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Iowa Historical Record Quarterly

Published Quarterly by the State Historical Society, Iowa City, Iowa


Volume. XI. JULY, 1895. No. 3


     I am not so very old—only in my sixty-seventh year—and if it were not for this white head I could readily imagine myself a brown haired boy. But what immense changes have taken place during the period of my recollection ! I do not propose to write of these, for they are matters of recorded history and may be read by all. It has occurred to me, however, that the setting down of a few facts of minor importance some very commonplace matters—"the short and simple annals of the poor "—would really serve to show how the life of the people has changed since the days of my early recollection. Others—and there are plenty to do that—will record the great facts of history. I will make the merest mention of facts which many good people may regard as trivial. I remember when there were no matches to be ignited by a slight scratch. There were few or no stoves in that part of Western New York where my father's family lived. Houses were warmed and food cooked by open fireplaces. Good housekeepers used to "cover up the fire" as a rule, so as to be able to kindle it anew every morning. But when it went out it was rekindled by "striking fire" with a flint and steel and igniting some kind of tinder, either a piece of "punk," a soft fungus growing in decayed wood, or a bit of cotton rag. We did have matches, but they were simply "fat" or pitch pine sticks, dipped in melted sulfur, and made by each housekeeper. Once the spark caught in the tinder, the homemade match could be lighted. Thrifty, careful housekeepers often had opportunities to lend a few live coals to neighbors who were too lazy to "cover up the fire." I remember what a curious and exciting event it was when my father brought home from the neighboring store the first little box of matches that would take fire by scratching them on some hard surface. But they cost much more than they do today, and were only used on the rare occasions when the fire happened to go out The habit of "covering up the fire" lingered in the old home as I suppose it did in others, for many years.
     There was another device for obtaining light and fire which I recall, though my memory is not very clear in regard to it. Some sort of inflammable, phosphoric liquid was kept in small, tightly corked  bottles. By dipping a little stick into this liquid it would at once take fire on being brought out into the air. I believe I saw one, but I do not think they came into general use in our part of the country.
    I remember the old tallow candles—the only mode of lighting houses. At first these candles were made by "dipping" them. Every good housekeeper owned a set of candle rods The "shiftless," or less thrifty, used to borrow from their neighbors.  These rods were little round pine sticks, a third or half inch in diameter, and eighteen or twenty inches long. Soft, loosely twisted cotton wicks, the length of the candle, were looped around them and a couple of strong, light bars, five or six feet long, so placed as to support the ends of the small rods. The wicks were then clipped in melted tallow until the candles grew to the desired size, though they were unevenly shaped being range at the lower end and small at the top—a sorry way of lighting a house, people would think at this day. I remember when there came an innovation upon this crude way of making candles,—in the shape of tin molds. These molds were made of polished tin, and the candles came out of them very smooth, slightly tapering in size from the lower to the upper end. Even this improvement was rather slow in coming into general use, and the more frugal and conservative housekeepers adhered to the old tallow dips. Families who owned a set of molds, however  were rather proud of the fact, deeming themselves in the van of progress, and inclined to look down upon their old-fogy or less fortunate neighbors.

     I remember the regular autumnal visits of the perambulating shoemaker. In those days the only foot-gear kept in country stores was men's top boots and coarse brogan shoes. Shoes for women and children were made by village or crossroads shoemakers. But farmers were every autumn in the habit of buying materials—as half or whole "sides" of sole leather, and sufficient cowhide and calfskin—to make the shoes for their families. It was quite an event when this supply of leather was received at our house. It was examined critically and carefully, and its qualities fully discussed. We all thought it was about the best the market afforded. After some days the shoemaker—ours was old Solomon Childs— came with his bench and kit of tools. A good place was assigned to him near the great kitchen fireplace, when the work of making shoes for the family began. Those for the females generally came first. The old man had served in the War of 18I2, and his brain was full of "moving accidents by flood and field" telling us over and over again how our side so "triumphantly" whipped the British," or drove back and discomfited the Indians. The ancient shoemaker usually stayed with our family a week or ten days, and during the long evenings the boys took turns in holding the tallow candle for him. "Now, bub," said Uncle Solomon, "hold the candle so that you can see, and then I can see;" and he pounded or sewed till 9 P. M., doing a week of honest work. He was a man of about sixty years, portly, baldheaded, with great beetling eyebrows, an excellent workman of the old style. The finest boots and shoes of that day were made of grades of calfskin which would now be considered coarse and heavy.

