Thursday, May 29, 2014

Torture Device? It Depends on Your Point of View

Hello faithful readers of the mystery artifact blog. At first glance you might be wondering “why is the Museum of the Grand Prairie taking in medieval torture devices?” However, I assure you that this device causes little actual physical harm to the user and in fact is beneficial to them in the long run. 

Even crazier still you could probably go to a local store and find one without even a background check. This metal ring is approximately 2.5 inches in diameter with metal spikes protruding from it. The spikes' lengths are around 1.5-2.5 inches in length and a centimeter or two in circumference. The spikes are positioned so that they are facing up and out.

Let us know what your guesses are in the comments section, and stay tuned for the big reveal!

Friday, May 23, 2014

To and Froe

The function of this week's Mystery Artifact was guessed almost right away by the anonymous commenter on our blog.  The person wrote: 

"I would guess that it is a knife for cutting shingles - place the sharp end against the wood to be split, and hammer it through!"

Exactly right!  This artifact is called a froe, and it is a cleaving tool used for splitting lengths of straight-grained wood along the grain.  There is some speculation about the tool's name, which might have it's origins in the Old English word fro, meaning "away from," and still in common usage in the phrase "to and fro."  As the tool is pushed away from the operator as it's being used, there is some logic in that argument.

 A froe (sometimes spelled "frow") is more accurate and safer to use than an ax, because the tool itself is not swung but rather hit with a mallet like the one below from our collections.  In our database, we list this object as a froe club.

These objects were used, as Anonymous guessed, to split shingles, planks of wood, and staves for wooden casks.  As the images below show, clapboard (pronounced "clabbered") siding was popular for frame houses in the latter part of the 19th-century.  Froes were certainly the tools of choice when creating planks, whether the planks were then used for siding or for planked sidewalks and floors around and within the building.

This group of gentlemen are sitting in front of a store with clapboard siding, and they appear to be on their way to a baseball game!

 Notice the plank sidewalk around the outside of the structure - a necessary addition to keep your boots off the muddy streets!

We have several examples of froes in our collection, along with a few froe clubs.  

The last example is quite interesting, as it was the only one in our collection that had a blade longer than the handle.  As it doesn't take much force applied to the handle to split the wood, I wonder whether the differing lengths of blade and handles were for functional reasons, or whether they were more aesthetic choices made by the tool's creator or owner.

Here is a video showing how a modern recreation of a froe is used:  How To Use a Froe 

We wish you all a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, and we'll be back on Tuesday with another fascinating Mystery Artifact!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Figure Out This Week's Mystery Artifact Lickety-Split!

Quick!  Can you guess this week's Mystery Artifact?

The object has a wooden handle, which likely was shaped and smoothed with a draw-knife, and a forged iron blade.  The upper edge of the blade, facing away from the length of the handle, is sharpened, while the lower edge is flat.  As you can see in the above photo, the handle is about a foot and a half long.

The blade itself is just over a foot long with an eye at its base through which the handle is inserted.  In this photo, the sharpened edge of the blade is facing the ruler.

Give us your best guess as to what this object is and what its function was.  We'll be watching for your comments below!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

This week's Mystery Artifact inspired quite a bit of conversation, both here at the museum and on Facebook!  We must have several knitters in the audience because several readers thought this . . .

. . . was a clever container for dispensing yarn while knitting or crocheting.  An anonymous reader from our website also thought this item was a dispenser of sorts - for "Lysol Disinfecting Wipes from the olden days"!

Other guesses ranged from a holder for powder or face cream to a dish for hairpins.  These were closer, but still not quite on the mark.  I have to give a shout-out to my grandmother, June J., for being the first to guess that this object is a hair receiver.  (Way to go, Grandma!)  She remembered seeing "fancy dishes" like these on her Grandmother's dressing table.  She also thinks the pieces she is remembering might have been painted by her mother (my great-grandmother), as they had hand-painted violets in a pattern similar to the ones on some dishes and a vase that have been passed down through our family.  I'm even more pleased that I posted this fabulous artifact now, as it came with a serving of my own family's history!

