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.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

Victorian Hair Art

In this blog post we are going to explore the curious presence of human hair art in the Farm House Museum. I am not talking about dust bunnies lurking in dark corners, but actual museum objects that contain human hair. Currently in the library, there is a human hair wreath sitting in a small 6 x10 inch frame. The flower hair wreath consists of a single center stem with side branches leading to flowers and blossoms. It is made completely of human hair, braided and curled to form dainty shapes. The object was donated to the museum from Gertrude Cookingham Smith who stated that the hair belonged to her past family members. To understand why this piece exists we must look back to the traditions of Victorian times. Victorians were known to have an obsession with hair.

Today many people consider “hair art” to be rather creepy, but during Victorian times it was very popular. Hair grooming was highly emphasized, as the idea was to transform the chaotic and wild growth of hair into a well-trimmed and decorative design. This insistence on a fashionable design led to many women using false hair to create more designs for their hair. Fake hair became so popular that shiploads of the commodity were imported to England and hair became one of the most popular topics in fashion magazines of the time. The University Museums’ permanent collection contains over 150 fashion prints from French magazines that illustrate not only the importance of clothing and hats but also the importance of hair styling befitting of high fashion of the Victorian Era. Besides fake hair, Victorians loved to collect and keep all the hair they acquired. Many women would collect their own hair that they cut or brushed out into special jars. Often once the container became full, they would send it away to a hair designer to be made into some useful attachment or jewelry.

Hair jewelry became particularly popular during the Victorian Era, especially in association with death. Hair jewelry was most often made from the hair of a deceased loved one. These objects were often a keepsake and seen as a token of remembrance for the person who passed away. Hair could be fashioned into a necklace, bracelet, ring, pair of earrings, a picture or woven into a certain pattern like the flower design seen in the Farm House. Victorians would also wear these hair jewelry pieces as a way of remembering their loved ones during specified mourning periods. An example of a mourning broch is in the permanent collection, although there is likely little to no hair present. The broach is a brass design with a small glass window in the center. Victorians would put the hair of their deceased loved ones inside the glass window for everyone to see. They would then wear the broach around in remembrance.

The idea of hair jewelry became so popular that woman began to take their own hair and make
designs out of it. Hair could be made as a gift, which Queen Victoria popularized when she reportedly presented Empress Eugene of France with a bracelet of her own hair. Soldiers during the Civil War would leave a lock of their hair with their loved ones as a way of remembering them. Due to rising consumerism woman loved to make hair folk crafts and hair wreaths of all kinds to fit the current fashion of the day. All hairwork was created by hand whether by a professional artisan or skilled amateur. Hair art manuals were actually publish specifically for female readership so they could learn the techniques for making hair designs. Hair art became so fashionable that elaborate hair works were shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. At the Paris Exposition of 1855 a full-length life-size portrait of Queen Victoria made entirely of human hair was displayed. But what actually caused the Victorians to become so obsessed with hair?

Much of this obsession is revealed in the literature of the time. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote about Lucie Manette and how she was recognized as an angel due to her golden halo of hair which was able to “recall the dead to life” and to “warm and lighten” those around her. Dante Rossetti wrote of a golden haired woman in Lady Lilith who achieved transcendent vitality due to her magic hair. Victorian writers were clearly fascinated by reading woman’s hair and interpreting its meaning. Previously, writers would not go into such detail to describe the texture, color, style and dimensions of the woman’s hair. Preservation of hair tokens and hair memorials was seen as dignified and important. Victorians saw hair as a window into someone’s personality and essence. Obsession with hair is seen as a staple of Victorian culture and there are thousands of examples of hair art today. Even today, the hair jewelry and wreaths of the Victorian Era are highly desirable as collectibles. The hair art at the Farm House Museum reflects the Victorian culture of the time and can teach those who come to the Farm House about the past fashion, rituals, and folk crafts.  As a bonus, most people are creeped out as well!  

                                                          Further Reading
  • Bell, C. Jeanenne. Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry. (1998).
  • Campbell, Mark. Kliot, Jules and Caethe (eds). Art of Hairwork: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment. (1996) {This republication of Mark Campbell’s book also includes important supplemental material from Godey’s Lady’s Book}
  • Sheumaker, Helen. Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America. (2007).