     One of the institutions of that remote time was the man who manufactured sausages. The farmers for the most part fatted and slaughtered their own beef and pork. For a short time in cold weather their families would rejoice in fresh meat, but corned beef and salt pork were the staple meats ten-twelfths of the year. Occasionally a "fatted calf" would be killed in the spring, but even that lasted but a brief period. Soon after hog killing time, late in autumn, an old marl who was the proud and consequential owner of a sausage machine, dropped into our neighborhood from some unknown, out-of-the-way region, going from house to house, and grinding up the carefully selected sausage meat. This was good, honest, corn-fed pork, without any admixture of tough or otherwise equivocal beef. The machine—enclosed in a box—was a rude, revolving iron cylinder, armed with cutting knives, and the concave wooden sides were also fitted with opposing stationary knives "The boys" of the family were called upon to turn the crank I distinctly remember that this was very hard work. The old man with great gray eyebrows and red nose,—from which latter organ on the cold days a drop almost always depended, —fed the machine, and generally, with the airs of a commander; in chief, bossed the job. On those frigid nights a great fire would send the flames roaring up the wide chimney, while the great kitchen was filled with the odor of sage, "summer savory," and raw pork. The dog and cat stood near by, intent and expectant, while the boys at the crank tugged and perspired like men a-mowing. A picture of this scene comes back, with all its humorous features and accompaniments, after the lapse of nearly sixty years, as vivid and full of life as though its events were but of yesterday.

     In my early years our school teachers whittled out the goose quill pens with which the pupils learned to write— except that occasionally one brighter and possessed of more mechanical genius than the others—some "big boy"—could make his own pens. "Will you mend my pen, please ?" was a request frequently made to our teachers. The quills from which pens were made came from the wings of geese, which could be found upon almost every farm, for our mothers from this source produced their own feather beds. There came, at some time, a little change in the preparation of quills by which they were made transparent. These were called "oiled quills," and were kept for sale at most of the country and village stores. Boys or girls in the district schools whose parents could afford to supply them with oiled quills were inclined to feel very proud of the fact. Common quills seemed coarse and countrified in comparison with the beautiful transparent ones. Previous to forty years ago nearly all writing was executed with quill pens. When steel pens first appeared it was deemed a sort of affectation to use them. But they gradually superseded the goose quills. Some old people, however, never could get used to metallic pens, but clung to the old goose quills. In 1881 I saw the poet Longfellow write a copy of his beautiful little poem, "The Arrow and the Song," using a quill pen. He adhered to the goose quill as long as he dived. In the winter of 1860 members of our State Legislature were supplied with oiled quills from the office of the Secretary of State, though later on in the session the House of Representatives instructed its Clerk by resolution to purchase gold pens for the members, and doubtless the Senate did likewise—for such an example was apt to be contagious. In those old days we had no envelopes. Letters were so folded as to be readily sealed with wafers, which have also disappeared. We used black sand instead of blotting paper to absorb, or dry up, the ink on freshly written pages. But the sandbox is also a thing of the past. And now the typewriting machine—the latest innovation—bids fair to supersede all pen writing. But who would not avail himself of one of these rapid and accurate machines, with its so often interesting and engaging propelling power ?

     I remember when most families in the country made the cloth, except cotton fabrics, in their own homes, with which both males and females were clad-linen for summer and woolen for winter wear. I remember some rosy-cheeked girls, now long at rest under "the mossy marbles," who went with me to the district school, whose winter clothes were made of very handsome red or checked flannel, the product of their mother's loom. One of our neighbors, good old Deacon Winship, often animadverted upon the luxury and extravagance of the times. Among other things, the Deacon was wont to assert that in his younger days, when he used "to go to balls" with his wife, she wore white woolen dresses, which had been clipped from her father's sheep, carded, spun, woven, and made up at home.
     Flax was raised on my father's farm. When it was sufficiently matured it was pulled" and laid in swaths to be rotted by exposure to rains and morning dews. It was then put through a "brake" a rough, homemade wooden machine by which the woody stems were broken. Then it was beaten to free it from the stems. Next it was drawn through a hatchel. This was a piece of board or plank thickly set with sharp, polished steel or iron pins four or five inches high this process eliminating the tow or coarser fibers and the last of the woody stems. Both the flax and the tow were spun and woven into cloth. Tow cloth was used for bagging and coarse summer pantaloons. These were cool and comfortable in summer, but would be apt to create a sensation on State Street or Broadway. But flax brakes, hatchels, and spinning wheels have long since passed away, and are rarely to be seen at this time except as curios in museums.

