Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mystery Artifact: Of Barbers and Bowls

Hello, all!  This week we have a charming pair of objects as this week's Mystery Artifact (and extra clue)!  The first is this delicate handblown-glass bowl:

The base is deeply concave, with a pontil scar on its base.  A pontil rod or punty was attached to the base of the blob of hot glass as it was being shaped into a bottle or other vessel.  It was usually four to six feet long, so that the glassblower could stay a safe distance from the 2000+-degree end as he or she worked the glass!  After the vessel was finished, the glassmaker would empontille or crack off  the vessel, leaving the pontil scar at the point of attachment.  Here is a close-up view of the base of the vessel, showing the pontil scar where the rod was cracked off.

We're being generous this week by offering an extra clue!  Here is the bowl next to an object with which it was commonly used:

A gold star to the reader who can identify both artifacts in this week's post!  Be sure to stop by the Museum to see them on display near the stairwell, too!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Heath Hay Knife, 1890s. 
Duc du Berry, Book of Hours, June,
Women Cutting Hay, 15th century

We had some great guesses, mostly related to gardening, for our mystery artifact two weeks ago.
Here they are:
  • an implement used for turning over rough ground and rooting out rocks in the garden
  • tool used for turning over potatoes
  • what farmers use when they get angry.
OK. Maybe the last one wasn't a serious guess. But thanks for all your noble attempts!
But, we left you for a couple of weeks without an answer! OH NO! While we have a few minutes here, I will "make hay while the sun shines." That idiom of course refers to the cutting (harvesting) of hay while the weather conditions are favorable.

 The artifact in question from two weeks (gulp) ago is in fact a hay knife.

First we'll discuss the idiom, then the processing of hay and finally, the artifact!
When is a favorable time to cut hay? When the sun shines of course.
Why? Because dry hay is best for storage. Hay, made from various grasses,  is the mainstay food for horses and cows during the winter time.  Hay is also handy to have around in case there is a drought and animals are starving for greens to eat during the summer. However, wet hay can grow fungi which makes animals sick. And wet hay, as it decomposes, can actually catch fire from the heat generated by the decay.

Jules Breton, Fire in a Haystack, 1856
The process
You may be saying to yourself, our artifact doesn't look anything like the tools people are using in these pictures. And you would be right.

Because there are many steps in the processing of hay. And the processing of hay has changed over the centuries as well.

Hay is cut, then raked into rows or small piles or windrows and laid in the field to dry for several days.  During the drying it is turned and moved to enhance drying with an implement called a tedder
                                                                                       It is then stacked, or baled.

Teddy Roosevelt and his dogs, 1903, note haystack in the background
Stacks and bales
Do you know your stacks from your bales?
Teddy Roosevelt is standing in front of a haystack in this photograph. Stacks are conical shaped so that the water may run off and allow the hay to be stored outdoors. Sometimes haystacks were covered with thatch (a roof made of dry vegetation such as straw)  to provide a kind of raincoat for the hay.

So what then is a bale? A bale can be square or round. A square bale is small and
easily manuevered by a single person. They are particularly sensitive to getting and remaining wet and so they are usually stored in a barn. It is easy for them to be lifted into the attic story of a barn called the hay mow or hayloft.

To the left, a British woman farmworker (they were called landgirls during World War II) unloads an 80 lb. square bale into a barn. Note the hay hook she has in her hand. Hooks were used to lift the bales and move them. We have several hooks in our collection.

File:Centerville, California. Nailing the hayloft door on the morning of evacuation. Farmers and other . . . - NARA - 537563.tif

The windows on the second story of a barn are where the hay went in to be stored in the haymow or hayloft. This Japanese American  man is nailing his haymow shut before he is evacuated to an internment camp during World War II. \

Today bales of hay are much larger and round, the work all being done by machine.


You can watch that happening on this video. It's fascinating how much work can be done quickly

So...what do you need a knife for? and in what universe is this a knife? 

Great huge piles of grass (hay is a variety of types of grass, not grain) tend to stick together and get very hard to cut apart. You can only feed a little hay at a time to your animals, so you have to be able to move smaller pieces off of the stalk or bale and into the area where you feed. At first hay knives just looked like regular knives, then someone invented the "lightning" knife which looks a bit like a saw. And finally, by the end of the 19th century Heath invented a vertical hay knife. It works by cutting and tearing the hay at the same time.  Below are four hay knives in our collection.

Click here to view video

A fascinating and frightening video of the use of the "lightning" hay knife (so named for it's zigzag blade) shows how much balance and patience is needed for farm work. 