Hair receivers were used to store broken strands of hair that women would remove from their hairbrushes after brushing their hair, which was usually worn quite long.  They were most often porcelain, like the example above, but could also be celluloid or glass with a metal lid, like this other example in our collection:

Women would store the broken strands until they had the correct amount, and then they would reuse the hair as stuffing.  Sometimes it would be used to fill pincushions, as the scented oils women used on their hair would help to lubricate pins and keep them from rusting.  The hair could also be used to fill a hair ratt, which was a bag made of netting and filled with the broken and wadded strands of hair.  The ratt would then be placed inside of a hairstyle to fill out the upswept poofs and large buns that were so fashionable around the turn of the century.

The practice may seem odd to our modern-day sensibilities (although no stranger, I suppose, than weaves or ombre-colored tresses might seem to the Gibson Girls pictured above)!  However, hair ratts are still in use today by the more vintage-minded stylists out there, as this blog post shows:  How To - Vintage Hair

Anecdotal evidence suggests hair receivers were being used by some women into the 1950s, and hair ratts are still available for purchase today.  (I have a friend whom I remember using a loofa to achive the same effect)!  How many of our readers wore hair ratts during the bouffant and beehive craze in the 1960s?  Anyone out there own or use hair receivers or ratts today?

Stop by the museum to see both the examples pictured above, plus lots of other amazing artifacts that were featured this week on CI Living's our story segment!  You can watch the video here:  Earspoons and Chatelaines

Hope to see you at the museum soon.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mystery Artifact . . . As Featured on CI Living!

Hello, faithful readers!  It's time for another mystery artifact - one that might look familiar to those of you who happened to catch the Museum's appearance on CI Living's Our Stories segment.

This porcelain artifact, beautifully decorated with a floral design and gilt accents, is about four inches across.  The lid includes a hole about an inch across. 

While this object has taken its rightful place in the Mystery Artifact display case this week, many of the artifacts featured alongside it on the CI Living segment are featured in a case of their own nearby.  To find them, just look for the sign below:

As always, make your guesses in the comments section below, and stop by the museum to see this artifact and many of its fellow TV stars in person.  Hope to see you soon!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"The Insanitary Slate is Also Out-of-Date": Mystery Artifact Revealed

Last week's mystery artifact was apparently a tricky one! 

A few folks guessed that this simple machine with a brush inside might have been used to buff long, thin items, while a couple of others guessed it might be a boot cleaner.  As I think I mentioned, knowing the context in which this item was used might help in guessing it's function:  this machine was used in schools.  It is a chalkboard eraser cleaner.

Chalkboards were being used in schools alongside individual student slates by the beginning of the 19th-century, and the railroad system allowed large pieces of slate to be shipped from Eastern States to one-room school houses on the Midwestern frontier by the 1840s.  Most teachers and students used an old rag to clean the slate boards.  John L. Hammett, the owner of several early school-supply stores in New England, invented the felt chalkboard eraser in 1863.  While giving a presentation, Hammett grabbed a handful of wool felt strips, discovering that they cleaned the chalkboard much more thoroughly than cotton scraps, and his idea for the modern felt eraser was born, as were generations of school children banging erasers together or against the side of the school house to clean them of chalk dust.

Eraser cleaning machines came into vogue in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, as the populace became more concerned about sanitation and the impact chalk dust might have on children's health (according to the illustration below, it was also common practice for little Timmy to spit on his slate to clean it - yuck!)  This advertisement for the Haynes Blackboard Eraser Cleaner proudly trumpets "The Insanitary Slate is Also Out-of-Date" as it warns about the dangers of slates ("a breeding place for disease spreading germs") and chalk dust, because "civilization and education come only when they are stimulated by appreciation . . . [and] the desire to learn how to live better."

How many readers remember banging chalkboard erasers together as both a favor to the teacher and a reward at the end of a long day?  I certainly do!  I also remember similar concerns about chalk dust and its effects on children's respiratory systems in the 1990s, and by the time I became a teacher in the late 90s, most schools had switched over to whiteboards.  Of course, my children's schools now have electronic smartboards with internet access, as well as the standard whiteboard, and iPads for student use instead of slates.  After such an amazing century of technological innovation, it's hard to imagine what the next century of school technology will bring!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mystery Artifact: A Brush with History!

