with a needle that had an eye at the point. He was unsuccessful in selling it, so he traveled to London, where he was equally unsuccessful. Little did he know that back in America, the sewing machine finally started catching on with dozens of sewing factories popping up. One such entrepreneur was Isaac Singer who patented the first commercially efficient one in 1851. Known as the Singer Machine, it was mass-produced around the U.S. as it was able to sew much quicker. The needle moved up and down and was powered by a foot pedal instead of hand cranked. This allowed the operator to use both hands. This mass production caused trouble when Elias Howe returned from England, only to find all these companies with sewing machines, some using his patient! He began to sue every company over patent infringement making a lot of money off of it. It was only a matter of time before he sued the successful tycoon Isaac Singer in 1854. The case was very over blown and contributed to the confusion about who really invented the sewing machine. Howe did win the case and got patent royalties. In the end though, he and Singer actually both died very rich men, yet many old sewing machines are still called Singer Machines.

The way a sewing machine works can be a bit confusing. When hand sewing, a needle must pass through the two pieces of fabric with a thread attached to the end. The needle then passes through the fabric and back out again. Using the machine is a bit different. On a sewing machine the needle only goes partway through the fabric. The eye where the thread goes through is at the sharp end of the needle. When the needle is punctured into the fabric, the thread goes with it. Below the table is another spool of thread, which spins around. This spool catches the other thread as it passes through the fabric and connects it to its own thread. Once the two threads are joined the needle pulls out of the fabric and the two threads are joined in the fabric. Using the pedal on the bottom of the machine the fabric and needle are pushed forward continuing the process again.     

The sewing machine in the Farm House Museum is located upstairs in the sewing room. This room actually used to be a bedroom for the house when it had more residents, but when it became a one family house for the Curtiss family, they didn’t need all the bedrooms. They converted this room into a sewing room for Dean Curtiss’s wife, Olive. The sewing machine in this room is called a New Companion. New Companion sewing machines were made by the New Home Sewing Company. After Singer began selling his sewing machine in 1851, they started to become very popular with a number of different companies. One such company was the New Home Sewing Machine Co. that began in 1877 in New York. New Home released a number of different models with names like Rotary and Ruby. Many of them actually look similar to the New Companion. One thing that was common for them was to have the large desk with drawers on both sides. This was so that when someone was sewing all they had to do was continually push the pedal, leaving their hands free to sew. The New Companion in the Farm House has all these adaptions. The New Home Co. stayed in business for a while but were bought by the Free Sewing Machine Co. in 1927 and eventually merged with the National Sewing Machine Company. Sewing machines were a revolutionary technology, which made industry go much faster and made life easier for women in the 19th century. The New Companion stands as a testament to how technology improved many lives in the Farm House and in the world.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Penny Farthing Bycycles

There are many objects used today that all have their own interesting history behind them. One such object is the bicycle. There is a bicycle in the Farm House Museum, but it doesn’t look like the bicycle we are used to. Today I’m going to talk about what that bicycle is. The origin of bicycles, in general, is actually hard to trace and shrouded in myth. There were multiple adaptions to wheels throughout history and bikes, like other vehicles, have appeared here and there. Early drawings of a bike-like vehicle appear in Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes, but may not have been his work. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the bike began to appear more. In 1817, Charles Baron von Drais created a front wheel capable of being steered, which had a saddle in between the two wheels. It was called a velocipede, or hobbyhorse, because there were no pedals, as people would propel themselves by pushing their feet off the ground. The velocipede was made entirely of wood and was a bit clumsy. It was popular in both France and England through the 1820s until its popularity dwindled.

It wasn’t until 1863 that pedals were added to the front wheels and stiffer materials, like steel, were added. With these changes, the velocipede was given a new name, bone shaker. This was because going over cobble stone on these bikes would literally shake bones. Bikes began to become popular again, but they were very hard to steer and pedal causing the rider to exert a lot of strength. It was in 1870 that James Starley invented the high wheeler bike, the type of bike in the Farm House. This bike had a high front wheel for a rider to sit over with a small wheel in the back for extra balance. Many people today often wonder why these bikes had such a large front wheel. There were two reasons for the higher wheel. One was that it made the bike go a lot faster with the pedals attached right to the front of the wheel allowing the bike to speed up. The second reason was that this larger wheel also made it easier to ride on older roads as small potholes and rocks could be rolled over easily.

These advantages did make up for the absurd size but it also made it harder to get on. Often people would have a step on the back wheel so they could propel themselves up to the sitting position. Even with these improvements, the high wheeler still had a lot of problems. The center of gravity on a high wheeler is off which led to constant dangers for those who rode it. If the bike ever hit a large bump or got stuck, the rider would fall right over the handlebars and onto the ground. This accident became so common that it was called “taking a header.” The bikes also lacked hand brakes so stopping became very hard to do leading to the possibility of more accidents. While originally called high wheelers, the bike began to be known as a Penny Farthing because the big and small wheels resemble the sizes of the largest and smallest English coins, known as pennies and farthings.

Men mostly used Penny Farthings, as women weren’t able to ride the large bikes in dresses. Women instead would often ride large tricycles to accommodate their clothing as it was seen as more proper. Penny Farthings continued to be popular throughout the 1870s and 1880s, being used in sports and inspiring the creation of bicycle playing cards which are still used today. In 1884, Thomas Stevens became the first man to ride a bicycle across the United States from San Francisco to Boston using the Penny Farthing. All he carried with him was a tent, spare shirt, and socks.

At the Farm House Museum, there is a Penny Farthing upstairs on the third floor. This one isn’t as high as others, but it is definitely unique. The bike is mostly made of metal with a seat that doesn’t look that comfortable. The bike’s pedals are just two long bars with a little step up on the back wheel. The most interesting feature is the wooden wheels, which bikes today don’t have anymore. This makes it a very unique object to the house. It is very possible even that past residents of the house and others on the Iowa State campus might have had one in the 1870s.     

Even with its popularity in the 1870s, the Penny Farthing quickly fell out of fashion in the late 1880s when the Safety Bike was invented. The Safety Bike had a more comfortable seat and the wheels were equal sizes so it was a lot less dangerous. Even though the Penny Farthing lost popularity it still exists through memory as cities like Davis, California have the Penny Farthing in their symbol. And still to this day in Tasmania, Australia the National Penny Farthing Races are held every year. The Penny Farthing has become one of the symbols of the Victorian era and an interesting part of bicycle and Farm House history.