Posts Tagged 1870s
Alert Hose Company of Big Rapids, Michigan
Unidentified Member of Alert Hose Company. / THF212048
Sometime during the late 1870s, members of the Alert Hose Company in Big Rapids, Michigan, posed for the local photographer. Arms crossed and standing tall, each of the firefighters wears a uniform—typical of those worn when competing in a local or regional firemen's tournament. The men had won several tournament prizes by the time they posed for these photographs—perhaps the prize money helped pay for the cartes-de-visite that became a remembrance of the company's victory. But these images offer more than just a glimpse at the Alert Hose Company's participation in a sporting event. They document the culmination of the company's years of hard work protecting Big Rapids against the ravages of fire, the pride in their company and their community, and their connection with the greater fraternity of 19th-century firefighters.
Fires in Big Rapids
Big Rapids, located in Mecosta County, Michigan, was incorporated in 1869. Like many 19th-century cities, it was susceptible to fire. The wood used to construct early homes and businesses offered ready fuel to the flames of an unwatched candle or lamp or a stray ember from a stove or fireplace. According to the 1883 Mecosta County history [p. 645], "Big Rapids has been a sufferer from fire at various times… The first fire of any consequence in the place was… in the year 1860." It was not any better in 1869 when another disastrous fire occurred [p. 645]: "No water supply or engines for extinguishing fires were here at that time, and common pails or buckets were the only appliance afforded. Lines of men were formed to supply water with buckets from wells in the vicinity, and even from the river, but without avail. The Mason House... was only saved by tearing down a small building [nearby] belonging to Harwood & Olds, and then hanging carpets and bed-clothes from the roof and windows, and keeping them saturated with water."
Finally, in 1871, men in Big Rapids organized volunteer fire companies, and the citizens and the city government discussed creating a local water supply for fire protection and private use.
Unidentified, Charles Gore, Jack Shaw, and W. E. Drew. / THF212050, THF212054, THF212056, THF212058
Volunteer Fire Companies in Big Rapids
Volunteer firefighters needed to work as a unit when it came time to fight a fire. Nineteenth-century fire companies usually consisted of men from similar class divisions, backgrounds, or ethnic groups and kinships. This sense of fraternity cemented the unit's cohesion. The camaraderie and kinship of fighting fires and their unique status as protectors in the community bound the firefighters together.
The Alert Hose Company was one of several volunteer firefighting companies to organize in Big Rapids in the early 1870s. The volunteers' job was to get to a burning structure as quickly as possible—pulling a hose cart or carriage—and attach hoses to an available water source so they could begin controlling the conflagration. By 1876, the growing city of Big Rapids had at least two other hose companies (Defiance and Protection) and the Pioneer Hook and Ladder company. (Hook and ladder companies employed hooks to tear down parts of buildings to limit a fire's spread and ladders to fight fires and rescue individuals in multi-story buildings.)
Little is known about the men who made up the Alert Hose Company, though names written on the back of some of the photographs provide a start. A quick review of census records from 1870 and 1880 and a city directory from 1884 give a few clues about a small subset. They were young working men mostly in their mid-20s and a couple in their 30s, though one was in his late teens. Several were related in some fashion. Their occupations included laborers, clerks, and a drayman (teamster)—none of the known men owned a business, though a few may have owned farms. Being part of the local fire company provided connections to businesses in the community to help guide their careers. A more thorough search of records (outside the scope of this blog) would provide more information on why this group of men came together to form the Alert Hose Company.
Henry Shaw, Charles Ellis, "Zip" Hammond, and Thomas Shaw. / THF212060, THF212062, THF212064, THF212066
By the 1870s, fire companies tested their firefighting skills against other companies at various regional, state, and national firemen's tournaments. Local companies usually competed against one another on holidays or community fair days. State and national associations sponsored large competitions and set tournament rules and dates. Companies invited to participate usually competed in hose cart races, hook and ladder competitions, and pumping contests (to see how far a company could spray water from a hose), among other activities.
