Monday, December 23, 2013

An Exciting New Year Ahead!

Recent visitors to the museum might have noticed some changes happening in the area near the stairwell.  This construction is a preliminary step in the creation of a new exhibit, one of three that will be created at the museum in the next year.

The first exhibit, which will replace our current temporary exhibit Joseph Royer:  An Architect on the Prairie, will be called Home Grown:  Gardening Yesterday and Today.  The exhibit will discuss the roots of modern gardening in the first cultivation and domestication of plants, the kitchen garden and gardening for subsistence, the Victory Garden in the 20th century, and the modern return to slow foods and heirloom gardens.  The exhibit will be showcased in the Redhed Room, our temporary display space, from March 2014 through December 2014.  More information about the garden exhibit will follow soon!

The second new exhibit, the one that has been raising some dust in recent weeks, will detail the geologic and glacier processes that created the landscape of East Central Illinois.  Plans for the exhibit include a model of a glacier, samples of fossils and glacially-modified rocks, and a sample of a sediment core taken from our own Buffalo Trace Prairie!

And possibly an ice cave!

The glacier exhibit should also premier in March of the coming year.

The final exhibit in the works is a longer-term project.  Over the next year, we will be remodeling and updating our Main Gallery Prairie Stories exhibit, as it has been in place for over a decade.  While we are hoping to keep disruptions to a minimum, there will likely be times over the next twelve months that sections of the exhibit (or perhaps the entire exhibit) will be closed to the public.

As we work through these changes, we will do our best to provide access to the Farm Tool Wing and Blacksmith's Shop.  (I'm sure many of you will be relieved to learn that, while the interpretive signs and farm tools might change a bit in phase two of our project, due to start in 2015, we have no plans at this time to redesign the blacksmith's shop). 

Our new exhibit, building on the glacier exhibit as a prologue, will detail the natural and cultural history of the region through interactive displays discussing the changing landscape, human settlement and occupation on the prairie, and how the natural features of the region contributed to the development of commerce and industry.  A special section will also feature conservation and preservation efforts at the museum and within the larger forest preserve district, with a 'workshop' area discussing how we curate various items and materials in our museum collection.

The exhibit will also include a walk-in log cabin, a walk-in general store, and (we hope!) a walk-in wigwam similar to the one in our downstairs Discovery Room.   Many familiar artifacts will be incorporated into the new exhibit, but others will go back into storage to make room for new artifacts from the collection to be put on display.

We would love to hear your thoughts about favorite artifacts in the comments section below!  Please let us know if there is a special item that you would really miss if it was put back into storage.  We can't promise to include every artifact, but we are very interested in feedback from our visitors as we make plans for the new exhibit.

If you are interested, please take a few minutes to fill out this short survey regarding your preferences in visiting a museum (only six questions!):

Friday, December 13, 2013

Cooking Up a Family Tradition: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

 As I mentioned in the first post, this object has special significance for my family, especially at this time of year!  I hope that some of you had the opportunity to come in and take a closer look at this week's Mystery Artifact, on display in a case near the museum stairwell.   If not, please come visit in the next few weeks - the object will remain on display until we close for the season on December 31st!

Lorelei and Joe were on the right track in guessing that this artifact was some sort of food mold, but Jenifer was absolutely correct in guessing that this object is a springerle press (pronounced "springer-lee").  So, Jenifer, who in your family makes springerles?

In my family, my grandmother is our springerle maker.  Her mother's maiden name was Elda Krueger, and our family's German cookie-making tradition comes from her heritage.  Springerle are traditional German Christmas cookies, usually flavored with anise seed (which tastes like black licorice) and impressed with a specially-carved rolling pin or flat mold.  You may have noticed the springerle rolling pin in our education collection while in the 1900's kitchen area of our Prairie Stories exhibit:

Springerle are unique in their creation in that after the cookies have been imprinted, recipes require they be left out to dry for 12-24 hours before baking.  This allows the dough to set, so that the pictorial impressions are not destroyed when the cookies rise during baking.   The square- or oval-shaped cookies can be painted with food dyes or tempera paints, and often were as traditionally they were used as Christmas decorations on tabletop trees.   

The molds often depict animals or pastoral scenes, although images taken from Biblical stories are also common. Antique springerle molds have become family heirlooms, and the oldest known mold dates to the 14th century. This website has a terrific library of pages detailing springerle mold collections held by private owners:

I would recommend you click through to the Mildred E. Jenson collection specifically, as it showcases three pages of beautifully carved antique molds:

For those of you wishing to try your hand making a batch of springerle cookies, here is a link to a Swiss website that offers both a springerle recipe and hand-carved replicas of antique molds (although the store portion of their website is in German, so you may need the assistance of a translator to shop):  If you wish to try springerle without investing in a mold, however, here is a company in my home state of Pennsylvania that sell both edible springerle cookies and springerle ornaments for the tree:
 If the thought of a licorice-flavored cookie does nothing for your tastebuds, they also offer lemon, orange, orange vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate, almond, and vanilla springerle.

