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July 18th, 2011

Colossal Kernels

nancy-80x80Gardeners love to claim bragging rights to the biggest, earliest, tastiest veggies. But sometimes they can resort to…well, exaggerating a bit.

One man, William Harrison “Dad” Martin, made a name for himself a century ago by capitalizing on Midwestern farmers’ pride in the abundance of their crops. He produced a series of postcards that used composite negatives—the early-20th-century equivalent of Photoshop—to insert absurdly large veggies into everyday farming photos. Such postcards, called “exaggeration” or “tall-tale” postcards, are highly collectible today.

In keeping with my corn theme this month, here are three of “Dad” Martin’s fantasy images that picture enormous cobs:

Now, that's bringing home the bacon!

Now, that's bringing home the bacon!

Someone needs to notify the SPCA. This is animal cruelty!

Someone needs to notify the SPCA. This is animal cruelty!

Never mind the corn; I want a pair of those striped dungarees!

Never mind the corn; I want a pair of those striped dungarees!

Hope you all are having a very corny July!

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April 11th, 2011

Have You Thanked a Shaker Today?

nancy-80x80When that long-anticipated box arrives from your favorite mail-order seed company this spring, remember to thank the Shakers. I ran across this little pamphlet while sorting through my collection recently, and was reminded of the Shakers’ contribution to the dissemination of seeds and herbal medicines in early 19th-century America:

Cover of a Shaker patent medicine advertising booklet circa 1880

Front cover of a Shaker patent medicine advertising booklet circa 1880

Members of this utopian Christian sect were among the first to package seeds in little envelopes for mass-market sale in retail stores. Officially known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, they were commonly called “Shakers” because of their frenetic style of dancing during worship.

The Shakers believed that God was found in the details of one’s work, and they were dedicated gardeners, always growing enough to feed themselves plus extra for the poor. This abundance extended to seeds, as well.

In general stores in New England, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky, beginning in the early 1800s, the “papers” of Shaker seeds were offered for sale in beautiful boxes. Later, the boxes were decorated with colorful lithographed labels, a relatively early use of this marketing tool. You can see examples of the seed boxes at the website of the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York (click on Collections, then the live link in the text).

The back cover of my little booklet shows the Shaker community in Mount Lebanon, Columbia County, New York, as it would have looked in about 1880:


Back cover of a Shaker patent medicine advertising booklet circa 1880

The Mount Lebanon community was settled in 1787, and the Shakers began growing medicinal herbs to treat their own ailments soon thereafter. Again, they had an overabundance, so they began trading their extra medicinal herbs with doctors in exchange for medicines they could not produce themselves. About 1820, they started selling their herbs, along with medicinal preparations such as extracts and tinctures. In 1849, the Shakers from the Mount Lebanon community sold 8 1/2 tons of prepared herbs. (A photo of some of their medicine packaging is also shown on the Shaker Museum and Library’s website.)

Below is an 1891 trade card from my collection extolling the virtues of Shaker Family Pills, which allegedly included the ability to “stimulate a torpid liver” and thus relieve constipation:


Advertising trade card dated 1891, showing child in Shaker costume

Also from 1891 is this trade card for Shaker Soothing Plasters, recommended for “Backache, Lumbago, Muscular Rheumatism, all pain and lameness in any part of the body, and every ailment in which an external application is desirable and valuable”:


Advertising trade card dated 1891

The self-sufficiency of the Shakers is illustrated by this postcard from about 1906 of the community at East Canterbury, New Hampshire. In the background is a water tower and windmill, which allowed them to collect their own rainwater and provide power for their many manufacturing operations:


The Shaker sect has virtually died out because of its believers’ strict practice of celibacy (in the early years, it maintained its ranks through adoption of orphans). So if you want to thank a Shaker face-to-face these days, you’ll have to travel to New Gloucester, Maine, where the last remaining active colony of Shakers resides. The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester welcomes visitors and offers a variety of special events to the public year-round. You’ll find a number of products made from Sabbathday Lake herbs for sale on the website, too.

Museums and demonstration sites that interpret Shaker history and culture are listed below. Enjoy!


Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Harrodsburg

South Union Shaker Village, Auburn (offers herbal products on its website)


Alfred Shaker Museum, Alfred

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Gloucester


Fruitlands Museum, Harvard (interprets the history of the Harvard Shakers)

Hancock Shaker Village, Hancock (look for the heirloom seeds for sale on its website)

Shirley Historical Society, Shirley (offers guided tours of the site of the former Shirley Shaker Village, including several original buildings)


Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury (the one shown on my postcard above)

Enfield Shaker Museum, Enfield


Shaker Heritage Society, Albany (maintains the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District, site of America’s first Shaker settlement)

Shaker Museum and Library, Old Chatham (museum on site of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, shown on the back of my booklet)


Warren County Historical Society, Lebanon (interprets history of Union Village Shakers)

Friends of White Water Shaker Village, Cincinnati

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April 4th, 2011

Catkin Fever

nancy-80x80When I was growing up, a sure sign of spring was a vase of pussy willow branches that my mother had cut from a neighbor’s yard and brought inside to force. I would wait impatiently for the furry gray catkins to emerge, and they never failed to amaze me. They still do.