Training for and participating in firemen's tournaments tested and sharpened a company's firefighting skills, promoted a sense of pride in competition, and strengthened the sense of teamwork and fraternity. Participation in these tournaments by fire companies also engaged the local community. Government officials, business leaders, and ordinary citizens supported fire companies by cheering them on and providing monetary support through donations and prize money. Finally, friendly competitions between local companies broadened the sense of fraternity by creating a larger brotherhood of firefighters.
Arthur Webster, "Louie" Goulette, Angus McLelland, and Fred Marble. / THF212068, THF212070, THF212072, THF212074
The Alert Hose Company in Tournaments
The men of the Alert Hose Company in Big Rapids, Michigan, began participating in hose cart races at various tournaments in the mid-1870s. In a hose cart race, a fire company ran a set distance pulling a cart reeled with hoses. Men in the company unwound the hoses, attached them to a water source, and then sprayed water. The fastest time won the prize. A review of articles from the Detroit Free Press highlights the successes of the fire company and the support of its community.
In 1875, the Alert Hose Company (along with the Pioneer Hook and Ladder company) made an appearance at the State Firemen's Tournament held in Jackson, Michigan. Reports mentioned no prizes, but, according to the papers, when they returned home, the men were met "with an enthusiastic reception and dinner[.]" On July 4, 1876, the Big Rapids' firefighting companies competed against one another for prize money. The "Alerts" won the champion belt and a cash prize of $50 offered by the mayor. The other firefighting companies took home lesser amounts funded by the citizens. The following year at the Mecosta County Fair, the "Alerts" took home a $100 purse in the hose cart race.
A bigger prize awaited in 1878. In September, the "Alerts" headed off to Chicago to compete in a national competition. Their teamwork paid off; they finished second within a long list of competitors. The prize this time was noteworthy—$300 in cash and a nickel-plated hose cart made by Silsby Company of Seneca Falls, New York. Citizens of Big Rapids turned out to greet their heroes when they returned home. Evergreens, flags, and banners decorated the local hall, the women of the town prepared a dinner, and, of course, there were speeches. A final mention from this period came in an 1882 article that reported the men of the Alert Hose Company had won a special prize of $10 at the State Firemen's Tournament for the "best appearing company."
Throughout the 1870s, local fire companies organized in the newly formed city of Big Rapids, Michigan. These volunteer firemen worked to protect their homes and community against the ever-present danger of fire. Each company needed to work as a cohesive unit when fighting flames and smoke. Similar backgrounds, ethnicities, and economic status—and the desire to protect their community—brought these men together. And local and regional firefighters' tournaments provided a way to hone the skills needed to become an effective team. The small images shown here, taken by a local photographer, point to the unity and pride that the men of the Alert Hose Company had in their avocation and the fraternity they represented.
See all 14 members of the Alert Hose Company (including one member not in uniform) in The Henry Ford's Digital Collections here.
Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
19th century, 1870s, 1860s, photographs, Michigan, by Andy Stupperich
1879 Handbook of Winter Sports
Handbook of Winter Sports cover, 1879. / THF112472
"Within the past decade we have become … a nation of sport-loving people…"
The above quote appeared almost 130 years ago in the small but richly detailed Handbook of Winter Sports. Written by Henry Chadwick, this 1879 handbook provides a fascinating glimpse into the sports that excited and engaged Americans at the time. Sportswriter and promoter Henry Chadwick spent much of his career helping to make baseball America’s “national game.” His ongoing desire to increase Americans’ devotion to “physical exercise and healthful outdoor recreation” is clear in many of the passages of this winter sports handbook.
With the Industrial Revolution cranking up after the Civil War, thousands of Americans flocked from farms and villages to cities for jobs in industry and business. The pressures and routines of the workplace caused many people to begin to view sports as a necessary outlet. Joining an amateur sports club or team provided a comforting feeling of community amidst the growing anonymity in American cities.
Some of the sports described in this handbook may seem a little unusual to us today, but they made perfect sense to Henry Chadwick and his readers back in 1879.