Greetings, all!  Construction continues apace in our Main Gallery this week, as our contractors work on framing walls for various aspects of the new exhibit.  It's exciting to watch the exhibit coming together, and we're already eager to get in there and add more exciting details!

This week's mystery artifact has nothing to do with construction, but it is a very functional item.  I think, if you can figure out the context in which the item was used, you will be able to guess it easily!

The object is a rounded metal box with brackets on either side which could be used to bolt the item to a level surface.  The box encloses a circular brush on a wheel, with a handle to turn the wheel.

There is a section of the left side that can be flipped up and over the brush, as you can see in the photo above.  According to my research, at one time there would have been a drawer at the very bottom that would collect the debris from the brushing motion.

The object is almost a foot wide at its widest point, and slightly higher than a foot tall.

What do you think this artifact might be?  Post your best guesses in the comments section below!

Friday, May 2, 2014

From Ancient Greece to Modern Medicine: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

Kudos to those of you who guessed this pair of artifacts!  Fair warning to the rest of our readers:  this post discusses medical treatments of the past and present, which might not be for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.  It's fascinating, but somewhat gruesome stuff.

Many of you knew that the bowl was a bleeding bowl without the extra artifact.  The second object is called a fleam or scarificator, and it is a bloodletting tool.  The fleam opens out much like a Swiss army knife, with pointed blades in varying sizes to open up the vein and allow the blood to flow.  Once it had been used, the bleeding cup or bowl was placed over the wound to collect the blood.  Bleeding cups and bowls were made of tin, brass, rubber, horn, and glass, although the Latin name - curcurbitula - hints at their origin as gourds (Cucurbita is the genus name of a family of squash).

Bloodletting has been performed as a medical treatment for thousands of years, in part due to the belief in four main bodily humors:  blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.  If these humors became imbalanced, doctors would try to bring them back into balance through bloodletting, purging, and inducing their patients to vomit.  During the middle ages, barbers were also surgeons, and their barber's bowl as shown below could be used for both bloodletting and giving their patients a shave:

Hence the lyric from one of my favorite musicals, Man of La Mancha, where the barber sings:  "If I slip while I am shaving you and cut you to the quick/you can use me as a doctor for I also heal the sick!" 

Researchers have speculated that George Washington's death could be attributed as much to his bloodletting treatments as it could to the original illness.  This link from the Mount Vernon website tells the story of his last few days (in detail that perhaps is not for the squeamish):
Among other, rather medieval-sounding treatments, his doctors bled him repeatedly, reportedly removing around 32 ounces of blood - approximately one-fifth of the blood in an adult's body!  The site does not record what types of bloodletting tools were used.

On Facebook, Penny H. pointed out the fact that leeches were also stored in glass bowls like our mystery artifact.

This was a great observation, as apparently there is still quite a bit of speculation over whether this type of bowl would have been used for bleeding a patient or for holding leeches.  Some research suggests that bloodletting bowls might have looked more like this example below . . .

 . . . while our bowl was probably for leeches as it has an everted lip, where a cloth would be attached to prevent any leeches from escaping.  I found some other terrific images of leech carriers in my research, including this intriguing example which looks like a tiny mailbox:

But the one below might be my favorite, as it is labeled so emphatically!

I can see the virtue in that, as I certainly would not want to mistake my sugar or tea for leeches!!

For those of you who were able to stick out this somewhat icky post to the bitter end, I'll leave you with this link, detailing modern medicinal uses for leeches (although I personally could not bring myself to click on the "what is maggot therapy?" link on their Lots More Information page.  That's a little more information than I really feel I need!!)

Happy weekend to you all!  Hope to see you at the museum for May Day Celebrations tomorrow, and the archaeology lecture on Sunday entitled Archaeology in Our Own Backyard!  See you there!