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.   

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Chamber Pots

Often times history is romanticized as we try to imagine our ancestors’ life as simpler than our own or we imagine past leaders as larger than life. But people of the past still had to deal with many of the same day-to-day problems as humans today. This would of course include having to use the restroom. 

Thousands of years ago when people lived in smaller communities they would have needed a place to relieve themselves. In the past people might have gone to a nearby forest or field. But what if it was raining outside or it was nighttime? In many sparsely populated regions like central Asia and Africa, they generally would have kept going out to the field. But in other places that began to become more densely populated, many cultures created toilets. Much of these toilets consisted of a hole in the floor, which people could squat over. It is believed that the style of a sit-down toilet may have been popularized later due to the change in clothing styles. Some forms of leggings and trousers would have made it easier to use a sit down toilet when wearing them. Archeology has shown that people in the Indus Valley around 2500 BC had latrines that were hand flushed and would empty into street drains. On the island of Crete some latrines would have wooden seats. Romans built great sewer systems, which kept latrine areas relatively clean by ancient standards. In medieval Europe, the toilets in castles were called a garderobe and were simply a vertical shaft that led outside with a stone seat at the top. In 1598, Sir John Harrison invented the flushing lavatory yet his ideas were mostly forgotten until the 1800s.

With all these changes in toilet design, another mode of using the restroom emerged, chamber pots. The chamber pot had been around since ancient times but became popularized in the 17th century. This invention was very beneficial as it was a lot easier to use than going outside all the time, especially if it was raining or snowing. If you needed to go, you would just pull the chamber pot out and use it. Later on, the contents could be dumped out easily enough. Early chamber pots were made of clay or metal and would be placed under a piece of furniture like a bench, stool or bed. Often the shape was simply a round container, but some would be oval or rectangular. In France, they were called bourdaloue after the 17th century catholic priest Louis Bourdaloue. He was known to give long sermons causing ladies to bring chamber pots under their dresses so that they could use them discreetly without getting up. Other nicknames include a jerry, a Jordan, a gazunder, a potty or a piss pot. The word chamber pot may have come from the French term “pot de chambre,” with “chambre” meaning bedroom, which is where it was often found.

During Victorian times most houses would have chamber pots to use. Some would have outhouses, but if it were the dead of winter most people would prefer the chamber pot. Some houses had a close stool, a special chair invented to ease the use of a chamber pot. It would look like an ordinary chair but if someone lifted the seat it would reveal a hole where a chamber pot could be placed. The emptying of the chamber pot would be the responsibility of many different people. In more elite houses, often servants or slaves would empty the pot into the nearest pit, water source, or field. Sometimes the job would fall onto the youngest member of the family. In cities, many would toss the contents out the nearest window. In Edinburgh, Scotland residents would shout “Gardy-loo” which meant, “mind the water” before tossing it. Others would just shout out the window so people down below would know. By 1724, New York City residents were ordered to walk to the nearest water source to dispose of the chamber pot’s contents. Sometimes the build up of excrement would create cesspools in the streets and under houses. In certain cities like London, it would be the job of the night soil man to have to clean out the cesspools and dispose of the contents in the river. This would make for a very gross job with some night soil men extracting nitrate from the pits to use for gunpowder. This build up of excrement would get so bad that it led to disease epidemics, like the spread of cholera.

In an attempt to ignore the gross interior, many Victorians would buy decorated chamber pots to make them look nicer in the house. Often though they weren’t meant to be seen unless needed. In old English records it was often noted that getting injured or dying due to a chamber pot wasn’t an uncommon thing. Multiple reports during the Victorian era told of people falling or slipping on their chamber pot causing them to get a life threatening injury. In many Victorian cases of domestic abuse or a robbery, a chamber pot would be used as a weapon.

Residents who lived in the Farm House most likely had chamber pots since the outhouse was in the backyard and the Farm House didn’t get indoor plumbing until the 1940’s. The Farm House Museum itself has five chamber pots, all located upstairs under the beds. Most are white except for one, which is pink. They all have different floral designs on them, which were put there to distract from the contents inside. All of the pots also have lids, which was meant to hide what was inside as well. Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse, even noted, “The use of any chamber utensil without a lid should be utterly abolished, whether among sick or well.” She was concerned about bad air causing disease, but the bad smell wouldn’t have been good either. Chamber pots may represent the grosser side of history, but it is something that peoples of the past had to deal with every day, and this is shown in the Farm House Museum.