Friday, December 2, 2016

Native American Baskets and Pottery

In celebration of Indigenous People’s month, we are going to look at the Native American objects in the Farm House Museum. There is an assortment of Native American baskets and pottery in the permanent collection on exhibit at the Farm House Museum. All of the objects can be found within the library except for one. There are a number of reasons University Museums has these Native American objects in the Farm House. One reason is because of an old picture taken of the Farm House library in 1907, during the Charles Curtiss years, that was featured in an agricultural home magazine. This is the oldest known picture of the inside of the Farm House. On the right side of the picture, on top of a bookcase shelf you will notice a Native American basket. The library today is curated to reflect the 1907 picture and because of the presence of the Native American basket in the picture, University Museums decided to include a permanent collection of Native American basket to the Farm House museum. The second reason for adding so many Native baskets and pottery is that the Farm House library is designed in a Victorian period style. In Victorian times, people would often decorate their homes with various objects from around the world to create a “cultured look.” The Farm House reflects this by exhibiting a selection of the Native American objects in the permanent collection on display. Farm House museum is also able to teach about the past and inclusion of Native American baskets and pottery helps illustrate the history of peoples who were native to the Americas.

A majority of the baskets and pottery discussed in this blog post were transferred in the late 1970s to the Farm House Museum from the ISU Applied Arts Department teaching collections. The Applied Art Dept. faculty collected these objects, likely in the 1930s through 1950s as tourists to the regions they originate from. The faculty would then use the objects to teach ISU students about culture, art, and design. When the department was dissolved, this teaching collection along with many other object like Japanese woodblock prints, ceramics, and home goods was transferred to the University Museums’ permanent collection.              

Firstly, let’s explore what basketry and pottery meant to Native Americans. Basketry makes up two thirds of the Native American objects present in the Farm House. Basket weaving is one of the oldest known Native American crafts. The art of basket weaving is estimated to be 8,000 years old based on archeological records from the American Southwest. It continues to be a lively and productive art among Native Americans today. Baskets are meant to be both utilitarian and works of art based on the regions they come from. They were used for many different purposes such as carrying materials, cooking food, storage bins and wall decorations. They also served as a sense of pride for the maker as many of the baskets were often woven by women. Elder women were generally the most experienced and were called upon to teach their younger relatives the basket making traditions. The designs and shapes of baskets have changed over time, especially when Europeans arrived in the New World. Often different tribes would develop a number of distinctive weaving techniques for making baskets, which would transfer between neighboring tribes as well. Some of these techniques include different materials, shapes and characteristic patterns.
Southwestern Native American baskets are often made from tightly coiled sumac or willow wood. Northwest Coast Native Americans will typically weave with swamp grass, spruce root and cedar bark. Southeast Native Americans, which includes the Cherokee, traditionally use bundled pine needles or river cane wicker. Northeast Native American often use pounded ash splints and braided sweet grass. Finally Northern Native Americans like the Ojibwe will often make birch bark baskets. The Inuit of northern Canada will even make whale baleen baskets, though this is a more recent tradition. Much of the reason for the changes in native baskets was the displacement of native peoples from their traditional lands and lifestyles. This displacement caused basket-weaving styles to change somewhat as they absorbed new customs from their neighbors and adapted new materials. However, many Native American tribes in the western United States still maintain their own artistic styles, while eastern Native Americans lost much of their tribe’s unique style components.

Native American pottery makes up about one third of the Native American objects in the Farm House. Pottery making began within Native American tribes about 4,000 years ago when they began adopting a more agricultural-based lifestyle. Using local clays, they began to burn coil pots in open pits making a smooth slab. Each tribe’s pottery was shaped for their own various customs and needs such as gathering water, cooking, storing grains and preserving seeds. Woman became the chief pottery makers. Early pots were a very simple design with little decoration or embellishment but later on more decorative designs began to appear. Pottery even became important in ceremonies such as rituals and burials. Wedding vases with two spouts became very popular for wedding ceremonies. Before Europeans arrived pottery was used all around North America. With the arrival of Europeans, many native tribes were pushed out of the east and some central plains tribes abandoned pottery-making altogether for a more nomadic lifestyle. Today, the Native Americans most associated with pottery are the Southwestern cultures, specifically Pueblo and Navajo. The reason for this is that Southwestern Native American cultures have changed little over time. They are also some of the oldest tribes with a continuous record of habitation in one area. This has caused the many elements of their culture to remain intact in areas including pottery making. Many of their designs are simple white and black ceramics decorated with geometric patterns. These patterns are painted with pigments made from residue of boiled plants or finely ground metallic rocks. Much of the pottery in the Farm House shares these designs. It should be noted that while most Native American pottery is from the Southwest there are a few tribes along the West Coast that still make some pottery. But they mostly focus on basketry.   