Early factory-made ice skates, made during the late 1860s by Smith Brothers, Boston, Massachusetts. / THF25566
"The great outdoor recreation of the winter season in our northern clime is, undoubtedly, the invigorating and exciting exercise of skating."
Ice skating was America's first national winter sports craze. When New York City's Central Park opened in 1858, it became a fashionable pastime, both for men and for ladies who wanted to “keep up with the times." Soon, all classes and ages of Americans were taking to the ice—on country ponds, in small-town parks, and at indoor rinks.
1881 trade card advertising the roller-skating rink in Northampton, Massachusetts. / THF225132
By 1879, roller skating was considered a perfect alternative to ice skating—especially for those times when the ice was too rough or too soft, or when "the keen blasts of the winter's wind are too severe." Roller skating would become a huge craze in the 1880s, when almost every city and town had its rink. Story even has it that the upstairs of the J.R. Jones General Store, now in Greenfield Village, was used for roller skating for a time—probably in the late 1870s or early 1880s—back when the store was at its original location in Waterford, Michigan.
Match between Scottish and American curlers at Cortlandt Lake, Westchester County, New York, from Harper's Weekly, February 9, 1884. / THF700390
"Curling is a game worthy of the hardy Scots, calling into play … most of the characteristics of manliness…"
In the sport of curling, teams of players slide slightly flattened, round granite stones to a designated spot on the ice. From Scotland, curling spread to Canada—where it took permanent hold. Although this sport showed sure signs of popularity in America in the 1870s, it would never have as passionate a following as it did in Canada.
Ice-boating is part of this idyllic winter scene, from a trade card for the Young & Striker dry goods store in Amsterdam, New York, around 1890. / THF125112
"…for thrilling excitement [ice-boating] surpasses every other [sport] in vogue."
Ice-boating probably originated in the Netherlands, where frozen canals and lakes became speedy highways during the winter months. This sport's early popularity in America centered around the Hudson River, where ice-boating became a mass spectator sport during the 1870s. Simple ice boats evolved into great ice "yachts"—designed for stability and speed.
This is the first known diagram of an American football field, pictured the 1879 Handbook of Winter Sports. / THF231598
"The game of football is called the 'national winter game' in England, because it is played there throughout the winter season."
Americans don't generally think of football as a winter game. Even Chadwick admitted that "in all but the Southern states, it can only be played during a portion of the winter season, when the snow is off the ground." But by 1879, football was showing definite promise as an up-and-coming American sport. So Chadwick seized the opportunity to document its rules and publish the first known diagram of an American football field in this handbook.
Football, which evolved from the English game of rugby, first became popular as a collegiate sport. The rules of play for the American version of football continued to evolve into the 20th century. Professional football would not come of age until the 1920s.
This 1897 football game shows the rough nature of the sport at the time, predating the use of helmets and padding. / THF117849
The American refinements to English rugby rules included reducing the number of players from 15 to 11; assigning players to specific positions; changing rules for running, kicking, and passing the ball; and replacing the rugby huddles, or “scrummage,” with a clearly defined line of “scrimmage.” As the game became Americanized, it focused more on speed and finesse—with a new emphasis on passing—and away from brute force and roughness.
What's Missing from the 1879 Handbook?
Cover of the 1932 Winter Olympics program in Lake Placid, featuring the exciting bobsled competition. / THF125111
So what about the winter sports we think of today—like basketball, hockey, and skiing?
Basketball was devised at a Y.M.C.A. in 1891 as a way to keep athletes in shape over the winter months. This sport quickly spread to school physical education programs for both boys and girls. It did not go professional until 1946. Skiing was brought to America by Scandinavian immigrants during the late 19th century. Ice hockey came to the United States as an organized sport from Canada during the 1890s. Amateur, youth, and collegiate teams were popular before professional ice hockey gained a national following during the 1920s.
More than any other sports event, the international Winter Olympics (begun in 1924) heightened Americans' interest and enthusiasm for winter sports—especially after the Olympics came to Lake Placid, New York, in 1932.