      As far back was I can remember, houses were warmed and cooking done by open fireplaces. These old fireplaces were wide and roomy, with broad stone hearths and heavy iron (sometimes brass mounted) andirons. O, the magnificent fires we used to have during the long winter evenings in my mother's kitchen ! A great "backlog" was first put in place, and then came the "forestick." Fire was kindled on the hearth, and great armsfull of wood piled upon it. When the wood was fine and the nights cold these great fires would; come near warming the whole house. A crane was hung upon one side of the fireplace, to swing in and out. Upon this were pot hooks of various lengths, upon which the kettles were hung, and with such rude appliances our mothers and grandmothers did the cooking for their families. Bread was baked in flat iron kettles, by putting hot coals under them and upon the lids or covers—and very good bread, too. These old fashioned "bakekettles" may still occasionally be seen in back neighborhoods.
     The oval-shaped stone or brick oven was in use as long ago as I can remember. Occasionally it was built out-of-doors; but oftener in the house, attached to the chimney, of which in fact it formed a part. A flue was constructed from the top of the oven leading into the chimney, thus giving it a good draft. These ovens would generally hold a dozen or more large loaves of bread, and would also bake pies and cakes, or roast meats. When baking-time" came around, extra efforts were put forth to secure "oven wood." This was to be dry split fine, and about as long as the oven itself. The thrifty housewife prided herself upon the excellent quality of oven wood provided by the head of the family. He was a "poor stick" who left the "wimmen folks" to pick up their own oven wood! But in those days of the "old woman" such semi-barbarians existed in every rural community. A brisk fire was kept up until the oven was not only hissing hot, but heated so thoroughly as to retain the heat for some hours. The kneaded loaves or other articles to be baked were then set in the oven and the door closed. In due time everything would be "done to a turn, whatever that was the loaves, pies, and cakes richly browned and cooked completely through. Meats were most admirably roasted in these ovens of our mothers and grandmothers— especially the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas goose. Notwithstanding the march of invention, no process of baking or roasting has ever accomplished better results. One of the first improvements in baking bread and biscuits that I remember was the tin reflector oven. The lower part sloped up to the center on the back side, and the top down to meet it. Being open toward the fireplace, widely flaring, they reflected the heat, so that it baked both sides of the loaves on cake, roasting meat to perfection. It was a great improvement at that time, but must have gone out of use fully fifty years ago.
     Cooking stoves may have been in use in many regions, but as I remember there was only now and then one in our section. The first stoves that I ever saw were built with a circular, rotating top, fitted with griddles of various sizes. A crank on the side of the stove enabled the cook to bring any one or two of the griddles over the firebox. When the "Rotary Stoves" first came into use, they were quite expensive and only the first families" could afford them. They were cumbrous and heavy. The next improvement in cooking stoves was that of the elevated oven, so arranged that the flame and heat from the firebox passed up on each side of it. The elevated oven also went into innocuous desuetude thirty to forty years ago After this device came the reign of the Stewart cooking stove and the range, of which last there are patterns and styles without end. Speaking of the Stewart— and I have had one in my house for almost thirty years, and it is a model cooking and heating stove yet—a dealer once recommended one to an Irishman, saving: "It will save half the fuel!" "Thin, be jabers, oill tek two uv and save it all!"