There are a number of different Native tribes associated with baskets and pottery in the Farm House. All of them either came from the Southwest, Pacific Coast or Alaska. None come from the Eastern United States likely due to the fact that when these object were being collected few Native tribes remained there. All the baskets were probably made in the 20th century as many of them were transferred to the Farm House or donated by different people. The baskets and pottery were probably made by a few specific artisans and were likely made specifically for tourists or the tourist trade. While most of these may not have been made for the purpose of the tribe, it is still important to understand where they came from and who influenced there design. There are 18 different Native American baskets and 8 different Native American pots.

Four of the baskets belong to Native Alaskan tribes. Indigenous Alaskan tribes have varied cultures that have adapted to the harsh arctic-like environments. Their language often identifies their own historic groups. Indigenous Alaskans are known for their totem poles and potlatch ceremonies, which would often celebrate the first hunt and funerals. They were avid hunter-gatherers of the land but also were very well known for whale hunting and fishing. With the colonization by Russia and America, the population of Native Alaskans began to decline as more settlers established homes, towns and cities, disrupted Native hunting grounds. Unlike most other Native American tribes, Native Alaskans didn’t have treaties that protected their substance rights except for whale harvesting. Groups of Natives often define their group village to village, instead of as one whole nation like in the continental United States. There are large Native tribes like the Aleuts who live off the coast on the Aleutian Islands or the Inuit (Eskimos) who live in the Arctic Circle. (For more about Inuit printmaking and carvings, be sure to visit the Brunnier Art Museums exhibition “Creative by Nature” Jan. 17-July 30, 2017.)
All four baskets are twined with light brownish grass. While not being able to trace which specific tribe the baskets came from, the Alaskan baskets do have some distinctive symbols on them. One is a picture of a killer whale, which makes sense with their relationship to whaling, and whale meat as food. One basket that is notable has a picture of what we know today as a swastika. The swastika symbol has been used by many different Native tribes before being appropriated by the Nazi party. In some Native cultures it was a symbol of peace like in the Navajo culture. (For more on this symbol, see the blog post “Native Alaskan Basket and the Swastika” from March 30th, 2016) The other two baskets have arrow designs and black squares. All the baskets do look very similar due to their color and twining.

Other baskets at the Farm House include three Papago baskets. The Papago Native Americans are also known as Tohono O’odham and they live in Southwest Arizona extending into northern Mexico. Their title means, “desert people” and they were known for their impressive basketry. They lived in small cone-shaped dwellings and often grew corn, beans and squash. When the Mexican-American border was set between the U.S. and Mexico, the Papago were split from their native land in what would be Mexico and couldn’t migrate across the border. The three Papago baskets all use lightly tanned yucca grass that is coiled. All three look very similar with black squares with some shaped into a cross symbol. One figurative basket creates the image of a woman on top with the basket as her dress.

Of the other Native American baskets from the southwest, two are Navajo and one is Hopi. The Navajo nation is one of the largest reservations in the United States and is located primarily in Northeast Arizona. The Navajo are known for having a very complex language that was used in World War II for sending secret messages. They are also known for their artistry when it comes to complex basket weaving and pottery. Of the two Navajo baskets, one has a swastika symbol on it while the other is a wider basket with a star design coming out the middle. To the Navajo, the swastika design is a symbol for the whirling log, a sacred legend-based design. Both use thick narrow straw with a tan design. The Hopi basket uses twigs in a circular pattern with a bold colored dye in the middle. The Hopi reservation is actually surrounded by the Navajo reservation in Arizona so they share similar artwork. The Hopi are specifically known for their Kachina dolls making.