Then and Now
The pastimes and sports described in the 1879 Handbook laid the foundation for Americans' passion for winter sports. Many winter sports became faster and more competitive. They came to be played by men and women of all ages and provided outlets for people from many different walks of life.
Some winter sports—like football, basketball, and hockey—have become mass spectator sports. However, many others—like sledding, skating, and snowshoeing—still provide opportunities for healthful recreation and, as Chadwick put it back in 1879, "a wonderful power of exhilaration attendant upon breathing the pure oxygen of a winter atmosphere."
You can read the entire handbook in our Digital Collections here.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from the January 2007 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.
19th century, 1870s, winter, sports, football, by Donna R. Braden
Freedmen’s Bureau: Exercising Citizenship
President Abraham Lincoln signed The Freedmen’s Bureau Act on March 3, 1865. That Act created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands as part of the War Department. It provided one-year of funding, and made Bureau officials responsible for providing food, clothing, fuel, and temporary shelter to destitute and suffering refugees behind Union lines and to freedmen, their wives, and children in areas of insurrection (in other words, within the Confederate States). The legislation specified the Bureau’s administrative structure and salaries of appointees. It also directed the Bureau to put abandoned or confiscated land back into production by allotting not more than 40 acres to each loyal refugee or freedman for their use for not more than three years, at a rent equal to six percent of its 1860 assessed value, and with an option to purchase. The Bureau assumed additional duties in response to freed people’s goals, namely building schools, negotiating labor contracts, and mediating conflicts.
Lincoln supported the Bureau because it fit his plan to hasten peace and reconstruct the nation, but after Lincoln’s assassination, support wavered. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866 provided two years of funding. During 1868, increasing violence and for a return to state authority undermined the goals of freed people and the Bureau that worked for them. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1868 authorized only the educational department and veteran services to continue. All other operations ceased effective January 1, 1869.
Collections at The Henry Ford help document public perceptions of the Freedmen’s Bureau as well as actions taken by Bureau advocates. Letters, labor contracts, and newspapers indicate the contests that played out as the Bureau tried to introduce a new model of economic and social justice and civil rights into places where absolute inequality based on human enslavement previously existed. The Bureau did not win the post-war battle for freedmen’s rights. Congress did not reauthorize the Bureau, and it ceased operations in mid-1872.
Bureau appointees went to work at the end of the Civil War in 1865 to serve the interests of four-million newly freed people intent on exercising some self-evident truths itemized in the Declaration of Independence:
That all men are created equal
That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
That among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Engraved Copy of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Commissioned by John Quincy Adams, Printed 1823.
With freedom came responsibility to sustain the system of government that “We the People” constituted in 1787, and that the Union victory over secession reaffirmed in 1865. Little agreement over the best course of action existed. The national government extended the blessings of liberty by abolishing slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865. It established the Freedmen’s Bureau which advocated for the general welfare of newly freed people.
Book, "The Constitutions of the United States, According to the Latest Amendments," 1800. THF 155864
Joint Resolution of the United States Congress, Proposing the 13th Amendment to Abolish Slavery, 1865. THF118475
Expanding liberty and justice came at a price, both economic and human. Every time freed people exercised new-found liberty and justice, others resisted, perceiving the expansion of another person’s liberty as a threat to their own. The Bureau operated between these factions, as an 1868 illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicted. The newspaper claimed that the Bureau was “the conscience and common-sense of the country stepping between the hostile parties, and saying to them, with irresistible authority, ‘Peace!’.”
“The Freedmen’s Bureau,” Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868, pg. 473. 2018.0.4.38. THF 290299
Building a new southern economy went hand in hand with expanding social justice and civil rights. Concerned citizens and commanding officers knew that African Americans serving in the U.S. Colored Troops had money to save. They started private banks to meet the need. The U.S. Congress responded with "An Act to Incorporate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company." Lincoln signed the legislation on March 3, 1865, the same day he signed “An Act to Establish a Bureau for the relief of Freedmen and Refugees.” Agents of the public Freedmen’s Bureau worked closely with staff at the private Freedman’s Bank because freed people needed the economic stability the bank theoretically provided.