This brings us to the mystery artifact! A late 19th century invention, we know from the Sears Catalogue that the Heath knife was meant to imitate the cutting action of larger mowing machines. 

And we know from several patents that this was the most popular new way to cut hay in that era.
For all the pictures you will ever want to see about Hay in Art, and who said that you couldn't find everything on the Internet, see this database:

Phew. That was a long post. I think I'll hit the hay. Figure that one out. I bet you can think of a few more hay idioms. Why don't you post them in the comments?

Have fun!

Monday, April 7, 2014

No fooling! Another Mystery Artifact

Here we are in April and it is time for another mystery artifact! Seriously, no foolin'  This week's piece looks a little bit like it might hurt you, but never fear, it wasn't used to punish anyone or anything.  What, indeed was it used for? 

That's what you all need to decide. Our founding collector, William Redhed, was especially fond of farm tools, tools that predated the Industrial Revolution. He had some fairly romantic notions about the beauty and purity of work done by hand. This is just one object of many that he collected for the sheer variety of the types there are.  Give it a guess! Guess anything...we love to hear your minds at work!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Hemming and Hawing . . . Mystery Artifact Revealed!

This lovely little artifact inspired quite a few guesses (and at least one discrete comment from a reader I'm sure knew the answer.  Thanks for letting others have a chance to make their guess, Cailin!)

Most of you were in the right ballpark, in that most of the guesses were sewing-related.  Many of you correctly identified the areas of green fabric as pincushions, and realized that the bird would be attached to the edge of a sewing table to hold pins at the ready.  Steve H. was closest in suggesting, "a pincushion, with the clampy part just to hold onto something useful."

Exactly!  This artifact is a sewing bird or hemming clamp.  The clampy part of the beak was used by 19th-century seamstresses to hold fabric and act as a "third hand" (which is another name by which these artifacts are known).  While hemming clamps reached the height of their popularity in the late 19th-century, modern-day versions can still be found, like this image from Amazon.com:
As the earlier post noted, our bird is stamped on its left wing with PATENTED and its right wing with FEB 15, 1853.  This makes our bird one of a special breed called "Waterman Birds."  Charles Waterman patented his design on that date, although documentary evidence in the form of newspaper advertisements shows that Waterman had been selling the birds for almost a year before receiving the patent.  The advertisement also notes the "health preserving properties" of the sewing bird, because women could maintain good posture by using the sewing bird, rather than having to hunch over their work.  This webpage from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History not only gives more detail about the Waterman birds, but also allows you to click through to an interactive image of the many sewing birds in their collections:  http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_639795

As you can see from the Smithsonian image, many variations of sewing bird clamps exist!  Some seem a bit worse for the wear, but that highlights what beautiful condition our little bird is in, with the green velvet pincushions not only intact, but also retaining much of their vibrant color!  Our artifact is likely made of bronze or brass with silver plating, as the wear on the base of the bottom pincushion plate shows. 

These materials were very common in the production of hemming clamps, although they could also be produced with steel, iron, tin, pewter, solid silver, base metal, or other types of plated metals.  As the birds were produced using molds and a die-casting process, small details and decorative embellishments could easily be varied.

While birds were by far the most popular animal form in which the clamps were produced, there are also examples of clamps made to resemble fish, butterflies, dolphins, and mythical creatures.  I think my personal favorite from the examples shown below is the stag with the ivory threadspool by either ear!

Much like the busks in an earlier post (see "Death by Corset?" at http://museumofthegrandprairie.blogspot.com/2014/01/death-by-corset-mystery-artifact_31.html ), sewing birds were often a gift from well-to-do suitors to be used by the bride-to-be as she sewed a trousseau.  Illustrations of the time show them being used by young girls as they learned to stitch and embroider, as well.  While this image is very sweet . . .

 . . . I think this one, with the caption "A Helper" and text that reads "every good child who sews with a will should have a wee birdie to help with his bill" might be my favorite!

If you are eager to learn more about sewing bird clamps and other sewing accessories and notions from the past, I would highly recommend Findings:  The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing, by archaeologist Mary Carolyn Beaudry.  Many of the facts listed above were researched with the help of Beaudry's excellent book.

And speaking of archaeology, the Museum will be hosting the first of our archaeology lectures on Sunday, April 6th, at 2pm.  The lecture is titled "The Myth and Mystery of the Piasa Petrograph," and our presenter is Dr. Duane Esarey of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.  We hope you'll join us to learn more about the origins of this fascinating image originally documented near present-day Alton, Illinois, by early European explorers.  Hope to see you there!