The other baskets come from Native American tribes of the Northwest Coast. Three of them come from the Pomo tribe, which is located in northern California. There are several different Pomo tribes with many varying styles, but they all use willow and redwood trees for clothing and artwork. Their baskets were known for intricate patterns of triangles and other geometric shapes. One of the Pomo baskets is small and has a zigzag lightning design going across it, while the other two use willow and redbud with a triangle design, characteristic of Pomo art. One of these baskets is located on the second floor in the President’s desk. This is the only Native object located outside the library. The remaining Native basket belongs to the Klamath tribe, which is located in southern Oregon and Northern California. This region is filled with rivers and streams thus the Klamath are known for their fishing as well as use of the abundant timber resources. The Klamath basket uses light brown banding with a plaited (braid-like) design. There is one other basket, which is light brown with a duck and boat symbol on its side. The only mention of what kind of basket this is in the object record is its description as Siwash. This is a general term that refers to Northwest Coast Native Americans but doesn’t refer to a specific tribe, thus it can be assumed that with the boat symbol this was probably from the Northwest Coast.

There are eight different Native American pottery objects that all come from the Southwest, specifically Arizona and New Mexico. There are three different tribes that are represented from New Mexico, all from the Pueblo nation. The Pueblo people have a long history of being influenced by the Spanish, then the Mexicans and then the Americans. Pueblo culture is largely influenced by their religion and relationship with the natural world. This involves performing large ceremonies for the season and to improve their relationship with nature. Pueblo tribes often extensively traded with each other. Their art is very distinctive in its design though. The three Pueblo tribes from New Mexico include the San Domingo from central New Mexico, the Acoma in west central New Mexico, and the San Juan from north central New Mexico. The San Juan is represented by three pots, the Acoma by two and the San Domingo with a singular pot. 

While the Pueblo people are all very similar, these three tribes do have some differences. The San Domingo are considered one of the most conservative of the Pueblo groups as well as responsible for producing the most pottery and jewelry. The Acoma are known for being the oldest continuously habited community in North America. The San Juan are known for having a number of different secret societies within their tribe. The San Domingo pot has a flower symbol with a white background. The two Acoma pots both have a white background with designs of orange and black going around the side. The three San Juan pots are each a little different just as they have differences in style within their tribe. Two of the pots are small and have dark red coloring, a characteristic of San Juan designs. The other pot is a large black earthenware pot, which is also another specific characteristic of San Juan pottery. These pots reveal the diversity amongst tribes that are physically located close to each other. 

The two other Native American pots both come from tribes in Arizona. The first is from the Hopi of Northwest Arizona. The pot is a squat earthenware pot with light beige and dark banding along the side. The pot also has dark geometric patterns near the bottom. This pot is very different from the Maricopa pot, which is a small red clay pot with a circular drawing on the side characteristic of Maricopa art. The Maricopa live along the Colorado River in Southwest Arizona and are known for their red clay pottery as well as for being very close with the Pima tribes of that area.
Ultimately there is a lot to learn from the artwork in the Farm House such as the tribes that they came from and why they are there. You are encouraged to stop by the Farm House Museum during the semester or summer to explore the collection of unique objects discussed in this blog.

Note: There are three Native American baskets that aren’t mentioned, because I’m unsure of their origin. The first is a round basket with two handles and a small opening at the top. Along the sides are 6 cross symbols with diamonds surrounding them. The basket shares many similarities with the Alaskan baskets including its use of twining and its tan design. Due to this I can only assume that it is either Alaskan or from the Pacific coastal region. The second basket is bowl-shaped with a dark brown design. Along the side are asymmetrical triangular designs in tan. The bowl is made from grass and quill. The design of the asymmetrical triangles is very similar to Pomo designs. The color is lighter than the other Pomo tribe baskets in the collection, but it is similar. Due to this I’m assuming that this baskets is either Pomo or at the very least from the Northwest Coast. The last basket is a straw basket with large weaves. The coiled basket is rectangular with dark brown and butterscotch colors. It has arrow symbols pointing different ways all around it and a chain link type edge around the top. This basket has some similarities to Northwest Coast baskets including its color and dark brown dye used for its arrows. This is why I’m assuming that this basket is maybe from the Northwest Coast but it is uncertain. Overall though, these Native American objects reveal a lot about their influence and origin and can teach us even more about indigenous people in the United States.