At least 400,000 people, one tenth of the freed population, had an association with a person who opened a savings account in the 37 branches of the savings bank that operated between 1865 and 1874. This included Amos H. Morrell, whose daughter’s heirs resided in the Mattox House. Soldiers listed on the Muster Roll of Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, also appear in records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Charles Maho, a private in Company E, 46th USCT, opened an account on August 13, 1868. He worked in a tobacco factory at the time. His brother in arms, James Parvison/Parkinson, also a private, opened an account on December 1, 1869 and his estranged wife, Julia Parkerson opened an account on May 14, 1870.
Mattox Family Home, circa 1880
"Muster Roll for Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, April 30-June 30, 1865" - Unknown - Rank 2 THF 96529
Freedmen’s Bureau officials encouraged deposits into the Freedmen’s Bank. This helped freed people become accustomed to saving the coins they earned, literally the coins that symbolized their independence as wage earners. Sadly, Bureau officials often assured account holders that their investments were safe. The deposits were not protected by the national government, however, and when the bank closed in 1874 it left depositors penniless and petitioning for return of their investments.
One-cent piece. Minted in 1868. THF 173625 (front) and THF 173624 (back)
Three-cent piece (made of nickel). Minted in 1865. THF 173623 (front) and THF 173622 (back).
The U.S. Congress authorized the Bureau to collect and pay out money due soldiers, sailors, and marines, or their heirs. Osco Ricio, a private in Company E, 46th U.S. Colored Infantry, who enlisted for three years in 1864, but was mustered out in 1866, made use of this service in his effort to secure $187 due him.
Freedmen’s Bureau staff mediated between freed people and employers, negotiating contracts that specified work required, money earned, and protection afforded if employers reneged on the agreement. A blank form, printed in Virginia in 1865, included language common to an indenture – that the employer would provide “a sufficiency of sound, wholesome food and comfortable lodging, to treat him humanely, and to pay him the sum of _____ Dollars, in equal monthly instalments of ____ Dollars, good and lawful money in Virginia.”
Freedman's Work Agreement Form, Virginia, 1865 Object ID 2001.48.18. THF 290704
Another pre-printed form reinforced terms of enslavement, that the work should be performed “in the manner customary on a plantation,” even as it confirmed the role of Freedmen’s Bureau agents as adjudicator. Freedman Henry Mathew, and landowner R. J. Hart, in Schley County, Georgia, completed this contract which legally bound Hart to furnish Mathew “quarters, food, 1 mule, and 35 acres of land” and to “give. . . one-third of what he [Mathew] makes.” This type of arrangement became the standard wage-labor contract between landowners and sharecroppers, paid for their labor with a share of the crops grown on the land.
Freedman's Contract for a Mule and Land, Dated January 1, 1868. THF 8564
Many criticized sharecropping as another form of unfree labor rather than as a fair labor contract. Close reading confirms the inequity which often took the form of additional work that laborers performed but that benefitted owners. In the case of Hart and Mathew, Mathew had to repair Hart’s fencing which meant that Mathew realized only one-third return on his labor investment in the form of a crop perhaps more plentiful because of the fence. Hart claimed the other two-thirds of the crop plus all of the increased value of fencing.
Isaac Yarbro/Yarbrough, private in Company E, 46th USCT, negotiated a contract with A. H. Elliott of Ouachita County, Arkansas, on January 1, 1867. Elliott furnished land, stock, and farming tools. Yarbrough furnished labor and his own rations. After marketing the cotton crop, the contract stipulated that Yarbrough would receive one third “of the cotton made by him as compensation in full for his labor and rations furnished by him.” Furthermore, Yarbrough, when not occupied making the cotton crop, would “do any other work that A. H. Elliott may see proper to have done on his plantation and without farther compensation.”
Freed people wanted access to education to learn what they needed to make decisions as informed and productive citizens.