     I remember that in those old days—in fact, until about the time of our great civil war—the luxury of canned fruits was scarcely known. We had few grocers. Merchandising was for the most part carried on in general variety stores, which sold "dry goods, groceries, crockery, hardware, tinware, boots, shoes, notions" and other things set forth in the advertisements, as "too numerous to mention". About the only items on sale in the way of fruits and vegetables were dried apples, dried peaches and beans. The apples were strung on long strings at the time of drying and were apt to be flyspecked and wormy, while the peaches were unpeeled—too often a bad lot. These things would be a sorry substitute for the choice canned fruits and vegetables which may be had in every country village today. The change in this respect I believe  was largely due to the war for the Union. Canned goods were in demand as delicacies for the sick and wounded soldiers at the front, and the loyal women responding to this great want, taught everybody how easily and sensibly fruits and vegetables could be preserved in tin or glass, for sale or future use. And now the custom has become universal throughout the civilized world. Even the farmers, who ought largely to raise these articles themselves, patronize the grocers most liberally. But this only emphasizes the change as all the more noted and important. In the matter of cutting and threshing grain, the changes have been quite as marked.

      As far back as I can remember, say, sixty-two or sixty-three years, oats, wheat, barley and rye were mostly cut with the old-fashioned "cradle," a broad scythe, with several long rods called "fingers," which were arranged parallel with the scythe, so as to catch the straw as it fell before its broad sweep. Carrying the cradlefull back to his right and partly behind him, the stalwart reaper was able to lay the whole in a smooth swath. After it was dry the straw was gathered with a rake into suitable bundles and bound with a band of its own material. Toothed sickles were still in use, especially in lodged grain, but they were everywhere giving place to the cradles. Stalwart young farmers who could own their own cradles deemed themselves near "the head of the procession," feeling sorry, or looking down upon, those who were still obliged to use the sickle. Many a farmer  made his own cradle-snath, buying his scythe at "the store," while cradles complete could be purchased in most villages. Threshing. in those days, and long afterward was done with the flail. This was made of two pieces of wood—the handle about the size of that of a hoe, and the "swingle" or "swiple" a shorter, heavier piece. They were fastened together with a stout cord or thong. With these rude implements our fathers pounded out their small grain. Before I left the farm I did some of this sort of threshing myself. I recollect that it was very vigorous exercise and was apt to give one a good appetite for his dinner. In the Historical Rooms at Des Moines, at the J. F. Wilson Library in Fairfield, and I presume in the State Historical Rooms, Iowa City, samples of these old flails, which were swung by stalwart Iowa pioneers, may be seen by visitors. The first threshing machines were a species of tread mill, operated by two horses walking up an endless, revolving inclined plane. I suppose that one of our present great steam separators would thresh more grain in half an hour than one of these primitive machines would in two days. But they were a wonderful improvement at that time.

     Forty to fifty years ago many a rural neighborhood contained its shiftless, ne'er-do-well farmer—one who perhaps was addicted to strong drink, or controlled by downright laziness. Of such a one you might hear it said, and scarcely another expression could convey so much of derogation and contempt—"why, the lazy fellow burns his own rails" A man who was so lazy or shiftless as to burn his own fences for fuel was deemed so far on the road to the bad—whatever the cause—that his reclamation need not be hoped or expected. But in quite recent years the most thrifty farmers' have been burning their rail fences! In fact, it is one of the best evidences of thrift and progress to see a farmer thus getting rid of his rail fences! Should he husband them as carefully as did his father or grandfather, he would be set down as an old fogy, indeed! But why this change—for fences involve the expenditure of millions of dollars? Simply, because the rail fence —the fence of the fathers and of Abraham Lincoln—has been superseded (after American timber has been well nigh destroyed) by barbed steel wire. The rail fence is a thing of the past in most parts of our country, and especially in the prairie regions of the west. However, it still clings to out-of-the-way neighborhoods, as well as to some not considered " out-of-the-way." In fact, within the last year and a half, I saw a man splitting pine rails within five miles of the city of Washington. He had already built several rods of this primitive fence. Our Iowa farmers have been doing better than this for several years. They have either used their rails for firewood, or sold them in the towns for that purpose, and superseded them with barbed wire fences or adopted the law which restrains domestic animals from running at large, and so are able to dispense with outside fences altogether. This change has largely taken place during the past twenty years, and is so recent as to be still in the memories of most readers.

     In a hundred directions, perhaps, the life of the people has changed, each in as marked degree as in the instances I have noted. Farmers in the country may now readily command luxuries which fifty or sixty years ago were beyond the reach of the wealthy. Are equal changes to come during the next half century?

 Des Moines, Iowa, June 17, 1895.  


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