Christmas cookies continue as a modern tradition that stretches back centuries. The first cookies were probably test cakes, baked with a small amount of the cake batter to test oven temperatures. Modern cookies have their origins in the spice trade during the Middle Ages, which allowed Europeans easier access to high-value food items including sugar and spices like cinnamon, coriander, black-pepper, and anise seed. Many traditional European Christmas cookies still include these flavors, like Dutch pfeffernüsse (“pepper nuts”) which are spiced with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper; or my personal favorites, German zimtsterne ("cinnamon star"), which are made with ground almond or hazelnut flour instead of wheat flour, are frosted with a meringue instead of icing, and traditionally included "exotic" flavors like lemon and cinnamon (and are delightfully chewy and delicious)!

Does your family have special holiday cookie traditions?  Do you have a favorite recipe that has been passed down in your family?  Please share your traditions or favorite types of cookies and treats in the comments section below or on Facebook. 

I'll leave you with this wonderful recipe from a late-18th-century cookbook:

"On Christmas Cookery -- To three pound of flour, sprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander seed, rub in one pound of butter, and one and half pound sugar, dissolve one tea spoonful of pearlath in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarter of an inch thick, and cut or stamp into shape and size you please, bake slowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho' hard and dry at first, if put in an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old.” 
---Amelia Simmons 
   American Cookery:  or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Puff-pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to plain Cake, 1796

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Very Special Mystery Artifact

This week's mystery artifact is chosen with our director, Barb Oelschlaeger-Garvey, in mind!  This particular artifact comes from my personal collection and is a family heirloom.  It also has a special connection to this time of year for me and mine.  It is made of a single piece of wood (walnut, perhaps?) with images carved on to both sides.  Here is the first side (note the amazing carving of a dragon chasing his tail in the lower right!):

 And here is the other side:

With the notable exception of the dragon, the carved images are mostly animals, plants, or other pastoral-themed pictures.

Beginning this week, we will have a display to feature each week's mystery artifact in the museum lobby/stairwell area, near the doors to the education wing.  This will allow you to take a close look at the artifact in question before making your guess!  So - now that the roads are clear! - came take a look and then make your best guess in the comments below or on Facebook!

(By the way, please excuse our construction dust and debris when you come in - there are big changes in the works here at the Museum!  I will post a blog on what you can expect to see happening over the next few years, as we change out our Prairie Stories exhibit with a new and exciting exhibit!)

    --- Valerie

Another Pressing Mystery . . . to be continued!

Alas, with the holidays and everyone's busy schedule, we had no guesses on the last mystery artifact posted in November.  Here's a reminder photo:

As no one has guessed at this fantastic artifact, I think we will hold it for a week or two and then give it another try!  In the meanwhile, stay tuned for another fascinating mystery artifact - one that is especially dear to me.  To be continued . . . .

Monday, November 18, 2013

Another Pressing Mystery . . . .

Hello, all.  Here is another pressing mystery for you to solve.  What is this artifact?  What was it used for?

The artifact is primarily made of wood, with metal fasteners and a curved metal  bar that acts as a lever to both push down a square of wood into a the main body when the handle is depressed and push up a square block in the interior of the main body when the handle is raised (as in the photo below).

 This is quite a large, heavy artifact, as you can tell by the 12" scale in the photo.  My best guess is that it would be held or somehow attached to a sturdy surface, but it would be a good trick to be able to do so without interfering with the action of the machine.  Alas, I will have to do some extensive research on this one!
 Here is a close up of the square block in the main body, pushed up when the handle is in the raised position (as shown in the photo above).

Quite pretty, isn't it?  Take your best guess as to the function of this simple machine.  Post your thoughts on our Facebook page or in the comments section below! 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Messages and Memories: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

This week's Mystery Artifact proved to be a little harder to guess than it looked!

Guesses from Facebook included fishing pole, insect net, rug beater, and a tool for mixing lye into a kettle to make soap (so appropriate after the post from earlier this month)! 

Those were all good guesses as to the function of this object, but it's use was not a domestic one.  This item is called an order hoop, and it was used for "hooping up" trains.  Dispatchers would tie the train's orders to a hoop like the one above, so that they could easily be slipped off.  Then, as the train passed, the engineer and/or conductor could stick his arm through the cane hoop to catch it, slip the train's orders off, then toss the hoop off the train so that it could be recovered and reused.