Harper’s Weekly, a New York magazine, often featured freedmen’s schools that resulted from a cooperative agreement between the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association (AMA), based in New York. A reporter informed readers on June 23, 1866 that “the prejudice of the Southern people against the education of the ‘negroes’ is almost universal.” Regardless, freed people needed schools, teachers, and institutes to train teachers. The Freedmen’s Bureau and its partners committed their resources in support of this cause.
Commentary accompanying an illustration of the “Primary School for Freedmen” indicated that the school building was dilapidated and owned by someone who wanted rid of the school, but the students were eager to learn and as capable as other students of their age in New York public schools.
“Primary School for Freedmen, in Charge of Mrs. Green, at Vicksburg, Mississippi, Harper’s Weekly, June 23, 1866, pg. 392 (bottom), story on pg. 398. THF 290712
School curriculum often emphasized agricultural and technical training. The “Freedmen’s Farm School,” located near Washington, D.C., also known as the National Farm-School, taught orphans and children of U.S. Colored Troops reading, writing and arithmetic, standard primary school subjects. Students also cultivated a one-hundred-acre farm. The combination compared to a new effort launched with the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 to create a system of colleges, federally funded but operated at the state level to train students in agricultural and mechanical subjects. The combination could help students realize the American dream – owning and operating their own farm. While the system of land-grant colleges grew steadily during Reconstruction, the freedmen’s schools faced opposition locally and at the state level. Increasingly educators turned to philanthropists to fund education for freed people.
Cover, “Schools for Freedmen,” Harper's Weekly 1867 bound volume (Vol. 11) -- March 30, 1867 issue (“Freedmen’s Farm School, upper right image, page 193) THF 290709
The individuals appointed to direct the Freedmen’s Bureau often had military experience. Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard served in the Union Army and gained a reputation as a committed abolitionist if not a strong officer. President Andrew Johnson appointed him the first Commission of the Bureau, and he remained in that position until the Bureau closed in 1872. Two years later Howard lamented lost opportunities: “I believe there are many battles yet to be fought in the interest of human rights”….“There are wrongs that must be righted. Noble deeds that must be done.”
O.O. Howard calling card and letter, in 2007.0.1.1 - Autograph album - "Ada Dewey Autograph Album, 1874-1875". THF 228573
Many shared Howard’s frustrations with the lack of public support for freed people’s goals. They also resented the obstructions that thwarted those goals. Newspaper reporting, such as the regular features in Harper’s Weekly, emphasized the good work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, but reporting also threatened projects aimed at sustaining the momentum.
Henry Wilson, a Republican Senator from Massachusetts, sought equality for African Americans. He took a correspondent to the Republican, a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, to task for publishing misinformation about the extent of congressional fundraising for political purposes, and for downplaying the need for sharing facts with voters, especially the 700,000 Southerners newly enfranchised after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Wilson explained that hundreds of thousands of documents, possible through the congressional fundraising, could educate voters about issues and prepare them for the upcoming election. Without donations from U.S. congressmen, Wilson believed such efforts would fail.
Letter from Henry Wilson to Sanborn [probably Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, then a correspondent with the Springfield [Massachusetts] Republican newspaper], October 6, 1870
The short life but complicated legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau leaves much to ponder. The Bureau, as a part of the War Department, and then an independent national agency, mediated local conflict and supported local education. This occurred at an exceptional time as the Union began rebuilding the nation in 1865. Then, the Republican party interpreted the U.S. Constitution as a mandate for the national government to protect civil rights broadly defined. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, incorporated newly freed people as full citizens. Most believed that the Bureau had no more work to do, and Congress did not reauthorize it after July 1872. Those who favored the Bureau lamented its abrupt end and believed that much remained to be done to open the American experiment in equal rights to all.
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Sources and Further Reading
- African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau, National Archives and Records Administration
- Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard (1999)
- Cimbala, Paul A. The Freedmen's Bureau: Reconstructing the American South after the Civil War (2005)
- Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988).
- Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1979).
- McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen (1994).
