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