Willows (Salix species) are plants that every organic gardener should include in the garden. They produce pollen early in the spring, when many beneficials are just emerging, providing protein for pollinating insects. Pussy willows are easy to grow and fun to cut for flower arrangements. Most garden centers will carry pussy willows in spring, or you can root cuttings from a neighbor’s shrub in water.

To force pussy willow branches, wait until the branches have many tight buds on them. Cut each branch on an angle and smash the end of the branch with a hammer (this will help it soak up water). Bring them inside and place in a tall vase.

These images of catkins from my collection of antique paper may inspire you. Enjoy!

The circa-1910 postcard below is the work of German artist Catherine Klein, who was renowned for her paintings of flowers. It was printed in Germany but appears to have a Russian inscription. If anyone out there can translate, please do!


This Easter postcard, dated 1911, was printed in England:


Oddly, Lord & Taylor (the department store) used catkins in its Christmas advertising during the 1880s, as this trade card attests:


More appropriate to catkin season is this German Easter postcard, mailed in 1914:


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March 28th, 2011

The Sap Is Rising

It’s maple sugaring season across the northern tier of North America. Ever since I was a little girl and read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story of a Wisconsin sugaring-off party in The Little House in the Big Woods, I’ve always wanted to see real maple syrup being made. Laura’s description made it seem like so much fun, and there was a big party afterward. I could picture Ma and Pa and Laura pouring the syrup onto fresh snow to make maple candy. Yum! My favorite local candy store still sells homemade pure maple candy shaped like maple leaves and acorns, and I always think of Laura when I see it.

Tapping maple trees doesn’t do them any significant harm, and harvesting the sap is a great way for farmers to earn extra income without chopping down their woodlots. The sugaring-off process is not complicated, but it does take a lot of patience, as 40 to 50 gallons of sap needs to be boiled (and boiled, and boiled) until it’s cooked down to a single gallon of pure syrup. This does make it an energy-intensive enterprise. I’m sure someone will soon invent a solar-powered sugar boiler, if they haven’t already.

I love to collect old photos of people engaged in unusual occupations, and I have two examples of “sugar shacks” in full steam. The first is a postcard from about 1910, location unidentified (drat!):

Sugar shack circa 1910

Sugar shack circa 1910

The second one is a rotogravure postcard postmarked in Clifford, Susquehanna County, in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains region:

Sugar camp on Greene's Valley Farm, Clifford, Pennsylvania

Sugar camp on Greene's Valley Farm, Clifford, Pennsylvania

I would love to know where Greene’s Valley Farm was, and if it still exists. A former employee of the farm mailed the card in 1917 with this description: “Sun. Am here to-day. This is a place where I used to work where they make maple syrup. Was here for supper to-night. At church & Sun. school to-day. B.G.W.”

Greetings from Clifford, Pennsylvania, 1917

Greetings from Clifford, Pennsylvania, 1917

Postcards: the next-best thing to time travel!

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March 16th, 2011

Sharin’ the Green

nancy-80x80Like many holidays, St. Patrick’s Day is associated with both historical truths and fanciful mythology. These St. Patrick’s Day postcards from my collection, which are all about a century old, illustrate some of those facts and myths.

First, there was indeed a Catholic priest named Patrick. But he wasn’t Irish; he was English. Born into an aristocratic family about 390 A.D., he was abducted as a teenager and taken to Ireland, where he lived as a slave for seven years before escaping and returning home. It was there that he received a divine call to return to Ireland and convert the Irish to Christianity. Traditional stories claimed that Patrick “drove the snakes out of Ireland,” but climatic conditions mean that there were never any snakes of the reptilian variety in Ireland to drive out. This legend is now considered a metaphor for Patrick’s evangelizing and driving the Old Religion from the island. If you look closely at the postcard on the left below, you’ll see a snake under Patrick’s boot.

The image of St. Patrick appears on relatively few turn of the century postcards celebrating his day.

The image of St. Patrick appears on relatively few turn-of-the-century postcards celebrating his day.

Another legend surrounds the association between St. Patrick and the shamrock. Some claim that the priest used the plants’ thee-part leaves to represent the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when he was attempting to explain Christianity; modern researchers think this story was perpetuated by monks long after Patrick’s death. Nevertheless, the shamrock is still strongly associated with Ireland (the plant is its national flower) and with St. Patrick’s Day in particular.



The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as something more than an ordinary saint’s day, with perhaps a special dinner, originated not in Ireland but in America, among Irish-Americans. Postcards depicting “hands across the sea” and displaying emblems from both cultures were common. The card below features flags representing the United States and Ireland—but the “Irish” flag shown is that of the Irish Catholic republican nationalists and not the official tricolor Irish national flag in use today. The shamrock appears as the emblem of the Irish, while goldenrod represents the United States. (The goldenrod was once in contention for our country’s official flower, but that honor was given to the rose in 1986.)


Another symbol of good luck that appears on old St. Patrick’s Day postcards is the pig. This tradition comes from Teutonic cultures and is maintained in modern Germany and Austria, as well as England and Ireland, but Americans in general have not embraced it.



But we do still enjoy these old St. Patrick’s Day postcards, which are a celebration of Irish-American culture, if not the saint for whom the day is named.


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