- Osthaus, Carl R. Freedmen, Philanthropy, and Fraud: A History of the Freedman's Savings Bank (1976)
- Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership (2012).
- Washington, Reginald. “The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research,” Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)
1870s, 1860s, 19th century, Civil War, by Debra A. Reid, African American history
Mrs. Potts, Inventor
Mrs. Potts type flatiron made by A. C. Williams Company of Ravenna, Ohio, 1893-1910. THF171197
A "Cool Hand" Who Always Came to the "Point"
In the early 1870s, a young wife and mother had a better idea for making the arduous task of ironing easier. Her name was Mrs. Potts.
At this time, people smoothed the wrinkles from their clothing with flatirons made of cast iron. These irons were heavy. And needed to be heated on a wood stove before they could be used—then put back to be reheated once again when they began to cool. (Automatic temperature control was not to be had.)
Mary Florence Potts was a 19-year-old Ottumwa, Iowa, wife and mother of a toddler son when she applied for her first patent in October 1870, one reissued with additions in 1872. Mrs. Potts’ improved iron had a detachable wooden handle that stayed cool to the touch. (Conventional irons had cast iron handles that also got hot as the iron was heated on the stove— housewives had to use a thick cloth to avoid burning their hands.) Mrs. Potts’ detachable wooden handle could be easily moved from iron to iron, from one that had cooled down during use to one heated and ready on the stove. This curved wooden handle was not only cool, but also more comfortable—alleviating strain on the wrist.
Mrs. Potts’ iron was lighter. Rather than being made of solid cast iron, Mrs. Potts came up with idea of filling an inside cavity of the iron with a non-conducting material like plaster of Paris or cement to make it lighter, and less tiring, to use. (Florence Potts’ father was a mason and a plasterer, perhaps an inspiration for this idea.)
Previous iron design had a point only on one end. Mrs. Potts’ design included a point on each end, to allow the user to use it in either direction.
Mrs. Potts appeared on trade cards advertising her irons. This one dates from about 1883. THF214641
Mrs. Potts’ innovations produced one of the most popular and widely used flatirons of the late 19th century. It was widely manufactured and licensed in the United States and Europe with advertising featuring her image. Mrs. Potts’ iron was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Millions of visitors attended the exhibition.
The Potts iron became so popular that by 1891, special machines were invented that could produce several thousand semicircular wood handles in a single day, rather than the few hundred handles produced daily with earlier technology. Mrs. Potts' type irons continued to be manufactured throughout the world well into the twentieth century.
Though Mrs. Potts proved her inventive mettle with her innovative flatiron design, it appears that she did not reap spectacular financial rewards—at least by what can be discerned from census records and city directories. By 1873, the Potts family had moved from Iowa to Philadelphia, where her daughter Leona was born. They were still living there in 1880, when the census mentions no occupation given for any family member. Perhaps, if Mrs. Potts and her family became people of leisure, it was only for a time. Whether through need or desire, the Potts family had moved to Camden, New Jersey by the 1890s, where Joseph Potts and son Oscero worked as chemists. Joseph Potts died in 1901. By 1910, Florence and Oscero were mentioned as owners of Potts Manufacturing Company, makers of optical goods.
Mrs. Potts’ creativity made the tough task of ironing less onerous for millions of women in the late 19th century. And—though most are unaware—the story of the inventive Mary Florence Potts lives on in the many thousands of irons still found in places like antique shops and eBay.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
New Jersey, Pennsylvania, 19th century, 1870s, women's history, home life, by Jeanine Head Miller
In the 1860s and 1870s, supporters of certain political figures used pleated paper lanterns, lit with candles, during rallies and parades to demonstrate their enthusiasm for their candidate. As one might expect, the delicate paper was often destroyed—or accidentally set ablaze. The Henry Ford has just finished conservation and digitization of a dozen political lanterns from our collections, including this one indicating support for James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. View all of the restored political lanterns in our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
conservation, 19th century, 1870s, 1860s, presidents, digital collections, collections care, by Ellice Engdahl