This video, created by the local Monticello Railway Museum, shows the process being done by a similar method.

In the MRYM video, the "hooping up" is being done using an order fork, similar in function to the hoop in our collection.  From my research, it appears that even after the form changed, these artifacts were still being called "hoops" and "hooping up" appears to be standard terminology among the railroad-savvy.

As I mentioned in the original post, this artifact was suggested to me by our registrar, Tom Meachum.  He has a personal connection to this artifact as his father was a conductor on the railroads when Tom was young.  Here is the story in his words:

"He was a conductor.  He would catch the hoop on his arm and take the message off, but it was a little more modern than [our artifact].  I think they were made of aluminum at the time.  There was a time when the hoop was like this."  (Tom shows a sketch of a V-shaped dispatch "hoop" with a string connecting the tips of the 'V').  "And they would run their arm through here and catch the string on their elbow.  And the orders were tied to the string."

Tom also remembered that the hoop would smack his father's upper arm hard, and so the railroad men who caught the hoops would wear clothing with padded sleeves!

 He also brought in this lovely artifact to share with readers:

This is Tom's father's watch, purchased at great expense so that it would keep accurate time while he was working on the trains. "I don't remember the exact year [it was purchased], but it was before I was born in the early 1940s, or before the war.  It was over $100, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days."

 Tom mentioned that he, his siblings, and all of his children used this watch to cut their baby teeth, and that his father was appalled after one trip to the jeweler, who proudly boasted that he had buffed all the scratches out!

This illustrates an important point - that while objects might have inherent value in and of themselves, their true worth is in the story.  We attach significance to objects based on the meanings we assign them, and in the case of an heirloom like Tom's father's watch, that meaning is beyond price.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Mystery Artifact with a Personal Twist

This week's mystery artifact was suggested by our registrar, Tom Meachum.  Tom registers and catalogues all of our artifacts and archives, maintaining the database so that we can easily locate the artifacts in storage that we'd like to display!  This was his pick for this week:

The item is a bamboo cane twisted and secured to make a hoop.  The hoop portion is more than a foot across (see the ruler in the photo below for scale), and the handle is about three feet long.  As you can (sort of) see in the photo below, there is a twist of wire right at the top of the hoop (there is a similar twist where the hoop meets the handle portion of the stick):

Tom suggested this, in part, because it has personal significance for him.  You will hear more of his story in our post as we reveal what this artifact is, so for now take your best guess on Facebook or in the comments below!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Candle Snuffer

You guys certainly weren’t in the dark about this mystery artifact! Both the anonymous commenter on the blog post and John from Facebook knew that the three artifacts in our last post were candle snuffers.

An interesting fact I discovered while researching for this blog post was that, in spite of our more common modern use of the phrase “candle snuffer” to mean “extinguisher”, these little tools were not primarily intended for extinguishing candles.  Rather, they were for maintaining the correct length of wick on older style candles. 

Modern candles are mostly made with wicks that curl and then break off before they become too long, but on older candles, the wick would just get longer as the candle burned down. This would cause the flame to burn higher, going through the candle too quickly and wasting the wax.
This image shows the way modern wicks shorten themselves by curling.
Photo by Wolfgang Lonien, Wikimedia Commons.
To keep the pace of the fire under control, people would use these candle snuffers to clip the wick back to maintain a relatively stable length. These little scissors were designed with a convenient case along one side of the blade that would catch the snipped portion of the wick, usefully keeping the small piece of burning fabric from dropping onto the tablecloth or the carpet.

Another clever, and slightly less obvious feature of these scissors are the little feet on the handles and the blades. These kept the scissors, which would become sooty and greasy (because - as we learned last week! - candles were often made from animal fats), from coming in direct contact with nice table linens and other household surfaces that may not benefit from a shiny new grease stain or decorative smudge.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Striking Scissors! What is This Mystery Artifact?

While looking for the next mystery artifact, I found these three special scissors. They are all for the same purpose, and I thought it might be interesting to see a variation on a theme for this one.

What do you think they are for?  Post your guesses on Facebook or in the comments section below!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mystery Artifact Revealed: What Was This Used to Squish?

We had several really great guesses for our mystery artifact this week, all variations on the same theme.  Everyone guessed that the function of this hinged artifact had something to do with pressing, cracking, stamping, or squeezing a variety of objects including garlic, dough, nuts, lemons, metal, or leather.  I especially enjoyed Jess C.'s idea that this could aid in crafting "a ruggedly elegant serving tray for deviled eggs."

This object is a lard press.  It's primary function was to squeeze excess lard out of the "cracklings" as the lard was being rendered, or cooked down for other uses.  Cracklings are solids left in the melted lard which would be skimmed out and pressed in order to squeeze out every useful drop of the melted lard.  The cracklings could then be baked into corn bread, making it "crackling bread" (and eliminating the need to add shortening to the bread dough), or could be crumbled over eggs or salads (presumably they were the forerunner of today's bacon bits).

The lard, meanwhile, was left to solidify for use in cooking or other household chores. Not only was lard used for baking and frying food, it was also used as an alternative to butter as a spread or dip for breads through the mid-20th century, especially during the food shortages of World War II.  While it's popularity declined in favor of vegetable-based shortenings, lard is beginning to make a culinary comeback.  I was surprised, in researching this article, to find a haute cuisine movement towards "rediscovering" lard in cooking; the search "19th century uses for lard" turned up several posts extolling the virtues of lard and trying to debunk it's reputation as less healthy than vegetable oils.  (See this page for a particularly interesting argument for lard over butter or vegetable-based shortenings, including information about the British "lard crisis" of 2006: ).

As mentioned above, lard had several non-culinary uses in the past.  One of the most common uses included soapmaking, which required combining the rendered lard with lye to create a chemical reaction that would produce soap.  Lye could be "homemade" by pouring water through a barrel of ashes so that the lye would leach out of the ashes, and then the lye water would be added to the lard as can be seen in this video:   

 Lye is very caustic and can burn any exposed skin, so if you decide to take up soapmaking, be careful!

Lard certainly has many uses, so it is easy to see why lard presses were used to squeeze every last useful drop out of the cracklings!  I will leave you with this page listing 10 practical modern-day uses for lard, so that when the zombie apocalypse comes, you too can be prepared!

Cartoon illustration of cute green zombie a ghoulish undid isolated on white Royalty Free Stock Image

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Bet You'll Never Guess . . . .

 . . . what this week's mystery artifact might be!  The object is made of two pieces of wood tied together with a sturdy piece of rope threaded through two holes on each piece of wood:

The object can be opened to reveal an oval hollowed-out space on one side and an egg-shaped protrusion on the other:

It appears to be handmade.  I will even give you a tiny hint - it has nothing whatsoever to do with Halloween!  (Try as I might, I was not able to find any Halloween-related objects in our collection).

Take your best guess and post it in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.  Good luck!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fluting Iron

We had a few really great guesses on Facebook this week. Both Lorelei and Jessie suggested that this was some kind of (dangerous) hair crimper. Lorelei also suggested that this might be a pasta machine (which is what this reminds me of most). The correct answer came from Jenifer, who said it was for pleating fabric.

This week’s artifact is called a fluting iron, and it is indeed meant to create tiny pleats in strips of fabric. This model is from 1875, and just looking at fashion plates from the era, you can tell why these machines were popular. Tiny pleats were everywhere in women’s fashion: along the hems of dresses, on collars, bonnets, and just about anywhere else they could manage to squeeze on some pleated trim.
From the Godey's Lady's Book
There were many different models of fluting iron available, even some that actually looked like irons and worked by sandwiching the fabric between the zig-zagging face of the iron and a matching plate. 

The model featured in our mystery artifact post worked by turning the handle to run a strip of fabric between the spinning wheels (actually rather like a pasta machine, if you've ever used one of those). If you want to read more about these neat little machines, I highly recommend this post from the Montgomery County Historical Society's blog. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cranking out the Mystery Artifacts

What can I say? I really like finding these cool old machines in the collection. What do you think it could be? Let us know either here or on our Facebook.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rope Machine

We had two correct guesses on this one! Both an Anonymous commenter on our blog, and Brent on our Facebook page knew that this was indeed a rope maker.

According to our database, this particular rope maker was from 1901. Just a little bit of Googling helped me figure out that this is a Bucklin rope maker, patented November 12, 1901.
Image from the patent, viewable here.
According to the text from the patent, "the object of the [rope making machine] is to provide simple and effective means whereby rope can be quickly made by hand from lengths or strands of cord, twine, and the like, and is particularly intended for use by farmers who have lengths or strands of cord and twine left over from binding-machines or other similar devices, which are usually wasted", probably making this a very handy invention. Just judging by the number of these that seem to have lasted to the present day, it must have been both a sturdy and popular choice.

The rope maker works by using three hooks, attached to the geared portions, to twist the chosen materials into rope. Here is a rather charming demonstration we found from an Edwardian farm, demonstrating the same principles on a larger, slightly different machine.